I recently heard an NPR interview with Gever Tully, the founder of the Tinkering School. He advocates letting kids do dangerous things! Oh, he’s not telling us to let our kids play with matches or meat cleavers. But he is suggesting that our growing concern about safety over the last few decades has resulted in important unintended consequences. We’ve narrowed children’s opportunities for exploring their world and limited our kids’ ability to experiment and learn by doing. Ever-present adult supervision has resulted in kids not learning to take responsibility for themselves.
Protective parents aren’t crazy. They are responding to the barrage of warning labels on just about everything and the culture’s expectations for parental involvement and vigilance. There have even been news stories of parents being reported to child protection services because they let their kids walk to school on their own or play unsupervised in their backyard. In some communities, parents are judged harshly by others if they let the kids take a walk in the woods or climb a tree.
I was lucky as a kid. Much of my grade school life was in a suburb that still had undeveloped woods and meadows. We kids followed some rules (at least as we understood them) for sandlot softball and badminton and made up rules for playing at being pirates or cowboys or astronauts. We constructed forts from old boards, sticks, big rocks and anything else that looked fort-like to us. We biked everywhere.
Yes, I know you’ve heard this sort of thing before. But it’s not my intention to add another “good ol’ days” rant to the Internet. Tully’s talk got me thinking about the things we learned from the freedom to explore and even to get hurt now and then:
Little League and swim team and soccer all do help our children develop strong bodies, learn how to follow rules and how to be members of teams. But they don’t spark a kid’s imagination. Making up games out of sight and intervention by the grown-ups does. Playing at being spacemen or cowboys or teachers or whatever they dream up gives kids experience in creating stories and trying on different roles.
When kids are playing a game or doing a project that takes more than just one kid to do, they have to learn how to get along with others and cooperate. If they want to play at being good guys and bad guys, other people have to sign on for the roles. If one kid makes up a game that other kids don’t like, they won’t play. If they do like the game, they may have their own ideas about how it should go. Everyone has to learn how to persuade and to resist persuasion. Everyone has to figure out how to use everyone else’s skills, talents and stuff. They aren’t cooperating because an adult has told them to. They are learning that cooperation works.
- Knowledge of Engineering and Physics
If we buy kids a plastic house to play in, we deprive them of the experience of making dozens of decisions. How big should it be? What do we want it to look like? What features are important? What have we got to make it with? How will we put it together so it doesn’t fall down? If a tree house, how do we get up and down safely? Solving these questions is an introduction to basic engineering, the laws of physics and design. That can only happen if we give them an appliance box or some scrap lumber and leave them alone to make the house or castle or fort of their dreams.
The idea of kids messing around in the kitchen or woodshop terrifies some adults. But it delights kids and gives them experience with experimentation. Yes, it takes some initial training to make sure they don’t accidentally ignite the kitchen or injure themselves with power tools. But once they have some skills, we need to back off.
When kids are free to experiment with cooking and building they soon figure out that you learn as much from what doesn’t work as from what does. They may initially need some help with that concept but we adults can show them that failing at something doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that you now know something not to do. It’s an opportunity to figure out what went awry and what to do about it.
- Hand-Eye Coordination
To function well in the world we need to be able to translate what we see into action. Yes, regularly taking a kid to a batting cage will increase this skill. But unless your kid has a passion for it, it’s not at all necessary or even a good idea. Just let them set up a row of tin cans and have at them with rocks. Soon they’ll be trying different distances, different size rocks, different size cans. Their aim may go wild at times. But working at it will improve their aim and increase their skills.
- Safety Skills
Certainly it’s not wise just to hand a kid a knife or a saw or to send them out alone into the forest primeval. But if we take the time to teach our kids how to use knives and tools and how to identify the poison ivy, we give them the skills they need to do their imagining, exploring and engineering. When they have experience with sharp things, they learn that sharp things are, well, sharp. Minor mishaps at the park or in the woods that cause scratches and bruises teach them more about being careful than constant parental warnings about potential dangers.
Parents can’t be faulted for wanting to keep their kids safe. The world feels much more dangerous now than it did in the ’50s and ’60s. Yes, we do need to be mindful of predators; there may be good reason to limit the kids’ exploring to the immediate neighborhood or a park. They do need some basic training about real hazards. But we can’t let all those warning labels on everything imaginable get to us.
Our kids have much to gain from freedom within reason. They may also gain a few bruises and scrapes and cuts along the way; they might damage something that shouldn’t be damaged. But those experiences teach far more about safety and responsibility than warning labels, danger-proofed toys and constant adult oversight. The competence and confidence that comes with it are worth the risks.