One cannot learn to swim in a field. ~Spanish proverb
On the last day of school, Max, quite reverently, handed me a copy of Gever Tulley's influential book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).
"It says you should let children throw a spear," he said, then ran off to wash his hands.
I've been aware of this book since it came out in 2009 and written several times about things Tulley has written or said that inspired me, but I'd never actually seen a copy of the book. We'll definitely be throwing some spears in our new outdoor classroom this summer, probably today, since I'm expecting Max will be there. Tulley's book is mostly geared toward children older than preschool (the minimum age for his Tinkering School is 8), but as I peruse the contents, I'm pleased to find that there are several of these "dangerous" things we regularly do at Woodland Park, like driving nails,making "bombs" in bags, breaking glass, and making a rope swing (we even once made a "zip line").
Some of the things we probably can't do as part of our curriculum, like driving a car, cooking in the dishwasher, or finding a beehive, all of which are things they'll have to try with their own families for various reasons (like we don't have a dishwasher at school), but most are in some form attainable.
Tulley tends to argue from the perspective that there is a great deal of learning contained in doing each of these "dangerous" activities, which is true, of course. The open window of a car, as he points out, is a wind tunnel available to everyone, a place to directly learn about lift and drag, the fundaments of aerodynamics. But, for me, that part of the learning is almost secondary to process that takes place before and after undertaking "dangerous" activities. When we undertake to melt a bit of lead over a candle flame (an activity I urge him to include in his updated version of the book), for instance, we start by discussing what is dangerous about it -- the danger of fire, of burns, of inhaling the fumes -- then figure out how we are going to mitigate those risks in the pursuit of science. It's the risk assessment, the habit of taking responsibility for our own safety, of understanding that if we don't have proper respect for the forces with which we are dealing, we might be injured, that is the most important reason for children to be encouraged to take risks in the first place.
Now, I would never intentionally allow a child, or any person for that matter, to hurt himself. If I see someone falling, I will always try to catch her. But at the same time, I understand that every injury we avoid today, by physically preventing the injury or forbidding an activity in which an injury might take place, we've merely pushed that injury off into the future. At some point, if a child is going to ever learn to drive a nail, he will hit his own thumb. That's how everyone learns to use a hammer and it's going to hurt no matter when we do it. One could argue, in fact, that young children with their low to the ground bodies, flexible bones, quicker healing times, and shorter memories are designed by nature to learn exactly these lessons now, rather than later when falls are from a greater height, bones are easier to break, wounds slower to mend, and emotional recovery time longer.
And it goes beyond physical risk taking. Now is the time to practice performing or speaking in front of an audience (generally listed by Americans as a fear greater than death),now is the time to learn about being accepted and rejected by friends, now is the time learn to deal with disappointment, fear, and even death. Our job as adults is to not help children avoid these things, but rather to help them stop for a moment, assess the risks, plan for the potential consequences, eliminate the unnecessary risk, mitigate the inherent risk, and then pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and get on with their lives of doing.
My plan right now is to take the book to school and let the kids decide which ones they want to try during the summer sessions, then figure out how to make them happen. There will thumbing hearts, explosive laughter, and, no doubt, a few tears. I'll let you know how it goes.
I suspect today we'll be throwing spears.