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Desire Lines

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Ever hear of desire lines? My dad told me about them.

While studying horticulture at Michigan State University, he learned that the school didn’t pour their sidewalks when it was built.

They grew grass on their campus first and poured concrete where the students and staff wore footpaths in the turf.

He passed this tidbit on to me while I was working for his construction company and it fascinated me.

They’re called desire lines in landscape architecture, unplanned routes used in preference to the designed path.

When I had kids, I started thinking of desire lines in terms of childhood development.

Our society sets a concrete journey for our kids from birth to adulthood. There’s a standard of milestones by which we measure their development every step of the way.

But if you’ve ever met a child, you already know they each have their own desire lines, their own instinctual direction. And we can’t possibly predict or expect every child to follow the same set-in-stone passage.

Kids need direction. They require it. But rather than leading them down a predetermined road, we need to follow their lead at times to get them where they need to go successfully.

I have two sons and a million Legos. When asked to clean them up, one son grabs handfuls and quickly clears the floor. The other turns himself into a bulldozer, pushing piles. Then he’s an excavator scooping them into the bin. He takes ten times as long as his brother, but eventually he also clears the floor.

Two kids. Two paths. Both successful.

We don’t need to fight to keep all kids on the same course. We need to find their desire lines, their paths of least resistance worn in the grass. We need to listen to what works for them and help form the lane in front of them.

Keeping kids on identical roads benefits the system, not the kids.

And I’d much rather see them happily blazing their own trails through the world.

Maybe that’s why my dad told me about desire lines when he did. I’d wandered a little off course at the time. But he didn’t guide me back to the paved sidewalk, he let me know it was ok to pour my own.

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