COLLABORATIVE RISK ASSESSMENT

She climbed up fast…it took her only seconds to reach the domed top of the “nature den” the Tink children had built. And in this case, built actually means wedged and woven. The builders had propped and pushed branches upright and once a number of the larger branches were leaning and wedged just so against the chokecherry tree, they began weaving in smaller branches.

Basically the structure is held up with ribbons, yarn, and gravity. It had not been tested as a climber, but it was only a matter of time, right?

At this point in the year, the older children have tested the heights of all the other structures and they have fully explored the climbing rope that stretches between two trees. Time to move on.

Before each climb or as a construction approaches that magical pairing of structure and scramble-climb, we conduct a collaborative risk assessment. Sometimes these are begun by adults (we have three adults on the playground) and other times the collaborative risk assessment is conducted by the children themselves.

In this case though, the scramble-climb happened too quickly. If there was a risk assessment it was done in split second decisions of hand and foot placement. Once on top, the view was grand. Something the photograph does not show is that there is a co-oper just below this adventurer. She is hidden by the tree and collection of branches. And I was standing close, holding the camera at waist height. She was steady for the moment and the photo would provide an illustration for future training. So while the risk assessment did not happen beforehand, there were ready hands to catch her and now an opportunity to talk about the perch and the climb down, because what this photo also doesn’t show is that the climb was like a clanging siren — are you kidding? There were at least three other climbers waiting to go.

Our goal is scaffolded learning, the adults model the risk assessment process so that children will be able to access these same tools on their own. We begin with what we call narration — a set of fact-based observations and questions.

“This held up with yarn and ribbon. It has a lot of branches pointing up and turned out. Like this one or this one. Which way did you climb up? This cross-branch looks looser than the rest. If you come down this way, will it hold you up? The structure looks like it is leaning against this tree. Does one side seem tippier?”

“This held up with yarn and ribbon. It has a lot of branches pointing up and turned out. Like this one or this one. Which way did you climb up? This cross-branch looks looser than the rest. If you come down this way, will it hold you up? The structure looks like it is leaning against this tree. Does one side seem tippier?”

On the way down, she adjusted her climb. She tested each branch before placing her full weight on it. At one point, she climbed up and then moved over a bit, not trusting a particular cross-branch at all. She pulled her dress away so that it wouldn’t catch on the upright branches. Her climb down was different than her climb up. She stood aside as the next climber made her ascent. Only one climber at a time. They know that the yarn and ribbon may have supported one climber, but they were not going to risk two at the same time!

Then in the meantime, we had a great big delivery of pampas grass (genus: Cortaderia) to the play yard. This lovely grass, bleached out from the Winter sun features curls and shoots of grass that can be used for pretty much anything and its delivery signals that Spring is truly coming, but there is a catch. Cortaderia is derived from the word cortadera — and that, my dears, refers to the sharp, serrated edges of its leaves. The children ran to it immediately and began dragging it here and there to be used as roofing material and as a base for nests. Within twenty minutes, the children discovered — even with our collaborative risk assessment — the horrible meaning of “sharp, serrated edges.” A teacher can philosophize about hurts and aches resulting from playground play. We can be abstract in our discussions about hurts that are not our own, but in case you have never experienced this yourself, the cut from these grasses is very similar to a paper cut. It is a slice. It hurts.

One points with her foot and another from as far away as she can be and still be near it. There is a strand of pampas grass attached to the rope just waiting for an unsuspecting passer-by. “Go around, way around!” They say. The other two called over one of the children who was wearing gloves. He fixed the situation and the play could resume safely.

One points with her foot and another from as far away as she can be and still be near it. There is a strand of pampas grass attached to the rope just waiting for an unsuspecting passer-by. “Go around, way around!” They say. The other two called over one of the children who was wearing gloves. He fixed the situation and the play could resume safely.

So for the children who had them in their backpacks, the gloves came out. If they didn’t have them, they brought them in the next day. Then this other thing happened…the children began taking care of each other. They would point out the places the stray pampas grass still lurked. The leaves that might have fallen along the way, as the children with gloves hauled it here and there.

Then this other thing happened…they wanted to know about the grasses that are planted in our yard. We have two varieties of Miscanthus and one fountain grass (Pennisetum). The Miscanthus will also cut just like the pampas grass and the Pennisetum will not. There are ways to identify each. This information is important, isn’t it? The children know that the grass is a resource. It is all something they want to and will use during their play. They know that I will be harvesting our own grass in the next week or two.

And they will have their gloves ready!