Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fifty Dangerous Things

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.

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Heather @ Preschool Buddy said...

Great post! It reminds me of this great quote by William Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

Saya said...

Love your post as always...
I have that book! I gave it to my son (10) a couple of years ago... I'm thinking now is the time to pull it out and try a few more ;)

Jenny said...

Gever does have educational things one can learn from each of the activities in the book, but I would guess he would say that his big goal is the same as the one you are describing. He wants kids to explore, take risks, try new things in a relatively safe environment to learn for future risks. My guess (and it's just a guess) is that the educational component is there for those folks who don't feel as strongly as you do about the learning to take risks aspect.

By the way, Gever, along with a few others, is opening a school in San Fransisco this fall. http://sfbrightworks.org/
I'm watching with fascination.

Have a blast working through the book!

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's important to let kids take risks and learn from their mistakes. Those are some of life's most valuable lessons.

However, wouldn't you agree that teaching and encouraging things like compassion, empathy, and caring for their peers will go much further in creating individuals that will help to better society and themselves?

I think far too much emphasis is placed on creating kids that are risk-takers,are super-motivated, and competitive people rather than compassionate ones.

Just a thought.

Jrothh said...

Ha! My two favorite educators talking about each other. Gever and Teacher Tom. Now there is an interesting combo.

On of the favorite parts of Gever's book and Tinkering school was the head fake feel to it all. Oh sure, almost every kid attending will learn to use a few tools and how to whittle and lash, but those aren't the real lessons. For me, the real lesson is that the things you see around you are all build by someone and there is no reason you can't be that someone. The world is malleable and knowable. You, despite what others tell you as a kid, are an agent in this world and capable of surprising everyone, including yourself.

amy said...

I'm going to have to track down a copy of that book. Our library system doesn't have it. But I'm hung up on the open car window thing--are we not supposed to let kids do that? When my 2 1/2 year old realized she couldn't reach to open her own car window from her car seat, she took off her shoes and opened the window with her toes--all the way down. She was so pleased with herself, as she should be. No way was I closing the window on her. Might as well shut the door on her resourcefulness, too.

Anonymous--I'm not sure learning self-reliance--which is what I read this post as, more than risk-taking--is the same as competitive. In fact, I'm sure it's not, and I don't think empathy, etc and confident/self-reliant are opposites. Why would we have to choose one or the other?

Olivia Jean said...

funny, I was just thinking about this last night. The dilemma I came up with was how do you let prospective parents know this and make them feel comfortable at the same time?

Aunt Annie said...

Anonymous, I don't think Tom is creating risk-takers at all. He's just letting kids do what kids have always been meant to do- learn through experience. It's the LACK of opportunities to take appropriate risks during childhood that seems to create the mentality of taking inappropriate risks in the late teens and early adulthood, surely?

Olivia Jean- you can never make every parent feel comfortable. You just have to be prepared to phrase your philosophy in a way that isn't alarmist, and support your beliefs respectfully and clearly when challenged.

Tim Gill said...

Yes, Gever's approach - which I've followed since his excellent TED talk - is partly about learning about risk, and definitely about learning through experience and discovery. But there is higher-order learning going on too. For instance, self-efficacy: the idea that 'I can do stuff' (Gever talks about 'knowability' which is related). And also resilience: the idea that "I can bounce back from the everyday ups and downs of life". I discuss these and other 'benefits of risk' in my book No Fear which is available free as a pdf - follow the link from my website.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

I wonder if anyone has documented a correlation between physical risk-taking and intellectual risk-taking.

Scott said...

I'm definitely intrigued by what will happen this summer at your school.

When I read this post, I thought of a book I checked out from the library - "A Nation of Wimps" about parents that try to protect children from everything. I'm getting ready to start reading it.

Unknown said...

What Auntie Annie said :)

Dana said...

It is amazing to me that "safety" is a billion dollar business in our society. I totally agree that by limiting exploration to what is safe, you are limiting a child's ability to understand the world. Take the merry-go-rounds off the play grounds and plastic-edge everything that a child might fall on. In a world of children that are egocentric, is it any wonder how we got here. We tell them that we will try to foresee any obstacle or danger that might be present and remove it. Instead, we should provide them with direction and reveal what the consequences would be. Let them take responsibility for their actions - both good and bad.

I think that letting a child develop in such a way, actually increases their empathy and compassion. They realize how hard it is to learn a new lesson and in turn (usually) are willing to help the next child learn. We underestimate our children daily in their abilities.

C.B.M said...

I completely agree with your thoughts on risk taking. "Learning Injuries" are part o life, even when you're a grown up. Empathy and compassion will be learned when someone accidentally bangs their thumb on a mallet and everone comes running to see what's happening and if the child will survive, and also when the grown-up role models compassion and empathy for the child.
*side question: do you have instructions for making that pop bottle down spout thingy?

C.B.M said...

check the Illinois Landscape and Human Health Dept. website (there's a link on my blog; the after school collective)

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Thanks, C.B.M. I'll check it out.

I Am Rachele said...

An inspiring blog posting and a book I will certainly have to read. It's funny because in my home, I'm the explorer while my husband is not. He over thinks things. When I decided my mom's group was going to paint with toilet plungers and toilet brushes, he was the one saying, "and then those kids go home and want to paint with their toilet plungers...." Or when I gave my son a clock to dismantle he said, "but then he'll think it's alright to take everything apart." Despite what he says, I believe he wasn't allowed to be a kid when he was with his parents vs. when he went to boarding school. All of his fond childhood memories are centered around boarding school, not exploring with his family. Unlike me, whose father encouraged to climb rocks, hike off trail (with a compass), and gut a fish. All I know is I want my kids and the kids whose lives I touch to be free to be children, to explore, to learn through mistakes, and to find out what it's like to hit their thumb with a hammer before they are 20 :)

Joie said...

I like this idea. Letting the children be children. Most of our children of today are very much dependent on technology. They rarely experience being out in the real world. But I think it is different at Woodland Park.
Thanks for sharing your activities.

Elizabeth Grace Millsaps said...

In one tribe in Peru, three-year-olds use machetes and two-year-olds heat their own food over open flames. These children become more skilled, harder working, and more mature than American children. You can read more about it here: http://bit.ly/Nxn45u

From what I have seen in one Montessori preschool room, even with a 9 to 1 student to teacher ratio three and four year olds can use needles, sharp scissors and glass dishes without injuries or things getting broken.

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