Observe The “Goldilocks Effect” In Action

 learning happens when it's "just right"

“Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skill and comprehension in a way that’s necessary for them at the time. Often children seem to reject what they aren’t ready to learn, only to return to the same skill or concept later with ease. This is not only an expression of autonomy, it’s a clear indicator that each child is equipped with an learning guidance system of his or her own.”

I wrote these words two years ago in my book Free Range Learning. This concept is now being called the “Goldilocks effect.” According to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE, humans are cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” It’s the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The study focused on how babies make sense of our complex world. For years researchers have noticed a contradiction. Sometimes babies prefer to look at familiar items, like a toy from home. Other times they prefer to look at unfamiliar items. Turns out this isn’t a contradiction at all. Babies self-regulate by choosing the amount of novelty and complexity that’s right for them at the time.

They also, according to the study, actively seek out the most reliable information and can predict what will happen next based on what they’ve seen. Babies are a great way to study human behavior. That’s because infants aren’t burdened with cultural and patterned responses. Babies indicate what all of us are like in our most basic form.

The Goldilocks effect has to do with learning at all ages. You are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now. Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold the player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a fascination of their own tend to learn more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

How do we see this in action? By looking at children through the eyes of trust.

The little boy who’d rather stomp in muddy puddles after a rainstorm than attend story hour at the library may need that full sensory experience outdoors more than he needs, right now, to sit still in a group and listen quietly. He’d probably prefer hearing stories while sitting in a parent’s lap where he benefits from closeness and can ask questions as they occur to him.

The girl who prefers to draw pictures of animals and fairies rather than run outside to play with the neighborhood kids may need more time for quiet self-expression than other children. Her imaginative art fuels growth in all sorts of areas, one of which may be a sturdier sense of self that will help her interact more freely with others when she’s ready.

The teenager who drops out when she’s reached a high level of accomplishment in an area, say soccer or fencing or designing apps. What she’s learned in that field isn’t wasted. It’s taught her a whole range of skills and empowered her to move on. She may pursue other interests in what look like fits and starts of motivation. Or the learning situation that’s just right for her may look like boredom to others. She may need time to process, daydream, create, and grow from within before pushing ahead.

Children naturally focus on what they’re ready to take in and do their best to set aside the rest. Often what they set aside is exactly what adults push them to master. We call this stubbornness but really they show us, over and over, that human nature flourishes best without coercion. Efforts to structure learning too heavily are likely to fail (or more often, the student will fail) if it’s not understood that we’re all cued to learn in the ways best for us.

 

Will Fracking Affect My Family?

fracking affects your food, fracking affects your air, fracking affects your water,

Equipment arrives at this dairy farm. (Image: fafaohio.org)

Have you heard about fracking? It may seem like it will have no impact on your or your family. But take a look at the facts.

A dairy farm not far from us is the first in our area to begin hydraulic fracturing. This process was developed to extract formerly unattainable gas and oil from rock a mile or more below the surface. Unlike old style wells bored straight down or at a slant, these go down and then proceed horizontally. Using a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals the rock is fractured (hence the name) to release fossil fuels. This is commonly called fracking.

I went to look for myself. The bucolic farm is snuggled along gentle hillsides. An Amish buggy went by as I took in the dissonant sight of Holsteins grazing and huge rigs marked Halliburton parked just off the narrow rural road. Drilling hadn’t started. I wondered if fracking chemicals could possibly affect those cows and wind up in their milk. How many of us know where our yogurt once grazed?

I’m as energy dependent as the next person. But I wanted to know more about fracking, especially how it might affect my family and community, so I started hunting down information.

Sorting through the confusion

fracking chemicals in your food, what frackers don't want you to know,

My husband and I attended a public meeting held to promote leasing by landowners. There were lots of glossy handouts and a power point presentation. The speakers said that 60 years of gas well drilling had never caused a health or safety problem. I found the same reassuring claims by the oil and gas industry in advertising campaigns and online reports. Friends who’ve already signed fracking leases repeat this too.

It seems to me they’re blurring the distinction between decades of experience in vertical drilling methods and the much newer process of fracking. It’s not hard to find incidents around my hometown of older-style wells causing trouble. That includes homes with explosive levels of methane as well as a house explosion linked to inadequate cementing of well casings. Apparently such problems have occurred in both vertically drilled wells and fracked wells.

