Are fire pits safe for kids?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get about my fire bowls is whether they’re safe for children. I pretty much always answer it the same way: “Well, that depends on the child, and on the parent.” The legal answer I have to give you is, “well, no, they’re sharp and hot. Of course they’re not safe for anyone!” but the moral or social answer to the question is “Teach your children. Watch your children. Take a long term view of safety and give your kids the experience they need to keep them safe throughout their whole life, rather than just this immediate moment.”

I just saw an amazing presentation by Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School called 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do and I’ve embedded it below because it does such a great job of really answering the question “are your firebowls safe for my child.”

Gever Tulley’s list of 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do is:

  1. Play with fire
  2. Own a pocket knife
  3. Throw a spear
  4. Deconstruct appliances
  5. Break the DMCA/drive a car

The first three of these were big parts of my childhood. I grew up in a time when there were not a lot of safety warnings on
everything. By and large, when I was a kid, you kind of had to figure
out for yourself whether something was dangerous and the best way to do
that was by experimentation.

I don’t remember my first experiences with fire, probably because it was always around… but it must have been explained reasonably well, because I taught myself metal casting when I was eight. I’d noticed that fire would melt things, so I built a fire, put lead fishing weights in a coffee can over the fire and made molds of objects from clay that I dug by the lake. I made some pretty darn cool replicas of fossils out of lead. This was something I did completely unsupervised, but no injuries ever came of it. And the lead fumes don’t seem to have induced major brain damage…

I got my first jackknife when I was four. It was a really sweet Victorinox with a lot of different blades, and yeah I still have some scars from it. But it really didn’t take long to learn how to avoid that and use the tool correctly to do all kinds of things. (As an aside, one of my favorite memories is the day I was carving a circular hole through a board with one of my Dad’s chisels… I had it in my head that I was going to make a flower pot out of this board. I’d managed to carve about halfway through the board when my Dad saw me and decided that he should give me a safety lesson on the proper way to hold the chisel. He’s quite a skilled and experienced wood carver, but he slipped on the first stroke and put the blade straight through his thumb and out the other side. Heh. It was a more dramatic than damaging injury, but I’ve never forgotten that I was the one who ended the day without gauze on my thumb.) The biggest danger that came from that first knife was that the local bullies across the street beat me up and stole it, which did suck.

Spears. Spears were one of my favorite toys. Where I grew up, there were ash saplings that grew remarkably straight and I would cut them down, sharpen the point and throw them. My all time favorite game to this day is throwing a spear back and forth with another person and catching it out of the air. Yes, I’d make a spear, get another kid, and we’d chuck the spear back and forth at each other and catch it if we could. It never, ever occurred to any of us that maybe we should not sharpen the point on the spear for this game. No one ever lost an eye, and if ninjas ever show up at the studio, I’m totally ready for them. Oh, and it’s hard to find a partner for this game, but if anyone wants to play I’d be happy to throw the old spear around for hours with you.

I did take things apart, but there were fewer broken things around to deconstruct back then than there are these days. Stuff tended to last longer or get repaired.

I didn’t get to drive as a kid either. But I did like jumping on and off the bed of slow moving pick up trucks. That was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about how to fall safely and how to pay attention to big machinery.

I’m so glad that I grew up before the era of obsessive child safety. I know that a lot of those games helped shape me into a capable person who can do things, do new things and do them well. More important, though, is the point that Gever makes: learning to do dangerous things without injury is, in fact, the best way to teach your kids safety. When everything is “hands off, don’t touch,” then safety is an idea and nothing more. When we learn by doing, safety then becomes a practice. I can’t begin to count how many times in my adult life I’ve escaped serious injury or death by relying on skills that I developed as a child who was exposed to risks.

So, is the Great Bowl O Fire safe? It’s as safe as you make it. People like to drink around a fire… Okay, me too, but don’t get soused and then dance around the pit in the dark, right? Exercise appropriate caution and awareness, please.

I kind of view the sharp points of the Great Bowl O’ Fire as a built-in warning sign of potential danger: they are Obviously sharp, it’s hard to miss, your brain should process the design as something not to touch. I could put a warning label on them, but it’s hard for me to believe that a small label with a pictogram would be a more effective warning than a big sharp object. It occurs to me to wonder how many injuries have been sustained by people leaning in close to read a warning label rather than standing back and assessing the object the label is on? For instance, if cars had a label on the grill that told you that “impact may cause injury or death” you wouldn’t want to stand in the street to read it right?