Buzz Aldrin: (Former) Free-Range Kid

Hi hdnytkzsdh
Readers! This is a good reminder of WHY we want our kids to get out in the world, on their own. Enjoy! — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: We picked up the book Reaching for the Moon by Buzz Aldrin at the library earlier in the day. When I got to page 8, I couldn’t believe what I read:

Determination, strength, independence – those were the qualities I worshiped in my favorite movie hero, the Lone Ranger. I went to the movies every Saturday, and sometimes I even snuck in through the fire escape when I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket. I felt just like the Lone Ranger the day I set off to ride my bike across the George Washington Bridge to New York City. Ten years old, I pedaled twenty miles down unfamiliar roads and busy streets, past neighbors and strangers, out into the unknown. Just like the Lone Ranger, I didn’t need help form anyone. It took me all day, but I found the way and did it myself.

Pretty inspiring! — Melissa

Lenore here: Sure is! May I add that at a conference on play that I attended, I heard from Stuart Brown that NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab were baffled by some of the brainiacs they were hiring to replace Buzz’s generation. Yes, the new hires were brilliant at equations and engineering, BUT they lacked a certain agility when it came to real-world problem solving. How did NASA and the JPL solve their OWN problem? They started to ask, in job interviews, about the applicants’ childhoods. Had they tinkered as kids? Built things on their own? The ones who had were the ones who got hired. So “free-time” when kids are just goofing around, making stuff, turns out to be of FUNDAMENTAL importance when it comes to succeeding in the “real” world. And beyond.– L

What's the Buzz? Independence is good for kids! (And astronauts.)

44 Responses to Buzz Aldrin: (Former) Free-Range Kid

  1. Dolly June 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm #


  2. Lola June 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    A friend of mine often says that the final exam to obtain a Degree in Engineering should be to tear anything from a washing machine to a car apart and put it back together again without sparing any pieces.
    And if he doesn’t prove able to do that, he should be diverted into Physics.

  3. Dave Higgs-Vis June 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    I can’t say I’m surprised. If you never left your front yard as a kid, I can imagine it’d be pretty tough psychologically to leave Earth as an adult.

  4. KyohakuKeisanki June 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Or ESPECIALLY if you weren’t even allowed in your back yard…

  5. KyohakuKeisanki June 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    Wait I meant front yard not back yard… I meant if you were ONLY allowed in your back yard

  6. BMS June 10, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    I teach engineering. The successful student design teams are the ones with the hands on tinkerers. Some teams make tons and tons of beautiful computer models, but their designs never come to fruition when it comes to putting physical objects together in a useful way. But the ones who played with a lot of legos, tinkered with cars, built models, modified their bikes, and otherwise did a lot of hands on playing with their world make stuff that works.

  7. Lollipoplover June 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    I know this book. My son did his biography interview this year on Buzz Aldrin using this book (and had the coolest costume in the class)!
    His favorite facts on Buzz:
    1)Buzz was small for his age as a child but still played sports with all the older kids in the neighborhood. They respected him because he was a tough little guy.
    2) He didn’t get into the Astronaut program on the first try. He didn’t give up and got in on the second try.

  8. RobynHeud June 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    @BMS, I work with engineers on a pretty regular basis myself, and you have ones who are willing to see their design through from beginning to end and make adjustments in the way they design and then you have others, who have never physically built anything, and who believe that because it works on paper it must work in real life. As one of my supervisors once told said engineer, “Yes, and on paper, Superman flies.”

    @Lola, I think that would be the best test ever! Can we make it a “challenge test” so if you can do it, you don’t have to go through the classes?

  9. Anthony from CharismaticKid June 10, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    My dad walked a mile to school every day at six years old in the ghetto. Now he’s a successful lawyer.

    But for some reason he wouldn’t leave me alone for one second when I was a kid. This world is funny, in’it?

  10. K June 10, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Way to go – this is wonderful and parallels nicely what I see in the college classroom.

    Let me also plug Lego robots here – and Lego League (Gracious Professionalism).

  11. Susan June 10, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Do you think everyone called Buzz Aldrin’s mom “The Worst Mom in America” for letting her 10 year old son ride his bike into NYC by himself?

