Let Them Play!

Driving the other day, I heard this story on NPR about Gever Tulley who founded The Tinkering School near San Francisco.  In this ultimate summer camp experience, kids get to stay for a week and build creations of their own design (with some guidance) and test them out. The use of power tools is encouraged, as is creativity, risk-taking, and intuition.  Kids must make real things and try them for real.  No models or look-alikes here.  They build boats and find out whether they'll sink or float when they get in them.  They cross bridges they've designed and drive cars and motorcycles they collaborated on.  They fail and fail again and get hurt and go back to the drawing board and fail again and think on it some more and persist until they succeed.  

Tulley says in the NPR interview that one of the experiences that inspired his camp was observing a mother scold and remind her son about her "no playing with sticks" rule.  I'm with Tulley on this one.  Lord help this next generation if they haven't even been allowed to play with sticks.  Why, when I visited Paraguay, the host family I stayed with had a 3 year old boy who I observed playing in the backyard unsupervised with his father's machete.  Okay, admittedly, that kind of freaked me out.  But, clearly we are overdoing it when we protect our kids from sticks (not to mention denying them a connection to nature and natural objects).   

Tulley is working on an upcoming book, "50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do" and gave a TED talk on 5 of them: 

This reminds me of the recently popular "Dangerous" books by Conn & Hal Iggulden.  Just today I read an article called "How to let kids be kids" in this month's Redbook.  It made the case for the downside of overscheduling our kids and overstructuring their play, quoting experts who explained the value of free play driven by curiosity about the world and how it works.  I remember reading a long time ago the quip that all toddlers start out by dropping and throwing and hitting things with the basic mental attitude of, "what will happen when I do this?" and that scientists are just the people who managed to not get that squashed out of them by their parents and the educational system.  

I'm so glad to see this resurging interest in letting kids be kids and just play and explore their world.  I remember the elaborate games my siblings and I used to invent on rainy days stuck inside and the little inventions I used to make when left with free time and craft supplies to think and tinker.  In elementary school I helped run the filmstrips (god, I'm old!) and the teacher would ask you to "rewind" the filmstrip when it was over, which was a laborious process done by hand. I took a toilet paper tube and an empty jewelry gift box, some scissors and glue, and invented a filmstrip rewinder. You could put the film roll in a tube on one end, feed it through a slot across the empty box into a slot in the tube on the other end and you could quickly rewind it into the second tube with your finger.  Plus, you could view the slides on it against the white background of the box as you did so.  

To this day, obviously, I remember the details of that invention, how it worked, and how proud I was of thinking of it, making it, and trying it out to find that it worked.  If you fill a kid's life with pre-packaged toys meant to be used in pre-thought of ways and guided activities with rules, how will they ever invent something?  or have the self-esteem that comes with that?  

Which reminds me to share with you an astounding article I read some months back called "How children lost the right to roam In four generations". In it, the author interviews one family and shows with maps the diminished range that each succeeding generation was allowed to explore unsupervised. I know that as an elementary aged kid, I regularly hopped on my bike or roller skates and went up to a couple miles out on my own or with friends. And that was sans helmet or cell phone or water bottle or firm deadline for arrival.   Now even though I'm in a sleepy suburban, family friendly neighborhood, I really wonder just how far I'll feel comfortable letting my son go.  Has anything actually changed in terms of the risk?  Or just my perception of it due to scary news stories and such?  It's an important question.  

For much more along these lines, check out Free Range Kids , a website devoted to helping "our kids embrace life!". It's got thought provoking articles and practical ideas on how to get back to the good-old-go-outside-and-play-until-dinnertime days!

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this topic.  How far were you allowed to roam as a kid?  Did you own a pocket knife, try driving a car, play with fire, etc, before you were a teen? 


Casey said...

What a cool talk. I love his remark about driving a car being empowering for a small child.

At Easter, I told Rocketboy he could drive my van around the front pasture at my aunt's ranch, and he was so freaked out by the notion that he wouldn't do it.

But a month later, when we were visiting a friend in the country, he and Hurricanehead were delighted to take off their seatbelts and dance around in the van while I slowly drove us down half a mile of gravel road.

My mom was horrified when I bought each boy his very own crowbar, but the predicted deathmatch has yet to come to pass. I find that a busy kid, even if he's busy using "dangerous" tools, is safer than a bored kid who is jumping around on the furniture and likely to bust his head on the tile floor.

Chelsea said...

Empowering them- yes! We're not ready for crowbars, but I think that's really cool and I agree about a busy kid being less dangerous than a bored one.

At 2, Turtle is learning to operate the toaster and microwave, scissors, butter knives and such. Only under close supervision, but I can already see how he is empowered by the opportunity to use "real" things that have an element of danger. We give clear boundaries regarding the use of these objects and hope that he is internalizing safety lessons as we go.

He is also empowered by decision making - being allowed to select what to eat or wear or which way to go at an intersection when we walk.

That's cute that Rocketboy was too freaked out to even try driving, but good that you offered. That helps take the mystique out of it. Now when he's interested, hopefully he'll come ask because he knows you will show him instead of stealing the keys and doing it behind your back.