50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do): Play With the Vacuum Cleaner

Task:  Explore the properties of moving air (and maybe sucker the kids into cleaning up a little).


Vacuum cleaner science


  • Wide-mouth jar (needs to be just slightly bigger than the end of your vacuum cleaner hose)
  • Strips of paper
  • Vacuum Cleaner
  • Clean Filter/Bag (the author notes that it’s a good idea to start with a clean bag or filter when experimenting with the vacuum)

Possible Hazards:

  • Annoying noise
  • Hickey (I was just playing with the vacuum cleaner – I swear!)
  • Lose an eye (*shudders* and reminds kids to keep the hose away from each other’s eyes)

How It All Went Down:

How many times do you catch yourself yelling at the kids that (insert useful household tool here) is not a toy?  The Swiffer, the feather duster, the fly swatter, the vacuum … they’re all much more fun as swords and sibling torture devices than for the boring work they were actually intended to do.  But what if we stepped back for just a second and looked at some of our household tools and appliances in a different way, and maybe appreciated them for the cool inventions that they are?  It might take some serious convincing on your part for the kids to believe you’re actually going to let them play with the vacuum, but the results will be well worth it.  And who knows?  Maybe they’ll be having so much fun they’ll explore its carpet cleaning abilities as well.

We started with “The Siren Jar.”  When moving air is constrained to small tubes or spaces, it starts to do some cool things.  Since air currents aren’t usually visible, this is a neat way to demonstrate how moving air currents can affect  sound.  Remove the lid from a jar.  Turn the vacuum on and insert the hose into the jar.  Slowly bring the hose out until it’s just even with the top of the jar.  Play around with the position of the hose and notice the differences in sound.

“The Buzz Ribbon” is another cool way to show how air waves can change the volume of a sound.  Cut a strip of paper that is about 1/2 the width of the vacuum cleaner hose and up to 12 inches long.  Turn the vacuum on.  Hold one end of the paper strip and let the vacuum begin to suck the other end of the strip into the hose.  Hang on tightly to the strip and gradually let it in the hose until it begins to buzz.  Pay attention to where the sound is the quietest and where it is the loudest.

Bonus points to this experiment, since it emulates the sound of a fart (always a hit in this house).

Here are a few other fun ways to play with your vacuum that we can’t wait to try:

How to Turn Your Vacuum Cleaner into a Bazooka

Feeling Pressured

Make Your Own Giant Inflatables

How Vacuum Cleaners Work (if your kids have more questions)

You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).



50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do): Master the Perfect Somersault

Task: Master the perfect somersault before they’re banned at your school.



  • Lawn or soft play area

Possible Hazards:

  • Getting clonked on the head or back
  • Bumps and bruises

How It All Went Down:

When was the last time you did a cartwheel or a somersault?  Unless your kids are in some kind of tumbling class, chances are it’s been awhile for them … and probably years for you!  Of course, somersaults are not dangerous, but like many of the things we did during recess as kids, they’re increasingly not allowed at school for fear of injury and litigous parents.  We had a beautiful afternoon with nary a safety patrol in sight,  so we went for the gold!

Believe it or not, there are instructions for The Perfect Somersault in Gever Tulley’s book.  They are as follows:

  • Prepare.  Find an area that is free of sticks and rocks.
  • Stand with one foot slightly in front of the other.
  • Start with the roll.  Lean down, tuck your chin, and imagine curling up into a ball as you fall forward.  Place your hands on the ground in front of you as you encounter the ground.
  • Roll over.  Keep leaning forward, curling up as you go, and keep your back curved as you contact the ground on the wide part of your back between your shoulder blades.  If any part of your head touches the ground, you haven’t curled up enough.  If the ground hits you in the back with a thump, then you probably didn’t lean down far enough.
  • Follow through.  Try to maintain your momentum and roll up onto your feet.

Poor Elena … I think having directions to do something she already knows how to do made her overthink it!  It also didn’t help that she’d eaten 6 slices of pizza just before we attempted our somersaults.  Plain old somersaults were too easy for Eli (so he said), so he moved on to cartwheels … with debatable success (light pole 1, Eli 0).  Mike had to show off, doing the combo cartwheel into a not-so-graceful somersault.  I do think mine was the best, no?

The best part was that we were all outside as a family, goofing off.  And of course nothing draws in the neighbors like seeing you act like circus performers in the front yard!  So drop what you’re doing and master the perfect somersault today!

You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).


50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do): Sleep in the Wild

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do): Sleep in the wild

Task: Challenge your fear of the dark and sleep without the comfort of walls and electricity.