  12. paul June 10, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    I think we — all of us who are starting to suspect that not breaking/fixing/building stuff is forfeiting part of a kid’s education — are onto something. I’ve been pondering this while working with young children and trying to raise a couple of early teens. I’ve heard a lot of stuff about boys being left behind by schools but I am unconvinced. This is a bit off-topic but I think it ties in with the Free Range ethos. We have been hearing that the public school system is in disarray and failing our kids but the real failure is everywhere but in the schools: everytime we deny a kid, boy or girl, the opportunity to make a mistake or a mess, we deny them a chance to learn. And that’s what they supposed to be doing.

    This is what’s been lost, not “boy culture” but tool using and making stuff. A kid, boy or girl, who gets out of school without having built so much as a bird house with their own hands or changed a bike tire or cooked something without a microwave has been short-changed.

  13. Emily June 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

    I LOVE that you posted that tidbit from JPL/NASA. THANK YOU!

  14. Keri June 10, 2011 at 11:26 pm #

    I think this article may have some relevance. All I can say is WOW

  15. Marie June 10, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    Like I needed more reasons to encourage my kids to explore and create. Pretty cool.

  16. Cheryl W June 10, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    Our family had the pleasure of hearing astronaut Story Musgrave speak last year. A couple of things stood out. He grew up on a farm and as many farmers do, had to repair items to keep them going. He was helping with the farm at a very early age. Through life he kept that idea if it is broken, fix it. He maintained that he was hired in good part because of his experience on the farm, fixing things, that the people in charge knew that he could think in a potential crisis and try to fix things with what he had available, and stay calm.

    My husband, a scientist, also grew up on the farm with the same work ethic of working hard and fixing what you have. As he has gone through graduate school and on to his job, he has shown that he can deal with electronics, computers, welding, machining and much more, just because of what he had to do growing up on the farm. Other students and graduates usually lack these abilities, or as others have said, know how it works on paper but have trouble doing in real time and space.

    My oldest son wants to be an astronaut. As we get machinery to help us with our ranchette, we remind him that fixing this old farm stuff is part of what got his dad where he is and Story Musgrave where he was. Time will tell with where he goes in life, but I can guarantee that each of my kids will be able to at the very least, check and fill all fluids on any vehicle, fix a lawn mower, and build well built things like shelves, drawers, raised garden beds and such on their own. They will also be able to cook a meal from scratch with available food items and use all kitchen utensils.

    BTW, if you have opportunity to hear Story Musgrave, I highly recommend that you drop everything to listen to him. He is very inspiring and still going strong and designing rides for Disney Land!

  17. jim June 11, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    A friend of mine’s son who is one of NASA’s top under-30 robotics engineers (UH for undergrad and a Masters from Stanford) is famous among his dad’s friends for having been the 9-year old kid whose neighborhood had to be evacuated after he dismantled the gas meter. All part of the learning process….

  18. coffeegod June 11, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    My bike was my freedom as a kid. I explored the neighborhood, found stuff other kids never found and saw things I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I picked blackberries by the railroad tracks that were just down the street from my house. I ranged all over the massive subdivision where I grew up in North Florida.

    This summer, my nine year old is going to the store up the street and around the block from us on errands for me. He is old enough and smart enough.

  19. BMS June 11, 2011 at 1:13 am #

    Another study confirming what I have seen already:

    I have had a senior undergrad student whose mom contacted me before the term started to find out what his textbook was so she could get it for him. I’m sorry, but you are a legal adult. Buy your own books and cut the apron strings.

  20. EricS June 11, 2011 at 1:31 am #

    Great post about Buzz, and nice link BMS and Keri. It’s nice to see that more and more people are starting to realize what many of us have been saying for a long time. What many of us have believed growing up. I knew and did all the “free-range” things growing up, but it never had a title. Nor did over protective parents. But seeing that “helicopter parenting” and “free-range” are starting to catch on, with a definition of each, shows that there IS growing concern, and that there are more of us that do acknowledge and realize that something needs to be done. Not saying it’s a direct association, but it is a catalyst I believe of helicoptering. I notice more insecure, and fearful kids these days then when I was growing up. Even just 10-15 years ago. I hope this keeps going, and this hovering parents start to realize that they’re “protectiveness” can actually hinder, or even damage their children’s futures.

  21. dmd June 11, 2011 at 1:40 am #

    Unfortunately, I think some of the problems that Stuart Brown described relate to the testing culture we have created. It’s one thing to train someone to get the questions right on an exam; it’s another thing to train someone to *think.* We are missing that vital component right now. (Hopefully the Free Range kids are doing some thinking on their own!)

