Tamara Troadec is the Assistant Director of the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery and a former Preschool teacher at a Reggio Emilia inspired school in Manhattan. Tamara is writing as an Island resident, not on behalf of RIDN.
Open spaces. Walls. Trees. These are all pretty much off-limits these days for children on Roosevelt Island.
Back in May, bright red RIOC (Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation) signage appeared mysteriously overnight along the poles in Good Shepherd Plaza, aggressively asserting the space had become a NO bicycle, NO scooter, NO roller-blade, and NO skateboard zone, leaving us to ask just what play opportunities that does leave for our growing population of children.
Last week, a mother walked her five-year-old son towards the stone wall near Starbucks. As they approached, she saw the signs newly posted there, and her face grew apprehensive. “Sorry buddy,” she sighed, guiding him back to the sidewalk, “You’re not supposed to climb here anymore.”
On a warm evening in June, a child was perched on a branch of a tree close to Fuji East, when a Public Safety officer arrived on the scene (apparently in response to a call from a Riverwalk resident) and gruffly ordered her down. When the child’s mother approached in order to ask why, the officer explained that climbing trees is illegal and punishable by a fine.
The mother led her stunned first grader away from the scene, doing her best to comfort the girl, who had been climbing the tree safely and respectfully for more than a year.
It is now actually illegal to do what you and I (and our brothers, sisters, and cousins) did when we were children, as generations before you have done, since the very first child-tree encounter of the Pleistocene!
Obviously, the issue with the trees is a larger battle to consider. But the choices to place a “no climbing” sign at the stone wall near Starbucks, a wall that every Island child has climbed since its installation, or multiple NO signs throughout Good Shepherd Plaza, just feel wrong. Where will it end, and how do we stop the trend? We need to find ways in our shared experience as Islanders to co-exist respectfully.
It is silly to have to say it, but our outdoor spaces are not solely meant to be admired serenely from a bench or quiet stroll. Children don’t stop and think before they choose to climb, or jump, or ride around in giant circles. They just do it. By doing and sometimes failing (falling), they learn. Whatever they choose for themselves, whether it be a just-right challenge to prove to themselves what they can already do; or a risk just beyond what they can do, a grown-up beside them, encouraging them to try, children need freedom to interact with their environment in order to build self-confidence and resilience, as well as discrete skills.
Research and common sense bear this out: from the National Association for Early Childhood Education, to modern education researchers and preschool through high school teachers. Reasonable physical challenges and the act of risk-taking are a crucial component of children’s physical and cognitive development.
A May photo editorial in this paper asked how it is possible to ban bicycle riding in a space where so many Island children have learned to ride over the past four-plus decades. Just as parents choose empty shopping center parking lots for their teenager’s first driving lesson, parents chose Good Shepherd Plaza to teach their children how to ride a bike. It’s a large open space, necessary for children to practice and become proficient so they can do it independently elsewhere, such as the paths along the East River.
Just how did the Good Shepherd signs come into being, anyway? An email to RIOC and a message left for RIOC’s Director of Operations went unanswered. I polled a few residents from different buildings, asking mostly residents in their 50s, 60s and 70s, thinking their collective experience would shed some light on the subject. None of them knew. A long-time Rivercross resident theorized that one or two strong voices had simply lobbied RIOC for the NO signs out of self-interest. But it’s still not clear. As this resident put it, “No one knows what the process is.”
This issue of restrictions happens to have arrived at a very exciting time: at the heart of planning for the Southpoint Open Space. Among the suggestions brought up at the meetings, different constituents have suggested using the space to offset the growing concerns about play opportunities. They have suggested the space could have a natural playscape, rather than a hardscaped playground, with stone and hill features for jumping, including trees children could actually climb, and a variety of natural, open-ended building materials, to truly inspire their play and draw families to the park.
As wonderful as that would be, such a playscape would still not address the concerns about restrictions, and the growing culture of NO. We can and should advocate more for the rights of children.
Let’s rally together, and figure it out. How can we open the dialogue? Let’s ask RIOC to take down their Good Shepherd signs, and pressure Hudson-Related to remove theirs. To be sure, we live in an increasingly litigious society, and companies wish to protect themselves. But we can pressure companies to understand the impact of their own choices on communities they serve.
Besides, is a restricted, policed community really the kind of community we want? Even if you don’t have or want children, or don’t enjoy having children around, you are a member of a diverse community, which includes children and families, retirees, young singles, young couples, empty-nesters, dogs, and a wide variety of flora and fauna.
If community members fear that children who play outside will damage living things (including themselves), then can’t we find a solution to address these fears? Finding ways to collectively solve problems is more humane and democratic, not to mention a lot more interesting and lively than policing the community by supporting a culture of restriction.
What’s more, children do not vote and are not otherwise invited to share their opinions on such matters; they are effectively non-citizens of the first order. Although we would call them residents, they are invisible. Yet we make rules in their name, often citing their best interests. We tell them NO, and allow signs and rules to dictate how they use their space, without offering alternatives.
By cultivating a community where we advocate for children and support children in taking risks, and by asking families to share the responsibility for caring for their environment, we send a better message to children and the families who love them, and by extension, to the community itself. Instead of saying no after no, we should be finding creative and respectful ways to offer alternatives, and to say YES.
Tags: Island Observer