Think of all the things you were told repeatedly as a child you were NOT allowed to do. A mass of images might gather in your mind: Hands slapped away from cookie jars or admonitions like “don’t color outside the lines,” “don’t cross the velvet ropes” and “don’t stray from designated trails.” It might have seemed like everything fun and interesting came with a resounding and emphatic NO.
Now imagine a childhood where you’re actually ENCOURAGED to explore the unknown, the risky, the dangerous — the very things you’re most curious about and delightfully freaked out by. Play with fire? YES! Put your wet tongue against the end of a 9-volt battery? YES! Superglue your fingers together? YES! Use a sharp knife? Climb a tree? Throw a spear? YES, YES, YES!!
Gever Tulley is a “Yes!” man for kids. Tulley doesn’t advocate telling kids to do these “dangerous” things carelessly, of course; he does, however, think that our world has become a place that sets needless restrictions on kids, inhibits their creative thinking, denies them independence, and underestimates their capabilities and therefore limits their possibilities for growth.
Tulley is the author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) (Penguin) and founder of The Tinkering School (a summer camp where kids invent and build complex real machines). His latest project is Brightworks, a progressive, alternative K-12 day school in San Francisco.
Learning in a way that comes naturally for kids, Tulley posits, doesn’t come without elements of risk, danger, and inherent excitement. Tulley is a bit of a grown-up child himself: He’s 50 but speaks with a cadence and intensity you might hear in a child’s voice after he rides a roller coaster for the first time. Tulley is just as fascinated with his own agenda — “How do kids learn?” — as kids are with learning itself. He’s interested in the real physical and cognitive connections in learning: risk, danger, a small degree of fear of failure, and, as Tulley explains it, “living by the decisions they make in the design and build process.” In other words, kids in his summer programs and school don’t sit in desks and “think” about how things work; they construct stuff with their hands and with power tools, and then physically try out their creations afterward. Do kids innately have the desire to build something that will really allow them to fly or float? Heck yes. And they will work obsessively to attempt such a success, not letting incidental academic disciplines like “physics” or “complex math” get in their way of having successful (and therefore more thrilling) maiden voyages.
“Brightworks School,” says Tulley, “was the natural next step in a long exploration of the notion of an engagement-first approach to learning. Our emphasis is on great engaging experiences, creating an entirely different kind of school experience.” Is Brightworks working in the way Tulley hoped? “What I see at Brightworks,” he says, “is children running into the school in the morning because they can’t wait to continue with the project they didn’t get to finish the previous day.”
This kind of success surely has something to do with the way Tulley interacts with the kids: he says he doesn’t actually think of them as students, but as collaborators. This comes directly from the atmosphere he himself grew up in. “My parents were intellectually engaged in my childhood and in my life,” Tulley says. “If I had a question, they were willing to sit and talk about that question for as long as I wanted. The same was true with my brother, and we both really enjoyed the fact that our parents would treat us like peers in a conversation like that. They never talked down to us; they used the language of adults with us. If they used a word we didn’t understand, it was our responsibility to go look it up and figure out what it meant. They also trusted our curious impulses, and nurtured those things in us, [and] allowed us to chase an idea at whatever velocity we could.”
The kind of relationship Tulley had with his parents is obviously replicated with the kids he works with: He has an impassioned interest in seeing them funnel all their natural curiosity into positive learning projects. Tulley explains that kids, teenagers and even grown-ups need certain levels of stimulation, and if they don’t get it, they look to other, perhaps destructive, places to find that thrill. “Kids will look to ever more dramatic social situations to get that kind of stimulation in their lives, and, by all rights, that level of stimulation should be in the intellectual domain. They’re hungry for that mental engagement, that constant sense of the the world unfolding in front of them.”
“Life,” Tulley adds, “should be a continuous adventure.”