Let Kids Play With Fire, and Other Rules for Good Parenting

Questions and answers with Gever Tulley, co-author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)


Nobody wants to be called a helicopter parent—but who is totally innocent of micromanaging their children's lives? Parents want to protect their kids. No playing with sticks means no risk of lost eyes.

Yet as Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler point out in Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) (New American Library, May 3, $18), children who grow up as safe as humanly possible become adults who aren't adventurous, resilient, or confident. Sometimes you have to fall out of a tree to figure out how to climb one the right way, and learning that you can accomplish such a thing on your own teaches you that you can be self-sufficient.

With Fifty Dangerous Things, Tulley and Spiegler, founders of the Tinkering School summer camp, have written a handbook of activities that are, yes, dangerous at some level—like playing with fire, breaking glass, licking batteries, pounding nails, learning to tightrope walk, and squashing pennies on railroad tracks. The book is a blueprint to help parents and children explore the world, and ensure the children grow up, with a little common sense and a lot of curiosity.

Both the advice and the warnings are down to earth. Yes, there are risks—ranging from frustration to impalement—but the authors provide good ways to learn to avoid them through your own skill. And scientific or historical tidbits are appended: Did you know that the first batteries were made over 2,000 years ago in Baghdad? It takes work to raise a child who can use a table saw, build a campfire, and chart a course for herself after growing up. But with this book in hand, it'll be a satisfying adventure.

I spoke to Tulley about the impetus for the book, a new school he's opening in San Francisco, and his favorite (dangerous) things.

Why did you write 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)?

Every day, new laws are created that further hamper the ways children can engage with the world. As a group we tend to leap to the worst possible conclusions in every scenario.

We see a child climbing a tree and the first thing we think of is how they might fall and be maimed for life, when we might as easily say, "Look at how well Sarah is climbing that tree!" When we protect children from every possible source of danger, we also prevent them from having the kinds of experiences that develop their sense of self-reliance, their ability to assess and mitigate risk, and their sense of accomplishment.

How do you envision the book being used? It seems designed to be kept for years and gradually worked through.

Yes, definitely. Not every topic in the book is immediately accessible or appropriate for every child or family. The idea is that the book is always there, ready to suggest something wonderful and engaging to do. It may be the parent that is not quite ready to do a certain activity, but every time you open the book, you reevaluate yourself and your child. Maybe this time you're ready to let them sit in your lap and drive the car. (That's Dangerous Thing #7.)

You talk about the idea of "competence." Can you explain what you mean by that and how we gain it from tinkering?

We recognize competent people by their behavior when presented with a problem; they tend to assess and then act, formulating a plan and adapting it to the situation as it unfolds. They have a kind of confidence that comes from knowing that things can be figured out, whether they are broken appliances, local water shortages in a remote location, or difficult social situations.

This kind of competence only comes from practice. Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work though difficult problems. Tinkering is a way of understanding difficult problems, of wrapping our heads around them and quantifying the unknowns.

What kinds of discoveries do kids can make when they're allowed to tinker?

Given the opportunity, kids will build and make things that amaze even themselves. At the Tinkering School camp, we did this project where the kids lashed sticks together—only sticks and string, no nails—to build a big structure, a sort of raised village. And they slept in it.

It was designed to trigger the sense in kids that, "Oh my god, I could go home and get string and build something in the backyard." We're trying to rekindle the sense of wonder of what you're capable of.

Whether kids are investigating building a boat or a stick village, the structures themselves give feedback about what works and what doesn't—as teachers, we don't need to step in and correct anything. Teenagers, especially, are so capable of doing real things, and they never get a chance to do it.

In September of this year, you're opening a K-12 school in San Francisco called Brightworks that is based on the principles of the Tinkering School. How will that be structured?

The entire curriculum is based on something called the Brightworks arc. Each phase of this arc is about two weeks long, so there are no classroom periods, no tests, but it's a very rigorous pedagogy nonetheless. We focus on depth, not breadth. But in a K-12 program, you experience 60 to 80 of these arcs, so we pick up the breadth over time.

The arc starts out with a phase of exploration, which is a curated experience where we bring in passionate experts related to a specific topic. For example, wind: We bring in people who have devoted their lives to working with wind—meteorologists, artists, wind-power generation people. Then we proceed through other phases—expression and exposition—in which the kids decide on an audacious end product, embark on the process of doing it, and share it with the school. The process is to get them used to the idea that when you have a great idea, you take your best guess about what and how long you need to do it, and you undertake it. In doing so, you learn how to get better at it.

How do you hope Brightworks will change the game in education?

It really feels like we need some energetic creative people coming out of schools who feel like they can change the world. I see something happening where kids are graduating from high school not knowing what it is they're interested in and never having been given any real responsibility or a chance to show how capable they are. As a result, they have no idea of themselves.

They cut themselves on the first knife they get or they treat college like a four-year party because they have no idea why they're there except that it's the next thing to do and if you go to college then you get a job.

We promise people that if you go to college you'll have a job. We can't really hold to that promise anymore. There are a lot of unemployed college graduates out there to prove that that's not true.

It seems to me that we have to change the basis of our agreement with children. We need to say, "What we're going to focus on now is getting you out into the world with some basic level of competence, and a great sense of what it is you love to do and what it is you're capable of."

What is your favorite dangerous thing to do, both in this book and in life?

Oh, what a question! If I look to my hobbies, I can say that flying a paraglider is my favorite dangerous thing to do, but after 21 years of flying and never once injuring myself, it hardly seems dangerous. But if you look at my life I think it's clear that trying new things, and seeing new ideas come to fruition is my true favorite dangerous thing.

As for the book, I think my favorite thing (this year) is climbing trees. I love to look out at the world from the branches of a tree, and I love to see the kids at Tinkering School sneak up into a tree and have a chat. Last year I think my favorite topic was squashing pennies on a railroad track, and when I wrote the topics, I thought that the best one was "play with fire." All of the topics are great in the right context. When I heard that one family had decided to let their child walk to school because of the book, I thought that was reason enough to have written it.

Images (top to bottom): jonny2love/flickr, Gever Tulley