The Happy Garden, Interdisciplinary Learning results in beautiful growth

Our tour of “The Happy Garden,” began with K-4th grade students performing a song titled, Let Your Garden Grow.  Our kindergarten tour guide then walked a group of 8 adults through the garden gate and over to a triangular area planted with herbs and other aromatic flowers.  She straightened the note cards in her little hands and launched into a polished presentation explaining the design elements she and her classmates had chosen including plant and ground cover selection, the construction of mosaic stepping stones and a beautiful wooden bench.  She explained that they wanted this section of the garden to be a peaceful place for people to sit and relax.  She talked about the science of planting and caring for the garden, the importance of including flowers to attract pollinators and building up healthy soil through composting and mulching.  From there, she then led us through a series of stations and presented with the same poise on a variety of topics ranging from books she had read on gardening to measurement and time, to vegetables and nutrition.  It was an amazing demonstration of the depth of learning our kindergarten tour guide was able to demonstrate as a result of applying her learning in an interdisciplinary, high interest project.


Interdisciplinary, project-based learning gives a purpose to study far beyond the traditional memorization and evaluation information narrowly confined to one subject area.  Interdisciplinary projects that matter to students naturally propel them toward deeper thinking and the ability to make comparisons that bridge disciplines, and encourage the application of knowledge.

I have often referenced Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, in my writing.  In this work, Pink argues that we are transitioning from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age. One important skill people will need to have in this new economy, pink suggests, is the ability to exercise “Symphony.”  According to Pink, symphony “is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

Real-world problems are complex, so no single discipline can adequately describe and resolve these issues.  We serve our students best when we help them discover the connections between disciplines and guide them to the synthesis Daniel Pink suggests is so important.  It’s not that we completely do away with targeted instruction in any given subject, but that targeted instruction becomes more powerful when it is then connected to a real-world project where students can readily observe the relationships of their learning to the bigger picture and must develop the capacity to synthesize.  Humans are meaning-making beings.  We naturally seek out patterns and connections. Being able to recognize patterns is what gave humans their evolutionary edge over animals.  Developing instructional units like our “Happy Garden project” taps into this pattern seeking nature and gives students the opportunity to apply their learning across disciplines in patterns that are meaningful, and this helps the learning stick.

ES Project expo

We could have asked our kindergarten students to present their math worksheets on time and measurement, and how plants grow.  We could have asked our kindergarten students to tell us about the lessons they went through in class on nutrition and how vegetables are a part of a healthy diet.  I imagine they still would have been able to tell me something about their learning, but I am convinced that the depth of understanding and the long-term impact of this learning would pale in comparison to what we observed on our garden tour.  This is the power of connected learning through interdisciplinary, projects.

Garden Project Authors: Madison Enos, Christine Kuhl, Grace Martinelli, Victoria Vierstra                                                                           Grades: K, 1, 2, 3, 4,  Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Language Arts, Writing, Timeline: 10 Weeks

Learn more about this and other amazing projects at:


Preparing for College & Life

GUEST POST BY: Robert Kuhl, Principal, APIS Hawaii

I often get questions about college preparation at APIS.  Some families wonder how students can prepare for college without taking AP classes.  The high school I attended, the Illinois Math and Science Academy, did not offer AP classes, yet almost every alumnus attended college and many became well-known for creating or co-creating such companies as Paypal, YouTube, Yelp, Sparknotes, and OkCupid.  Others became federal judges, scientists, doctors, famous movie directors, teachers, surgeons, business leaders, diplomats, and exceptional parents.  The last school I worked at, High Tech High, also did not offer AP classes, yet nearly all of the alumni attended college.  Here is the story of one of those alumni

If not AP, then what?

Preparing for college at APIS begins the moment a student steps into their first class.  Students collaborate, problem solve, create, analyze, communicate and develop grit and self-efficacy by working with other students on real problems and real questions, much like adults would do.

More acutely at APIS in high school, college prep has three major prongs.

