Dangerous Games

Lawyers and politically correct parents should not design playgrounds.

I hope you fell off your bike when you were a kid. Maybe you broke your arm. I say this not because I'm a mean person, but because that early experience portends one of two things: either a lifetime devoted to the study of physical processes and their limitations or a fear of bicycles. If you are reading this magazine, I'll bet you chose the lifetime of study.

You were the kid popping wheelies, probing the limits of unstable equilibrium. On the playground swing set, you swung the highest because you understood resonance. Every time you jumped from that swing, you tested your knowledge of gravity, the nature of inelastic collisions, and bruised ankles. Such doings shape the mind of a budding engineer. I mean that in a serious way.

Any kid who really rides a bicycle, and I mean slides, skids, hops over curbs, sails off ramps on one wheel— always pushing the envelope—can become a terrific engineer.

The visceral connection between your hands on the bars and the movement of the bike is probably more important to your understanding of dynamic systems than a graduate degree in differential equations. Of course, mastery of mathematical syntax helps quantify your work, but the fundamental principles behind most electrical circuits are as simple as riding a bike. The connection between your direct physical knowledge and electrical- circuit operation shows up plainly in everyday engineering terminology. A power supply, for example, is “stiff” if you can “pull” a lot of current without “moving” its output. A large capacitor forms a “heavy” load. An electron “falls” into a potential well. These mechanical analogies depend upon shared cultural experiences from childhood. The experiences provide a rich tapestry of knowledge from which you can extract nuggets of wisdom later in life.

Kid-Safe Playgrounds

I recently visited a modern “kid-safe” playground. Gone is the old metal roundabout. The monkey bars now stand amid a spongy, rubber-filled pit. The swings have seat belts. Those changes have so watered down the playground experience that a child could hardly hurt himself there if he tried. How, then, can he learn anything important?

Lawyers and politically correct parents made all these changes. Resist them. Healthy children deserve the pleasure of laughing on the merry-go-round as they desperately claw their way toward the center, making the wheel spin faster and faster until the centrifugal force hurls the weakest child off into the dust. That's part of how we, as a species, learn.

People who spend their formative years huddled in the library searching for loopholes in the physical-education requirements for junior-high graduation should not design playgrounds.



I asked my friend Bill Paseman what it takes to raise a great software engineer. Bill says that, under ideal conditions, the child would grow up in a house with large yellow footprints painted on the floor. The footprints would lead everywhere the child needs to go—bedroom, bath, and kitchen. When moving between rooms, as long as the child steps carefully on the footprints, all is well. If he steps off the path even once, the parents administer an electric shock sufficient to induce total blackout. The child then wakes up in bed, unable to recall what happened, and must begin again.

Bill says that this system, although obviously inhumane, would produce the greatest software engineer the world has ever seen: precise, exact and infallible. He's probably right, but it sounds brutal. I'd rather break my arm.

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Reader response

OK, I got a lot of mail about this article. Here's some of the best:

Thank you for that contribution to the April 9, 2009 EDN Magazine. I about fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard. As a child I did all the things on my bike and then some that you mentioned. I took things apart, put them back together again. It was so much fun. I like to think those experiences make good engineers as well.

James Meyette
Applications Engineer
Selway Machine Tool Company

You pointed out a parental dilemma of how to rise your kids so they become engineers.

"Necessity is the mother of all inventions". In an environment where there's no necessities, where everything is safe, easy and served, how in the world a kid would show interest in doing anything?

It is the balance point between risk and fun. If you overprotect your child they probably become dumb. I think it is the natural way to go for a society as evolve to better standards. Less things to solve, less problems to think about.

Eduardo Planchon
Matrix Controls Co., Inc.

Is it necessary that the kids hurt themselves? Isn't it sufficient that they tumble off onto a safe surface at a safe speed?

My understanding of those rules is that they aren't intended to keep the kids from crying. They are intended to prevent the occasional broken neck.

It is the risk of PERMANENT injury that we must eliminate. Something that sends them crying to Mom or the teacher is no worry.

Bruce Koerner
Controls Engineer/Regulatory Compliance
Automated Equipment LLC

I couldn't agree with you more regarding children, bikes and playgrounds. Providing "protection" to the novice just encourages risky behavior, as survivable lessons are not learned early. I understand football injuries actually increased when padding was introduced, and the tendency for SUV "rolling fortress" drivers to feel invulnerable (until they roll it over) is notable. Riding a motorcycle in my early years taught me that my only real protection (besides that superficially provided by a leather jacked and a skid lid) was my skill and alertness to road conditions and unobservant drivers.

Not that everything has to be learned the hard way. I was indoctrinated in gun safety at a young age, and taught that power tools can maim the careless; by the 8th grade I was allowed to use the table saw unsupervised.

This is directly relevant to my 39 year career in power electronics, where one often has to work with lethal voltages and destructive energies. Just as with saws and guns, I learned to have a healthy respect, bordering on fear, of the dangers involved, which keeps me alert. I am still around at 65 and suffered no significant injuries, and I rest my case.

BTW, I recommend you book "High-Speed Digital Design; A Handbook of Black Magic" in my seminar "Switchmode Design and Layout Techniques for Low EMI", as it has a lot of good advice and information on board layout relevant to the power converters.

Best Regards,
Bruce Carsten

>>I hope you fell off your bike when you were a kid.

>>Maybe you broke your arm.
  Did that too.

>>...a lifetime devoted to the study of physical processes and their limitations...
  Well, 45 years anyway, counting college and professional employment.

>>...a terrific hardware designer.
  Well, I always thought so, and was measured that way.

>>I'd rather break my arm.
  Me too.

  I always enjoy your columns, often forward them to others.

Larry Marks

Your recent column hit a nerve with me. Along with all that you describe, my grandson recently got into a pack of trouble for playing tag. It is now forbidden because it requires “inappropriate touching”. I don't think the madness will have a happy ending.

Robert D. Sexton, BSEE 1968 Cal Poly SLO
Sr Software Engineer, (retired), Pelco

You don't look as old as me so there may be some hope yet. We have a generation growing up of "container kids". Those countless babies stuck in baby carriers and car seats that are forced to stare into the sun or flourescent lights and never get to move. Parents who have no notion that kids can be taught to be civil so they stick them in things so they wont tear up the store. Of course the kids have not been taught so they have no manners so they would tear up the store. But that aside.

You are right. When you play unstructured you learn stuff. We used to make earthen dams in the "little creek" as kids, watch 'em fill up and then fail. When you watch engineering disasters on "History Channel" the dam failure stories are so like our play dam failures. How can the engineers not know the simplest things. As the PSA said more than a few years ago. Behold the power of play. I don't think "I'm four and a half and I'm a PC" (microsoft ad on tv) is a good thing. They are coloring inside the lines or program as given so to speak.

Keep up the good fight.

Jim Jenkins
Owner/Gen Mgr
WAGS Radio