But technically, assertions that fracking is safe are largely true. That’s because industry and government regulatory agencies use the term “fracking” only as it relates to the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground to break apart rock. So when they make claims about fracking safety, they don’t include what happens while drilling, constructing the well, setting off explosions, dealing with blowouts or well fires, storing waste water in open containment basins, vapors emitted from condensate tanks, open flaring to burn off gasses, transporting waste, injecting waste water into deep disposal wells, or at any point in the future when the wells may leak.

That’s convenient, because a University of Texas study found that these are the activities actually contaminating air, water, and soil. So both sides are “right” in the fracking debate. The industry is correct when they say that fracking is largely safe because of their limited definition of the word. People concerned about the environmental and health consequences lump all activities associated with the process under the term “fracking,” making their claims of risk correct too.

Maybe this is one reason why media coverage of fracking is so confusing. For example, the standard fracking-related practice of disposing of waste in deep injection wells has been linked to earthquakes inColoradoOklahomaTexas, and Arkansas according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. In my home state of Ohio earthquakes have also been linked to this disposal method, although the state continues to accept fracking waste brought in from other states. Last year Ohio injected 12 million barrels of waste deep below her surface. But plenty of media outlets, quoting the same studies, run reassuring headlines like “Don’t worry much about quakes and ‘fracking’” and “earthquake rise, fracking not to blame“ even if farther down in the article it’s noted that earthquakes are associated with deep injection wells used to dispose of fracking waste.

I think it’s time we developed a new word or phrase to discuss the issue more clearly. For now I’ll use “fracking-related activity.”

Disclosure and rights

fracking and water shortages, fracking chemicals evaporate into the air,

Those of us who live in areas said to be rich in shale oil are being romanced. Industry representatives hold open houses. Lawyers eager to get a share of leasing money by selling pooled rights do too. I’ve paid close attention at these meetings. The emphasis is mostly on how much money can be made. We’re told that those who get their land drilled first will have the highest yields and the most money. One speaker demonstrated with a straw and a cup of soda, showing that wherever drillers (his straw) first pierced would have access to the most gas (soda) below. He slurped loudly, then asked if anyone thought he’d leave much behind for those who leased their land later.

Many participants eagerly signed up. Any concerns raised were quickly soothed. At a meeting held in a rural church we were told that landowners would be left with trees, grass, and a single wellhead providing substantial income for 30 or more years. Big money, restored land–sounds good, right?

The promise of a hefty income rising from the ground well below our feet comes at a time when many Americans are reeling from unemployment, poor housing prices, and debt. And all over the country, property owners like small to medium dairy farms are losing their livestock and often their land because they can’t turn a profit. Fracking seems like a life line.

But when I talk to people who have already signed a lease many are upset, believing they haven’t gotten as much money as they deserved. Others believe they’ve been lied to about the environmental impact. Surely there are happy lease-holders out there, I just keep running into those who feel they’ve been deceived.

At an open house meeting last fall, a conversation between an Ohio property owner and industry representatives was tape recorded. The property owner asked about chemicals used in fracking. He was told, “We don’t put any chemicals down in the ground. We just use regular, fresh water.” Another industry representative coming into the room later said the process uses household chemicals like dish washing detergent.

These are common claims. At one meeting we were told that fracking chemicals are no more dangerous than cleaning products in the average home. Cheerful articles online tell us that the same chemicals using in fracking can be found in hand sanitizer, fabric softener, even hot dogs. (I’ll take a brief look at why that’s not the whole story in a bit.)

And leases may be misleading. A New York Times review of 111,000 documents showed that most homeowners aren’t aware what rights the industry takes.

  • A majority of leases do not require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination or damages to the land.
  • Even if state regulations force industry to replace contaminated drinking water, not all costs are covered nor are needs of crops or livestock included.
  • Many consumer protection laws do not apply.
  • Some leases deduct costs such as hauling to or from the site.
  • Energy companies can use the property to build roads, store chemicals, cut down trees, run equipment 24 hours a day, and build containment ponds (in some instances covering them with dirt rather than hauling away the waste).
  • Few landowners are fully aware that their property becomes, in essence, an industrial site.
  • Some homeowners’ insurance policies will not cover problems related to fracking.
  • They also may not be aware of a potential loss in property value.