  • Sleeping Bag or Blankets
  • Sleeping Pad (optional)
  • Pillow (optional)
  • Flashlight
  • Tent (optional)

Possible Hazards:

  • Bugs
  • Cold
  • Vermin

How It All Went Down:

I’ll begin by clarifying that in Gever Tulley’s book, his illustration and description of sleeping in the wild does not include a tent.   It’s pretty much just you and your sleeping bag in the great wide open.  A little background information for you:  Mike and I were not raised in camping families.  Neither of us has ever camped, let alone just spread a blanket outside to sleep with all of God’s great (and not-so-great) creatures.  No, we like our comfy beds, air conditioning, running water and critter-free abodes.  So when I saw this as one of the challenges, I knew we had a choice.  We could skip it altogether or we could do it as close to the wild as possible.  For us, this meant having a tent between us and the great outdoors.  Call us out if you will, but I think a thin piece of nylon between us and everything else totally counts as sleeping in the wild.

We spent a night at Paynetown State Recreation Area on the shores of Lake Monroe.  I’ll be writing in more detail about our very first camping experience in a few weeks, as it ended up being one of the best family experiences we’ve ever had.

We had two tents and the genius idea to put the kids in one and the adults in the other.  If we were going to have to sleep on the ground, the least we could do was spare ourselves the added discomfort of little arms and legs flailing about.  We had excellent weather – not too hot, not too cold, and dry.  Before sleeping outdoors you definitely want to look at the weather in-depth and prepare accordingly.  A tarp underneath your tent or sleeping bag will prevent dampness from seeping through.

We were not far from a restroom facility at the campground, but far enough that you wouldn’t want to walk there in the middle of the night.  We made a pit stop just before climbing into our tents, but kept toilet paper in the tent in case nature called before dawn.  A flashlight within arm’s reach is a necessity.

It’s amazing how quickly kids can fall asleep when they’ve been immersed in nature all day and when there are no distractions at night.  It took me a little longer.  Beyond noticing how dark it really is away from the cities and suburbs, I was amazed at how in tune you become to sound.  It felt like I could hear every bug, bird, leaf and breeze.  It’s disconcerting at first, imagining what’s making each of those sounds, but soon it became very soothing.  I found that instead of falling asleep with my mind going a hundred miles a minute rehashing the day, I fell asleep with a clear head.

The kids slept like logs.  We had to wake them up the next morning so they wouldn’t miss breakfast.  Mike and I slept more fitfully, but we are also old and not nearly as limber.

It’s definitely something we’ll spend more time doing together as a family.  Next time we’ll probably bring an air mattress instead of sleeping bags and pads.  So maybe it’s not exactly what Mr. Tulley meant by braving the wild, but we definitely conquered our fear of sleeping in the great outdoors.  I’ll call it a victory!

Are you a camping family?  A glamping family?  Or do you prefer solid walls and the comforts of home?  Would you try sleeping outdoors just for the sake of giving your kids the experience?

You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).


50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Kids Do): Climb a Tree

Dangerous Thing You Should Let Your Kids Do: Climb a Tree

Task: Find an excellent tree and climb it!



  • Good shoes or bare feet
  • Tree

Possible Hazards:

  • Cuts and scrapes
  • Fall
  • Bumps and bruises

Kids Climbing Trees

How It All Went Down:


There is something about a tree that just begs you to climb it.  For kids, climbing a tree is more than just fun (although, ultimately, that’s what makes it so appealing).  Scaling a tree teaches them vital lessons, such as dexterity, risk assessment, focus, and planning.  They have to decide how high they’re comfortable climbing, the best way to get there, which branches look  sturdiest, and figure out how to get back down.  A successful climb builds confidence, gives them a sense of freedom, and helps them appreciate nature.  An unsuccessful climb has the most valuable lesson a child can learn: how to pick themselves up and get right back at it again.

If you’re new to tree climbing, be sure to start small.  Climb up a few branches, then climb back down.  Climbing is fun, getting stuck – not so much.

Climbing trees does a body good.

We are always in search of good climbing trees.  You know what would be awesome?  A tree climbing directory.  How cool would it be to be able to search for trees that are just begging to be scaled?  Gever Tulley has a great suggestion.  Since you can’t always find a tree to climb when you really want one, keep an eye out for trees that are good climbing candidates.  Make note of where they are so that when the urge strikes you know right where to find them.  Then be sure to share them with the rest of us!

Did you climb trees as a kid?  Do you let your kids?  

You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).


50 Dangerous Things: Play with Fire


Task:  Learn how to start a fire, and become aware of its risks and responsibilities.



