Modeling Education on the Natural World

Skeeze, pixabay.com

Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

Game of Slurs

Game of Slurs

image: tawnynina

Interactions in my family are, for lack of a better word, droll. Have been practically since the kids could talk.

droll       drōl      adjective
  1. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement.

That extends to improbably silly games. There were the word-nerdy ones my kids played using the dictionary and the ones they played on unwitting participants. There were games played while doing chores (for example, sliding across floors they were washing together) and, as they got older, ever drier commentary on each other’s interests. One long-standing game, played for at least a decade, is one my kids made up on their own. It’s a clever way to get around adults’ pesky rules about being “nice.”  I (being impartial) think it’s quite clever.

Fair warning, the game is not for everyone. I suppose it could be titled something pleasant like Creative Name Calling but this unnamed game is really a Game of Slurs.  To play you need two people. Two siblings, two friends, or a parent and child. What these two do, pretty basically, is take turns calling each other amusing insults. (I said it wasn’t for everyone.) So it might go this way between two five-year-olds.

“You’re a donkey nose!”

“Oh yeah, you’re a stinker butt,”

“Well you have ants in your pants.”

“You have ants and wasps and beetles in your pants and your pants are falling down.”

As you might imagine, this can go on. Kids are thrilled to call each other humorous names without getting in trouble. “We’re playing a game Mom!” Somehow, at least as we’ve played, it never crosses over the line into truly hurtful name-calling. That’s the beauty of made-up games. If one participant is nasty, the other participant won’t want to keep playing. Game over, fun over.

Game of Slurs doesn’t consist simply of name-calling. It has a momentum that drives it to an inevitable resolution. That’s the most clever part. Because the winner is the person who ends the game by saying something over-the-top nice when it’s his turn. Super sloppy wonderful superlatives. For five-year-olds it’s something like,”You’re the best, most wonderful brother in the whole world.”

“Awwww!” the other ones shouts, because HE didn’t give in to the desire to win first.

That’s the tension that gives the game it’s momentum. But participants are getting away with something that feels illicit and they don’t want to stop. They’re caught up laughing at what silly names the other person is calling them and what they’re going to say back. They know either of them can win at any time but that’s counterbalanced by a desire to keep playing, to call out one more insult and then one more after that. Such a game helps develop all sorts of valuable skills like tempering one’s words appropriately, improving verbal acuity, and delaying gratification. These things are learned more fully in play than in instruction.

In a way, Game of Slurs reinforced the usually decent levels of civility between my kids. Name-calling, when it happened outside the game, led right into the game. If you give it a try, play carefully the first few times. Find the humor and dance well away from insult. I bet you’ll find it fun too.

Oh, by the way, teens are even better at this game. Hilariously better. I swear playing it serves as a tonic for the inevitable annoyances of family life. Game of Slurs between parent and offspring may be the most deliciously fun of all.

Earthbound

Earthbound

 

Are we supposed to settle for a planet

lagging behind our expectations?

We want reversible time,

admission into past or future

easy as changing our minds.

We want teleportation, so we can

zip anywhere for the afternoon,

maybe Iceland or Argentina,

where we’ll make new friends,

agree to meet up for lunch

next week in Greece

on only an hour’s break.

 

We want to get past

greed and suffering and war,

enough already.

And death? That’s awfully primitive

for souls with so much left to learn.

 

That said, this planet does a lot right.

Birds, for one.

Water in all its perfect manifestations.

Those alive poems called trees.

The way a moment’s glance

can reveal a kindred spirit.

 

Which we all are, really.

The oneness between self and everything

is this planet’s secret, kept imperfectly.

That’s more than we might expect.

Although time travel would be nice.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

First published in Dove Tails, An International Journal of the Arts. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

An Underachiever Named Bart

I was a good student. I wrote neatly and handed my work in on time. Sure, I got in trouble a few times in the early grades, like the time my teacher called home to tell my mother I was a liar. And I had a chronic tendency to get lost in a book during instruction time but in general I was so ridiculously conscientious about my work that teachers would put troublemakers next to my desk in hopes that I’d be a good influence.

