In the past few months, I’ve become increasingly interested in experimentation. I’ve also become increasingly alarmed at the lack of this sort of experience for kids these days.

It started with hearing Gary Stager talk about how multi-age learning groups were important, and how giving kids tools, encouraging experimentation and problem-solving really encouraged creative problem solving. He spoke about how the lack of these sort of experiences was leading to a whole generation of kids who got frustrated and angry when the answer wasn’t handed to them, or there wasn’t one right answer- they are losing the ability to deal with ambiguity. They are losing the ability to trace the source of the problem and understand how to fix it, or even who to call to get it fixed.

This may not seem like a big deal. But not understanding how things break, why hey break or wear out, and how to fix them makes us incredibly vulnerable to the few people who do.

What Happened to Getting Your Hands Dirty?

I tried to buy an electronic kit for my kids, to let them learn some of this stuff and experiment. You know, those kits -not with the generic, sanitized snaps- but the ones with wires and connections where you can make burglar alarms, radios, battery testers, etc. They’re usually labelled “150 in one” kits. Radio Shack had two on their website last week- this week, none are available. They have the snap kits, but that’s all. They couldn’t even tell me what happened to them, or what local stores might still have one, because they took it off their main website. I found a few on Ebay and on Amazon; one is wending its way here, but it wasn’t easy to track down.

LEGO Mindstorms and their robotic kits combine physical design and programming to allow kids to invent amazing things- wherever their imaginations can take them. Yet finding these around is also difficult.

Looking for these types of projects and stuff you used to be able to find in hobby shops led me to discover that Wilmington’s best hobby shop, Mitchell’s, just closed after 55 years in business.

I understand that tradition hobbies, science fair projects, model rocket clubs- even the Boy Scouts- are becoming old-fashioned. I feel positively amish with most of my personal hobbies- knitting and quilting- but at least there are great resources for both yarn and fabric, both locally and online. Online resources for much of the science experiments, old chemistry kits and the like have become limited to generic, sterile subject- themed kits. It’s hard to find a microscope and slides, a chemistry kit or anything else that was perhaps dangerous, but also taught so many kids valuable lessons about what was safe and what was a bit risky. We’ve become so risk adverse as a culture, kids can’t even play on teeter-totters or monkey bars. Sure, there are less injuries as a result, but this also means kids never have a chance to take a relatively safe risk. They never learn what’s dangerous and what’s not. Along with trying to teach kids they can be successful at everything, we’re teaching them that it’s impossible to fail- yet it’s through failure and trying again that we learn the most. We only learn to try harder, to experiment, to egt things wrong and try again if we have the ability to fail, and fail big- but still get back up on the horse and try again.

We need more Bill Nye the Science Guy. We need more Miss Frizzle. We need more Reggio Emelia– the Italian educational system that encourages kids to do things like eat with real silver and china so they know what happens if something breaks- and the world doesn’t end.  The environment can be a child’s teacher, and that approach is key to letting kids experiement and find out the why’s- not by being told, but by discovering much of it on their own, as they’re ready for it.

And for those of you ready for some of the other lunatics like me who think kids should have a chance to experiment and even get nickd up a bit in the process, don’t miss these great TED talks below.

And Also Watch this- by Sir Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity:

And this- David Eggers from 826Valencia with his TED Wish for Once Upon a School: