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The View From the Top

What mastering the monkey bars teaches children about the world — and themselves

Learning Benefits

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Problem Solving
Critical Thinking
Self Control
Independent Thinking

Several years ago, a little girl and a set of monkey bars taught me a valuable lesson about the way children learn, grow, and branch out from their safe, secure bases. At the school at which I teach, the parents provided a new set of monkey bars and the children loved them. But not all of them, of course, could climb to the top, and the older children who could scale those heights were envied and studied by their younger peers looking up.

Natalie began her monkey-bar quest when she entered the preschool at age 3. She openly admired the older preschool girls who, once perched on the top rungs, would remain on their lofty perches, talking about whatever mysterious subjects consume bigger girls. Their conspiratorial glint only added more allure for Natalie. 

Understanding Safe Choices
So why didn't we just help the little girl climb? There is a rule at my school: No lifting or helping children climb the monkey bars. We never place children in physically challenging situations that they cannot get into on their own. It's not just about discipline. Setting this particular limit is one way that we as adults help children understand safe choices when they don't yet have the ability to grasp it themselves. It's our job to keep them safe, and it's their job, as a result, to develop trust in our capacity to keep them safe. The child dying to be at the top of the bars with the big kids may feel a momentary pang of disappointment, but ultimately will learn that adults are there to keep her safe.

Plus, children soon figure out how climb to the top all on their own, and that's a lesson they can apply to just about every other aspect of their lives from preschool onwards.

Take Natalie, for example. After months of practicing (and receiving plenty of encouragement and praise from us), this determined child managed to hoist herself onto the lowest bar, and could even swing upside down with her legs hooked over the bar. Not long after that, she could reach up and pull her chin above a cross bar. Still, though, she couldn't figure out how to reach the pinnacle. Or maybe she didn't yet have the physical strength. But she kept working.

One day, Natalie began gluing popsicle sticks together in series of ladder-like structures. Soon it became clear what she was doing: a miniature monkey bar began to emerge from that pile of sticks. Her classmates were struck by the structure. "Wow, that's cool. It looks just like the monkey bars," they said. It seemed clear that Natalie was taking a new approach to mastering this skill. Perhaps by replicating the monkey bars in wood, she could come closer to her imagined ultimate post on top of the real ones. For a few days, both inside and outside, Natalie made the monkey bars her "work" at school.

The Competence Factor
Natalie is a determined girl, to be sure, but she's not unique in her desire to get to the top, so to speak, of whatever new skill she's trying to acquire. Preschool children spend many hours on tasks like climbing the monkey bars. They reach, stretch, jump, and pull their bodies upwards. They practice newfound skills over and over until they reach competence at it, then they move on to the next.

As you've probably realized by now, reaching the top of the monkey bars means more than just physically getting there. It's about achieving a sense of competence and mastery, something all kids need in their lives and, particularly, in school. When a young child like Natalie is working toward her goal, she needs to believe that she has the potential inside herself. Part of that will involve confronting the frustration inherent in new challenges.

Back on Solid Ground
The monkey bars are certainly a good metaphor for frustration (in the trying), as well as joy (in the mastering). When Natalie finally did reach the top, she held on very tightly and at the same time, she could not stop smiling. Also, she asked us to take a photograph of her — another telling point. Children, rightfully, take pride in their accomplishments, and asking for a photo shows Natalie realized the significance of her moment. Children need affirmation of their competence; just listen on the playground for shouts of "Hey, look at me!" or "Watch what I can do!"

When children make it to the top, the monkey bars serve as a very special perch to survey the area below, and in turn, to be admired by others. The younger children and the less interested children, those who maybe can't yet climb, respect those boys and girls who, after working hard and putting in the time, have achieved a success. "Aren't you scared up there?" they ask. "What if you fall?" Their wary questions are met with confidence and assuring comments. "Don't worry. I'm really big now." And, "I'm good at it." They all get it — the ones at the top can share their good feelings, and the ones down below realize that they, too, can figure out how to get there if they want.

Once back on solid ground, children recognize the responsibility their new status carries. The monkey bars became a symbol of belonging, representing a rite of passage that most children will make if they work at it. Everyone knows it is something you do on your own, but everyone will be there to cheer you on and celebrate your achievements every step of the way.

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