For several years I was seated next to a kid named Bart. He was a wiry, high energy kid whose dryly witty asides made it ever more painful for me to pretend I wasn’t laughing. Sometimes he’d blurt out a particularly hilarious observation loud enough for our classmates to hear. The kids would laugh, the teacher would scold. Bart was very smart, especially gifted in math, but he wasn’t very motivated about getting schoolwork finished. He didn’t pay much attention in class either, instead penciling sketches of race cars or caricatures of teachers. Like a lot of very gifted kids, he drifted through school.

I couldn’t imagine why he just didn’t, as our teachers would say, “apply himself.” All the adults in our lives reinforced the same narrow principle: Do the work, follow the rules, and you’ll grow up to be a success.  If I was feeling particularly devout, I’d include Bart and a few other “troubled” kids in my prayers asking that they might have a decent future too.

Once, when we were in fifth grade, Bart and I had a real conversation, the sort that’s rare between boys and girls that age. It was brief and the exact language is lost to time, but he told me something I’d never heard. Never even considered. Basically he said I was the dupe. School itself was a game and we were the pawns. Why did I play along?

It took me a long time to fully understand what he meant, but this changed my opinion of him completely. Bart was honest. He wasn’t an underachiever. He certainly wasn’t troubled. Instead, he did what interested and challenged him, tolerating as much as possible what didn’t. He used ironic humor to express his views of the institution trapping him. I realized he had far more integrity than anyone I knew. He was true to himself.

Our school district was large, so it wasn’t hard to lose track of Bart once we moved on to middle school and high school. I spent those years in clouds of existential angst. I read stacks of ever more complex books, tried to parse out the meaning in music lyrics, and stumbled (often literally) through adolescence.

Meanwhile Bart was doing far more interesting work of his own. His father, wisely, didn’t hassle him much about school. Instead he encouraged Bart’s fascination with computers. Well before the net was available to the public, teenaged Bart was already building search engines for IBM mainframes. Some say that it’s parents, more than teachers, who make the difference in advancing a gifted child’s interests. Bart’s dad seemed to understand that.

What Bart explained to me back when we were 10-year-olds had a profound effect on my worldview. But I hadn’t thought of him for years until a friend told me she’d run into him at our high school reunion. She said there was one guy who looked younger, more relaxed and happier than everyone else there. It was Bart. The rest of our classmates were loaded with financial obligations while Bart had happily retired at 40. He was engaged in charity work and enjoying life.

Bart changed his name to one more common to avoid the publicity common to wildly successful people, so I won’t reveal too many details about him here. What I can say is that Bart’s early work advanced the capabilities of search engines and his advancements are still in use today. This alone made him wealthy enough to retire at 20-something. But he went on to make significant advancements in physics, the space program, and health.

Underachiever indeed.

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.  ~John Holt

Pregnancy Loss to Newborn Wonder

pregnancy loss, ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

“Do you know what day this is?” Dr. Hasan asked me as I held my newborn son. He stood by my hospital bed looking at both of us with an odd expression. My doctor and I had been through a lot together, but I’d never seen that expression before. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“My son’s birthday,” I answered cheerfully, then turned back to gaze in fierce adoration at the baby in my arms.

He looked again at the chart in his hand and said, “Exactly one year ago to the day I performed the surgery on you. Exactly.” Then my face, I’m sure, reflected back a similarly odd expression, the sort of look that can’t fully convey how odd  synchronicity can be.

A year and a few weeks before my son’s birth something painful began to happen to my body, something I didn’t understand nor did the doctors I consulted until it was almost too late. That night I nursed my toddler to sleep, tucked my other two little ones in bed, and settled down to relax with a big bowl of popcorn and a new library book. I stayed up much later than usual and when I climbed into bed next to my husband I began to think I shouldn’t have eaten so much popcorn. The discomfort got worse. I told myself that I was dealing with indigestion, maybe even a gall bladder attack, although I’d never felt such shooting pain. I spent much of the night on the floor next to the bed in various yoga positions trying to find a way to rest. But each time my husband woke up to ask if I was okay I told him I’d just eaten too much popcorn and I’d be fine. He threatened, at some point near dawn, to call an ambulance. By then the stabbing pain had ebbed to a tolerable dullness and my toddler was up, so I started another busy day.

