In mid-September I went to the woods with a new group of kindergartners. We spent an hour and a half or so introducing our space and a few routines. We had a morning meeting, and we played some exploring games, but mostly we had free play. You never get that first time in the woods with a new group moment again, and it is always fascinating. What will the students gravitate to? I want to write a bit about what I saw happen during free play.
Almost immediately some children found a thin rope hanging down a rock face from around the trunk of a sturdy beech tree. Before long almost the entire group (13 present on this day), were lined up to try to scale the cliff by pulling on the rope and pressing the soles of their shoes into the rock. It was a challenging task. The cliff is not really a cliff, just some exposed granite about five feet high, but it is fairly perpendicular to the ground, rough faced but without real hand or foot holds. A few of the kids could make it up on their first try, having by practice or luck the right combination of balance, upper body strength and shoe sole traction. But most needed to start, and restart, grip and regrip, slip and recover. Some abandoned the task, ran off, but then returned.
This is what was fascinating. The ones who had trouble with the rock climb kept coming back. Twenty or so feet down the granite face there is a downed tree that leans from the ground level to the top of the cliff. I pointed it out to the students who were waiting in line, in case they wanted to pass their waiting time with a similar activity. A little girl, she has since been dubbed “Sneaky Salamander,” took me up on the offer and began to bear-climb (on all fours) up the trunk. Three quarters of the way up the trunk she was four feet off the ground, and quavering. She felt at a bit of an impasse and a frightened expression was overtaking her face. I moved closer, and encouraged her, but never touched her. After a few quivering moments she inched her hand to a higher hold on the trunk, pulled up her brand new hiking boot, and pushed herself up and over the edge of trunk onto the top of the rock face.
I suspected I wouldn’t see her on the trunk again for a while, weeks, maybe months. She had had a few moments of feeling really scared and stuck there. But of course it was hardly minutes until I saw her again clawing her way up the span.
Again and again that first day I watched kids dedicating themselves to meeting the challenge the rock face presented (ignoring that just another twenty or so feet down the face, the granite sloped to the ground and one could easily just run around to the top of the cliff.) Kids slipped, hands were scraped, knees were banged, and still these five year olds stood in line cheering each other while waiting to give it another go.
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As I watched their confrontation of challenge with eager enthusiasm a book review and author interview I heard on Vermont Public Radio came to mind. I suggest listening to the podcast of the Vermont Edition interview, but here’s the short description posted on the VPR website:
Are we holding back our kids by never letting them fail?
Our guest today argues that kids need to have the freedom to fall short, to try things that don’t quite work, as they’re being educated, so that they can develop the skills to succeed later on in life. Failure isn’t just an occasional fly in the ointment of a good education, she argues, you need to fail.
Over my time in the woods the last three years with my kindergartners I’ve seen a pattern develop of all kinds of students seeking challenge that is meaningful to them and working to overcome the obstacle. It often is quite literally an obstacle: a hard, icy patch in the trail, thigh deep snow, the “climbing tree,” or the granite cliff. Sometimes it’s cold or wet weather, sometimes it’s towing the sled with 5 gallons of collected maple sap. Sometimes it’s working week after week to build a debris shelter big enough to house all three friends who want to play at the three little pigs story again and again. I do not see in the forest a problem teachers often lament in the classroom–”lack of motivation.”
Giving these young minds and bodies the space to find their own failure is essential to their development as students. For in this open-ended, developmentally appropriate setting, their failure has meaning to them, because it is failure at something alluring. Then, giving them the time and space to keep trying, to risk a little bit, to revisit the challenge week after week, lets my students experience what hard work feels like, followed eventually by the feeling of accomplishment. We are letting children’s natural affinity for learning nurture their motivation for task completion and pride in accomplishment.
I would argue that the problem we too often observe as a lacking of motivation, is actually a lacking of experience confronting challenge. Let our young students seek out their own challenges, work through failures of their own design, and I imagine our reward will be older students more capable of academic diligence.
Can you allow your students more time and space to design their own challenges? Can you recognize benefits from challenge of all types? As my Forest Kinder co-founder would say, “Try it! What’s the worst that could happen? If you fail, you fail. Isn’t that what we ask of our students, to try?”