In Praise Of Dangerous Toys

When I was growing up, my dad taught me that potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal made gunpowder. He told me that you could add iron to the mix to get a red flame and that acids wouldn’t eat through your test tube. Then he sent me into the basement to make whatever I wanted while he read the paper.

That was, arguably, a long time ago. All that’s changed. As this NY Times story notes, the days of making bombs (mine were unpacked and placed in toilet paper rolls, to be clear, so I wasn’t setting off pipe bombs) are long gone.

“Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit,” said Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, who recalled learning the names of chemicals from his childhood chemistry set, which contained substances that have long since been banned from toys.

Instead, we must neuter the science our kids are learning and hope against hope that the guys at Mythbusters can keep our kids entertained enough to consider going into STEM subjects. Once we built rocket scientists by giving them an Estes engine and a paper tube. Now you can’t set off a model rocket anywhere in New York unless you own hundreds of acres of unspoiled fields (no one in New York does).

Kids don’t have a chance to play with dangerous things anymore. I try to change that when I can. I got my son the Bandit rubber band gun which we built on the night after Christmas. I took him outside in my parents large back yard to shoot a Red Ryder and go over gun safety. I would, if I could find it, dig out my old chemistry set so all three kids could know the joy of making red fire. I’m encouraging my daughter to dabble in electricity by giving her a Roominate. I want them to break stuff and learn how to put it back together.

I support the right to tinker. I want my kids and yours to build the next rockets to Mars. I want them to see the world as a series of reactions, and I want them to be able to measure those reactions in order to cure disease, crime, and hunger. We have a Makerbot at the house because I think that simply having a thing in the house, that the kids have it somewhere in their minds that they can 3D-print a green plastic skull, is important.

So here’s to the banned chemistry sets and dangerous capacitors. Here’s to the code that formats the C: drive. Here’s to the sharp-edged Lego kits that let you build a robot or moon station or monster. Next year let’s get the kids potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur and teach them how to use them responsibly and intelligently. Here’s to the dangerous toys.

Image of GonKiRin the Dragon.