The title may sound ominous, but the Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) aren’t for the most part as dangerous as they are fun and engaging. From supergluing your fingers together to squashing a penny on a railroad track to burning things with a magnifying glass, this book is chock full of interesting ways children can explore the world around them.
This post was written by GeekDad alum Bruce Stewart
The idea behind this new book by Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler is that by allowing our children some exposure to slightly dangerous things (with supervision and care, of course) we can help foster creativity, teach problem-solving, and have some good old-fashioned fun at the same time. After going through much of the book with my 7-year-old son, I’m fully on board with this theory. My little guy was thrilled with most of the activities, had many “aha” moments of accomplishment, and eagerly paged through the book checking out what our next dangerous activity would be.
The suggestions are presented in a clear and straightforward manner, with each topic getting its own illustrated description with a requirements list, possible hazards, estimated time for the activity, safety tips and some supplemental information related to the topic. There’s space to enter your own field notes and observations for each activity, giving it a sort of “lab book” feel, which my son seemed to really like. By including areas for kids to write about their experiences and take notes, the book became a cherished guide that my son wanted to keep handy and turn to regularly.
Some of the suggestions feel like pretty typical kid activities that I assumed every kid would just naturally do as they grow up, like throwing rocks or climbing a tree. But as we went through the book I found myself repeatedly surprised at how many of these kind of activities my son hadn’t actually ever tried. For us, it turns out the real value of the book was in prodding us to get outside and do more of these simple and fun activities. There’s also some more advanced activities that may not be appropriate for very young children, like riding across town on public transit or melting glass, but the authors simply suggest returning later to any activities your children may not be ready for yet.
Fifty Dangerous Things is really about providing an antidote to the overprotective parenting style that seems to becoming the norm in our society. Readers of GeekDad will probably be familiar with the concept of “helicopter parenting” (hovering too much over your kids) and sites like Free-Range Kids, that promote less-overprotective parenting. Fifty Dangerous Things fits right in with that mindset, and I found it to be a fun and useful tool for helping me expand my children’s experiences.
After spending some time working on the activities with my son, I got a chance to ask some questions of Gever Tulley about writing Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). Here’s the interview.
GeekDad: How has the response been to Fifty Dangerous Things?
Gever Tulley: Overwhelming! The media in the U.K. has been calling day and night for the past two weeks. We’ve been up as high as No. 255 on the Amazon book ranking. We certainly get some folks who are not happy about the book, but by and large it’s only because they are responding to the title. Families are blogging their way through the book together, people are buying it for their schools and libraries, and we are talking to publishers about translations for five other languages. For a self-published book that we made ourselves, it’s been a fantastic experience.
GD: What inspired you to start looking at the value of dangerous activities for children?
GT: Actually, Julie and I approached it quite the other way. We started looking at what were the most memorable, meaningful, learning experiences from our childhoods and noticed that kids don’t really get to do these things much any more. In many ways, the book is a deliberate effort to start a national (and global) dialogue about what we are really doing when we overprotect children, which is to keep them from having the kinds of experiences that lay the foundations for creative genius.
GD: Tell us a little bit about the Tinkering School. What is it and how long have you been doing it?
GT: Tinkering School started in 2005 as an experiment. I wanted to know how children become competent, and to understand the process I needed to work with them in a context that would let me see it happening first hand. I am almost completely self-taught, and everything I have learned has been because I tried to make something. Naturally, because my imagination is stirred by building things, that became the basis of Tinkering School, too.
GD: It sounds like a great environment for children. What are you learning from it?
GT: At the school, we have learned that in the right framework, children as young as 8 can use a power tool, that you can create a learning experience so compelling it holds the unwavering attention of a child for hours on end, that kids understand that failures are just another form of progress, and that getting someone to amaze themselves is better than amazing someone else. Of course, there’s more, but I think you get the idea.
GD: A few of the activities in the book seem only marginally dangerous, do you find that many children today are discouraged from doing even seemingly “normal” kid stuff like throwing rocks or climbing trees? (I’ll admit to being surprised that my 7-year-old son didn’t appear to have ever held his hand out the window of a moving car and was initially reluctant to try it.)
GT: We hear from people all the time who say “My kid has done 23 of the things already,” but what is fascinating is that there is no commonality. Like you, I thought that everyone had put their hand out the window, but in talking with kids I discovered a huge diversity of experience. These are not very dangerous activities (if you pay attention and be careful) so much as they are great ways to engage with the world.
