Monday, February 6, 2012

Stilts on the steps

I admire kids.  I've said that before.  This will definitely not be the last time I say that.  I admire what they know and more importantly what they don't know.  What they don't know is one of their strengths.  Kids don't know what they can't do.  They aren't aware of what others have tried to do and failed.  They don't know what everyone else is scared to try.  They have no idea.  Aren't they lucky?

When it is time for us to attempt something or 'go for it' we have a lot of explaining to do with our guts. We have to listen to the little voices that tell us we are crazy to try, that we probably won't be able to do it, that we just aren't tall enough or strong enough or thin enough or brave enough.  We have to confront our demons; the ones that were there when we tried something and it didn't quite work and the ones we've made up, just because that's what grown-ups do.  We're good about that.  We're are good about laundry lists of things we can't do or shouldn't try or messed up on before.  We like to keep those kinds of lists close to our hearts and most of us have them memorized.  

That's not how kids act, though.  They don't hold on to much of that.  They learn that quickly, oh yes they do - but that's not how they start off.  In the beginning, they listen more to their gutsy, creative side and they set out to try it all.  They watch us and they learn; they learn to listen more closely to those voices that say "It can't be done" and "You're crazy to try that" and "It might not work."  They learn quickly to listen to those messages, but I like to watch them before they hear all of that.  I like to learn from them when they are greener; when the will to do something is greater and louder than the cowardly voices that tell them not to even try.  I like to watch when they are so deeply involved in what they're doing that every cell in their little bodies is busy working on the task at hand.  That's when kids are grand teachers.  Watch and see.

On Friday afternoon, I was watching a group of kids.  I was photographing a play date and enjoying some time outside, enjoying watching six or eight little ones who were happy the weekend had come and all they were thinking about was the present.  All that concerned them was the moment at hand, the urge to enjoy and  the goal of having a blast.  

Harry and Ben decided to try their hand (well, feet) at stilts.  I heard them say "That will be fun" and "I've never tried that before" all within the same thirty seconds they identified the stilts, ran to get them, stood up on them and walked away atop them.  I need not list the steps an adult human would have checked off before 'playing' on the stilts!  I'd say the playdate would be over before many adults would have gotten half-way through the checklist of can'ts and don'ts about such an attempt.  I can hear it now.  If the re-call of past events that didn't end well didn't stop one of us, the thought of the utter embarrassment at a messy fall would!  Kids get embarrassed, to be sure, but even that doesn't serve as a deterrent.  That comes later, after they know 'better.'  
I like to observe children before they've 'learned' all that we know; before they go through the checklists of can'ts, before they remember they might get embarrassed.  I like observing them when they're still right there in the moment, whatever that moment might be.  I want to see how it must be to decide on something, something that could be difficult, and then listen to the voice that screams, "YEAH!"  

I want that back.  I do.  

As you can imagine, the small stilts were not challenging.  They made for some good laughs, but they were easily mastered by the athletes atop them.  The boys maneuvered the playground nicely, tried running, enjoyed bumping into a sibling or two.  But they needed a greater challenge.  

My mind drifted off for a few seconds, as minds are want to do.  I thought about how funny it would be if I got on a pair of stilts and then quickly decided to stay on my perch on the backside of a small tricycle.  I'm glad I did, because what I saw next was the real lesson - the nugget I left with.  

The stilt-clad boys decided that they should try out the curved bridge that joined the slides - that would be the "funnest", they said and they were off.  I knew they'd throw off the stilts, bound up to the bridge and have a friend toss up the stilts.  I knew that.  That makes sense.  That's what I would do!

I was wrong.  Without the slightest hesitation, the now professional stilt-walkers did an awkward modified run to the steps beside the slide and started up.  What?  You can't go up a ladder with stilts on!  Those were the voices I heard in my head; luckily, they didn't hear the same ones.  Remember, they were listening to the ones that cheer you on, the ones that tell you to 'go for it.'  

They said they wanted to go to the top, there were stilts on their feet at the moment,  the ladder was there to get to the top - it all made perfect sense.  There was lots of falling and a ton of laughing.  There was no quitting, no thoughts about how ridiculous it all was.  I believe that towards the top of the ladder there was even some dragging of friends up and over.  And they just kept laughing.  They didn't even take off the stilts to stand up on the perch!  

There was much more laughing, many more falls and a little playing on the bridge.  Turns out, playing with stilts atop the bridge wasn't really all that fun.  The fun had been the trip up.  They laughed a little more and then headed off for the next thing, the next adventure, the next moment.  

I admire that will.  I'm thankful I was a voyeur to that race to the summit.  I know those two boys will never need to claim that they've climbed a ladder in stilts - that hardly matters.  They were lucky, though.  What they gained was one more afternoon of assuming that what was wished for was attainable, one more occasion to win out over the voices of reason to which we grown-ups so faithfully cling.  

I'm not sure when a child goes from knowing they can do it to assuming they can't.  I haven't ever watched that exchange and I don't hope to see it.  I want to keep learning, keep watching them fight to win over the voices that tell us we're crazy to try.  Crazy to try isn't part of a child's vocabulary.  That's a learned trait, one of those pieces of us we pass along without even realizing the switch has been made. 

So, on Friday I learned a lot from Ben and Harry.  I watched joy bubble over in a couple of tired, dirty boys who knew they could climb a ladder with stilts.  My teachers were 8 and 9, and I hope the lesson sunk in.  I know they'll give me chance for review, but I need to start practicing.  I need to keep at this going for it, attempting, trying day after day and I need to take the lead of two young boys and remember that I don't always have to listen to those voices inside that tell me what I can't do and what I shouldn't try.  

Maybe the voices are the really crazy ones.  I wouldn't argue with a couple of teachers who just reached the summit on stilts and quickly moved on to the next adventure!

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