One of the jobs of a school teacher is to keep kids safe. Which means that the latest research about the importance of play is also about how kids need to take risks when they play. Education professor Peter Gray, who is now, officially, my blogger crush, lists the dangerous play that is essential for kids, which, of course, kids cannot do at school.
Rough and tumble
I learned to be okay with most of these on the farm. My nine-year-old is driving an ATV. It’s officially not safe and not recommended and we’re doing it anyway. (With a helmet and a parent riding on the back.)
My twelve-year-old is chopping wood. I said no to this for a long time, even when my husband said he was chopping wood at age nine when he was a kid.
But then I could see, in the eyes of other farmers, that people couldn’t believe how coddled our kids are. And it bothered me. I decided that I was raised on a series of overprotective suburban front lawns. So now my son chops wood and doesn’t even realize that it’s a big deal. It’s just one of his chores.
But Peter Gray’s list got me thinking about intellectual risks. Can we also put together a list of intellectual risks that kids cannot do at school but are clearly important for development?
Fascination with violence. How can we confront natural, human fears in a safe way?
Mixing god and science. How can we believe in a god and trust in the scientific method?
Testing moral boundaries. Is it okay to use Nazi medical research done with torture?
These are all intellectual explorations that are too controversial for school. Most teachers have no training for how to broach these topics in a productive way, and no principal wants to deal with parents upset by topics like these. But kids ask these types of question when they have intellectual freedom to form their own questions.
I once dated a guy who went to Harvard. I mostly dated him to see if I was missing out on anything being at Brandeis, which was second-rate enough to let me in even though I failed all my science courses in high school.
The thing that really separated that guy from everyone else I knew was the freedom he felt to ask any question he wanted. He asked me why I wouldn’t take off more clothing when we were making out. That was a good question. I didn’t really know. I liked that he asked it. I had to talk a lot since I was still convinced I would not have sex until I was married. So we talked about asking questions.
He told me that he was in college because he wants to get better at asking questions. He told me answers are not so much the point of his life, but rather, asking sharper and sharper questions.
I should have had sex with him—I definitely fell in love with him because of his questions. But I broke up with him. Because if you are raised with no intellectual freedom, someone who asks all kinds of difficult questions is scary.
That’s what happens when we shield our kids from risky intellectual play—they learn never learn to be comfortable with questions, and never gain the confidence that comes from questioning what seems right to wonder about.