  • Fire pit, ring, or barbecue
  • Water bucket
  • Firewood – various sizes of logs or wood cut to various widths
  • Kindling –  twigs, small sticks or wood chips
  • Tinder – crumpled paper or very dry leaves
  • Matches or lighter
  • Adult supervision

Possible Hazards:

  • Burns
  • Fire (!)
  • Property Damage

How It All Went Down:

The previous owners of our home were kind of enough to leave their fire pit behind … and along with it a backyard full of firewood, kindling and tinder.  The kids had been begging to make s’mores in the fire pit, and I saw it as a perfect opportunity for them to learn about making a fire.  You have to earn your s’mores in this family.

Since wood, wind and weather conditions, and burning vessels are so varied, no two fires will ever be the same.  Use the following as general guidelines.  Fires can produce a lot of smoke, so make sure your neighbors (if you’re in the ‘burbs like us) are okay with this.  Keep buckets of water handy for dousing out the fire.

Play With Fire via The Risky Kids

Step 1:

Observe the conditions around you.  Determine what direction the wind is coming from.  This determines the front of the fire (upwind side) and back of the fire (downwind side).

Step 2:

Lay your foundation.  Select a large piece of wood with a flat side and set it at the back of your fire ring.  This will reflect heat and protect the fire from wind.

Play With Fire via The Risky Kids

Step 3:

Assemble your starter.  Place tinder at the base of the large piece of wood.  Lay kindling on top and place smaller logs on either side of the kindling, leaning against the large piece of wood.

Step 4:

Stockpile medium-sized sticks to feed the fire until the larger logs ignite.

Play With Fire via The Risky Kids

Step 5:

Light the bottom edges of the tinder.  If it’s too wet, it won’t light.  If they’re damp, you may be able to blow on them to get them to “catch.”  Lighting from the bottom works with fire’s natural tendency to burn up instead of down.

Step 6:

As your kindling starts to burn, feed the fire with the medium-sized sticks.  Don’t add too many too soon, or you can inadvertently put the fire out.

Play With Fire via The Risky Kids

Step 7:

Maintain your fire by poking and nudging logs together as they burn, minimizing the number of logs you need to add to the fire.  Make and eat your s’mores!

Play With Fire via The Risky Kids

Step 8:

Extinguish.  When you’re done with the fire, pour water all over the fire.  It’s important to stir the ash around and add more water as needed.  If not, dry pockets can remain and reignite.  Repeat this process until all parts of the fire are cool to the touch.

This ended up being a learning experience for all of us.  For one, I never knew the difference between firewood, kindling and tinder.  I didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family, so making and watching over a fire wasn’t anything I ever learned.  In the process, all of us learned not only how to start a fire, but the importance of watching over it and the taking responsibility for it until it is completely out.  We joke about doing “risky” things, but for the first time on this journey, we felt like we were doing something that actually had the potential to be dangerous.

Fire is fascinating for kids.  Beyond melting marshmallows in it, they love to watch it, poke it, and add things to it.  As Mr. Tulley points out in the book, fire is “a laboratory and an invitation to explore.”   Building a fire is one of those skills that our generation has strayed away from, but is an important tool to know and understand.  And because it naturally attracts the attention of children, it’s imperative that we teach kids how to use and behave around fire.  Having experience with fire under the supervision of adults makes it less likely that they’ll ever do anything truly risky with fire on their own.

You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).


50 Dangerous Things: Learn Tightrope Walking

Kid Using Slackline

Task: Act like a circus performer and develop your sense of balance



  • Parking Curb
  • Low wall
  • A tightrope or a slackline

Possible Hazards:

  • Frustration
  • Falls
  • Sprained Ankle

How it all went down:

I wouldn’t mind joining the circus about now so this task was right up my alley. We actually try to balance on a lot of things – you’ve seen us slackline in the past.  But how do you get from plain old walking to balancing your way across a tightrope?  Practice!  It simply takes time to develop your sense of balance.  The best, and safest (Gasp! Did we just say that?) way is to start by trying to balance on everyday objects and working your way up to higher and wobblier things as you improve.

If you want to start really simple, find a place on the sidewalk or pavement with a long, straight crack.  Pretend it’s a tightrope and walk across it.


Once you’ve got that down, move on to something a little higher, like parking curbs.  The key to balancing is keeping your eyes up.  Find a spot on the horizon to focus on.  It seems counterintuitive, but think about it.  Do we look down at our feet when we’re walking normally?  Spreading your arms out helps, too, by spreading  out your mass and reducing your angular velocity.  Keep practicing until it feels as easy as walking across a crack in the sidewalk.  Katie’s gotten so good she can run across the parking curbs.