I made it though that day and the next before I realized the pain, although it came and went, wasn’t improving. I was barely able to get through preparations for a Memorial Day picnic. So I got visiting family members to babysit and drove myself to the ER. I almost didn’t stay. Hospitals bulge with extra patients on holiday weekends and no one took a young person with abdominal pain very seriously. I kept thinking of my children and how soon I could get back to them. When I was finally seen by a doctor, he couldn’t find any signs of appendicitis or infection. I was sent for an x-ray. In the hallway waiting for the test I had to sign a form attesting that I wasn’t pregnant. I figured there was always a chance. So they jabbed me for a quick pregnancy test. That caused another delay and again I wondered if I should just get up and go home. I found out in that crowded hallway that I was indeed pregnant.

Suddenly they took the pain more seriously and admitted me for overnight observation. I was preoccupied with worried about the separation from my nursing toddler and my two older children. A friend of ours, an internist, came by and told me I was a “pregnant blooming rose.” I didn’t feel like one. The doctors were taking every precaution to protect the new pregnancy. I was examined by several doctors. Each one wanted to know exactly how much pain I was in. I tried to explain that most of the time it was tolerable, like walking around with a headache, except in my belly.

The resident, a man with beautiful brown eyes and long dreads, told me that women with small children are the most difficult to diagnose. He said they diminish their symptoms, without even realizing it, in order to be present for their children. He asked me to close my eyes and try thinking only of my body as I described what I was feeling. I tried to be fully aware of my abdomen and when I did, I saw a horrible darkness. I was suddenly afraid that the baby was there to warn me that I was dying of some terrible disease. I opened my eyes, looked at this kind man, and couldn’t think of a way to explain that fearful darkness to him.

I was sent home with instructions to come back every three days for a blood test to determine pregnancy hormone levels, which would insure that the pregnancy was proceeding. For nearly a week the levels were within normal limits. Although I feigned good spirits for the sake of my kids, I was barely hanging on. Normally I research everything but I couldn’t muster the energy to read let alone explore the possible reason for my symptoms. In fact, I could no longer eat. Whatever I’d eaten days before felt stuck in my body like a boulder. The pains came and went with sharp intensity. While pushing a cart through the grocery store the pain bent me double. I pretended I was picking something off the floor so my children didn’t worry. One afternoon, as a friend and I sat in her backyard watching our kids play together I curled up on a lawn chair in the blazing summer sun shivering and asked for a blanket. My mind kept drifting to the darkness I’d seen. The next blood test found my levels were dropping. I was told the pregnancy was no longer viable. I would need exploratory surgery.

I had no idea what Dr. Hasan was concerned about until I went to pre-admission testing the day before my surgery. I was examined by the first female doctor I’d seen throughout this crisis. She was outraged on my behalf. She told me it was possible I had an ectopic pregnancy which could burst and threaten my life with internal bleeding. I hadn’t considered that nearly two weeks of pain could be related to something so acute. I still remembered when a friend’s mother went through an ectopic pregnancy years before. She’d felt unbearable pain, nearly died in the ambulance, and her blood loss was so severe that one of the paramedics lay on a gurney next to her at the hospital to provide a direct transfusion. She survived but was never able to have children again. This doctor told me the shoulder pain I was also experiencing was an ominous sign, signaling that I may already be hemorrhaging. She didn’t want to let me stand and walk out of her office, literally to move at all. She made a few phone calls and then angrily told me that it had been decided I would be fine until I came back for surgery the following morning. It was the only time a doctor ever walked me to the elevator and watched me until the doors closed.