But local citizens have very little control over fracking. Depending where they live, fracking may occur under cemeteries and in state parks. Some cities as well as colleges are considering lease offers. Despite regulations that normally zone residential areas apart from industrial areas, drilling can take place near homes and schools. Residents in ColoradoTexasWest Virginia, and elsewhere are advocating for stronger regulations to protect schoolchildren from the noise and dust generated by these sites. In some areas drilling sites are only required to be 350 feet from schools and 200 feet from homes. (In New Mexico, one school playground is 150 feet from a well.) No matter how vehemently citizens object, the ability to pass local ordinances regulating gas and oil producers can be superseded by state or federal regulations. This provides the industry rights normally not allowed under the law.

For example, in 38 states you can’t say no to fracking on your land if others in your area have already signed leases. It’s called by all sorts of names such as “mandatory pooling” or “compulsory integration.” This means a horizontal drilling line can run under your property whether you want it there or not. It’s really eminent domain by private enterprise. Such laws make it easy for gas and oil representatives to tell people they might as well sign up, because underground reserves will be extracted anyway. That’s the reason people we know are signing leases. That there’s no legal recourse shocks some homeowners when drilling begins.

For many of us, fracking operations (called “plays”) seem like a distant threat. But they’re taking place not only in rural areas but cities, suburbs, and park lands with several hundred thousand new wells scheduled for drilling in the next few years.

Will your area be fracked?

Economics

fracking the next economic bubble,

We also heard lots of talk about how much good this gas and oil will do to boost the local economy and help our nation to get back national energy independence. These are laudable goals. I’m not sure they’re more than optimistic projections.

Any talk of jobs is likely to generate enthusiasm in our still flagging economy. Those of us living in shale oil areas have been told that an employment boom is around the corner. In Ohio we’re assured that our state will see 65,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in wages within two years. But analysis of data from states already experiencing a fracking boom finds only a modest rise in employment, even when factoring in supply chain jobs and increased spending by workers and landowners. Looking more closely at the numbers, it’s clear that the majority of the energy paychecks are going to out-of-state contract workers who handle drilling and hauling.

They don’t have the most enviable jobs. Oil field workers are exempt from certain safety rules, leading to a higher rate of accidents than other industries. In one state alone, police found that 40 percent of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected were in such serious disrepair they were taken off the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatality rates for oil workers are seven times the national average.

Fracking-related activity actually places a heavy burden on municipalities. The industry estimates over 200,000 new wells will be fracked across the U.S. in the next decade. Each one requires 500 to 1,500 truck trips to haul equipment, water, and waste. Massively increased traffic brought by these heavy rigs is likely to hasten the deterioration of roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out regular report cards on the country’s infrastructure. They note that bridges are normally built to last 50 years. The average U.S. bridge is now 43 years old. Overall, the ASCE gives U.S. infrastructure (including roads, bridges, and water supply) a grade of  ”D.”

It costs in city services as well. Police have reported increased calls in some areas due to the surge in temporary workers associated with drilling. And first responders such as fire fighters and paramedics may not have the equipment, training, or funds to handle new perils that come with drilling and disposal operations.

Maybe this is the price we have to pay. After all, we’re told that fracking is a reliable means to achieve energy independence. I hear lots of these talking points repeated in meetings and in print, often along with some patriotic fervor tossed in for emphasis, but it isn’t easy to figure out energy facts in all the hubbub. As a concerned parent and citizen, I’m still trying to sort it out.

Here are some things I’m mulling over. The U.S. exports more gasoline than it imports, so energy independence isn’t as simple as the “drill, baby, drill” signs I see in my community. And shale oil, which can be extracted along with natural gas from the fracking process in some areas, is more expensive to extract and refine than crude oil. But most of the energy generated by fracking comes in the form of natural gases and liquid gases such as ethane, propane, and butane.  Over the last ten years this industry has spent 20.5 million dollars on donations to Congress and 726 million dollars on lobbying to continue steering subsidies toward fossil fuel, keep regulation minimal, and boost incentives.  Government policy decisions are locking in tax dollars for years to come on natural gas incentives based on industry and Wall Street speculation about the amount of gas that can be extracted. It will cost 700 billion to convert just some of our coal-fired plants to natural gas, a pricey venture when estimates of these reserves keep dropping.