  1. Authentic projects.  When students collaborate to create work for authentic audiences, students step up.  Students might study local watersheds and make policy recommendations to government officials, or plant and maintain a sustainable garden, or bring the community together to celebrate stories of immigration, or plan a future colony on Mars.  In doing so, students must research deeply, unpack complex texts, and write clearly and compellingly.  Ultimately seniors complete a deep capstone project in an area of their own passion and interest.
  2. Academic Internships.  If college prepares students to work in the adult-world, why not have students work in the adult world as high school students?  This does not mean that internship is solely about career exploration, though this can be a secondary benefit. The real benefit of internship is that a student has college educated adults as peers and begins to behave more and more like these college educated adults.  Students who complete internships are equipped to work among college educated adults. At APIS, eleventh grade students spend a month working alongside a college-educated mentor and completing a project of meaning to both the student and the host organization.
  3. College Classes – What more authentic college experience could we offer than actual college classes?  At APIS we have an agreement with Windward Community College through which eleventh and twelfth grade students take two college courses each semester.  This gives students an opportunity to earn credit that transfers almost anywhere, to learn to navigate challenging curriculum in a supportive setting, and to explore possible pathways.  Building on a solid and broad project-based background in grades nine and ten, in grade eleven and twelve students may choose to explore many possible college classes, or develop a more focused pathway in Creative Media, Psycho-Social DevelopmentSustainable Agriculture, or Agripharmatech.

Through this approach all APIS students will graduate not only ready for college, but with college success already under their belts, and ready to take on the world.

Robert-KuhlRobert Kuhl is currently the K-12 principal at Asia Pacific International School, Hawaii.  After graduating with a B.S. from the University of Illinois he first taught via a Fulbright Fellowship in a comprehensive grade 5-12 school in Vienna, Austria, then in a large comprehensive high school in Austin, Texas, and then in an international school in Caracas, Venezuela. He most recently has served as director of one of the High Tech High schools in San Diego. Along this journey he earned an MA from the College of New Jersey and an MEd from the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. 

Education is Not a Spectator Sport

I believe education is not a spectator sport, and students learn best when what they are learning has purpose outside the classroom.  Project-based learning takes students beyond the classroom and provides them the opportunity to experience and interact with the world around them in a meaningful way.  Through project-based learning at APIS our students are gaining an understanding of how the academic content and skills they are expected to master during their school day actually connect with life outside of school.  As a result, we are experiencing students who are genuinely engaged in their learning, and growing in their understanding of how they can make a difference, rather than simply filling a seat or consuming information.  

Here are three short overviews of projects APIS students participated in this past November as part of our New Pacific Century Academy.  Each project below was an intensive, three-week project designed by teachers on our faculty and conducted in collaboration with students from our Seoul Korea campus who came to join us for the month.  (Project descriptions written by APIS faculty)

From Seed to Citizen

Essential Question:  How can we rely on ourselves and one another to live when systems fail us & resources are limited? How do our daily decisions about the food that we eat impact the world?

Project Description: Students developed and shared their insights on what makes a more sustainable community by a variety of hands-on cooking and farming activities as well as several expeditions around the island to local farmers, markets, and an ancient Hawaiian fishpond. The students learning culminated in cooking a sustainable meal for over 100 members of our community and exhibiting projects that address everyday obstacles to living more sustainably. Students’ families and peers all sat down to enjoy a homemade four-course meal. Guests explored all the ingredients used in the meal using interactive menus students created. Over the course of the entire project students developed an appreciation for the land through farming, camping, and hiking.


Culture and Identity

Essential Questions:

​How does where you live affect how you live?

How do we learn about cultures in a deep way?

What does it mean to be Hawaiian?

Project Description:  ​6th graders sought to share their cultures with each other as they explored Hawaiian culture together. Over the course of this project, students sought to look beyond the surface of their own culture and in their experience of Hawaii. Student work included collaborative mural pieces, Hawaiian music (traditional and student-composed), written artist statements, and legend narratives. Students also presented their art, music, and written pieces formally at a community exhibition event. Our students found an authentic audience for their murals and artist statements by contacting Oahu community organizations asking to display their work. We have installed two of our murals at the Hau’ula Civic Center on public display. Students were also encouraged to apply their cross-cultural learning to real-world situations in social and business situations. We found a further connection to the community by doing in-depth interviews with Native Hawaiians and engaging in cultural activities outside of school such as taro (kalo) farming and outrigger canoe paddling.


