risky play for children: why letting kids do dangerous things can be good for them
Gever Tulley thinks risky play is good for children—and it all starts with both of you licking a nine-volt battery.
Risky play for children: the beginnings of an idea
When Gever Tulley started compiling material for his book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), he knew exactly how to kick things off on the right note: by asking kids to lick a nine-volt battery.
“Even now, it’s still my favourite thing to get kids to do,” says Tulley, face lighting up with enthusiasm. “It’s so visceral and so fun to watch them build up the courage to actually lick the battery. And the sensation is so strange!”
But for Tulley—a San Francisco–based computer scientist turned pioneering educator—getting kids to lick a battery isn’t mere prank fodder, it’s a jumping-off point for an entirely new way of engaging with the world. Because in Tulley’s universe, danger isn’t something to be avoided: it’s part and parcel of growing up. And right now, he says, we’re starving our kids of this precious resource. “If we always say no to our kids, if we’re always telling them what to do and how to do it, then we deny them these learning opportunities where they can grow into their own competence.”
Risky play for children (with limitations)
Of course, by ‘danger’, Tulley doesn’t mean juggling knives or playing chicken on the freeway. He’s talking about the gently irresponsible acts that help children explore and define the parameters of their world and character—the sorts of acts that are increasingly endangered in our own safety-at-all-costs parenting milieu.
“I always think about putting your hand out the car window (Risk #5),” says Tulley. “I get the concern behind telling kids to keep their hands in the vehicle, but what about encouraging them to look out for oncoming traffic, or scooting over to the other side? If you’re just automatically telling them ‘no’, how are they ever going to learn how to recognise risk in different contexts?”
The free-range child movement
Tulley is, perhaps, an unlikely advocate for the free-range child movement. A self-taught computer coder who’d been working for some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies since 1981, he was the kind of guy whose insatiable curiosity was primarily fed by the “intricate mechanisms of real time database transactions”.
Helicopter parenting hurts kids. (Risky play for children counteracts it.)
An unlikely turning point came in 2004, when Tulley found himself embroiled in a vibrant conversation about helicopter parenting at a company Christmas dinner. “The whole narrative seemed to be that our parents had no idea what they were doing as parents, but now we knew what good parenting actually looked like,” says Tulley. “And I just replied, ‘Well, good parenting looks boring!’ No wonder these kids are so disenfranchised. They don’t have a moment in their lives where they’re left to their own devices or to invent something new. I literally stood up and said, ‘Well, someone should start a summer camp where nervous parents drop off their children and we do all the things we used to do as kids, and don’t tell anyone.’”
The risky play for children summer camp
By the end of the night, Tulley had five children signed up to what would eventually become his wildly popular summer camp program, Tinkering School. “It was the definition of a passion project,” he laughs. “The kids stayed in our guest bedroom and we built everything in our front yard.” Over the course of a week in July 2005, Tulley and the kids used hammers, nails, saws and a whole bunch of power tools to construct a working rollercoaster, an array of huge towers and a load-bearing bridge. There were bruises, scrapes and blood. Needless to say, the kids loved it.
“From the moment camp ended until the following summer, I was the most annoying person in the world,” says Tulley, “because all I wanted to do was talk about what had happened in that week, what I’d learnt, what I wanted to try next. I went deep on the education, on the neuroscience. It was a real personal renaissance moment. My wife and I don’t have kids, we have dogs, so I was discovering this whole field of endeavour that I’d never considered before.”
The risky play for children TED talk
Word of Tulley’s camps grew and, in 2007, he was invited to do a TED talk called ‘Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do’, namely: play with fire; own a pocketknife (“Still my favourite present to give any kid”); throw a spear; deconstruct an appliance; and commit copyright fraud. “The talk went bona-fide viral,” says Tulley. “We were getting emails from all over the world from people trying to find our book. My wife and I saw the response and thought, ‘Hell, let’s quit our jobs and write one.’ And so we did.”
The 50 Dangerous Things Book
50 Dangerous Things is less a manual for personal injury than it is a manifesto for a more open-ended, exploratory model of childhood. As the title suggests, it’s directed as much at parents as it is children. “It’s about moving those conversations away from a blanket ‘no’ to a place where you can talk about why you’re nervous and why they’re excited and start negotiating as to when they might be ready to do a certain activity,” Tulley says.
From a kid’s perspective, the hope is to legitimise self-driven play and exploration. “I’ve noticed that children who have every moment of their day scheduled are very nervous about trying anything new,” says Tulley. For these kids, routine has become safe and anything that challenges the routine is by definition threatening. “A neuroscientist once said to me, ‘We never notice what colour the sky is when we’re being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.’ Basically, our attention becomes very narrow when we’re anxious. When our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, we’re literally losing our cognitive resources.”
Overprotective parenting increases a child's chance of injury
Part of the issue, according to Tulley, is that our increasingly urban and digital lives are causing us to lose the capacity to discern between actual and perceived risk. As a result, we cosset and direct our children, trying to protect them from all potential harms. Yet research has consistently shown that parental over-involvement diminishes a child’s confidence and learning capacities, while over-protectiveness increases a child’s chance of injury. A child playing on a purpose-built ‘safe’ playground, for instance, has a higher chance of hurting themselves than a child playing in a wild or junk playground.
“Children have strong self-preservation instincts,” says Tulley, “but you have to let them exercise those instincts. If they’re depending on adults to keep them out of danger, they’ll climb up on something way higher than they should because they’re expecting an adult to yell at them. And when the adult doesn’t yell, they just keep going.”