At the same time, reports from financial and energy sectors indicate such speculation is shaky. Huge investments made in leasing and supplies are not returning profits as projected. The U.K.’s Financial Times called it the next economic bubble, comparing it to the financial disaster caused by real estate financing. For some companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, the bubble may already be bursting.

It’s not just a financial bubble, there’s also a gap between the industry’s wildly optimistic estimates and the realities of extraction. Petroleum engineers note that initial production rates are high but dropping. Although President Obama’s State of the Union address repeated industry claims that we’re sitting on a 100 year supply of natural gas, a week later the Energy Information Administration revised its estimatesof Marcellus Shale gas downward by 66 percent and overall potential U.S. reserves by 40 percent. ASlate report takes a close look at the numbers. The estimated supply actually lumps  ”proved reserves” (meaning it’s known to exist and is recoverable) with those that are “probable,” “possible,” and “speculative.” In other words, most of the so-called surplus of gas may not exist or be recoverable. Only an 11 year supply falls into the “proven” category, and that’s if our usage doesn’t go up. As Slate dryly notes, “By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your ‘probable, possible, and speculative resources.’”

Government and industry continue to insist that a boom is on although a well-by-well analysis notes that gas production is much flatter than hyped and “the gold rush is over.”  The number of drill rigs operating in North America continues to fall and production per well, on average, declines by 44 percent per year compared to 23 percent for wells in traditional gas fields.

Some people we know who have leased their property worry that the companies owning their leases are simply speculating in land and will sell those leases to foreign companies. I held up my hand at one meeting and asked an industry representative if any leases might ever be sold to non-U.S. companies. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “This is about American energy independence.”

I came home and looked it up. All sorts of huge foreign companies are buying up rights. For example, the Australian company BHP Billiton bought 4.75 billion worth of shale assets in Arkansas, the French company Total will pay 2.25 billion for shale assets in Texas and 2.32 billion for assets in Ohio, and the Chinese firm, Sinopec, is spending billions to scoop up assets across the U.S. from firms like Devon and Chesapeake. Selling these assets is, of course, the prerogative of any company owning them. Obscuring the truth about it to landowners before they sign the leases doesn’t seem to be a priority.

The fracking boom (or bubble) isn’t limited to the U.S. It’s taking place or about to in CanadaArgentinaChinaMozambiqueRussiaPolandIsraelAustralia, and elsewhere.

Health and environmental considerations

fracking and health, fracked air, fracked water,

We also attended public meetings run by several area groups hastily formed to oppose fracking. They brought speakers in from across the state and beyond. I listened to Joe Logan, a representative of the Ohio Environmental Council, explain how fracking-related activity can affect the food we eat. His charts showed that heavy metals and chemicals migrate into air, soil, and water. These contaminants can diminish crop yield, affect the health of livestock, and imperil organic certification. He noted that current laws are not sufficient to protect the food supply or food producing areas from the effects of fracking.

I listened to Doug Shields, former member of the Pittsburgh City Council, explain how fracking-related activity is exempt from major environmental laws that currently protect the public. The oil and gas industry does not have to comply with key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Environmental Policy Act, or the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.

A local man stood up with a jug of brown water from his once clear well. Since his land was fracked the water has been foul smelling and murky, although state officials told him it was okay to drink. Another woman said brine was dumped on a road by her house and when she paid to have it tested it was found to contain chemicals associated with fracking, although state officials declined to investigate. I talked to many other people at these meetings: college students, farmers, retirees, mothers with small children living near active fracking sites. The information they shared was alarming. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to confirm.

Each fracking operation takes 1.2 million gallons to 5 million gallons of water, sometimes more. Each additional time a site is fracked more water is required. Water stress (an imbalance between water use and water resources) is fast becoming an alarming global issue. When water is withdrawn from natural sources for drinking, irrigation, and other typical uses it normally finds its way back into the global water supply. But a substantial portion (15 to 40 percent) of the water used in fracking operations is left deep in the ground. What does come back up (called “flowback” as well as “produced water” which naturally occurs in shale) is often put in deep injection wells for long-term storage. This method not only edges up the potential for earthquakes, it also takes much-needed water out of planetary circulation.

