When my husband worried that our youngest would tear a whole in his pants as he slid down the dirt hill to get to the creek I shushed him, knowing that ripped pants and skinned knees were something to be celebrated rather than worried over. When I saw that our daughter was doing the same thing - in her long white skirt - I had to shush myself.
As I repeatedly (almost compulsively) called out "be careful", I remembered the countless hours I had spent exploring the bush and creek that ran behind my childhood home without the prying eyes of adults monitoring my every move. I also recalled the one time I had slid into a river fully clothed.
Just when I thought we were finally ready to leave, I saw my youngest heading back down the dirt slope leading to the creek bed. Following closely behind was his 8-year-old brother, responding to yet another of my pitiful wails to "be careful". Big brother hovered as little brother added his final touch to the bridge and then pulled him back up the slope to safety with the aid of a large stick.
Watching my four children today, as they went from collecting sticks to deciding that they would use those sticks to build a bridge across a creek, I knew that what they were learning here was every bit as valuable as anything they would ever learn in a classroom: they cooperated, looked out for each other, tested theories, and eventually left with a deep sense of satisfaction of the sort that does not require the stamp of adult approval in the form of a grade, gold star or chocolate chip cookie.