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If You Keep Playing With That It Will Break

posted Jun 29, 2016, 7:56 AM by Brian Pratt

Many parents of Cub Scouts have gotten comfortable with using the family camping gear on scout outings because they’ve been the ones setting it up and taking it down.  When their scout crosses over and Mom or Dad are no longer there to personally supervise, tents start to come home without stakes, spiffy integrated titanium mess kits come home disintegrated titanium messes, and tent poles, if they show up at all, arrive with the shock cord broken and several sections missing because the scout jammed it 8 feet down into the snow before discovering that you can’t actually pull on a collapsible tent pole (it just comes apart and the end stays stuck 8 feet down).

Naturally, the parents get upset.  This is what I tell them: “Excellent!  He learned something about the physical world this weekend!  It’s a win!  But yeah, you might want to send the B-list gear next time.”  And then I express sympathy, because I had to go through a couple of expensive snow saws myself before I caught on.

Here’s my reasoning: these are kids of a generation with very little experience of the physical world, and we should cut them some slack for that, and be joyful that Scouting gives them chance to learn through failure.  I’m not saying we should totally let them off the hook when they lose or damage gear (and yes, there’s an important distinction between exploration and vandalism), but consider this: they have the computer lab where we had shop class and Minecraft where we had erector sets.  Opportunities for the learning that comes with simply messing around with actual physical matter are all too rare, and we should encourage and celebrate their explorations.  As an engineer and parent I am convinced that any result is a good result when it comes to scouts and gear, even if it’s mayhem and breakage, as long as there is learning.  The key is to talk about it afterward - but ask, don’t lecture.(“So, what did you learn about the interaction between hot pans and plastic picnic tables today?  How could that have been done differently?  And how can you get melted plastic off a pan?”)

Sure, we should teach the difference between a tool and a toy, but playing with a tool is actually a pretty good way to understand it.  That sinking feeling when trying to pull the tent pole out of the snow teaches something about machines that can’t be truly internalized any other way.  Messing around with that tent pole until it snaps due to metal fatigue is a visceral experience that is hugely important and can’t be had online.  Learning that Bisquick makes a nice fireball when tossed by the handful into a campfire is an excellent entree into a discussion of why grain elevators explode, and other sciencey things.  (Pro tip: try it with nondairy coffee creamer!  WHOMP!).  Studies have shown that working with your hands is important for overall brain development, and that makes for better engineers, doctors, lawyers and artists. Going out into the woods, running around with a stick, tripping over some tent lines and setting stuff on fire is a HUGE WIN for these kids, and for science education and the future of American manufacturing and society in general.  We should worry less about the gear and more about what its sacrifice can do for the scout, with our guidance.

A Scout is Clean and Thrifty, and an important outcome of this experiential learning is that they eventually do learn to track and take care of gear, so there must be cheerful reflection each time they come home with melted boots or a torn rainfly.  Scouting offers real-world learning about the properties of materials that many kids won’t ever get, so be willing to pay a price and don’t squander the opportunity for reflection in your disappointment at another bent tent pole.  They’re hard on gear, but don’t be too hard on them. Rejoice in the learning, and reflect with them on lessons learned.  They’re taking away knowledge that you take for granted, and someday they will call you from their corner office and thank you for it.