Not Every Playing Field Should be Level

11/01/2010 09:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At most suburban schools, play spaces are homogenized. Fields are flat stretches of grass or turf; playgrounds are focused around narrow, manufactured variations on the theme of climbing equipment; a hard surface is available for games like foursquare and hopscotch. It's easy to tell, right away, how decidedly the Blue Rock School in West Nyack, NY, has departed from this norm. Blue Rock has chosen not to smooth out to sameness the rugged, wooded land around the school. The terrain -- which is actively used by the school every day -- remains unpredictable, and open to interpretation, negotiation, and discovery by each child. Here, on the uneven ground of their school surroundings, our children Jonah (13) and Talia (10), have found balance.

When we went to a work day at Blue Rock School last spring, Talia hopped out of the car with alacrity. The fence repair-work that needed doing would position us directly adjacent to her magnolia tree, and she couldn't wait to show us its many compelling features. First she pointed out a number of good-sized rocks circling the magnolia's base. These stones had been scavenged from the nearby woods and placed around the tree by her fourth grade class to protect its roots from children's feet and other threats. Next, Talia pulled herself lightly up into the branches, demonstrating her favorite climbing routes and techniques. "This branch was too high for me last year," she commented, stretching to hoist herself up, "but now I can reach it."

Once alighted on her chosen perch, Talia settled in. Swinging her legs above us, and turning herself upside down like a bat every few minutes, she told us how her classmates relate to the tree when they try to climb it and where each one likes to sit; how the seasonal coming and going of leaves and flowers changes smells and sights; how much she can observe from so high up. Clearly, Talia's daily sojourns aloft in the ever-changing magnolia not only challenge her body during every climb, but also inform her perspective on such subjects as how things evolve over time and how people relate to nature. No experience she has ever had on standardized playground equipment can compare to this multi-layered unfolding, both literal and metaphorical.

Jonah just graduated from Blue Rock after 10 years exploring its woods, adventuring into its old root cellar (now reconstituted as a mysterious cave), and building shelters on the slant of its hillside. During Jonah's second and third-grade years, these shelters blossomed into entire towns, and the children would run in from recess requesting their teacher's assistance with governance, a banking system, and rules to guide commerce. In later years, the children collaborated with each other and a woodworking teacher to construct a totem pole, a tree house, and a fire pit. When the beloved dog who had came to school with the kindergarten teacher each day for many years died, her funeral was held in the woods she too had relished and she was tenderly buried there by her extended Blue Rock family.

The rough, uneven ground of a woodsy area that had been cleared of large objects served as soccer field for Jonah and his classmates. Their games involved navigating around tree stumps, jumping over small ditches, and running up (then down) inclines. Here, he developed unfathomable agility. In physical form, you can see it when he executes full-body ricochets off rock walls or jumps down all four of our front steps, landing with a Jonah spin. But I credit that "ball field" and its unpredictability for other things, too. When Jonah zoomed by me on skates last winter -- dodging branches that stuck out of the frozen marsh on which we were playing, brandishing a stick, and declaring "I like hockey, as long as we don't have to use the rules" -- it struck me that the un-manicured terrain of his childhood had prepared him for nimbleness of mind as well. Watching him in the cold dusk that afternoon as he invented an entirely new game perfectly suited to his surroundings, I knew he was ready not just for high school, but for anything. That this is so makes me endlessly grateful to Blue Rock. I appreciate what he has been taught there, of course, but am also so grateful for the place itself -- the physical land that has fueled his creativity, helped teach him the meaning of metaphor, and invited him to explore solitude and reflection as well as companionship and adventure.

Jonah has moved on, now, to a high school that comes with more conventional trappings. His day is spent in classrooms, and the games he and his classmates play take place on the kinds of leveled ground that are best suited to competitive sports. But all that grace he developed on Blue Rock's uneven fields -- that is with him always, and I see how he uses it daily to negotiate life's new social and academic terrain. When Jonah goes back to visit his old school in years to come, the land around the buildings will no doubt call to him again. It makes me wish all children had access to unleveled fields.

This post originally appeared in Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, Vol. 22, No 4, 2009.