  22. gap.runner June 11, 2011 at 2:42 am #

    @dmd, You’re right about the difference between getting test questions right and thinking. One of the big differences between German and American schools is the type of tests that kids take. Starting in 2nd grade in Germany, kids take tests in all of their subjects. Just about all of the tests are short answer or essay tests. There may be one or two true-false questions on a test. But a pure multiple choice test is unheard of. Even the “state” tests that all kids in Bavaria take in English and German have essay components to them. To get a top grade on a test, a student has to really think about the questions and answer them in depth. The emphasis is on thinking about the question, not just spitting out an answer. Even on math tests the kids are required to show their process for solving the problems. Some of the word problems require a lot of creative thought for how to solve them.

    Some examples of tests that my son recently took…In his Ethics class the class took a quiz about the 10 commandments and monotheism. One of the questions was name 3 commandments that people can follow even if they don’t believe in one God and explain why. A recent English test had a reading comprehension section. One of the questions was to write three reasons that the kids in the story decided to have a bazaar instead of planting a tree and why the bazaar was better. In German class the students were studying how to write a news report. They just took a test which gave them a situation and required them to write a news report about it. A recent history quiz question was which of 3 men (Julius Caesar and two others who I forget. One was very rich and the other was a general.) were the least dangerous to the Roman Empire and why. None of those tests were just “spit out an answer.” They asked for explanations which require some thought. By the way, these were all tests for 6th graders.

  23. Robin June 11, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    There is still hope for the engineering world. The FIRST Robotics kids have to make and program a robot and and then compete in a series of regonal and national competitions. These are the kids that still tinker.

  24. Kara June 11, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    My hubby was a free range kid and, as an adult, is loved by his employer for his ability to ‘think outside of the box’ and problem solve independently. He often reworks the engineered drawings he is given because he can see in them the flaws the the engineers do not. His boss lovesthat my hubby does not need to be surpervised due to his troubleshooting abiliites and his work ethic. While not in a management position, he is often asked to take employees under his wing. He is often surprised by their lack of ‘real world experience.

    At times I wonder if our children will survive childhood with all limbs intact as they tinker in the garage alongside their father, but, at the same time, I feel they are blessed to have these rich learning experiences that NO classroom or structured program can provide. And I will smile (and begrudgingly get my hands dirty )the day my daughter decides to teach me how to change the oil in my car. 🙂

  25. Dolly June 11, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    I was never taught to think critically in school. I attended public schools and did the AP classes and got good grades. It was a decent school too. I first learned to think critically a bit in the English AP class. When I got to college I was very much unprepared. All college professors want you to think critically and be able to answer questions in essay form with adding critiques or insight you come up with on your own. Memorizing stuff out of books does not work. I have always had excellent memory and can memorize exactly what the teacher lectured on and spout it right back to them on the tests. That would get me about a B. To get an A I had to come up with some critical insight or thinking on my own. I figured it out but it took time and was trial and error. Even my 2 year school did not teach critical thinking. I had to figure it out my last 2 years at college in high level courses. It was trial by fire for sure.

    From what I have heard things have only gotten worse. All the teachers do is prepare the kids for the tests all year. They never work on critical thinking or let the kids explore deeper into a subject that interests them or really even work on free thinking and free thought. I am sure there are some teachers that do this and do it well. But from my experience and from what I heard, that is not always the case.

    I think the whole system needs an overhaul. Stop wasting time teaching diversity and other social topics and stick to the fundamentals and critical thinking. Leave social topics to the parents to teach. Give teachers power to demand good behavior in the classroom and give them the power to kick out kids that disrupt the class and keep everyone else from learning. Give teachers freedom to explore other topics more deeper or have some creativity in how they teach subjects.

  26. paul June 11, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    I don’t think teaching diversity is a waste of time but in keeping with the notion of Free Range Kids, if we let kids be kids, it would never have been an issue. Kids learn prejudice and racism at home. It’s a sad truth that the social topics some parents teach are at the root of sexism, racism, and every other kind of anti-social behavior.

    But I agree on the idea that schools don’t teach much critical thinking: I could have written much the same thing as Dolly from my own experience. But we have to keep in mind that we, the taxpayers, are the ones demanding these tests be administered, rather than spending time in school classrooms and going over homework and supporting the schools in more meaningful, involved ways. Those kids who are having problems, behavioral or developmental, need some place to go where they can be helped. That’s another aspect of diversity we need to reinforce, that we respect and accommodate everyone as best we can.

