When Kids are the Boss: Swings, Ladders, & a 7 year old Engineer
A 7 year old had an idea. She wanted to make a swing. When she told me this, I started racking my brain trying to think of ways to do that in our wood without having prepped any materials in advance. We had some rope, but the trees didn't have branches low enough or strong enough for a rope swing (it's a young wood only about 25 years old).
But then I realised that 7 year old wasn't asking for my help in designing how to build a swing. She already knew what she wanted to do. She just needed someone to help her collect some sticks.
I was curious (and I admit a bit skeptical) about what she had in mind for the design of her swing. I wondered whether she could possibly build something strong and sturdy enough to actually hold any weight. But she was on mission and who am I to discourage a little engineer with a vision?
So instead of offering advice, I just turned to following orders. At some point or another, we all get into these situations. A child asks you for help, you start following their instructions, and before you know it, you're taking orders from a tiny supervisor who may or may not have a marshmallow smeared face. You find yourself wondering, “Wait, when did the kid become the boss?”
At the same time, can't that be such a great thing? To give them the time and opportunity to be in CHARGE of something, to learn how to gather and use the support of others to try to achieve something they came up with themselves? To get the chance to make their idea a reality and learn about all the challenges that come with it all along the way? If you can place your ego to the side, it can be a very rewarding experience (even if it feels a little unnerving to swap the hierarchy and allow a 7 year old to wield authority).
So that's what I did. It was obvious this kid had a clear vision! I didn't understand how her swing would work, but that didn't matter. I felt that having the end result of a working and functional swing was less important than giving her the chance to go through the process of trying to make it happen. So I took my orders seriously and got to work gathering appropriately sized sticks (which, of course, had to be approved by my 'supervisor' before being added to the collection...).
Over the course of that session, she enlisted help from me and a few other adults and after a few tests and some problem-solving about how to make a stick swing more comfortable, this was the result:
It was well made swing that soon became the attraction of the whole group, as each child wanted a turn on it. I admit, I was shocked that it actually worked. I thought to myself, “Hey, I'm the one who spent 9 months doing Forest School training, learning how to tie knots and build things out of wood (mostly in the rain!!). I thought I would be the one to show kids how to make magical things out of sticks and string, not the other way around!” But there was no denying it, this kid was a natural engineer and I was lucky to get the chance to learn something from her.
But it didn't end there...
The next week, she decided she wanted the swing to be higher. Instead of hanging 1 foot above the ground, she wanted it about 3 feet up. This created a problem because she wasn't tall enough to get on the swing once it was tied up that high. So what did she do? She said, “I need a ladder.”
And so the process of designing and building began again! This time I was able to offer a bit more advice. We learned how to use loppers to cut some green wood which made stronger supports for the ladder than the dead wood found lying on the ground. We measured our materials carefully, making sure the ladder would be the right height and the steps would be equal distant apart. I showed her how to tie a lashing to ensure the steps were secured on tightly and could bear weight.
We worked really hard on the ladder for over an hour, but ran out of time to finish it that session. We had to return to our project the following week, where we spent a further 45 minutes on it. The result was a beautifully rustic looking, completely functional (and safe I might add!) swing set that would make any Forest-Schooler proud!
In total, the whole project took three sessions over the course of three weeks to make. That's a lot of time and dedication! But what a result... Not only did we end up with a fun piece of play equipment, but a child had an idea and got the chance to test that idea in the real world. It gave her an incredible sense of achievement and a whole set of new skills.
I also learned a lot from the experience. I learned an entirely new design for a woodland swing I would have never thought of myself. I learned how to make a sturdy ladder (I'd seen the design before but had never had the chance to actually make one). I also learned how children can really surprise you with how well they can do things you think they shouldn't be able to do yet. And lastly, I learned to never stand in the way of a little engineer (even if they might have a little marshmallow stuck to their cheek).
To see the full journey of the making of this swing set and the finished result check out this short video I made documenting the process!