Once that gets comfortable, move up to something higher.  No kid can resist climbing on low walls.  Thomas and Benjamin spent a good 30 minutes running up and down this ledge at the library. I timed each run and they tried to beat their times. I admit, if they had fallen, there would have been blood. But it had rained all day and these boys had plenty of energy. They have a pretty good handle on their limits when it comes to balance.  Plus, I’m sure they were missing us at Urgent Care, so I let them run.

Kid using Gibbon slackline

You don’t have to be able to run across low walls (or leap buildings in a single bound) to attempt the slackline.  The beauty of the slackline is that you can adjust the height and the wobbliness yourself.  It’s a fun activity for all ages, and draws both kids and adults in like bees at a cookout.  Emily is a gymnast and can now go the farthest on the slackline of all the kids.

Perfecting your balance is a great risky activity to try if you want to dip your toes into risky play.  Not only are you working on a physical skill, you’re subtly building skills kids will need throughout their lives:  feeling confident on unfamiliar footing and learning to face failure (falling) and get right back up to try again.  Next time you come across some sort of balance beam, go ahead. It’s fun and the only way to improve your balance is to work on it a little each day.

And if you know where I can find a real tightrope, gimme a call.  My circus dream awaits.


Do you find that your kids naturally gravitate to playing on things that challenge their balancing skills?  Do you let them?  Or is your gut response to ask them to get down before they get hurt?  Does this change your mind?  You can read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).


50 Dangerous Things: Spend an Hour Blindfolded

Task: “See” the world without using your eyes.




  • Timer
  • Blindfold
  • An hour

Possible Hazards:

  • Tripping
  • Frustration
  • Bumps and bruises

How it all went down:

Angie called me the other day and said that she was trying to find the time to blindfold her kids for an hour. I thought, “Hey, that sounds like fun. Maybe we should do it too.”

The opportunity presented itself earlier this week, as Thomas showed up for hair and makeup (I don’t really put makeup on my kid – that’s just what I like to call getting your face washed and hair brushed) with socks on his hands.  He said, “I just brushed my teeth with socks on my hands!” When I asked him if he’d like to spend the rest of the time before school with socks on his hands AND blindfolded, his face lit up. It was on. Benjamin politely declined and disappeared.


Thomas got a drink from the fridge.


He didn’t have much luck with the iPad … is there an app for that?


He said the stairs were the easiest part.

He thought he found his fleece from the coat closet.   Actually, he found my coat. Turns out you can not tell fleece color from feel alone. I let him dance around in my fleece for a while. Payback is nice.


He found his shoes by smelling them.  Scary, but he was right.


He walked all the way to school blindfolded. I did let him change his coat, though.  I’m not that mean.

The only time he cheated and peeked was when he looked at the clock. He actually heard the train go by our house. The same train that goes by unnoticed every five minutes was noticed immediately while blindfolded. The neighborhood kids helped him get to school safely and the crossing guard stopped him from walking right out into the crosswalk. He won’t leave toys on the stairs ever again.

This was really fun, inexpensive and interesting. So grab a blindfold and and the kids and experience life without sight.  Or make it really fun and blindfold your significant other …


  • The blindfolded person should have an assistant with them to intervene before they get into any serious trouble or stumbles.
  • An hour seems like a long time, but it takes at least that long for your brain to start relying on other senses.
  • Try to make your blindfold so that it prevents any light from reaching your eyes. Folding small squares of fabric in half and then in half again to act as eye patches under your blindfold work really well.
  • Other things to do while blindfolded: eat a meal, use the bathroom, try to catch a ball, or draw a map of the room you’re in.

Have you tried being blindfolded for any significant amount of time?  Can you think of any other activities we should try while blindfolded?

Want more?  Read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).



One Year Anniversary Giveaway!

This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Kelly M!

kids climbing trees

I can hardly believe that it’s been one year since I launched The Risky Kids!  While this blog is still very young, it’s been so much fun to see it grow, begin to take its first tentative steps and find its voice.  And unlike my real babies, it lets me sleep through the night.

diy slingshot

I’m also so very glad that my good friend Lisa joined us this year.  Having blogged solo for six years, it’s so nice to have a blogging buddy … especially one that’s willing to superglue her fingers together or squash pennies on a railroad track.  You just don’t find friends like that everywhere.


I’m happy to report that in our first year of blogging about risky play, no laws or bones were broken and only a few tears were shed!  And people think this stuff is dangerous …


We did, however, have loads of fun, especially with our 50 Dangerous Things series.  Gever Tulley’s book, 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), was the inspiration behind starting The Risky Kids.  As a way to pay homage to the book that started it all and to thank each and every one of you who joined us on this adventure, we’re giving away a copy of the book!

