Let Your Students Play with Fire

“Dad,” my 12-year old son hollered at me from the other room. “Do we have any dry ice?” I told him we didn’t. “How about sodium?” he asked.

A few minutes later I heard a small explosion in the backyard. I went and took a peak out the back door to be sure everyone still had two eyes and ten fingers. My son looked up at me and said, “It’s ok dad. We found some stuff that worked.”

Toddlers and teenagers.

It wasn’t too long ago we had baby gates everywhere and those annoying little covers stuffed in every outlet in our house. But now, with middle-schoolers, creating a “safe” environment looks totally different. And in many ways, middle schoolers in the early teen years are a lot like toddlers, as their brains undergo rapid maturation. They’re exploring their environment, but in a whole new way.

Between the ages of 12 and 14, this is happening most noticeably in the frontal lobes, which are responsible for complex processing and the kind of higher level skills like understanding the consequences of our actions that adults often take for granted.

And it’s at this very stage of development, that allowing kids to try new things, even if they seem kind of dangerous, becomes crucial to continued development and maturation. Jenni Ogden, Ph.D., writes, “Teenagers need to take risks in order to make the leap from home and reliance on parents to independence.”

Faith and power tools.

And so it is in their faith development. Stopping up all the doubts with gates and covers leaves them in an underdeveloped state and minimizes their long-term ability to think critically about the kinds of theological and practical questions that will be their constant companion in life.

So whether it’s math class, or that time in the year when your students are reading through Song of Solomon on their through-the-Bible-in-a-year program, continuing to protect them will only inhibit their growth. Stanford University professor Carol Dweck suggests we must teach students (and treat them as if) their brains are “a muscle that strengthens with use.”

It’s why I’ve accepted a degree of risk in my home and ministry that would make my grandmother nervous. I’m giving them a place to try things, and succeer or fail, and strengthen their brains along the way. My kids have access to power tools, which they have been taught to use safely.

In the basement, they have a workshop where they are restoring the “vintage” radio controlled airplane that I built—but never flew—when I was their age. They use razor knives and heat guns.

In the back yard they have strung up old ropes, pullies, and various used lumber… way too high up in trees to be safe.

And sometime recently, when I wasn’t paying attention, and inspired by countless episodes of Mythbusters on Netflix, they built a battery—technically a Leyden jar—out of a Rubbermaid container and aluminum foil. They charged the battery with a long piece of PVC pipe and a furry hat, then discharged it by shorting

leydenjarthe outside of the container to the inside with a piece of wire.

I bet you didn’t even know that was possible. Neither did I. And neither did they, until they did it.

Sure, it was something like 30,000 volts. But boy was it cool. And, I have to admit, playing with it after my kids went to bed made me feel like a middle schooler again.



ericdwoodsEric Woods is the Retreats Director at SpringHill Camps, one of the largest Christian camps in the country. Before he joined the world of retreats and camping, he was a campus minister and collegiate church planter for ten years with a large, non-denominational campus ministry serving the Central Michigan University community. His kids are 10, 12 and 14… and doing just fine, though they sure go through a lot of Band-Aids. Eric blogs about life, leadership and ministry at www.ericdwoods.com.

Eddie Witkowski

is 27 years old and a native of Vero Beach, FL. Currently residing in Houston, TX, where he serves as the Youth Pastor at Houston First Church of the Nazarene. He is a passionate Christian, passionate husband, passionate about helping young people develop a relationship & grow deeper in their relationship with Jesus, and a lover of all things wild and adventurous. Geocaching, bodysurfing, and website design are a few of his favorite pastimes.

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