Outriggers to Internet

Essential Question:  How do innovations in communication and transportation transform a society from isolation to globalization?

Project Description:  During this three-week program, students explore a variety of innovations in communication and transportation to better understand how these advancements impact society, contribute to pace of change, and, in turn, globalize our world. Students create seven immersive experiences to allow for the community to build an understanding of their essential questions and enduring understandings. These immersive experiences include posters, presentations, and interactive activities.  These stations have included: Airplane innovating, Boat creation and racing, Virtual Reality, Postcard Making, Drone flying, Reading Choose Your Own Adventures made by the students, and listening to Student Podcasts.  


Throughout the rest of the Fall semester students engaged in a variety of projects that integrated academic standards from Science, Social Studies, and English Language Arts.  From simulated colonization of mars, to watershed and reef studies, to connecting aesthetics and environmental science in the creation of an elementary garden, students got their hands dirty and ignited their minds around real, meaningful work.  I can’t wait to see what our kids accomplish next.

For more examples of awesome Project-based Learning Units see our Project Site:


The Times They Are a Changing

quote bob dylan

Last night I was watching a program on the television and an economist was predicting up to 30 % of current jobs in the U.S. to be replaced by automation, artificial intelligence, and globalization over the next ten years.  If he is correct, this means 30% of jobs currently in existence won’t exist when our 3rd grade students graduate high school.

As I pondered this, I considered the steady march of technological breakthroughs that have been significantly changing the labor market since the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout history, people have worried that such technological advances would result in widespread unemployment and economic doom.  Textile workers in the early 1800’s England destroyed industrial equipment in response to the threat it posed skilled textile workers.  In the 1920’s rural workers in the U.S. experienced significant job losses displaced by improved agricultural technology, such as the tractor.  The entry of robotics to the automotive assembly lines replaced routine assembly jobs once held by assembly line workers.

Despite the worry over technology threatening jobs, throughout the 20th century mechanization and automation did not result in apocalyptic unemployment, it shifted how and where people worked and actually stoked economic growth.  Manual labor jobs did not disappear completely, but the rise of knowledge workers fueled an economy where the white-collar worker became more important.  These white-collar occupations were not easily susceptible to mechanization and automation.  Urban centers grew, and possessing a college degree was viewed as the pathway to a brighter future. From 1965 to 2015, total college enrollment increased by roughly 240 percent in the U.S.

Rapid globalization and the ability to outsource white-collar jobs to lower paid workers in other countries has steadily challenged the knowledge worker economy over the past 20 – 30 years.  Once again, a variety of voices have sounded the alarm bell warning of impending economic doom as once safe, prosperous jobs shifted offshore.  As we near the 3rd decade of the 21st century, the new worry is that advances in computerized artificial intelligence will soon threaten even the jobs previously impervious to technological advances due to the need for human intelligence.  In a 2013 Oxford University study, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that approximately 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential loss due to computerization.

So, how do we educate our 3rd grade students today if estimates are correct and somewhere between 30 – 50 % of the jobs in existence now will not exist when these students graduate high school?  I think the answer lies in meeting the anxiety over loss of predictable career paths with the optimism that technological changes have historically resulted in shifting labor in new directions rather than eliminating jobs altogether.  Companies and governments will need to make it easier for workers to acquire new skills and switch jobs as needed.  Likewise, educators need to help students develop the ability to adapt, and to hone emotional intelligence skills.

No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, jobs involving empathy or social interaction are likely to be done better by humans. Winners in the 21st century economy will not be those who can memorize the most facts, or even those who hone the ability to analyze complex data better than others.  Computers can do this much more efficiently than humans.  In the medical field, for example, computer software solutions are increasingly more accurate at diagnosing medical conditions and identifying the most effective treatment protocols than doctors.  Computers cannot, however, provide the empathy and emotional support that are so important in managing a patient’s emotional well being throughout the course of treatment.  Schools need to strategically address the development of emotional intelligence in our students.

