Dan Hall: Give children gifts of imagination, independence
Some parents love their children in all the wrong ways. Too many kids, overburdened with play dates, music lessons and baseball games where adults call the balls and strikes, never experience the world in their own way.
As Gever Tulley puts it, “God forbid that we would ever leave them for an hour in a field with a couple of burned-out cars in it.”
Tulley is the senior computer scientist for Adobe Systems and chair of a committee of scientists that analyzes the future of technology. For four weeks each summer, he runs The Tinkering School for kids 7 to 17 at his family home in Montara, Calif.
I heard about this on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” then phoned him to learn more.
The Tinkering School does things other camps don’t. Even the youngest kids use adult power saws and such, and pitch in to help build and drive their own motorcycles and cars. The point is not to teach any specific skills, but to give kids the intuitive sense to be able to build whatever they can imagine.
Often, instead of building things, the kids take things apart — a dishwasher or a laser printer perhaps. “It’s complicated inside, but you can look at each individual part and understand some of them,” Tulley said. “Eventually, you can understand all of them.”
Some of his ideas about such experiential education come from the school he attended while growing up. It took in kids who were not doing well with the standard curriculum and offered them hands-on learning instead. There, he tried building an advanced robot, but never quite succeeded. It did not matter. “I learned that our failures teach us more than our successes,” he told me.
Judging from Tulley’s achievements, the school’s approach worked for him. Now he is taking those ideas further.
Two years ago, he gave a speech at TED University, which is not really a university at all, but an annual, invitation-only conference of the world’s top achievers in science, literature, philosophy, mathematics — you name it.
In his speech, he advocated five dangerous things that children should do. The most shocking, in most parents’ eyes, would probably be playing with fire.
That was “a deliberate challenge to people’s assumptions about children,” he explained.
Fire, he said, is an elemental human force. “Left alone with a fire, kids naturally develop a basic understanding — not just what burns and what doesn’t, but what smokes too much, what smothers it, what happens when it goes out. They perform an endless series of little experiments without really articulating what they are trying to understand.”
Tulley calls this “intuitive understanding,” his description of “things we know without really knowing how we know it, or how we learned it. We poke at a fire for 20 minutes, and can’t say what we learned exactly, only that the time was well spent.”
Kids need that. I have written before that when my pal Glenn and I turned 13, our fathers drove us to a lake near Detroit and left us alone with a tent, sleeping bags, rowboat, fishing poles and food to sustain us for four nights. Most parents today would find that shocking. I regard it as one of the best and most formative experiences of my life.
In Canandaigua, N.Y., where I live, we’re having a raging controversy about a high school science teacher’s “chicken project,” in which students raise, care for, and eventually kill and eat chickens.
Criticism is coming from all over, but most students who have participated say the class has been one of the best experiences of their lives. They can’t explain why, exactly, but I’d say it is because the class gives them an understanding of an aspect of the real world that standard academia can never achieve.
A few months ago, Lenore Skenazy, a newspaper columnist in New York City, wrote that she allows her 9-year-old son to ride the subway by himself. For that, she endured the scorn of detractors who accused her of neglect, even abuse. So she started a Web forum, Free Range Kids, for those who believe that “a lot of parents are going overboard, creating quivering masses of helplessness instead of independent humans.”
People who believe in the “Free Range” idea do not say that kids can grow up by themselves. Our fathers knew Glenn and I could handle four days alone in the woods, because we had camped with them many times before. Lenore Skenazy rode with her son on the subway many times before he went out alone.
Kids need to follow their imaginations. They need to call their own balls and strikes, and they need to fail sometimes.
Give them a chance to do those things, and we’ll give the best gift we can — the ability to head out on their own.
Dan Hall is the former editorial page editor for Messenger Post Media. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.