How I watched and let kids fail

Imagine seven 7-11-year-olds using drills, hot glue guns and hand saws for the first time. To say I was anxious is an understatement. I was balancing helping them use tools for the first time and encouraging them to get building their designs. When I was helping one kid by holding a heavy piece of wood, I wasn’t watching others using glue guns safely. And when I was helping a child use a drill, I couldn’t make sure little hands weren’t in the path of a saw.

From the beginning, I needed to build trust with the children. I needed to give them the knowledge for using the tools correctly, but also the confidence that they could do it without me watching. It was important for them to be safe under my care, but also, the success of the event relied on the children feeling confident and being able to use tools and build designs on their own when they left my supervision. I wanted them to leave me with the skills and confidence needed to do projects at home.

It would have been easy to tell each child what would work and what wouldn’t. Put simply, some of their designs were impossible to build in a day. Children’s imaginations are vast and they had huge dreams about what they could achieve. Telling them what works and what doesn’t would have made my job a lot easier. I could have had more control over the room, but then, they wouldn't have learned valuable lessons through trying, failing and trying again. I bit my tongue and let them get on with the building. At the end of the day, I want them to feel confident trying new things and know how to move forward from failures.

For 6 hours, I worried about their failed projects ending in tears. I didn’t expect them to have pride in what they built even though they didn’t go to plan. Before their grown-ups whisked them away, we had a show and tell session. Each child was beaming and confident in what they achieved during the day. We had balloon powered canons, marble runs, perpetual motion machines and a magical, techy teleporting device. For the kids, it wasn’t important for their devices to be fully functioning. They wanted toys to fit their imaginative play. They were proud of what they accomplished and I was happy that they all tried using all the tools.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss my interactions with the children. I’ll touch on how I had to consciously refrain from using cautious language that would discourage the kids from trying.

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