Chemical components make up only about 0.5 percent of fluids used in fracking-related activity, the rest being water and sand. This sounds like a reassuringly small amount, until you multiply the millions of gallons of water used per fracking site with the number of sites being fracked. Some estimate that 20 tons of chemicals are used per million gallons of fracking fluid. (This number does not include drilling fluids and other chemicals that augment fracking-related activity.)

2011 Congressional report lists 750 known fracking chemicals in order of most common usage. Here’s a partial account of those used in highest amounts.

Some of these chemicals are indeed similar to chemicals used around the home. But a 2011 analysis found that 25 percent are carcinogens; 37 percent are endocrine disruptors; more than 40 percent can impair the immune system and nervous system; and three-quarters can irritate the eyes and lungs. It’s important to remember that some chemicals are toxic in concentrations much less than one part-per-million and the synergistic effect of most chemicals is largely unknown.

The fluid that comes back up also contains ingredients that didn’t go in. This means naturally occurring matter such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, xylene), radioactive materials (including lead, arsenic, strontium), even acidic microbes. It also means chemical compounds created by the reactions of chemicals during any stage of the process. Claims of air, ground, and water pollution due to fracking-related activity are often dismissed by industry and government officials because some contaminants are considered “naturally occurring.” And let’s not forget the water’s salinity. Fracking wastewater has two to three times more salt than sea water and more than 180 times the level considered acceptable to drink by the EPA.

Although the industry insists that all chemicals used in fracking are on the record there are still rules in place allowing them to claim chemicals are proprietary or to disclose what’s used only after the drilling has been completed. In several states including Pennsylvania and Ohio, physicians are bound by a “gag rule” which prevents doctors from sharing information about symptoms, diagnoses, and disease clusters related to fracking chemicals even with other doctors and public health officials. Some doctors say they’re not sure if the laws permit them to inform patients either. Frightening stories abound, like the one about a nurse treating a gas field worker whose clothes were drenched in chemicals. She fell ill herself.  While she was in ICU with multiple organ failure the worker’s company refused to identify those chemicals. Turned out that story was true. (Her state of Colorado now has forms to get that information although doctors are still bound by non-disclosure rules.) Limited information hampers the ability ofmedical practitioners to link health problems to environmental contaminants.

How do these and other toxins linked to fracking-related activity get into the environment? Here are a few routes.

  • Leaks and spills during transportation, mixing, or other fracking-related activity. The industry reportsmillions of gallons spilled in one state alone.
  • Liners that leak or burst, spilling fluids into the soil. Birds and other wildlife are known to be affected.
  • Exhaust from diesel trucks and diesel generators running day and night.
  • Flaring of gas (burning into the air), venting of gas (directly releasing into the air), as well as air release via dehydration units and condensate tanks.
  • Evaporating unknown quantities of chemicals into the air from open containment “ponds” of fracking waste. Misters often spray the liquid in the air to speed up the process. This is standard across much of the industry.
  • Contamination of ground water at depths used for drinking water, typically caused by failures of well casings but also possibly due to increased permeability of rock layers.
  • Inadequate treatment of waste water at sewage plants.
  • Use of “treated” fracking waste from water treatment plants mixed with sludge to be spread on parks and farms.
  • Waste water released into surface bodies of water.
  • Spraying treated fracking brine on roads to control dust or melt ice, a method approved by Ohio EPA and used in many other states although the U.S. EPA advises against this practice.

Burning natural gas itself is cleaner than other forms of fossil fuel, as long as larger environmental costs of the energy-intensive and toxic process of fracking aren’t added to the equation. In fact a Cornell study concluded that as much as eight percent of the methane in shale oil leaks into the air due to fracking, twice the amount released by conventional gas production. Since methane is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2, researcher Robert Howarth concluded that shale gas is less “clean” than conventional gas, coal, or oil.  Studies released by the American Petroleum Institute and American Natural Gas Alliance show much lower methane emissions. Reports and research funded by the gas and oil industry tend to find results more favorable to that industry, putting the science itself into question.

