All at once, she's developed this fascination with tree-climbing. A few weeks ago, we were playing in this wonderful little grove of trees near the house, and she just started going up.
Now, she's unstoppable. Even when she's riding in the car, she's scoping out the trees as we pass: "That looks like a good one to climb, we'll have to come back to that tree."
Your typical "jungle gym" apparatus at a park offers basically one way to go up or down. You use the ladder, or the fake rock-climbing bumps. There is a "right way" (i.e. one way that gets you to the top) and all the other ways-which don't get you to the top of the structure, where the other "experiences" await. The rungs on the ladder, the bars, are all the exact same size and dimension. And there is only one place to go. One outcome: reach the top.
A tree on the other hand, offers a variety of ways to get from one place to another. Reaching the "top" is usually not the goal. (Although for some kids, it certainly might be.)There are exciting and interesting things to be found in all sorts of places within the branches of a tree. Tree branches differ wildly in size, shape, strength and texture. This offers great physical challenge and requires the development of balance well beyond what a series of uniform metal bars offers. It also requires coordination and concentration.
There is usually only "one thing to do" with plastic playground equipment. You climb to the top of something, you slide down. You swing. Plastic play equipment is great for letting off steam. Kids love to climb, slide, and swing. Mine are no exception. But it is rather one-sided, kind of a "flat" experience. Go to any playground, there's just not much variation in the way kids play. Get out in nature, on the other hand, and something else happens.
Kids use their imaginations more freely when playing in nature: "Hmm, here's a great big tree. What can I do here? I can climb it, bounce on the low limbs, swing from the branches, hide in the boughs." "Here are some huge rocks--I can jump from them, crawl, lie on my belly, lean against them." With no pieces of equipment directing how kids play, they can be free to make up their own rules and set their own goals for play.
All that aside, it's at times challenging as a mom to let my kids climb trees, jump off boulders, and the like. Occasionally, one of them will jump off something kinda high, "land wrong" and get a minor owie. And sometimes they go really high. Out of my reach. And there are often rocks and roots and other hard, sharp things on the ground beneath them. And what if she falls and hits a branch on her way down? Or, what if he falls off that boulder and cuts his head open?
When these thoughts creep in, and believe me, they do, I really try to see it as a chance for me to work on my own balance and strength. (because, frankly, I've got the "creativity" part down-I can think of a million what-ifs for any given situation)
The thing is, I've got to let them do this. I really believe this is important-it's good for them in a way that nothing else is. And, really, what are the chances of one of these random bad things actually happening? Extremely, extremely small. Is it any less likely that something bad will happen on a playground? Probably more likely, actually.
So, I take a deep breath. I lift him to a bough he can hang from. I give her a boost up to that next branch. And I stand there, under the tree, and we all grow.