Winners in the 21st century economy will also need to be able to adapt, anticipate people’s needs, and think in creative ways.  Schools will best prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century by building their capacity to deal with change in positive ways.  Students need to understand how they can actively look ahead to leverage innovation to their advantage instead of waiting to respond as innovations make previously valued skill sets obsolete.  Dr. Bruce Nussbaum, Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons School of Design writes: “It is about more than thinking, it is about learning by doing and learning how to do the new in an uncertain, ambiguous, complex space–our lives today.”

As we look to the future for our students, our biggest challenge may be in letting go of the past.  As teachers, we have to move beyond doing school the way we experienced it, focusing the majority of our time regurgitating facts that students can now easily access on their smartphone.  We need to help students develop an aptitude in what Daniel Pink refers to as Symphony: “Symphony, as I call this aptitude, is the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.”

To do this, we have to let go of the traditional approach of single-subject, content heavy instruction and challenge students to apply learning from multiple disciplines in connection to issues or opportunities in the real world.  Project-based or problem-based learning gives students the chance to do this.  As students identify local needs or global issues of interest to them, we have the ability to connect a variety of disciplinary learning around meaningful projects that require students to hone the skills for success in the 21st century.

APIS Middle School Students and Teachers working with  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to survey and track data on the Hauula Reef

Reef Survey

Lifeworthy Learning

This past summer I received an email from one of our parents that read:

“Please let the staff know that we took our daughter to China and Thailand this summer and she didn’t go more than a day or two without saying ‘I miss my school!’ Whatever you guys are doing, keep it up. And thanks!!”

Building a school community that becomes a place teachers and students “want to be,” instead of just a place they “have to be” creates the healthy environment needed to promote deeper learning.  At APIS we are striving to accomplish this in many ways.  In the past, I have written about the importance of positive relationships to learning.  It is through the safety of caring interpersonal relationships that we form the foundational environment for learning.  This is a critical first step, but what we build on this foundation is equally important.

While I am certain, the student referred to in the email above missed school because of the relationships formed here between students and teachers, I am equally confident that the student missed school during the summer break because our school is a place filled with meaningful exploration and learning.  Make no mistake, this is not an easy goal to reach, and at times we fall short.  There is a constant tendency to revert to the same old teacher-oriented instructional style, but school doesn’t exist in the service of teachers, it exists in the service of students.  So, we must constantly strive to provide what Dr. David Perkins from the Harvard Graduate School of Education has termed, “Lifeworthy Learning.”

Professor Perkins Writes:

Historically, the first 12 or so years of schooling have focused on educating for the known, “the tried and true, the established canon,” he writes. “This made very good sense in the many periods and places where most children’s lives were likely to be more or less like their parents’ lives. However, wagering that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday does not seem to be a very good bet today. Perhaps we need a different vision of education, a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.

To do that, Perkins says we need to rethink what’s worth learning and what’s worth letting go of — in a radical way.

At APIS, we are passionately pursuing such “Lifeworthy” curricula, understanding that our instructional activities and student projects must be embedded with interdisciplinary thinking and 21st century skills.  It is not sufficient for students to just collect information, they must think with that information and apply their thinking to lifeworthy projects. To think with information, students use academic content knowledge to solve problems, weigh options, make decisions, and better understand their world.  When we provide students consistent opportunities to engage with lifeworthy educational activities, we create a place that is meaningful, exciting, and fun to be.  We create a place our students miss coming while they are on vacation.  Oh yeah, and we create a place where we are preparing students for their future instead of our past.

Learning for Life


Summer was a mixture of long, hot days working in the vineyards and cool nights under the stars by the river when I was a kid.  School let out in June, and my buddies and I turned our thoughts and our hands to work.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mind remained engaged in the geometry of carpentry, the science of irrigation, and the cultural studies that presented themselves in the interactions I had with immigrant fieldworkers I labored beside each day. I wrote some of my best poetry rumbling back and forth through the vineyard rows on a tractor.   Evenings, my friends and I plumbed the depths of philosophy as we sat around campfires or lay out on smooth rocks by the river and deconstructed the world as we knew it.  Our hands were worn, but our hearts were full.