One of Tulley’s favourite stories comes from a mother in Wyoming, USA, who, rather than letting her kids hang out at the mall where they might “get into trouble”, would send them out on a motorcycle to explore the local black bear–infested woods armed with only a packed lunch and a rifle. Their ages: nine to fourteen. “How shocking is that to our sensibilities? But what we perceive as dangerous has way more to do with our social context than the calculable risks involved.”
Parents are slowly embracing risky play for children
It’s been almost a decade since 50 Dangerous Things came out, and Tulley is beginning to see glimmers of change. “There’s certainly a lot more conversation about this stuff happening, and things like maker spaces and after-school robotics programs are giving kids the chance to use tools and express their own ideas,” says Tulley. “I hope we’re going to see more tools in schools and a resurgence in these competencies, but there’s still a lot of fear-mongering going on. It only takes one accident to shut things down.”
In the meantime, Tulley is working on 50 More Dangerous Things—“We’re not sure if that’s 50 additional things, or 50 more dangerous things”—and helping to run his K–12 school, Brightworks SF (motto: “Everything is interesting”). Naturally, the kids build their own classrooms.
Real world results begin with parents
“I have this deep belief in the competence of children,” says Tulley. “If we create opportunities for kids to exercise their own autonomy and to be self-directed, then what I’ve discovered is that they actually become very self-actualised. They take better and better advantage of opportunities and are more able to take an idea from their own minds and make it real in the world.”
And for parents, well, it’s never too late to join the party. “Research has shown that kids are more likely to push themselves out of their comfort zones when they can see their parents stretching their own boundaries,” says Tulley. “In a survey we did a few years back, it turned out that 70 per cent of adults had never licked a nine-volt battery, which I thought was fascinating. I mean, I thought that was a necessary life skill but apparently not. All I can say is: give it a shot. You don’t know what you’re missing out on.”
Make a Slingshot: Create Your Own Primitive Tool
RISK #27 OUT OF 50 DANGEROUS THINGS
• forked stick
• rubber bands (medium-sized)
• scrap of leather or cloth
• clear area (without people, pets, or things that might get damaged)
1. Make elastic bands.
To begin, you can just tie two pairs of rubber bands together to make two long bands. If you find you want more power later, you can double up the rubber bands.
2. Make a pocket.
Cut a small rectangle out of leather or scrap of sturdy cloth. You can either tie the rubber bands to the pocket, or cut two small holes and loop the bands through.
Tie the rubber bands to the ends of a forked stick. If the bands slip off, try lashing them in place with a bit of string or carving a notch in the stick.
Place a pebble in the pocket and trap it by pinching the pocket with thumb and forefinger. Hold the handle steady at arm’s length. Keep a light, but firm grip on the pocket and pull back.
Release the pocket! Slingshot masters say that the key to aiming is to hold the pocket steady and move the forked stick around to line up your shot. Aluminium cans make good targets: set ‘em up and knock ‘em down. Accuracy comes from repetition. Gather together a pile of pebbles and spend a few minutes each day, aiming at a variety of targets. A slingshot master can hit a soda can from twenty paces.
Slingshots aren’t inherently very dangerous, but releasing projectiles can be. Always know where you are pointing your slingshot and NEVER aim in the direction of a person or pet. You are responsible for every projectile you release.
Spend an Hour Blind-Folded. See the World Without Using Your Eyes.
RISK #21OUT OF 50 DANGEROUS THINGS
• adult assistance
• old large T-shirt (or clean rags)
For this experience to work, you have to make a blindfold that prevents any light from reaching your eyes and wear it long enough for your brain to start relying on your other senses. Try wearing the blindfold for at least one hour.
1. Make a blindfold.
Lay the T-shirt on the table and cut six inches off the bottom to create a ring of material. Find the seam on the ring and cut along it to create a long rectangle of material–this is the primary part of your blindfold. Fold the rectangle along the long axis.
2. Make it dark.
Cut two 8-inch squares of material from the remainder of the T-shirt. Fold the squares in half, and in half again, to make small eye patches. Gently place the blindfold over your eyes and tie it behind your head. Tuck the patches under the blindfold directly over your eyes. Adjust the blindfold and the patches until you cannot see any light.
Sit still for a few moments while you adjust to your new situation, then explore your surroundings.
5 things to TRY while YOU ARE blindfolded!
1. Eat a meal.
2. Use the bathroom.
3. Go for a walk.
4. Try to catch a ball.
5. Draw a map of the room you are in.
Once you are blindfolded, move cautiously. What would be a minor stumble with eyes open can become a cascade of collisions that may result in either laughter or tears. Your assistant should be prepared to intervene before you get into serious trouble.
Sleep In The Wild: Challenge Your Fear of the Dark
RISK #49 OUT OF 50 DANGEROUS THINGS
• Sleeping Bag or Blanket
• Sleeping Pad (optional)
• Pillow (optional)
• Adult supervision
1. Pick your location.
Look for an area that is not illuminated by a street or porch light, and clear of any rocks or sticks that might poke you while you are sleeping. (Read more about why you should let your kids spend time in nature.)
2. Collect your bedding.
You will want a sleeping bag or blankets, and a pillow if you want to be luxurious. If it is cold out, you might want a wool cap.
3. Check the weather forecast.
If there is humidity, then there may be dew later and you will need a water-resistant cover.
4. Assemble your sleeping area.
Lay down a tarp, then put your sleeping pad and bedding on top of it.
5. Go to bed.
Put your flashlight where you can reach it and climb in for a good night’s sleep.
It is rare to find large predators in urban settings, but it does happen occasionally. If that’s a concern, check with local animal control services to see if there have been any sightings recently. Clear
the path from your sleeping bag back inside–should something happen, you will want a fast route to safety.
Illustrations by Sakuya Higuchi