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.
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