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.

Great heights

Rapid speeds

Dangerous tools

Dangerous elements

Rough and tumble

Getting lost

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.


15 replies
  1. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I feel like this post just distilled the central point of Unschooling for me. Normally children are made to wait until college to ask those questions and wrestle with those topics.

    I don’t want to make my children wait.

    And this weekend Murphy was “driving” an ATV with Chris. I couldn’t believe how grown up he looked. And then I realized that things will get better and I won’t always be tending to babies.

  2. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    The story reminded me of a college experience.

    I went to a conference thingy for college kids and I was the only from my school. I ended up eating dinner with a group from Carnegie-Mellon. Through conversation it came out that my parents were divorced. All the Carnegie-Mellon kids wanted to ask me about that experience. I thought it incredible that not one of them, out of a table of about 10 or so, had divorced parents. No, they all shook their heads, but they asked me many questions about it.

    My take away from it at the time was, geez, divorce is so damaging. But from your story, I see that their boldness to just ask me the questions was unique as well.

  3. Purva Brown
    Purva Brown says:

    Excellent post! I’m just beginning to get comfortable with all the questions that come up. (I have a 6, 5 and 2 year old.) I find I grow as a result, too – one of the best things about homeschooling.

  4. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi! I never thought of climbing trees, playing on swings, using knives, playing with fire, chasing others, and getting lost as dangerous play. These things just seem normal parts of play.

    I have always asked hard questions to myself but seldom do I ask them out loud. I first have to understand the person I’m going to ask and predict how he’ll respond. Now I usually type my questions in a search engine and read the most relevant posts.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I think I was 4 (must’ve been because I was in grade school yet) and my mom and I were ridding the bus standing up because it was packed. I’m holding a paper they’ve given me in school to color for Easter. It is was Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And I start asking where Jesus came from.

      My mom answers.

      So…where did they come from?

      “Their mom and dads and they came from their own mom and dads all the way to Adam and Eve.”

      Where did Adam and Eve come from?

      “From God”

      But where did God come from?

      “God has no beginning and no end.”

      What? Where did you learn that? How do you know God is really real if we can’t see it?

      “Okay we’re done here.”


      That was the very first time I remember asking those questions and my moms last reaction told me it was sacrilegious to ask them. Somehow I buried that skeptical streak deep down and when it resurfaced from time to time I was always so shocked by it. But really it’s been there all along.

      I just really like to make people happy so i bury it and the three days later it rises again ;)

      Happy Easter everyone!

      We’ll go have a crazy party with my husbands family and play games and I’ll let the toddler eat whatever candy he wants until he can’t stand it anymore and I’ll probably be dying for a nap halfway through the day.

  5. jessica
    jessica says:

    The role of a parent is to keep a kid safe. It’s nature.

    One of the hardest things for a child to do as they get older is to remember this and filter their parents voice and expectations through the ‘safety-lens’. What’s in the parent’s best personal interest, might not be the kids from that perspective.

  6. Ahuva
    Ahuva says:

    This reminded me of a podcast I recently heard, by invisibilia: “How to become batman”. It’s about what happens when you let blind people take risks. Really fascinating.

    • Teryn
      Teryn says:

      I listened to the same podcast and loved it! It was really interesting to think about how much impact our expectations have on people and what they are capable of.

  7. Max
    Max says:

    This was nice to read. I am one of those question-askers. I have been suspended from school, arrested, dumped, kicked out of my family (by each individual parent), and lost about a dozen friends because of this.

Comments are closed.