The Freedom to Tinker with ‘Dangerous Things’

By Katie Ash — February 05, 2008 2 min read
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I came across a really good video of a talk about giving kids the freedom to explore dangerous things. Gever Tulley, who founded a summer program called the Tinkering School, which allows kids to build inventions and generally tinker with things, urges parents to let their kids play with fire, own a knife, and drive a car--among other activities--arguing that those opportunities teach kids invaluable life lessons about the way things work and allow them to explore their natural curiosity in a positive way. It reminds me of the debate I had with my Dad about whether increased safety regulations were stifling students’ interest in science.

From the way Tulley talks, you’d think the kids at the Tinkering School regularly come home with broken bones and bloody scrapes, but as he mentions later on his blog, only two kids have ever gone home with injuries serious enough to require a band-aid.

I especially like what he says about allowing kids to take apart appliances. I’ve had the same thought myself many times, when I realize that I have absolutely no idea how half the devices I use in my every day life work--from my computer, to my cell phone, even something as simple as a cassette tape. If I were asked to replicate one of those items, or even explain conceptually how they work, I would be at a complete loss.

The more students get hands-on experience with taking things apart, hypothesizing about which part does what, and putting them back together, the better they’ll understand how they work as a whole, Tulley says. And it makes sense. When I was in college, I had to pass a certain number of science classes before I could graduate, and my last class was a one-credit course called “Everyday Electronics.” When I left class after the first day, I was completely overwhelmed and frustrated. “For our final exam, we have to make a working doorbell that plays a song!” I lamented to my Dad over the phone, convinced I was on the verge of failing out of school. “I’m an English major; I do sentences, not circuits,” I told him.

The first couple of weeks were equally as fear-inducing, and I left class every week feeling like I would never understand. But about midway through the semester, something clicked and all that tinkering around with wires and circuit boards started to make sense. Suddenly, our class assignments didn’t seem impossible and the final exam seemed like something I might actually be able to do. And then, to my utter dismay, I started liking the class. I even briefly (for about five minutes) considered giving up my English degree to become an electrical engineer. (It certainly would have been a more lucrative career path.)

Needless to say, I didn’t follow through with that plan, but the whole experience took the fear out of electronics for me. It was almost like learning another language. Once I knew the rules and basics, I could piece together how the bigger stuff might work. And that was definitely a lesson worth learning.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.