Play is becoming an endangered species in our culture. Rather than help children understand why certain situations are dangerous or allow them to gain that knowledge through supervised experience, we put up signs and disclaimers warning children to not even explore, without explanation. And when someone doesn’t put up a sign or disclaimer on something that should be common sense, we sue. The problem is, expecting signs and disclaimers to stop children from experiencing the world robs them of their most useful innate learning tools: play and exploration. They don’t start building their personal knowledge base, leaving them with at most a minimal sense of self-reliance, self-control, or self-discipline. They don’t learn how to evaluate situations or how to take the calculated risks necessary to challenge themselves and to improve the community around them.
When you step back and create safe spaces that offer level-appropriate challenges tailored to a child’s interest, you end up with kids like Owen Nannarone. Nannarone’s mother started homeschooling him because he wasn’t adapting well to life inside a traditional classroom, allowing him to explore his interest in taking things apart to see how they work. She tailors his school work to help him get the skills he needs to support his explorations and inventions. His father takes him to meet inventors and designers so he can see how they work and network with them. He also attends a makerspace with other children who are similarly fascinated with how things work and in using what they learn to make their own things work. And he, with his father’s assistance, is working on his first invention, complete with patent application.
Allowing a child to explore their own interests and doing what’s necessary to support those explorations isn’t “the enemy”. In fact, it’s potentially putting the current generation in a position to really contribute to their world…if we’d only release the tot leash. Children rise above whatever risk-averse, common sense-averse behavior the adults around them exhibit because they can see where it leads and they know they don’t want to be there, too. They’re also pretty good at learning from experience, because it’s how they’re wired. It’s up to the adults to provide safe yet challenging environments for the kids to explore and play in, and then to get out of their way and let them learn.