Monkey bars

I used to play on the monkey bars all the time when I was a kid. My mom encouraged it. She knew it built upper-body strength, and that the ability to traverse monkey bars was an important capability for any human. (She could traverse monkey bars herself, when I was a boy.)

I quit doing the monkey bars, probably when I was college age, and quickly lost the capability. Then for three decades would have been afraid to even try, because I’d definitely have hurt myself. A few years ago I wanted to regain that capability, so I started looking for monkey bars to practice on, and found that they’ve gotten quite scarce. Many playgrounds don’t have them at all.

Winfield Village has a playground in every quad, but the only playground with any sort of monkey bars is the big one close to the office, and it has a rather strange curving monkey bar that over the course of 5 rungs makes a 90° turn—a particularly challenging version. (Like most these days, this one has weird triangular bars hanging from a single support, rather than a series of rungs supported on both sides.)

Bars for brachiating at Winfield Village playground

The reason for both the near disappearance and the switch to triangular bars seems to be that monkey bars are “dangerous.” Many playground safety experts recommend that monkey bars be excluded from playgrounds altogether, and I think the weird shape is designed to make them harder to climb on top of, in the hopes that kids would then not do so.

I spent a chunk of yesterday afternoon at an “alignment play day” with folks from CU Movement (and  kids), getting some hanging and balancing and barefoot walking on various textures. One thing I did was traverse the monkey bars at Clark Park in Champaign—an old-style set of monkey bars, rather like the ones I remember as a kid.

One of the kids in our group—small enough that it was a challenge to reach the next bar, and at a height that the experts would no doubt claim was “too high” for a kid of that size—did the monkey bars, and then immediately wanted to climb on top of them. He asked for help getting on top, which his mom declined to provide—except that she pointed out that one of the supporting poles could probably provide the necessary foot purchase for him to get on top on his own. And he did manage to find two ways to get up there. Having gotten up there, he decided against traversing the top of the monkey bars, and simply swung back down under them.

A new school of thought is emerging (finally!) that “dangerous” playground equipment offers valuable opportunities for kids to do exactly what this boy did: evaluate a hazard and decide how much risk was appropriate. The only way to learn to make that sort of evaluation is to actually practice it. Making playgrounds so safe that children cannot hurt themselves reduces their opportunity to develop a good sense for what is safe and what is dangerous, and what is and is not within their capability.

It has also made it a lot harder for me to find a set of monkey bars to practice on.

I crossed the monkey bars three times in the afternoon, but I forgot to attempt my next big trick: Cross from one end to the other, turn around (without putting my feet down) and cross back again.

I’ll do that next time.

Perkins Road Natural Area stewardship work day

Jackie and I spent a few hours at the Urbana Park District’s Perkins Road Site, some land just behind the Urbana Dog Park that used to belong to the Sanitary District and was used for sludge ponds. The area is being restored as wet prairie.

Jackie and I joined a crew of about a dozen people cutting invasive bush honeysuckle and burning it.

I went to one or two stewardship workdays with my dad in Kalamazoo at preserves belonging to the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, but (probably just because of the details of what needed doing at those sites those days) didn’t come away with enough of a sense of accomplishment to prompt me to find similar opportunities here.

Since Jackie got involved with the Master Naturalists she’s been doing a lot of these, and I’ve joined her on several. We cut bush honeysuckle at Meadowbrook Park, and on another day gathered prairie seeds there. We pulled winter creeper at Weaver Park. And yesterday we were back to clearing bush honeysuckle—with the bonus that, because this site makes it difficult to haul things out, this time we got to burn it as well.

There’s an atavistic satisfaction that comes from playing with fire. Highly recommended. Don’t burn yourself.

Play versus practice for diverse natural movement

In looking for ways to fill my day with diverse natural movement, one tactic I keep seeing suggested is play. It’s a compelling idea. More play will likely boost both the diversity of movement (because play is like that) and the quantity of movement (because play is fun).

I’ve been hesitating, because I already struggle to balance my desire for diversity with the worry that maximizing diversity will make it hard to improve any of the many things I want to improve at. I worry that play will put a heavy thumb on that balance, toward diversity and away from focus.

It’s a big deal, because we know how to get good at something: deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in a 1993 paper that I’ve talked about before. (For reference: Deliberate practice is a cycle of performing your skill, monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and then figuring out how to do it better.)

One of the points that Ericsson makes in that paper is that deliberate practice is very different from other activities like work and play:

Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

I will grant Ericsson his point in the case of work: If you’re getting paid, you’re probably not going to be creating opportunities to focus on the areas of your performance that are most in need of improvement; rather, you’ll try to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve mastered, so you can produce your best work as quickly as possible.

In the case of play, however, I beg to differ. Or rather, I observe that when Ericsson provides examples of “play” in the paper, he’s mostly talking about competitive and especially team-oriented play. Just like with work, the conditions—trying to win, trying not to let your team down—similarly incentivize arranging things to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve already mastered.

Serious competitive play is only one kind of play, though. There’s a lot of play that is only notionally competitive, as well as play that’s explicitly cooperative. These other sorts of play are at least as common as serious competitive play.

In my experience, these other sorts of play are full of deliberate practice.

I once saw a kid trying to jump a skateboard onto a low wall. In the time it took me to walk past (a minute or two), the kid repeatedly rolled his skateboard in a big loop tangent to the wall, attempted to make the jump, failed, and set up to try again. I don’t know how long he was going at it before I arrived or after I left, but I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of deliberate practice: He was performing his skill, monitoring his performance, trying to figure out how to do it better, and then trying again.

In my experience, play involving a group people of various skills levels very often includes specific instruction and specific encouragement for the less-skilled players to learn and then practice a new skill. “You don’t know how to do a vault? Well, here’s one way. Try it a few times.”

So, I think I’m going to quit hesitating to emphasize “play” as a way to fit more, and more various, natural movement into my day. Like that kid on the skateboard, I’ll try to include some deliberate practice in my play. Of course, I still have my essential quandary: How do I thread the needle between focusing on one or a few things without losing the diversity? But that’s a problem for another day. My play can include as much focus as I choose to include.