Camp Offers Kids A Chance To Play With Fire

Software engineer Gever Tulley felt that his friends who were parents were overprotective of their children. So he started the Tinkering School, a summer camp that encourages kids to play with fire, throw spears and take risks.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Okay, parents. You're taking your kid to summer camp, you pack the sunscreen, the swimsuit, you arrive at camp, and you have to fill out the forms.

GEVER TULLEY: We have what many parents have described as the single scariest document they've ever signed around their child. They actually have to print out. I understand that my child may be injured or killed at this camp.

BLOCK: That's the paperwork for a camp called The Tinkering School outside San Francisco. It is unaccredited with astronomically high insurance. Their children are encouraged to play with real tools, build real things and take real risks. We sent reporter Chana Joffe-Walt of member station KPLU to check it out.

CHANA JOFFE: Gever Tulley wants his campers to make sure to play with fire and knives while at camp, maybe throw a spear, too, drive a car. Tulley's the director of the Tinkering School, and he's got this list of dangerous things he thinks kids should do. The whole thing started - this minor obsession with kids taking risks - at a breakfast. Tulley was just sitting with his friend in her kitchen.

TULLEY: And we were in the middle of talking, and she just jumped up and run to the door and opened the door and said, Dave, what are you playing with? And her child is out there and says, I'm playing with a stick. And she said, what's our rule about sticks? And he wasn't allowed to play with a stick, and I think he was six or seven.

JOFFE: Who can resist a stick, Tulley thought. What's going on here? Don't touch this, don't stand on that, don't throw that, don't go near that? Tulley says he felt worried that the boundaries of kid safety zones are growing too wide, that play was only happening in the safe, structured programs, like soccer camp or forest camp. He wanted to try unstructured kids' time so they could learn things on their own. He wanted to see kids build stuff. He wanted to see them fall down. He wanted to bring out his power tools.

And so, Tinkering School was. This morning, a nine-year-old is in the backyard, leaning over a chop saw. Nearby, an 8-year-old, Anna Cornue(ph) is swinging down a sagging zip line made by a 10-year-old. She's riding it over and over despite the fact that it continues to take her right into a tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOP SAW)

ANNA CORNUE: Ouch, that did hurt. I got the injury of the day.

JOFFE: What's the injury of the day?

CORNUE: You're not supposed to have more than one injury in one day. Yesterday, I think I had three injuries.

JOFFE: There's no set program in Tinkering School. When the kids want to build a rollercoaster, Tulley says sure. Next week, he'll help them build and ride motorcycles. They've been real psyched about that. And later tonight, they want to take apart a dishwasher. Those will be the main projects, and if kids get bored of those and want to (unintelligible) their shoes to cardboard and surf down the hill, Tulley's okay with it as long as it's a good project.

TULLEY: A good project is a real project, where we build something that is not a pretend something else. So, if we're going to build a boat, we're going to down to the harbor and put kids in it and push them out into the ocean. We want them to have the sense that if they don't build this correctly, it's going to come apart and they're going to have to swim back to shore.

JOFFE: So, when the group puts together a bridge made of sticks and rope, they suspend it between two trees - that's nine feet off the ground - and everyone has to walk across, starting with Alena Dubre(ph).

TULLEY: How's it feel, Alena?

ALENA DUBRE: It's pretty - yeah, it's cool.

JOFFE: It's dirty?

DUBRE: Yeah.

JOFFE: While Alena, who is eight, is suspended on a bridge made by children, her mom's at home in Los Angeles. Thank goodness, says Andrea Maylin(ph).

ANDREA MAYLIN: I was glad I wasn't there, but I was so glad she got to do it. She had the ability to actually work with tools, real tools, big tools, as she said. She can walk on the bridge that she made. She can ride in a boat that she made. That's an incredible sense of mastery to be able to do that.

JOFFE: Four years in, this summer included, all the Tinkering School kids have made it out alive. And Maylin was kind of comforted the other week when Alena brought home a familiar camp goodie bag. Oh, just like other camps, she thought, lollipops and balloons. No. Alena proudly pulled out for her mother a hard drive, a piece of printer and a toothbrush robot.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

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