School Inspectors Say: Trees Too Dangerous!

Hi Readers — This is a column I wrote for Creators, my syndicate. (Feel free to ask your local paper to carry me every week!) Anyway, I wanted to make sure you saw this one, so here it is. Happy weekend! — L.

NO CHILD LEFT OUTSIDE

For almost a half-century, kids at the farm-based Moorestown Children’s School in New Jersey have spent a lot of their time stomping in the mud, running through the meadow and visiting the barn, blissfully oblivious to the danger in their midst.

Trees.

Oh, the child care inspectors don’t use that term. They call it “overgrown vegetation” — the tree branches that dip down to the ground, weeping willow-style. These must be chopped off — every last branch, until inspectors can see 7 feet of bare trunk on every tree — or the school will be cited for safety violations.

“But they play with the trees!” school director Sue Maloney recalls telling the inspection crew. The children “touch the trees! They shake the leaves. It’s what they do.”

Not anymore. Not if she wants to keep her license. This is the story of what happens when two different ideas of childhood collide.

The Moorestown school, which was started by Maloney’s mom, does not look like a typical child care center, Maloney confesses. “We believe in clutter. Leaves, twigs, pine cones, stuff, projects, papier-mâché, things that you don’t put away at the end of an hour” — that’s what the indoor space is filled with. And a cat. More about her later.

Outside, even as suburbia encroaches, the school’s 11 acres remain rural. There’s another cat, and all those trees. Years ago, there was a stream, too, but that has since been fenced off for safety reasons. There were also several fat logs cut into stumps. Kids could place them in a circle for story time or line them up and hop from stump to stump.

But, by regulation, any “play equipment” must be permanently affixed to the ground over safety surfacing. And because the kids played with the logs, these technically were “play equipment,” so now they’re gone, too. Maloney didn’t buck the system. The school opened in 1981 and was never in danger of closing. Till now.

The problem started last year when an inspector visited the school and smelled something foul. This turned out to be an egg a boy had stuffed into his boot for safekeeping (and forgotten!). It made a bad impression on the inspector, who returned with more inspectors, who in turn found more things objectionable.

The 10-year-old tabby sleeping in a basket, for instance. From now on, she had to be leashed or caged or evicted. Then there’s the fact that some of the 15 students, ages infant to 8, were padding around inside in stocking feet. By law, they are required to wear shoes. And there were some other concerns Maloney was happy to fix: a patch of uneven surface on the playground, some mildew in a storage building. Finally, as it said on the Dec. 20 “Inspection/Violation” report, the center had to “cut back low-hanging tree branches.”

That’s where Maloney drew the line. She called me to explain why. “This is a country environment! I grew up here. Honestly, that’s what I wrestle with: Do we even want to remain a child care center if we have to eliminate all the parts we love?” Do away with the cat, the stream, the logs, the bare feet and the branches — what’s left?

Almost absolute safety.

And almost nothing else. — Lenore

Caution! Tree ahead!

Outrage of the Week: Teacher Lets Kids Climb Hill, Cops Come Calling

Hi Readers — Here’s the latest outrage. Lia’s nature-oriented nursery school/kindergarten might not be for everyone, but it certainly is for some kids. Or at least it was.  — Lenore

By Lia Grippo

My name is Lia Grippo.  I am an early childhood educator with 20 years of experience.  For the past 11 years, a large part of my work here in Santa Barbara has been taking young children into local wild spaces where we forage, track animals, climb trees, build forts, etc. For the last two years I have been running a small school that meets at my home 3 days a week and in the woods 2 days per week — safely.

I have two sons, age 7 and 4.  My 7-year-old has been climbing to heights since he was a baby. My husband and I mentored this skill early on first by staying close while pretending to watch something else, and later by having some simple guidelines. For climbing trees, our guidelines include teaching children to know how to tell a dead branch from a living one, and then teaching them never to climb on dead branches or any limb “thinner than your arm.”  We never help a child to climb up but are willing to help as much as necessary on the climb down.

 A few weeks ago my school met at a local beach.  The beach is sandwiched between the ocean and some steep hills and bluffs.  The hills sit in the sand, not above the water.  My 7-year-old and his 6-year-old friend – an equally competent as a climber and also the son of my dearest friend and school teaching assistant — climbed to the top of one of these hills.  As they climbed they chatted, and moved at a steady pace, which meant to me that they were not at the edge of their abilities, which would have been evidenced by their silence or by announcements of fear, tense body language, or frequent stops in search of how to proceed next.  In imitation of the older boys, the younger children began to climb the hill as well.  

I stopped them by saying, “That’s high enough,” when I saw they had reached the point where they would not be able to come down by themselves if they were to continue.  The three younger ones (ages 4, 5, & 5) stopped and began to climb down.  By this time, a group of people had gathered to watch.  My 4-year-old son slid a little down the hill on his bottom. I was right below him to catch him should he continue to slide.  But with the combination of the sliding and, I believe, a frightened group of strangers staring up at him, he became too afraid to come down the rest of the way.  So I climbed up and coached him down, staying  just beneath him. He calmed down to the point where we were laughing and joking as we made our way down.

As we neared the bottom, I noticed there was a lifeguard beneath me on the hill about 3-4 feet off the ground.  When we reached him he asked if I wanted to pass my son off to him and I did and he put him down on the ground.  Then the lifeguard told me he would take the trail around the side of the hill to get the other boys down and I agreed, not because I thought those boys couldn’t make it down on their own — I was certain they could — but because of the fear of the folks watching.  We went around to meet the kids as they came down the trail.  The lifeguard seemed annoyed and said, “Don’t do that again,” before walking off.

During all of this the police were called.  The police officer took a statement from me and left.  As the parents arrived at the end of our morning, I told each one the story and each of them said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. Why are people so afraid these days?”

A few days later the agency that licenses my school came to my door to begin an investigation. This included calling all of the parents at the school, who were all in complete support of me and thought the incident was blown completely out of proportion.  Each parent called me afterward to lend support and to share their outrage at this agency.

At the end of this process, the agency has revoked my license saying that I endangered the children by “exposing them to the natural hazard of the hill and the ocean front,” and by allowing them to climb, made worse by the fact that I allowed them to climb in beach attire, and my son was naked. (As result of ditching his freezing wet pair of jeans.)  

The families have surrounded me with support and outrage and are willing to help pay attorney’s fees to appeal this process.

A couple of nights ago, my 7-year-old said to me, “Mama, I know why those people were afraid.  They couldn’t climb that hill themselves.”

I could use whatever support, resources, or ideas, folks might have to offer.  Especially helpful would be an attorney who had had experience with this sort of situation or someone who works in California’s Community Care Licensing Division who may be able to offer advice.

Thank you,

Lia