Here at the Museum, I regularly teach a program called “Balls and Tracks” for school groups. The kids are given some simple materials and are challenged to design “the coolest roller coaster possible” with them. After giving the class the details, I turn to the chaperones to give them their instructions:
“Your job today is to help rip tape, referee infighting, and hang on to the marbles until the kids are ready to test their track. You are not the engineers; they are right here in front of me. So I don’t want to see any adults fixing things or saying things like “just make this part steeper!” Are we clear?” (The kids think this is hilarious. They’re in charge!)
Most of the time they will laugh and say “Oh don’t worry! I’m terrible at this sort of thing!” Inevitably, I find myself tapping adults on the shoulder and shaking my head at them. “But I was just…!” Nope. Hands off. Those are the rules.
As adults, of course we want the kids in our lives to be successful. But part of being successful in life is learning how to get things wrong, how to mess up, how to fail…and to move on. “Learn from your mistakes” is a common phrase, but if children are not allowed to make mistakes, how will they learn from them? As I say to the kids, do you think the people who built the Space Shuttle got it right the first time? There are lots of things to fail at: a game, a test, a task. Some of these are bigger deals than others, but it is important to let kids have those opportunities. Let them lose at checkers. The lessons learned from losing the game are absolutely worthwhile: your child will learn to be a gracious loser, and probably be determined to win the next game. This is how we get better at things. If Dad is leaning over his shoulder telling him where to move his checkers on each turn, then, yes…the child may win the game, but he sure isn’t learning how to play checkers.
As I walk around the room, observing the roller-coaster engineers at work, I keep my hands clasped behind my back and often have to bite my tongue. I see kids trying things that I know won’t work, but I have to let them see that for themselves. I also see kids coming up with some really creative designs and end up with really wacky roller coasters, far wackier than anything I’d think of. It’s fun to watch their brains at work. And it’s fun to watch them figure it out, because most of the time, they do.
So sit back, rip the tape, and watch the failure happen. It’s OK. Really.