But wait – there’s more!  We love you too much to stop at one of our favorite books, so we’re also throwing in a copy of The Art of Roughhousing.  I just finished reading it a few weeks ago and it’s been an instant hit at our house.  We know you’ll love it, too.

All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below letting us know the riskiest fun you had with your kids in the last year.  Want to earn an additional entry?  Just “Like” The Risky Kids on Facebook and let us know that you did so in the comments.  The giveaway will close on Sunday, February 2, 2013 at 11:59 pm EST.  Winner will be notified via email and have 48 hours to respond before a new winner is chosen.  Books will be mailed directly to winner.

Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and sharing The Risky Kids with your friends.  We can’t wait to share another year of adventures with you!


50 Dangerous Things: Squash Pennies on a Railroad Track

Task: Squash Pennies on a Railroad Track



  • Pennies (or other coins)
  • Tape
  • Active train track
  • Train schedule

Possible hazards:

  • Death by train
  • Awkward conversations with the police
  • Projectiles

How it all went down:


We live about three houses down from an active railroad track – as in a train comes by every five minutes or so.  After living here for about five years, I hardly notice the train but our visitors are always a little shocked at the noise and vibrations.  I don’t want my kids playing on the tracks, so I loaded them into the mini-van and drove to an access point just down the street.  (I know, my kids are going to figure out that they can walk to the tracks, but somehow it made me feel better to have the illusion they could only get there by car.)


We duct taped 13 pennies to the track, then went home and waited for a train to pass.  Surprisingly, we only found two pennies when we returned.  The duct tape was melted to the track and the pennies were flat – I mean flat!   I wasn’t expecting them to be this flat.

Nothing like a squashed penny to drive home the point of the sheer weight and force of a train.  It was cool, and I think that the kids learned that getting run over by a train is a very bad thing


  • Pick a portion of the track that is very straight – you want to see and hear the train coming from a long way away.
  • A location next to an automated crossing gate is good – the bells will warn you as a train approaches.
  • Don’t try to place pennies on the track if you can see or hear a train or crossing bells. Obviously.  According to Tulley, because of the unfamiliar size of train engines, our brains can’t accurately judge the speed and distance of oncoming trains.  If you can see or hear it, get out of the way.
  • If you see a spot of the track is brighter or shinier than the rest, tape your penny there. That’s where the wheel makes the most contact.
  • Mark the spot with a stick on the ground.
  • If you’re waiting there for the train to pass, stand at least 30 feet away from ALL tracks.  A flying penny will put your eye out.
  • To ensure the safety of the train and the track, never put anything larger than a coin on the tracks.
Want more?  Read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

50 Dangerous Things: Kiss Hello Like the French

Task: Learn a new type of greeting – and learn to laugh off embarrassments.



  • Another person (preferably someone who is willing to kiss you)

Possible Hazards:

  • Cooties
  • Slap
  • Embarrassment

How It All Went Down:

I know what you’re thinking … how on earth can air kissing be considered dangerous?  Well, it shouldn’t be physically dangerous.  Unless you get slapped, of course, and that’s on you for not choosing your partner wisely.  But learning a new greeting, or finding yourself in the midst of a different cultural norm than you’re used to, can be embarrassing.  By learning to feel comfortable in these kinds of situations and being able to laugh off any awkwardness, we can teach kids a valuable lesson: we all get embarrassed sometimes.  Using humor to overcome embarrassment helps to build confidence.  It also teaches kids to recognize personal space and get a sense of what they’re comfortable with.

This form of greeting is actually pretty normal for me.  My mom is Spanish, and many of my relatives live in Spain.  This is the way we greet each other.  My kids, however, are not at all accustomed to this.  We’re planning a trip abroad either this summer or next, so we might as well get used to kissing like the Europeans!  Here’s how you do it:

  • Stand a few steps apart from your partner.
  • Greet each other (Bonjour! for French, Hola! for Spanish).
  • Put your right hand on their left shoulder.
  • Tilt your head slightly to the right and lean in so that your left cheek touches their left cheek.
  • Make a kissing noise with your lips, or lightly kiss the other person’s cheek.
  • Lean back.
  • Repeat on the other cheek.

This greeting is common between friends, family, and even new acquaintances, but would definitely not be used in business situations. Now that would be awkward.  Allow Elena and I to demonstrate (and kudos to Eli, our cameraman!).

Want more?  Read about the rest of our experiences with 50 Dangerous Things. Inspired by Gever Tulley’s book 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).