Gever Tulley, founder of Tinkering School for Kids,  has published Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), a book we’ve been waiting for, not just to give to the kids we know, but us adults as well, because the same idea applies: By exploring the world (maybe doing things we never got to do as kids) we learn and get ideas and new develop parts of ourselves.  I want to:

throw a spear…
…make a bomb in a bag…
…spend an hour blindfolded…
…construct my own flying machine…
…melt glass…

Tulley isn’t cavalierly sending your kids (or you) into danger. He gives detailed instruction and explanations about the why’s and how’s things work, as well as possible dangers. He figures, wisely, if your kid really understands how something works, she will be more able to navigate its challenges herself, use it creatively AND stay safer.

About a year ago, Tulley gave a taste of his book-to-be in a TED talk called “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do”. It’s full of wisdom about learning, creativity and danger safety. Here’s the video, and the transcript, along with a page from the new book:

Welcome to five dangerous things you should let your children do. I don’t have children; I borrow my friends’ children, so (Laughter), take all this advice with a grain of salt. I’m Gever Tulley, I’m a contract computer scientist by trade, but I’m the founder of something called the Tinkering School. It’s a summer program which aims to help kids to learn how to build the things that they think of. So we build a lot of things, and I do put power tools into the hands of second-graders. So if you’re thinking about sending your kid to Tinkering School, they do come back bruised, scraped and bloody. So, you know, we live in a world that’s subjected to ever more stringent child safety regulations. There doesn’t seem to be any limit on how crazy child safety regulations can get. We put suffocation warnings on all the – on every piece of plastic film manufactured in the United States or for sale with an item in the United States. We put warnings on coffee cups to tell us that the contents may be hot. And we seem to think that any item sharper than a golf ball is too sharp for children under the age of ten.

So where does this trend stop? When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not, made out of round plastic, they’ll hurt themselves with it. So as the boundaries of what we determine as the safety zone grow ever smaller, we cut off our children from valuable opportunities to learn how to interact with the world around them. And despite all of our best efforts and intentions, kids are always going to figure out how to do the most dangerous thing they can, in whatever environment they can. So despite the provocative title, this presentation is really about safety and about how some simple things that we can do to raise our kids to be creative, confident and in control of the environment around them. And what I now present to you is an excerpt from a book in progress. The book is called, “50 Dangerous Things.” This is five dangerous things.

Thing number one: play with fire. Learning to control one of the most elemental forces in nature is a pivotal moment in any child’s personal history. Whether we remember it or not, it’s a – it’s the first time we really get control of one of these mysterious things. These mysteries are only revealed to those who get the opportunity to play with it. So playing with fire, this is like one of the great things we ever discovered, fire. From playing with it, they learn some basic principles about fire, about intake, about combustion, about exhaust, these are the three working elements of fire that you have to have to have a good controlled fire. And you can think of the open pit fire as a laboratory, you don’t know what they’re going to learn from playing with it. You know, let them fool around with it on their own terms and trust me, they’re going to learn things that you can’t get out of playing with Dora the Explorer toys.


Number two: own a pocket knife. Pocket knives are kind of drifting out of our cultural consciousness, which I think is a terrible thing (Laughter). Your first, your first pocket knife is like the first universal tool that you’re given, you know, it’s a spatula, it’s a pry bar, it’s a screwdriver and it’s a blade, yeah. And it’s a, it’s a powerful and empowering tool. And in a lot of cultures they give knives, like, as soon as they’re toddlers they have knives. These are Inuit children cutting whale blubber. I first saw this in a Canadian Film Board film when I was ten, and it left a lasting impression, to see babies playing with knives. And it shows that kids can develop an extended sense of self, through a tool, at a very young age. You lay down a couple of very simple rules, always cut away from your body, keep the blade sharp, never force it, and these are things kids can understand and practice with. And yeah, they’re going to cut themselves, I have some terrible scars on my legs from where I stabbed myself. But you know, they’re young, they heal fast (Laughter).

Number three: throw a spear. It turns out that our brains are actually wired for throwing things and like muscles, if you don’t use parts of your brain, they tend to atrophy over time. But when, when you exercise them, any given muscles adds strength to the whole system and that applies to your brain too. So practicing throwing things has been shown to stimulate the frontal and parietal lobes, which have to do with visual acuity, 3D understanding, and structural problem-solving, so it gives a sense, it helps develop their visualization skills and their predictive ability. And throwing is a combination of analytical and physical skill, so it’s very good for that kind of whole body training. These kinds of target based practice, also helps – helps kids develop attention and concentration skills, so those are great.

Number four: deconstruct appliances. There is a world of interesting things inside your dishwasher. Next time you’re about to throw out an appliance don’t throw it out. Take it apart with your kid, or send him to my school and we’ll take it apart with them. Even if you don’t know what the parts are, puzzling out what they might be for is a really good practice for the kids to get, sort of, the sense that they can take things apart and no matter how complex they are, they can understand parts of them and that means that eventually, they can understand all of them. It’s a sense of knowability, that something is knowable. So these black boxes that we live with and take for granted are actually complex things made by other people and you can understand them.

Number fivetwo-parter: break the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Laughter). There are laws beyond safety regulations that attempt to limit how we can interact with the things that we own – in this case, digital media. It’s a very simple exercise, buy a song on ITunes, write it to a CD, then rip the CD to an MP3 and play it on your very same computer. You’ve just broken a law, technically the RIAA can come and persecute you. It’s an important lesson for kids to understand, that some of these laws get broken by accident and that laws have to be interpreted and it’s something we often talk about with the kids when were fooling around with things and breaking them open and taking them apart and using them for other things, and also when we go out and drive a car.

Driving a car is a – is a really empowering act for a young child, so this is the ultimate – (Laughter) For those of you who aren’t comfortable actually breaking the law, you can drive a car with your child. This is – this is a great stage for a kid. This happens about the same time that they get latched onto things like dinosaurs, these big things in the outside world that they’re trying to get a grip on. A car is a similar object, and they can get in a car and drive it. And that’s a really, like, it gives them a handle on a world in a way that they wouldn’t, that they don’t often have access to. So – and it’s perfectly legal. Find a big empty lot, make sure there’s nothing in it and it’s on private property, and let them drive your car. It’s very safe actually. And it’s fun for the whole family (Laughter). So let’s see, I think that’s it, that’s number five and a half, okay.

Related post: Tinkering Schools for Kids and Adults

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3 replies on “5(0) dangerous things your kids (and you) should do

  1. Happy to know about this safe, “anti-safety” campaign. Great idea to broaden the safety zone with how-tos for practical experience. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Rounded corners: My parents had rectangular tables and square counters. When I didn’t listen to my mother (stop running!), I hit my head or stubbed my toe. I learned.

    Fire: My mother would let me light candles with box matches. I learned.

    Cars: My nephew learned how to drive and park before he was school age. He didn’t work the gas or brake but he steered. He learned. He is 13 now and sometimes I let him park in front of the house by himself. Now, I won’t be (as) terrified to let him drive at 16.

    What happened to kids learning about the real world from real life experiences? I agree that there are some things that Dora the Explorer can NOT teach.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Yeah, how else do we learn? But teaching how things work, and then letting a kid (or a grown-up) test the principles out AND make some mistakes, gives so much info about the parameters, what is possible. Hurts and wounds and accidents also teach us.

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