There are always risks in fracking, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in a recent speech, but he believes the public has been alarmed by “manufactured fear.” As he sees it, the biggest problem is “taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks.”

For a variety of fracking perspectives, check out YouTube. You’ll find plenty of videos presenting the industry’s viewpoint, as well as stories of people living near fracking sites, and this quasi-humorous skewering of what’s being called an industry-wide cover-up of fracking dangers. It’s hard to find footage simply showing what a fracking operation looks like, but here’s one filmed by a Penn State extension service.

I went back to take another look at the dairy farm near us, now being fracked. The area was covered with heavy equipment. A few employees outfitted in fire retardant suits, masks, and hard hats worked in the distance. The quiet morning was filled with noise. Gray dust rose in the air and my throat burned.

When I set out to find out all I could about fracking I didn’t anticipate such disturbing information.  I couldn’t have known fracking would soon intrude on our lives. I recently learned that fracking leases have been signed within sight of us to the west, north, and south. I’m concerned about our land where our cows graze and our chickens scratch. I’m concerned about my family’s health. And I’m wondering if you’re concerned too.

fracking waste grows food,

This is what fracking looks like. (Image:fafaohio.org)

First published on wired.com/geekmom

Googling Gooey Butter

online interfering with off-line, memories without internet,

Does the net affect our memories? Yes, but maybe not the way we think it does.

My sister and I were talking on the phone about one of the family trips we took as children. Our schoolteacher father and our stay-at-home mother hitched a tiny travel trailer up to the car to take their children to as many educational sites as possible each summer. That they managed months-long trips with two often squabbly girls and our toddler brother was remarkable. That they kept to a necessarily minuscule budget, even more so. They did this by never once buying prepared food of any kind. Every day at lunchtime we ate sandwiches on store brand white bread washed down with not-too-cold fruit drink, then got back in the car to keep driving. My mother cobbled together every evening meal using two aluminum pans, washing those pans and our plastic plates in a shoebox-sized sink. To me, an ungrateful and hermit-y little girl prone to motion sickness, these trips were a sort of educational hell.

Thankfully, one of our stops was in St. Louis to visit with my father’s only brother and his family. After weeks in a cramped trailer and even more cramped car, it was wonderful to spend the night sleeping in a roomy basement with cousins we hadn’t seen in years. We were even allowed to babysit ourselves while our parents went out to a restaurant. The adults brought us a rare treat, McDonalds, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. We showed our cousins how to draw grids on notebook paper to play Battleship. They showed us new card games. The next morning our aunt purchased some kind of St. Louis specialty for breakfast. Growing up in a household where doughnuts and store-bought cakes never crossed the threshold, this was unimaginable luxury. My sister and I remembered the sweet sticky coffee cake but not its unusual name.

After I got off the phone with her I got online to look it up. I got waylaid by flood warnings for St. Louis, so I checked maps to see if the water was rising by my uncle’s house. Then I was distracted by an article about pharmaceutical residue found in waterways. And of course I got sidelined by emails with editing questions, new article deadlines, some G chats that pleasantly used up too much time. Totally forgot my initial quest.

The next morning I saw the note I’d scribbled while talking to my sister. This time I vowed to focus for the few seconds necessary to Google it. I found the name of the confection almost immediately. It’s called Gooey Butter. I fussed around reading about how the cake is based on a baker’s mistake made back in the 1930’s and how customers swear allegiance to specific variations sold by different stores in St. Louis. I even looked at a few images, although none of them looked nearly as enticing as the cake I remember. Then I scrolled over to recipes. I was disappointed to note that nearly every one started with a yellow cake mix. I closed those screens sadly. I meant to email my sister the name of the cake but I’m pretty sure I instantly got caught up in the time flush that happens online. Probably never got around to it.

I realize with uncomfortable clarity that slurping up information online does little to deepen our experiences.  It would have been better to leave the cake unnamed in our memories, held on unfamiliar plates as we clustered around a vinyl tablecloth listening to our aunt say, “You’ve never had anything like it” while we tried the first sweet bite.