GD: Do you have a favorite activity in the book, or one that seems to especially bring out a sense of adventure and accomplishment in children?
GT: Of course this changes daily, but the activities that I am most fond of lately are the ones that use everyday items like No. 10, “Play with the Vacuum Cleaner,” No. 14, “Put Strange Stuff in the Microwave,” or No. 39, “Cook Something in the Dishwasher.” Kids grow up with these appliances and take them for granted, so treating them like a platform for scientific inquiry changes their perspective in surprising ways. They look around the house and start to wonder what they can do with the washing machine, the freezer and the garage door.
GD: As a parent, I struggle with trying to decide when my children are ready to take on certain dangerous activities, like say building a fire. Do you have any advice for parents about how to decide when children are ready for these kind of things? Or perhaps on how to let go?
GT: Both the parent and the child have to be ready, and often the child is ready long before the parent is. We have had some parents who cannot bear to watch the nightly updates to the blog during Tinkering School for fear of what they will see their children doing. For some parents it will be recognizing that your child’s friends are doing more adventurous things than they are. I recommend taking small steps, start with something quick like No. 1, “Lick a 9v Battery” and try it for yourself before you do it with your child. By doing little projects together, you get a better sense of their abilities, give them an opportunity to demonstrate how responsible they can be, and you have a great time together. Don’t let a little nick or scrape stop you, just learn from it, and try again. Know that some activities take time, playing with a fire may just be a little too exciting for some kids the first time, but as they get more comfortable their ability to remain calm will improve.
GD: Do you see this book aimed more at urban families, or have you noticed regional differences in the response to these ideas? I know in my experience, things like letting kids learn to drive early is very common on the one of side of our family that live in the country, but completely alien to the other side living in a big city.
GT: Kids who grow up in radically different environments are always going to have different comfort levels with regard to a topic. If you don’t live near a train track, it’s hard to squash a penny that way, and if you live in an apartment in New York City, it may be difficult to get to drive a car. But vacations and family trips create new opportunities and it may just be a matter of being patient.
I spoke to a mother in Wyoming that prefers to send her kids out into the hills with a sack lunch and rifle instead of letting them hang out at the mall — how shocking is that to the mother that drops her kids off at the mall to “keep them out of trouble”? What we perceive as dangerous has more to do with our upbringing and social context than the calculable risks involved. If kids receive 40 hours of “stranger danger” messaging by the time they graduate high school and only one hour of lightning warnings, is that because we are more likely to be kidnapped than we are to be struck by lightning? Statistically, we are orders of magnitude more likely to be hit by lightning than kidnapped by a stranger, but the emphasis on “stranger danger” is based on perception rather than risk.
GD: What was involved in getting Fifty Dangerous Things published? Did you try to use traditional publishers?
GT: We approached publishers with a couple of related ideas and found that they wanted something more “kid friendly,” which turned out to mean “talk down to the kids.” If there is one thing that Tinkering School has taught us, it’s that kids hate that and can see through it immediately. We wanted to write a book that kids would love, not a “kid’s book.” When Julie and I got back from our last tour of publishers, we decided we would write a book the way that we thought it should be written and just see how kids responded to it. As we wrote and tested topics with children we knew, the feedback for the style was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the fact that there were some words they didn’t understand, they loved the “technical” feel of the design, and that was when we knew we had to finish.
GD: Which activities have you gotten the most flak about including in the book? Are there any you’ve had second thoughts about including?
GT: Some folks in the U.K. have taken umbrage with No. 9, “Make a Bomb in a Bag.” The project describes how to combine baking soda and vinegar with a little hot water to explode a ziplock baggie. This is a variation on the classic “volcano” projects we all did in second grade and no more dangerous than popping a balloon. Some have commented that the topics are too provocatively titled and that kids will just read the table of contents somewhere and run off and try these things in an unsupervised manner. There seems to be this idea that if a kid hears about an idea they are just going to run off and do it — this attitude is frankly insulting to children.
GD: I read an article about a child psychologist in Australia calling for a ban on the book there. How do you deal with stuff like that? Is it true no publicity is bad publicity?
GT: Considering what books have been banned in the past, I’d like to think that it’s a fairly good indicator of the value of a book. When the article went live in Australia, we immediately got e-mail for people asking how they could get the book, so I guess this kind of bad publicity is good.
Image courtesy Gever Tulley