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Faith in Vermont: Safety

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Posted on January 30, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



It was this year’s peculiar cocktail of sub-zero temperatures, accumulating snow, thaws with mixed precipitation followed by a return to freezing temperatures – combined with the heavy clay soil and topography of our property – that turned our yard into a skating rink.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think we had three ponds on our land, when what we really have are three huge frozen puddles. This distinction means nothing to my daughters, who slip and slide with abandon over the smooth expanses of ice in their snow boots. Where air has gotten in between the ice, they stomp on the top layer so it fractures into thin shards that they pick up and eat -- nature’s original popsicles.  

My husband and I, with higher centers of gravity and work to do, snap metal crampons onto our boots when we go out to walk the dog or feed the poultry. We walk gingerly and drive slowly. We play it safe.

Safety is a concept that’s embedded deep within our DNA: We carry within us a will to survive, combined with the knowledge – often subconscious – that we are always hunted by death. This tension leads many of us to seek safety by avoiding what we judge to be hazardous situations.

What’s surprising, after millennia of human existence, is how poorly we judge actual hazards and how inconsistent we are in our survival attempts. For example, I wore crampons as I walked across the ice to the poultry coops this morning, but then I ate bacon for breakfast and drove a car to town, despite documented evidence that both of those things may shorten my lifespan.

Still, the delusion persists that we can prolong our life by adhering to various safety measures. Our desire for safety informs how we interact with the world; should we become parents, it informs how we raise our children to interact with the world.

Filmmaker and Middlebury College professor Erin Davis said in a 2015 interview on NPR: “Something that’s hard for us to accept is that safety, security, is a myth to a degree. There’s no such thing as complete safety; it’s impossible, unfortunately. But we are interested in being as safe as possible. So that is reflected very obviously in children’s culture in America these days.”

Davis was speaking about her fascinating short documentary film, “The Land,” which focuses on an adventure playground in North Wales called The Land in order to explore concepts of play, risk and hazard.

Last week, I drove – too fast, because I was running late – down icy roads in a slushy rain in order to attend a screening and discussion of “The Land” at my daughter’s preschool.

The adventure playground movement emerged out of post-World War II Europe; some of the first adventure playgrounds in the UK were bomb sites. The hallmarks of adventure playgrounds are: unrestricted play, lack of adult-manufactured structures, moveable parts, and the presence of trained playworkers. At The Land, children climb trees, use saws, hammers, nails, and paint to build their own structures, and experiment with fire. One of the playworkers interviewed for Davis’s film draws a distinction between risks and hazards: His job is to allow children to take risks, while keeping them safe from hazards.

It’s an important distinction, and one that seems to be gaining ground among American parents who are tired of worrying, who see the cost of overprotected, overscheduled children who prefer to stay indoors on their electronic devices. Still, the numbers are telling: While there are over 1,000 adventure playgrounds throughout Europe, there are only five in the United States.

While we may acknowledge that risk is part of life, we do our best to remove it from the lives of our children. We tear down wooden playgrounds (splinters!) and replace them with sleek plastic structures atop synthetic padding. We schedule every minute of our children’s time with enrichment activities in order to “keep them out of trouble.” We have become so fearful of danger, of lawsuits, of guilt, that we’ve become a culture of worrying, hovering micromanagers dubbed “helicopter parents.”

Several days ago, I allowed five children – three of my own, and two of their friends – to embark on an unsupervised adventure in the woods bordering our property. These children ranged in age from four to eight. In a nod to safety, I sent them off with two walkie-talkies (I kept the third.)

From the kitchen window, I watched them run across our back field, down to the frozen beaver pond at the edge of our property, and towards the rocky ridge beyond.

They’d been gone about 20 minutes when I realized the drawback of the walkie-talkies: Apparently, it’s slightly beyond the ability of four-to-eight-year-olds to hold down the button on the side of the walkie-talkie the entire time one is talking. Therefore, our exchange sounded something like this:

SIX-YEAR-OLD: [crackle-crackle] Faith?

ME: Yes?!?

SIX-YEAR-OLD: [crackle-crackle]

ME: Hello?!? Are you there?!? Is everything OK?!?

SIX-YEAR-OLD: [crackle-crackle]

ME: Hold down the button the whole time you’re talking!

SIX-YEAR-OLD: [crackle-crackle]…She’s stuck up on a cliff!

I wasn’t too worried. We don’t live in the high Rockies; I knew that what was a “cliff” to a six-year-old is what most of us consider a “slope.” All the same, when my daughters’ friends’ mother came to pick them up and the children still hadn’t emerged from the woods, I pulled on my boots and coat to investigate.

As I slipped and slid and smashed to my knees attempting to cross our back field, I realized my error: I’d pulled on my regular snow boots, not the boots with crampons attached. The field was icy, but because I’d become used to the easy safety of walking across ice with metal spikes on my soles, I was unable to navigate ice without them.

When I reached the beaver pond, I was greeted by five exuberant children who had just descended the ridge. “She almost DIED!” they shouted. “We saved her life!”

I pieced the story together bit-by-bit. The ice was the culprit, having turned the rocky slope into a slippery slide. One of my daughters had lost her footing and grabbed a tree root for support, and then refused to let go and descend the slope herself. She was eventually “saved” by her older sister and friend.

That this had been a near-death experience was emphasized repeatedly in the retelling. Oddly, it contained none of the terror or trauma that one would expect a brush with death to entail; instead, the news that “she almost DIED” was delivered almost…joyfully.

Perhaps because she hadn’t died. Perhaps because they felt empowered to have encountered risk and solved it themselves.

So perhaps, when we protect our children from all danger, when we attempt to insulate them from injury, when we only allow them to cross the ice wearing crampons, we are denying them the full joy of being human: the thrill of taking risks, the euphoria of navigating tricky situations, and the immense gratitude for life that can only come from acknowledging the reality of death.

 

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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