When I was a kid I lived in a wooded subdivision of Northern Virginia where you could skin your knees on the dirt and gravel main road, catch your sweater or your overalls on a barbed wire fence, collect ticks in your hair, and get eaten alive by chiggers. When I was a kid we played ‘fort’ and ‘cowboys and Indians’, in the woods behind our houses, hiding in the trees that were downed by bulldozers to make way for a new home in the neighborhood. And we would rearrange the junk, the off-casts from our own homes, for playing ‘house’.
We walked to the best hills for sledding in the winter, feeling protected by the watchful eyes of the neighbors, even as they drove through the ice and snow, knowing we were oblivious sometimes to their presence. We skipped along creeks, curious about what lurked there – frogs, box turtles, salamanders, and other creepy crawlies.
My parents, mostly my mother, didn’t want us in the house when she was home, and in her hair. “Go out and play!” was her mournful cry. Too much kid noise! Too much fighting, (probably for her attention, for which going outside didn’t help…)
When my daughter was a young Girl Scout, in an urban troop, the group went ‘camping’. Now, my daughter didn’t really take to scouting much, and I supported her in quitting when I went to pick her up from such an event, and learned that camping required being careful about germs. OMG! Germs! My parents knew we’d be living in the woods, and would be attacked by ticks. They took us to the health department for tick shots…We never thought about having germs.
In efforts to avoid lawsuits and making play ‘easier’ for children, and less dangerous, over the years children’s play areas and activities have been sanitized. And as technology has created visual stimulation ad infinitum for child and adult alike, it seems that the life skills needed for a healthy, well-balanced personality have been curtailed by indoor activity. Even schools have removed recess, where kids are free to run, uninhibited, on a playground, under the watchful eye of an adult.
As a student of urban planning I once did some research for creating parks and playgrounds where children could explore building things. Alas, building things would mean using tools – dangerous tools – like hammers, nails, screw drivers, saws, wire, knives…just name it. I thought about a place where kids could learn social skills, and learn to create and work together, as well as learning how to use tools they might need as adults.
In many ways our culture has sanitized play and learning, and even the love of being children. So I was delighted to hear on NPR’s TED Radio Hour this morning about someone who decided that kids need to learn about the ‘dangers’ of childhood.
In his interview Gever Tulley says, “I was sitting around a table with some friends from the office at a corporate Christmas party; we had all just been talking about the kinds of adventures we had as children tromping around in the woods by ourselves, getting poison oak and bruising our shins. And then I asked them, how are you making sure that your kids have these kinds of experiences? And the immediate and clear response for most of the table was, oh, well, we barely survived childhood. That’s hardly appropriate for children today.“
So Tulley created the Tinkering School, outside of San Francisco (www.tinkeringschool.com). It’s a place where kids can learn skills and create, and build self-confidence. The basic philosophy includes three assumptions:
- 1) Kids are more capable than they know
- 2) The freedom to fail is essential, and
- 3) It can be done bigger and bolder.
Tulley says, “To this day, we’ve never needed much more than a Band-Aid. But the truth is, in an environment where the children realize, like, this is the opposite of being overprotected, we suddenly see the children take much more responsibility for themselves.”
I know that I would not have acquired the skills I have with tools without observing my father, and him allowing me to try some of them out. I haven’t tried a circular saw, but I do have and use a hand saw, a power drill, and other hand tools.
Although I wasn’t crazy about wearing overalls and going outside, especially on a hot, muggy day, I did find ways to spend my time, learning about nature. And nature is not all that ‘clean’ or sanitized. It can be downright dangerous, too. Kids need to learn that, not through trauma, but through healthy risk taking. That is child’s play.
Note: Photo from Tinkering School blog.