Column: Risk Taking: Lessons learned from “The Land”

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By Christina Lieffring

“I could feel my blood pressure rise watching the ten-year-old cut cardboard with a snow-encrusted saw. He attaches it to the long handle of a disassembled shovel and steps out into what looks like a landfill, “I made this!” A boy and girl launch snowballs from behind heaps of debris at him and he smashes them with his new contraption.”

It’s an excerpt from The Land, a documentary about an adventure playground in Wales. Adventure playgrounds are walled-off areas where children can play with hammers, nails, saws, tires, wood, cardboard and an assortment of unsanitary rubble without adult supervision. In almost every clip, you see fire or smoke. And other than minor burns, no children have been seriously injured at adventure playgrounds. There, children practice something that’s diminishing in our country and especially in Johnson County – taking risks.

Risk-taking is like a muscle; you start out small and you gradually move on to bigger and more challenging risks. It’s natural for children and even adults to test their limits. What’s dangerous, is when someone who has been over-protected their entire life does the equivalent of walking into a gym and hoisting a 200 pound weight over their head. I have never been to jail, rehab or broken a bone; I have lived abroad and backpacked Asia alone. And I credit my upbringing for this.

I come from a family of NPR rednecks. Summers were spent at grandpa’s farm exploring dilapidated barns, lighting M-80s under coffee cans to see how high they’d jump and driving a homemade go-cart. One day while everyone was sleeping I took the go-cart out, got lost driving in grass that went over my head and drove right into a ditch. I was stunned, lost and stuck; its one of my earliest memories of finding myself, literally, in a hole, and I realized no one was going to help me. A nine-year-old pulling a go-cart out of a ditch and finding her way back home seems small, but it’s the same skill set I used when I got lost hiking a mountain in China, just with more practice. (I get lost easily.)

Another more preferable but just as scary risk, is creative risk. Instead of playing guitar alone in your basement, join a band. Get that book out of your head, on paper and let others read it. Make a movie, table, painting, hat, whatever just make something. The results will be terrible and that’s okay. A red accordion folder in a landfill is stuffed with angst-y adolescent poetry and short stories that I pray will never see the light of day, but I wouldn’t be the wordsmith I am today without it. You will make a lot of junk, then stuff that is less junk and more promising and finally (and this could take years) you’ll start making something worthwhile. But we all start somewhere.

In another excerpt from The Land the children have taken a U-shaped PVC pipe large enough to fit children, tied a rope around the bend and hung it from a tree to make a swing. The kids spin and push it into a tree with a boy sitting on top and a girl inside the pipe. Another little girl asks if she can get on and her friend in the pipe warns her she might get scared.

“I won’t,” she insists and climbs in. “This’ll be double fun.”

The other kids push and spin the tube even faster and the girls squeal and giggle in delight. She was right.

Contact Christina Lieffring, staff reporter, at clieffri@jccc.edu.

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