    Talking about the schools would take as much time and energy as Free Range Parenting, and I suspect there are a lot of overlaps between the two topics.

  27. stephanonymous June 12, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    One of my favorite quotes of all time:

    “In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”
    Eric Hoffer

  28. Michele June 12, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    From the book, “Ancient Advice for Modern Parents” by William Martin:

    “If you push your children, they will loose their balance. If you are always running them here and there, they will get nowhere. If you put them in the spotlight, they will be unable to see their own light. If you seek to impose upon them your own ideas of who they should be, they will become nothing.

    If you want them to thrive, do what you can for their safety, then let go.”

    Yay Buzz!!

  29. Kate Parker Adams June 12, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    I grew up fixing things myself because I saw my grandmother do that, and because we didn’t have much money. I also got tired of waiting for my dad to get around to, say, fixing my bike or changing a tire, when I needed to ride it daily. When I was 16, I fixed the brakes on the car for much the same reasons.

    I was also taught some basic car repair/maintenance FOR MY OWN SAFETY. I could not believe that my MIL, who was an east coast city person, couldn’t do this basic thing.

    That said, I think the best thing we can do for our kids is show them that it is all right to take things apart. Do it yourself, often. Then let them be involved. I got a new bike yesterday – it came in a box, semi-assembled. They helped me put it together and adjust everything. If they get stuck on a long ride, well, they might be able to fix something instead of calling for a ride or being stuck.

  30. Kristi June 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    My daughters all inherited their father’s “math and science” gene, thank you sweet Lord! As a result, our basement and garage are overrun with “projects”. The basement contains the ever evolving Lego cities and robotics projects. The garage contains the 11 year olds fully restored riding lawmower. He father let her take the old one apart and rebuild it all on her own because he said it’s the best way to learn how an internal combustion engine works. She worked and researched for two years before she finally figured it out..but she figured it out! Her reward was the bucket of rust ’68 Mustang that they are now restoring together.

    Several years ago, the UPS man dropped off a large box and I opened it and inside were 6 broken Roombas (the little robot cleaners). Puzzeled, I asked my husband why we need six of anything that didn’t work. His response was “cheap robots”. We are now the proud owners of Roombas that can launch 5 pound objects more than 10 feet, Roombas that can hack their way through a plywood wall, and Roombas that can lift a 5 lb object, move it 30 feet and position it on a dime. Oh, we are also the proud parents of the two time state Robotics Champion, and her sister, the runner up!

    The very best thing we ever did for our their educations was to buy them Legos, Roombas, a broken lawn mower, their own tool kits and a farm far away from meddling neighbors. They’ve learn more in our garage, basement and playing in the woods, than they ever have in a classroom.

    Leaders, inventors, doers and heroes aren’t cultivated in hothouses like rare orchids. They are given the tools they need and the freedom to explore, succeed and fail on their own!

  31. Jenny Islander June 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I just realized . . . my old high school still has an open campus. That is, you can eat in the lunchroom, but you are free to leave, all by yourself in any weather, and walk/bike/drive the quarter-mile or so downtown to eat at a fast food joint or a coffee shop, and you are expected to bring yourself back in time for your first afternoon class Or Else.

    How unusual is my school these days?

  32. Dolly June 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Jenny: There is a magnet school downtown in our town that has that system with free lunch.

    Otherwise, most high schools are LOCKED down. They stop and question everyone going in or coming out of the schools during the day.

  33. Jennifer Lyn June 13, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    “He has compiled evidence that people are healthier and better adjusted if they get out into the countryside, parks or gardens.”

  34. Rick June 13, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    Great article which shows qualitative evidence of the importance of kids playing & exploring & pushing the boundaries. Pushing these boundaries as a child may make us safer in later life.

  35. RP June 13, 2011 at 9:37 am #

    I love this entry. I teach Algebra 1 (and have also taught Geometry in the past) and it is remarkable how many students find it nearly impossible to problem solve, especially with real-world examples. I’m ALWAYS encouraging my students to “play with the numbers” using the algebraic rules they’ve learned in order to discover ways of solving problems and proving formulas. Or to think about a real-world example realistically and ask themselves what makes the most sense to do. My students don’t understand what I mean – why can’t I just “tell them what they have to do”?

