TED Radio Hour
6:10 am
Fri August 1, 2014

What Can Kids Learn By Doing Dangerous Things?

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Growing Up.

About Gever Tulley's TEDTalk

Tinkering School Founder Gever Tulley says that when kids are given sharp tools and matches, their imaginations take off and they become better problem-solvers.

About Gever Tulley

Software engineer Gever Tulley is the co-founder of Tinkering School — a weeklong camp where kids get to play with their very own power tools — and the San Francisco K-12 private school Brightworks.

He's interested in helping kids learn how to build things, solve problems, use new materials and hack old ones for new purposes. He's also the author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So one night about 10 years ago, Gever Tulley had this major realization about his childhood.

GEVER TULLEY: I think it all goes back to a pivotal moment, which was a dinner conversation at a corporate Christmas party where I was sitting around a table with some friends from the office, and we had all just been talking about the kinds of adventures we'd had as children.

RAZ: Gever had grown up near the beach in Northern California. His mom was a nurse; his dad was a fisherman who also wrote poetry.

TULLEY: They would let us out the back door, and we would wander around into the forest. And there was a little cove near our house, so my brother and I used to walk up and down this little trail down to the beach. And as long as we were home by lunch or supper, everything was OK.

RAZ: And it really never occurred to Gever how important that stuff was for him, until that night at the office Christmas party talking with his colleagues...

TULLEY: About the kinds of adventures we'd had as children, and then I asked them, you know, so how are you - how are you making sure that your kids have these kinds of experiences? And the immediate and clear response from most of the table was, oh, well, you know, we barely survived childhood. That's hardly appropriate for children today.

RAZ: This, it just seemed totally wrong. The idea that his childhood...

TULLEY: Spent tromping around in the woods by ourselves getting poison oak and bruising our shins was somehow not important to the development of who we were today.

RAZ: So Gever, half joking, just said maybe he should create a summer camp, you know, borrow his friends' kids and give them the childhood they ought to have.

TULLEY: (Laughing) And by the end of the night, I had five or six kids signed up for a summer camp that didn't actually exist other than in my mind.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 1: OK, start.

RAZ: Today, that camp does exist.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 2: Oh, I have an idea.

RAZ: It's just outside San Francisco.

CHILD 2: I have a perfect idea.

RAZ: It's called Tinkering School. And on a recent day there, you could find 6-year-olds...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 3: Here's another bucket...

RAZ: ...Making go-carts.

CHILD 3: ...And any nails. I got some...

RAZ: ...With a little help.

CHILD 3: Two and a half.

UNIDENTIFIED COUNSELOR: Two and a half - that's thin, right?

RAZ: And so the question is - what becomes of a kid who gets to play with power tools at that age? And how do the things we do as kids make us who we are?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD 4: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

COUNSELOR: Oh, look what Zoe found. Here, put that on the - here put this on the table.

RAZ: Our show today - Growing Up - ideas about who we are, what happens in our childhoods, how decisions are made for us by adults and how all of that shapes the rest of our lives. One thing Gever says is really important about Tinkering School is that kids are allowed, even encouraged, to do dangerous things, which is why the first building kids enter there is this huge barn. And on one side...

TULLEY: Is a wall of tools - hand drills, saws of various sorts, you know, rulers, tape measures, levels and...

RAZ: On the other side of the room.

TULLEY: Is a wall of materials which includes lumber, screws of every sort of length, nuts and bolts, pulleys, wheels.

RAZ: And Gever says that for a lot of kids, this is the first time they've even been allowed in the same room with all that stuff. And when they get there, some of them, they just stand there - frozen.

TULLEY: Looking left, drills and saws.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

TULLEY: Looking right, nuts and bolts and realizing anything is possible from this moment on.

RAZ: Like, what's your release form like? It's got to be, like, 25 pages.

TULLEY: 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.

RAZ: And for the kids who can't make it to Tinkering School, he made some suggestions in his TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TULLEY: Welcome to "Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do." I don't have children, I borrow my friends' children. So...

(LAUGHTER)

TULLEY: Take all this advice with a grain of salt. You know, we live in a world that's subjected to ever more stringent child safety regulations. We put suffocation warnings on all the - 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 10.

So where does this trend stopped? 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. 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. So thing number one - play with fire.

RAZ: All right, so you've got fire, right?

TULLEY: Let's call that number one.

RAZ: OK, then what?

TULLEY: Number two, own a pocketknife. Number three, throw a spear. Number four, deconstructing an appliance from your house. Number five, drive a car.

RAZ: All right, cool. That's - I love it.

TULLEY: And when we talk about driving a car, let's make clear that it's sit on your parents lap and steer. But the - the real goal there is they develop an appreciation and a kind of intuition about what's involved and sometimes even kind of an understanding when their parents later say, you know, traffic is complicated; I need you guys to quiet down back there. They refer back to that story.

RAZ: So about some of those other things, like throwing a spear, how could that possibly be a good thing for your kid to do?

TULLEY: (Laughing) Well, the joy we take from hitting, you know, just a tree or something with a rock or making the splash happen in the lake where we mean to - that process builds all those proprioseptive skills that we would love children to have, that sense of where the parts of their body are and trying to get their throw to go further and further. Those are all beautiful developmental stages that are aided by just letting them throw things.

RAZ: Or how about playing with fire? Well, actually, when kids roast marshmallows or burn sticks...

TULLEY: They're doing perfect science. They have a question - what will happen when I put this in the fire? They observe, and then immediately a follow-on question is asked. And suddenly we see them put an orange peel in the fire. But I think that kind of is the foundation of inquiry, and getting a chance to satisfy that question only builds the impulse to ask more and deeper questions over time.

RAZ: But, I mean, what would happen, like, if you didn't let your kids do those things? Like, you produce, like, a boring and dull child?

TULLEY: A boring and dull child who is a consumer rather than a creator in their lives because injuries are going to happen. Let's not let that fear prevent us from having children have real and meaningful self-directed experiences. So the fact that one child at a school has a pocketknife and another child isn't ready, we immediately denigrate that positive benefit which is so hard to measure, which is I've empowered my child, and he feels like I trust him with this sharp tool. That's a bond between parent and child that's hard to build without actually giving them responsibility for something that has a little bit of danger.

RAZ: Gever Tulley - his talk is called "Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do." Check it out at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.