The Out to Play Walking School Bus: A reflection on the value of playful work

By Carrie Komesch

The bridge crossing over the creek and subsequent sharp turns in the pathway are some of the most challenging places to maneuver the sled on the commute in or out.

The Out to Play Walking School Bus is a phenomenon rooted in necessity, or at least convenience. As educators, we walk the same paths as families do for dropoff and pickup, but we’re aware that when we do so, we are dressed for perhaps a very different day of work than some of the caring adults who (uncomplainingly!) bring their children to us through mud and ice and snow. 

In January we began a new winter tradition of meeting the children in our Fox and Wolf groups at the parking lot in the morning, and providing a ten minute window in which grown ups are welcome to drop off their children (and all associated gear!) and have us walk them in. For some families their own ritual of the walk in to site is well established, and they are happy to hike all the way themselves. However other families value the reduced transition time, and those children who partake in the walking school bus do so with apparent joy and intention!

Every morning, an educator wanders to the parking lot, empty sled in tow, and loads it up Tetris-style as the children and their gear arrive. Then, when everyone is ready, the children put on their backpacks and we invite them to help pull the sled down to the trail to site.

And they do so with such gusto! Their devotion to the task is universal! Frequently, our greatest challenge is in helping the children hold back/manage this passionate drive and energy. Everyone wants to help move the sled, and everyone wants to help RIGHT NOW, but there are very real risks inherent to the task. There is only so much space around the perimeter of the sled. There is a long rope that can all too easily snake between boots and ankles and tumbling bodies. Once the sled gets up to speed, it can be hard to stop, especially because we frequently travel with some children pulling the rope out in front, and some children pushing the sled from behind [see Figure 1], and sometimes there can be a significant delay in communication between the two teams. We ask the children to pause, to breathe, to spatially and critically assess the situation before we heartily throw our bodies into the task. 

Figure 1: Two children demonstrate classic positioning as the sled’s “engine.”

And they do pause. And they do listen, to the educators and to each other. They find a way to navigate the limited space around the sled, and they get themselves in position to pull or push…and once they’re given the signal, they take off like giggling snowshoe hares leaping and running down the trail.  Over the weeks, the students have honed their techniques, and have figured out the best systems for managing the sled and its inertia in a way that includes everyone and feels safe for all the hearts and bodies on the trail. And so once they’re off, they just keep going! Laughing, tumbling, falling/crashing/diving…(all well outside of the cross-country ski trails, don’t worry!). It’s an incredibly active start to their morning, and the first few times I facilitated it, I found myself worrying that the children were going to expend ALL their energy for the day on the walk in. However, that never seemed to be the case. It was like the morning work energy came from a separate reserve. 

The Walking School Bus has become a fond winter tradition for our educators, students, and families. It will no doubt evolve seasonally, but it has made clear the value for our students in embracing functional (but playful) hard work. That part will stay the same, even when the snow begins to melt and we put the sled away for another year.

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