My third-grade teacher wasn’t prone to irrational fear or unwarranted concern. To be honest, I was a bit obsessed with the dream of flight. I had been checking out library books on the topic, drawing up multiple plans for a variety of flying contraptions, and asked worrisome questions like, “How long do wings have to be to keep someone my size in the air?” I think what prompted the call to my parents, however, was an incident one day at lunch recess. Mrs. Smith happened to be on yard duty and wandered by the area where my friends and I were playing just in time to overhear a small business transaction between me and another student that involved the exchange of oatmeal cookies and an old pocketknife for a backpack frame with the straps still intact. It wasn’t so much the exchange that bothered her, though. I think it was more the robust debate we were having about the best method for attaching the wings to the frame. To be fair to Mrs. Smith, I did eventually conduct a failed attempt to fly from the roof of our garage in one of my machines built from a long sheet of old corrugated tin and a sampling of bicycle parts and the backpack frame. It was 4 seconds of exhilarating, terrifying wonder culminating in a spectacular combination of crunching metal, ripped blue jeans, and a flurry of dirt driveway dust. I might not have achieved Wright Brothers success, but I didn’t die either, much to Mrs. Smith’s relief. Such was my reality growing up in a small town in the 1970’s.
My childhood was wrought with tantalizing peril. Our bicycles roared off homemade jumps as we imagined ourselves Evel Knievel. Soda cans, small rodents, birds, and the occasional little brother were ready targets for BB guns. We blew stuff up with fire crackers, chopped down trees, dug underground forts, swam in rivers and lakes, climbed things, jumped from swings and winced as mom applied Bactine or hydrogen peroxide to our various scrapes and wounds. My childhood was also full of wonder and wild, unbridled opportunity to discover first-hand the laws of physics, the chemistry of fire, the aesthetics of nature, and the poetry of life.
Along the way there were some broken bones, stitches, and burns, but all in all my buddies and I emerged on the other side of childhood mostly intact and with minimal scars. Now it seems everything has changed. There’s an empty spot on my old, school playground where the merry-go-round used to be, the monkey bar tower is gone, and regulations made the school lower the slides 10 inches. Don’t get me wrong, things like bike helmets and car seats for toddlers save lives, and made my kids use such things. But in a larger sense, I think we are bubble wrapping childhood to a degree that we rob our children of valuable learning experiences. It is important for kids to have opportunities to experience reasonable risk, to face fears, push their limits, and suffer a few bumps and bruises.
Gever Tully, founder of Tinkering School writes: “The world is a marvelously complicated place, and simple rules are insufficient to protect kids from danger. Let them engage with real tools and materials and they will learn to recognize and manage risk for themselves. We, the adults, are all superheroes, endowed with the power of supervision. Let us use our powers wisely and be amazed at what children can do”
While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for encouraging kids to jump off garage roofs in homemade flying machines, I absolutely believe they should have room to let their imaginations fly. Kids should climb trees, wade in creeks, and learn to be responsible with fire. There just isn’t a replacement for learning from experience. Every kid should build things with real tools, take things apart to see how they work, and use their creativity to dream up new adventures. It’s time to “unsanitaize” childhood just a little and peel back at least a layer or two of the bubble wrap. It’s a risk/reward proposition to be sure, but properly managed, our kids will come out the other side much more resilient and better able to recognize and manage risk in their lives. And as a bonus, they will learn a lot about the world around them and their place in it. And maybe, just maybe, they will have a few great stories and fond memories of how they cheated death and really, really lived.