    This is the reason so many students struggle with math, and especially Geometry! For the first time in their math careers, they’re being told to explore with numbers and they just can’t figure out how they can do anything that they haven’t already been programmed step-by-step to do.

    I know this entry wasn’t really about math, per se, but I still saw a lot of parallels. 🙂

  36. paul June 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    When I read this — “My students don’t understand what I mean – why can’t I just “tell them what they have to do”?” — what I see is a fear of getting it wrong, of being afraid to try something in case it’s a mistake. Blame it on multiple guess tests or standardized assessments of all kinds, where what’s wanted is an answer, not a demonstration of how you found it, but that’s what I get from that example.

  37. Hels June 13, 2011 at 11:21 pm #

    Yep, I have taught at professional school level, and I have observed the same thing – two hundred pairs of scared eyes pleading “don’t pick me!” when asked what the main idea of the journal article they were assigned to read were. The only way I could get an answer out of them was to tell them exactly which paragraph contained the answer to my question. And these are 22-23 year olds who are about to start caring for real, live patients who don’t come with a manual!

    I have been lucky to be a product of the Soviet school system before it was broken and rebuilt to be more like US system. Out of curiosity, I asked US math teachers about a math problem I saw in one book from my childhood. That book was written in early 1950s and the math problem was for early fourth grade. I remember seeing the same problems at the same age. The US teachers told me that US students would see it at 7th/8th/9th level. That just scared me.

  38. paul June 13, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Hels reminds me that, apropos of Buzz Aldrin, the race to the moon was executed with sliderules, scratch paper, and lots of ingenuity and resourcefulness: realize that our cellphones have more computing power than the lunar lander.

  39. Hels June 14, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    There are certain advantages to growing up in a country thrown into complete turmoil (I was in school right in the late 80s through mid-90s) – no one knew what line of thinking ot teach us, so we were free to develop our own.

    And the first time I have seen a multiple choice test was when I came to the US in the Fall of 1999. I had no idea what to do with the scantron sheet, so I had to raise my hand and ask the proctor to come up and explain how it all works. 🙂

  40. jim June 14, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    RP – That really struck my math chord, such as it is. I’ve always been good at “practical” math – if something is on sale for a third off I don’t have any problem figuring out the price in my head, but “abstract” math (like algebra) gave me fits. (A really boring track coach of a teacher may have been the problem. Anyway it gave my folks fits when I barely managed to pass hs algebra, which didn’t have any real-world applications. A few years later I found myself running printing presses for a living, and lo and behold, all of the changes I had to make to the machine to “set up” for different projects involved… yup, algebra, which turned out to be easy and fun once I had a “practical” application.

  41. paul June 14, 2011 at 12:24 am #

    (Geez, I feel like I’m hogging the thread, but there’s so much here.)

    I doubt it needs pointing out to anyone here but standardized tests are a reflection of school districts trying to apply scientific management [] to schools, allegedly to satisfy taxpayers that we are getting our money’s worth.

    In a perversion of teaching to the test (which at its heart is what any good teaching method does: what’s homework but repetition and deliberate practice?), we only teach things that can be answered on standardized tests. So no essays or short answers, no diagramming sentences, no graphs. Those are expensive to grade so you only see them on entrance exams and other non-compulsory tests.

    Maybe in a parallel to the loss of room to roam we’re keeping kids on a short leash in their education as well? We see the headlines when books are challenged but what about the more gradual and persistent removal of wide-ranging intellectual exploration?

  42. maryann June 15, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    Amongst the parents around here, I’ve noticed a desperate attempt to keep their children occupied with enriching activities at all waking moments: The zoo, the kids’ museum, art class, yoga class, music class, and on and on. I’m not talking about older kids either; these are 2-year-olds. Maybe that sort of thing is good for the kids, I don’t know. What I do know is that neither my daughter nor I like being that “booked up.” Sometimes we just want to hang out. For example, this morning my girl and I spent a lovely, sunny morning in our yard. I puttered in the garden and worked on some needlepoint while she did her thing: Played in her sandbox with her trucks, dug for worms, built a castle out of some rocks, followed some ants, watered her plants (she has a couple of herbs that she takes care of pretty much on her own). While she loves playing with other kids, sometimes she just wants to putter about and tinker with things. Kind of nice for me – I don’t have to come up with “stuff” for her to do. I guess I’m free range by default.


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