Liberating Kids from Stifling Parents – did someone say “Bang”?

Nuclear Explosion Mushroom Cloud

One of the joys of parenthood is seeing the delight in your kids pulling things together using tools available to them – releasing their creativity, and fostering inquisitive nature. It’s natural and is a wide departure from rote learning (where the ethos is to please don’t make mistakes – mistakes are bad!). A real joy comes from them doing something spectacular, having a crazy idea, applying tools/techniques they’ve learnt, mashing up ideas from various sources, testing and iterating until they have – or do – something memorable.

I saw a comment from a teacher this morning where a parent had approached, and asked that his kiddie not be given access to Minecraft on a Raspberry Pi, because he could be destructive in it. I mean, Jesus.

I remember when I was at school, the comedy was watching someone in a Chemistry lesson grab a waste paper bin, turn it upside down, pierce a small hole in the base, place it over the gas tap (that usually supplied gas to bunsen burners), filling it with gas, light the small hole and walk away. After a minute or two, the flame will have burnt enough of the gas and drawn air from underneath to form an explosive mixture, and BANG! A loud noise, an upside down blue mushroom of flame, and a teacher in overalls standing immediately next to the result with his back to it as it exploded. After an initial gruff “Who did that?” and a classmates immediate confession (from the other side of the room), his punishment was to present to the class what he’d done and how it worked. Then a lunchtime picking up litter.

The same guy, by seemingly intelligent questioning of the teacher over a number of lessons, worked out a way of synthesising Nitrogen Tri-Iodide from the chemical bottles close at hand during lessons. This substance is a touch sensitive explosive; the traditional trick was to leave an innocuous slither of it on door handles, resulting in a “bang” and sparks when someone went to open the door. He duly made some, and carried it out of class to the next lesson (Music), that day taught by a student teacher. He left it drying on the radiator, giving it an occasional nudge with a ruler to see if it was setting. About 15 minutes in listening to some classical music – BANG! Student holding ruler, very red in the face with embarrassment. The student teacher just said (with apparent zeal in his interest): “How did you do that?”. Following a brief explanation, the teacher just waxed lyrical about how some of his colleagues at school had sneaked some Chloroform out of Science class at his school, and spread some over the piano before they were to be victim of their teachers piano recital. It just got slower, and slower…

We also had a spate of people screwing two bolt heads into a common nut, filling the gap in the middle with matchstick heads. Thrown into the air, it typically let off a bang on landing. The innovation then was to attach string around the two bolts, so you didn’t have to spend too much time finding both halves afterwards. Main kudos to Nathan Berry, who found a two 1″ bolts in his Dad’s garage and elected to tighten the work with a spanner, bolts held tight with his Dad’s workshop vice. I suspect the hole resulting from it triggering early while he was still pulling on the spanner is still very much there in that garage roof.

So, few detentions. You only got that for suggesting loudly that “titration” was two words, or for mounting the front of Chemistry teachers Mini on bricks, causing it’s engine to scream as he tried to reverse out to go home. If indeed said teacher could pin it on anyone.

Kids find impressive bangs they’ve engineered are very memorable – for all the right reasons. It fires their imagination. Certainly much more so than the most enthusiastic of “beaten-into-ultimate-safety” teacher mixing two chemicals in a test tube and showing delight when they change to another colour. Snore!

These days, parents are scared into thinking their kids are about to be abducted and must be kept off the street (in wide contrast to the distances I covered with friends on my bike – with no mobile comms – when I was young). A result of the tabloid press stoking up fear in parents in their pursuit of selling printed newspapers (statistically invalid – the once in a decade occurrences are normally by a person known to the victim – but that doesn’t sell ink and paper). Or of trying to protect young males from their pursuit of pornographic images; the end result is a generation of kids who are driven to know enough to engineer VPN connections and to use TOR in that pursuit. I’d be first in line to take the law into my own hands if I found anyone preying on vulnerable kids. However, I feel good teaching of children, the setting of acceptable behaviour boundaries, and being there if they feel in any way uncomfortable about anything, is normally enough without smothering their natural inquisitive nature.

I’m a big fan of getting technology into kids hands early. One of my female relatives in the USA is a child minder, and I noticed a post on Facebook logging what her 7 year old customer was doing. Her first post said “This guy has been playing Minecraft for 2 hours. It looks very retro on the screen. Is this sort of behaviour normal?”. A bit later on she posted again to say “He’s now watching Minecraft Videos on YouTube!”. Appears to me a mirror of kids i’ve seen playing Minecraft this side of the Atlantic. It is a tremendous Educational asset that kids enjoy using.

I love the work of the Raspberry Pi foundation, and would help anyone get their kids hacking on that platform using Open Source software. Of Minecraft, which kids everyone seem to have embraced. Similarly impressed with the early work of Seymour Papert teaching kids to program with Logo. Likewise for Sugar Labs, taking their Linux based Software (originally part of the MIT based “One Laptop per Child” project) to millions of kids in developing countries around the world. Tablet versions coming!

Kids around me these days are very touch-based Phone and Tablet native. My 2 year old granddaughter routinely plays YouTube videos, views the Photo Library and plays games on her parents iPhones – and on my iPad Mini. She’s even bemused that “Skip Ad” doesn’t work on the TV when its playing Terrestrial TV Channels. Using my iPad Mini to such an extent that she now has one of her own at our house.

That said, it’s a small part of her world. She thoroughly enjoys nothing more than wandering in the great outdoors and where many other things feed her curiosity. But she has the resources to look things up as she grows – alongside her current diet of YouTube “Peppa Pig” and “Ben and Holly” videos.

This week, i’ve seen some work on a Kickstarter Project on a cut down version of the “Scratch” language called “ScratchJr“, which is being used to teach programming to 5-7 year olds. See this:

Isn’t it brilliant to seeing young kids like this talk with such authority on the work their doing with this platform? With that, i’m contributing money to help them ship that on iOS and Android tablets this year. If you’d like to join me, you can do so at They are the future and worth every penny.


Leave a Reply