Conquering the Climber – Problem Solving on the Preschool Playground

When families tour my program, one thing I tell them is that we don’t push kids on the swings. It seems like an odd thing to point out, but there’s a few specific reasons why we don’t.

  • I can’t have a teacher tied down at the swings during outside time. It’s important that the teacher is moving around, observing and engaging with all the children who are playing outside.
  • Children are going to be safer if they have the physical ability to keep themselves on the swing and have developed the strength to pump themselves.
  • Learning to pump themselves on the swings is a valuable rite of passage that children should not be robbed of. Children learn so much in this process of figuring out what they can do and are capable of.

I also don’t put children on top of the climber. They have to be able to climb to the top on their own if they want to be up there. This also is coming from a place of support, love, and respect for the children and their capabilities.

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist who developed the theory that all people pass through eight stages of psychosocial development. That’s a fancy way to say there are 8 core virtues that we each have the opportunity to develop, or not, based on our experience with our environment and the people in it.

The eight virtues include Hope, Will, Purpose, Competence, Fidelity, Love, Care, and Wisdom. At each stage an individual is faced with a basic crisis between two opposing experiences. For example, infants are exploring trust vs mistrust. They are learning if they can trust the world and the people in it. This is why it’s essential that babies have responsive and loving caregivers.

A brief summary of Erikson’s stages:

Toddlers and young preschoolers are at the stage where they are developing autonomy and independence. They are also starting to develop initiative. The opposing experience is shame and doubt. Researcher Brene Brown is one of my heroes and has found that shame can be very dangerous, even lethal.  It keeps people from living wholehearted lives.*** So when as toddlers and preschoolers children’s experiences are steeped in shame, instead of a feeling that they are capable and competent, they are starting on a very difficult road.

Caregivers and parents want to do the very best they can for their children. Well intentioned adults often jump in to help just a bit too soon. It can be challenging to watch a child struggle, especially when you might not be sure the child is actually capable of solving the problem on their own. We want them to be successful! However the feeling of success and pride is missed when the child doesn’t actually accomplish anything. When we lift them to to the top of the climber and say “Yea!  Good job!”, they know as well as we do that the victory was not theirs.

Often we can provide more help when we actually hang back and trust the child to figure out the solution.  We can provide a support, encouragement, and options when needed.

Following is a video I filmed a few years ago on our playground. This little girl was 3 years old at the time. My responses aren’t always perfect.  I probably could have said less than I did, or provided more encouragement instead of my own ideas. But I’m still learning every day as well so I will share despite the fact that I didn’t do everything just “right”.

Pay close attention at the end when she reaches the top. You can see in her body language before she even turns around how amazing she feels about getting to the top of the climber.

***Brene Brown talks about shame in a great little five minute talk here:



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