I succeeded in finding links to scratch recipes. Here’s the cream cheese version and the non-cream cheese version. I made the cream cheese version for my family, marginally healthier with organic ingredients. And if you ask someone who hails from St. Louis, be careful to avoid expressing your Gooey Butter preferences. Chances are, theirs are much more fervent. 

Good Butter, home version.

Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

active kids build reading readiness,

Strapped in. (CC 2.0 Micah Sittig)

Today’s kids sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They climb, dig, and run. When they’re tired they like to be rocked or snuggled. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

Sensory experience and fun. (CC by 2.0 Micah Sittig)

We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. In fact, academics are pushed on preschoolers with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary. It may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.

Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. In contrast, teaching children to read early, between four and seven years, is often stressful. Why?

why pushing school-like lessons hinders learning,

Children pushed to read young (not those who naturally pick it up) tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.

However children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.

developing eager readers,

Developing eager readers (CC by 2.0 Daniel Pink

In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work. This includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. It also includes fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, using scissors, and playing in sand. And it includes the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes, playing rhyming and clapping games, enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.

how to boost reading readiness,

Play is related to reading readiness. (CC by 2.0 stevendepolo)

These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.

There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where play, reading, and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.

raising eager readers,

Reading enthusiasm isn’t magic. (CC by 2.0 John-Morgan)

A Moment Never Shared

His name was Vincent. He may have entered Pine Elementary School when we were both in 5th grade or may have been in my classes all along, but that spring he moved directly to the center of my awareness. He had silky black hair that fell low over astonishingly blue eyes. Unlike other grubby, snickering elementary school boys he was quiet and attentive.

It was probably no coincidence that I fell for Vincent soon after hearing Don McLean’s classic American Pie album. It was his song about Vincent Van Gogh that captivated me. The lyrics told of a misunderstood visionary, a man with “eyes of China blue” whose soul was too beautiful for an uncaring world.

Although I’d never really paid attention to boys before, somehow I merged the intensity of those words with a look I was sure I saw in Vincent’s eyes. My girlfriends claimed to have crushes all the time over celebrities. The symptoms of their crushes included shrieking and silliness. I had none of these signs.

Once, as the teacher told us to line up at the door for music class, I found myself standing behind Vincent. I was sure he was aware of my presence. There could be no other explanation for the sudden frisson between us. Surely his skin prickled and his breath deepened as mine did. I wanted to touch his dark hair. I wanted him to turn and smile at me with causal ease even though I knew that was not possible at school. The boys’ loud obliviousness and the girls’ sharp watchfulness kept any such thing from happening. Boys and girls were friends only in books. Together they wandered moors or solved crimes or dreamed up new inventions. They talked openly and sometimes held hands. I wanted that with a longing more intense than I’d ever known.

Vincent kept me awake at night. His reserved nature made it easy to develop idealized concepts about him. I decided that he was smart and kind. I imagined that he was secretly drawn to me, but too shy to look my way. As I lay in bed, sleepless, I felt the injustice of being eleven years old. Too young to have love taken seriously, too young for anything.

Yet I felt old. Sorrows I’d carried for years became more intense because I’d lost the childhood distraction of play. I was on the verge of adolescence without sports or hobbies to keep me busy. All I had was this secret love for a boy named Vincent.

Over summer vacation I painted my toenails, rode my bike, tried to write poetry, and wondered if God existed. What kept me awake now was worry over how I might make myself pretty enough for Vincent. But I was also dreading the prospect that he might reveal himself to be something less that the person I’d imagined.

Vincent didn’t come back to school for sixth grade. No one knew where he’d gone. That made him, in my mind, more mysteriously alluring than ever. Sometimes at night I opened my bedroom window to breathe in the night air and look at stars. I hoped he might be at his own window. I no longer ached to hold his hand, I only wanted him to be happy.

I can still easily picture Vincent’s face even if I’ve forgotten his last name. My secret love for him taught me the first gentle lesson in becoming a woman. Unrequited love isn’t always painful. Sometimes it’s as tender as a moment never shared with a beautiful blue-eyed boy.

This piece appears in the new anthology Heartscapes: True Stories of Remembered Love, which features 150 tales of mystery, intimacy, and tenderness.