Looking back on these summers I realize now just how important they were to my growth as both a student and a human being.  It wasn’t just that I had the chance to apply the academic knowledge I had been developing throughout the school-year, it was also that I was learning the value of hard work, perseverance, and the ability to solve problems.  I had the opportunity to step back from the academic world of school and let my mind wander and ponder the wonder of the world around me.

I could have spent my evenings and summers taking extra courses at the local community college or attending SAT prep courses, but instead I studied life, and in the process, developed a lot of the skills they couldn’t teach me in school.  In his book, “Most Likely to Succeed,” Ted Dintersmith writes, “When you fill up every waking hour of a teenager’s life with these drills, you don’t have time for what really counts.  And you produce disengaged kids doing the most mind-numbing tasks, rather than developing the skills they’ll really need to take on life’s biggest challenges.”

I’m not advocating there is never a place for additional academic study in the evening, over the summer, or to improve a specialized interest such as music or art, but I hope that our students will choose not to completely fill their time with academia at the expense of getting out there and experiencing life.  In the end, it won’t be the extra 50 points on an SAT that helps them succeed at university or in their career or marriage.  It will be the time they spent learning to put their hands and head to work, the time they dedicated to nurturing relationships.  These are the things that transcend the academic and prepare us for life.

Empowering Independent thinkers

When I went to school in the 1980’s, almost everything was designed by and orchestrated by my teachers, from what learning activities I was assigned each day to where I sat in class.  When the bell rang, I moved from one subject to the next, and waited to be told what to do again.

It was mostly outside of school that I experienced the need to think for myself and make decisions without someone telling me what to do each step of the way.  In my part-time job on a local ranch, I had general tasks assigned to me, but a lot of the time I had to figure out what needed to be done on my own.  I learned building skills helping my father on projects at home, and then experimented as my friends and I constructed tree forts and a variety of contraptions in the woods behind my house.  But during school hours, my friends and I mostly waited to be told what to do.

While this didn’t relegate me to a lifetime of drudgery in some mindless factory job, I had to develop a lot of independent thinking skills during college and on the job later in life.  Wouldn’t it be great if our students today were empowered to think for themselves before they complete elementary and high school?  George Couros writes:

“I think the best educators have always tried to empower their students.  They know that if you are truly good at your job as an educator, the students will learn to not need you eventually.2 That is why “lifelong learning” has been a goal in education forever.  If we truly want our students to be “compliant” when they walk out of schools, they will always need someone else’s rules to follow.  To develop the “leaders of tomorrow”, we need to develop them as leaders today.
Focusing on “empowering” students is seen by some as “fluffy”; students just show up to school to do whatever they want.  This is not my belief at all.  Empowering students teaches them to have their own voice and follow their own direction, but if they are going to be successful, they will need to truly have the discipline (using the definition, “train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way”), to make it happen.  “Empowerment” and “hard work” are not mutually exclusive; in fact, both elements are needed to make a true difference in our world.”

Schools of the past focused on looking for answers – Learning for the future promotes starting with great questions.  Schools of the past were about consuming information – Learning for the future is about creating.  Schools of the past were highly standardized – Learning for the future is personalized.  Schools of the past promoted surface level thinking – Learning for the future is about deep exploration.  At APIS, we are striving to provide our students more and more opportunities to go beyond the traditional, spoon-fed education of centuries past, and learn to think for themselves, problem solve, and develop the ability to direct their own learning.  We will know we are nearing our goal when our students look to teachers to guide them as they learn and discover, rather than wait for teachers to tell them what to do.

Pursuing the Future Now

APIS Hawaii is a place where students are immersed in working together to solve real world problems and connect academics to personal passions.  It is a place where students are concerned with each other’s well-being as part of a team, and their concerns reach far beyond the classroom to others all over the globe.

According to a growing body of indicators, in the near future, employers may not be so concerned with a diploma. They’ll look more at portfolios and examples of how students contributed to solving real-world problems. They’ll want to know how well students worked in a team and how well they can communicate with others and work toward innovative solutions.  Likewise, top U.S. Universities no longer have room to admit students who have not demonstrated the ability to apply their learning in real-world situations, think critically, and design innovative solutions, no matter how impressive their test scores and GPA.

Ted Dintersmith writes:

We collectively are pushing our education system in the exact wrong direction, and beating on it to go faster. When we should be educating our students to be bold problem solvers, we’re pushing them to memorize and regurgitate. When they’ll be entering an economy where their best job opportunity will be the job they can create, we’re educating them to be mindless hoop-jumpers. And until parents, government officials, and the press wise up, educators will be pushed to do the wrong thing, and our children’s futures will be jeopardized.

The administrative team at APIS Hawaii recently attended the Leading Schools of the Future Conference in Honolulu.  We had the chance to not only hear from, but actually sit at the table and work with innovative education consultants and researchers, Ted Dintersmith and Dr. Yong Zhao.

Dintersmith has become one of America’s leading advocates for education policies that foster creativity, innovation, motivation, and purpose. He shares what skills are valuable in a world of innovation, and how we can transform our schools to prepare kids for their futures.

Dr. Yong Zhao is a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He has published over 100 articles and 30 books.

The exciting thing about working with these two education consultants was the confirmation that APIS Hawaii is already implementing many of the education reforms they suggest.  Both advocate for eliminating the traditional, single subject approach and instead working collaboratively through projects that require cross-disciplinary application of knowledge and skills to solve real world problems.  This approach is at the heart of the instructional design of APIS Hawaii.  Everyday our students work with small teams of teachers on cross-disciplinary projects that require deeper understanding of the core academic content.  Learning is active and students are not only encouraged, but expected to pursue the things they are passionate about through the projects they choose.

At APIS Hawaii, students experience an education that, as Dintersmith advocates, “Puts wonder, creativity, and initiative at the very heart of the learning process and prepares students for today’s economy.”  It’s exciting to see our students pushing beyond the limits of traditional schooling and developing the skills that top universities are looking for in their applicants and that the students will need for success in the future workplace.

Lifelong Learning Time Ignights Passions & Projects

Written by Matthew Manley, Humanities Teacher, Asia Pacific International School, Hawaii

At APIS Hawaii, everyone seems to be excited about Wednesdays.

“I really look forward to Wednesdays because I get to do my own thing,” said Soleil Worrell
(Grade 6).IMG_0743

“Wednesdays are my favorite,” added Chris Stapleton (ELA and social studies teacher).

What’s so great about hump day?

APIS Hawaii has created Lifelong Learning Time (LLT), a weekly time in which students and teachers partner to pursue projects that pique their interest and challenge them to learn something completely new. LLT began in the fall, when APIS Hawaii decided to make a commitment to a special type of learning that would take students outside the boundaries of the classroom.

“We always talk as teachers about how education should be lifelong, and classroom education does not always demonstrate this type of learning,” said Mr. Stapleton. “In LLT, you get to really take control of your own learning.”

The LLT period, which meets weekly for 150 minutes, provides a wide-open time for a huge variety of projects. Current LLT pursuits include app design, building shoe racks,
trailblazing, vegetable farming, and designing a campus zip IMG_9475line.

Experience in a certain area is not a prerequisite for choosing an LLT project. Never made home- made ravioli? No problem – Hannah Todd (Grade 6) practiced Italian cuisine, then made a feast for the whole school. Soleil used one six-week session in the fall to become CPR/First Aid certified alongside Shannon Todd (school nurse).

“There’s a lot more choice, and on your [own] path at your [own] speed,” Ms. Todd said of LLT.

There are only a few simple requirements for an LLT project: The project cannot relate to some- thing studied in class, it must sustain a student’s interest for six weeks, and the student must be able to show and explain their learning at the end of that time.

At the end of the six-week period, students and staff share their learning at a celebration with all students, parents, and staff. Last semester, John Kim (Grade 8) shared the film he directed, filmed, and edited with Andy Peeler (music teacher).

“It’s not like the answer was always right there, you’ve got to search for it,” John said. “We got close and learned together.”

Magnificent Kids and Their Flying Machines

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.

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