Dr. Hasan came out to talk to my husband during the surgery the next day. He said I was so packed with old blood that he had to “unload” the contents of my abdominal cavity and pick apart clots that were strangling my intestines and compressing my organs. He explained that he’d sent several masses to the lab for tests and prepared my husband for a possible diagnosis of cancer. The surgery dragged on most of the day. By the time I was wheeled to recovery the doctor had determined that I’d suffered an ovarian pregnancy that had burst some time ago. The blood had limited the function of my pancreas and several other organs and I already had a serious infection. He wasn’t going to rule out cancer until all possible lab tests were in by the next day. My husband wisely kept these details and his fears from my parents, only giving them the good news when the lab tests came back clear.

I wasn’t aware of any of this. My health insurance company wanted me discharged after three days even though I couldn’t sit up or remain conscious for long. My doctor battled for an extension and lost, so they discharged me in paperwork only and readmitted me. I was aware of none of this. Going home after six days was still extremely difficult. Despite all I’d been through, I recovered quickly in the next few weeks. When I walked in Dr. Hasan’s office for a one month post-surgical check up he couldn’t believe how fit and energetic I looked. He cautioned me when I asked about trying for another baby. He said my chances were very slim. I had only one ovary left and he wasn’t sure how much function it had due to damage from internal bleeding.

Amazingly I was pregnant only three months after my surgery. Science tells us the cells of babies we’ve carried even for a short time, will be with their mothers into old age, and I thought of the child I lost. That baby taught me so much about healing and hope and giving voice to my pain.

My labor with this fourth child was unlike my first three. For hours my hands radiated so much heat that I was given ice packs to hold. They melted quickly, so nurses kept giving me new ice packs. One nurse in the birthing room said she could see waves of heat around my hands. It felt too strange for words. I wondered what energy I’d contained that was now manifesting.

Finally our son Samuel arrived. His birth came exactly a year after my husband sat all day in the waiting room afraid I might die, the day the darkness was taken out of me so life could flourish again.

ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting

 

ab

What’s the difference between David Hahn and Taylor Wilson’s pursuit of science?

Back when the boys in our regular book club were preteens and young teens, one of the books that really caught their attention was The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. It’s the true tale of David Hahn, a very gifted teen who became obsessed with learning everything he could about nuclear energy. Hahn gathered materials for experiments in all sorts of enterprising ways, even getting his hands on reactor plans. His father and stepmother forbade him from doing further experiments in the house after his efforts resulted in several chemical spills and small explosions. So he moved in with his mother and used her backyard potting shed for a hugely ambitious endeavor: building a model breeder nuclear reactor. His reactor hadn’t reached critical mass when evidence of his project was discovered during a routine traffic stop. That potting shed was deemed a Superfund site and cleaned up by the EPA in 1995.

Something astonished the boys in our group more than Hahn’s extraordinary project.  They couldn’t understand why no one reached out to foster Hahn’s powerful intellect nor guided him to adult scientists who could have more safely helped him explore his interests. Maybe the boys in our group were so surprised because, as homeschoolers, we’d been accustomed to folding science interests into our days as naturally as we ate when hungry. And we’d had great success asking experts to share what they know with interested kids.

Hahn grew up, but didn’t go on to get advanced degrees or research grants. Instead he’s served in the military, been arrested for stealing smoke detectors (a source of the radioactive substance americium), struggled with mental health problems, and still does what he can to pursue his science passions with math skills he says are limited.

Hahn’s experience is radically different from that of another extraordinarily gifted teen who started investigating all things radioactive at an even younger age.

how to raise a gifted child,

Digging up yellowcake. (image permission: Tom Clynes/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Taylor Wilson, at 14 years old, became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

What’s the difference?

Do scientifically gifted kids advance due to sheer curiosity alone? Or is it absolutely essential to have parents and other adults who foster that curiosity as far as those kids want to go?

That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about Taylor Wilson.

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and later radioactive projects.

But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school aged children in the U.S.  That’s about six to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, giving very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not due to Taylor’s accomplishments alone. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father could access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

His parents were also able to connect Taylor with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital to their success, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scarce in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interests without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.” (It’s notable that Taylor’s experiences were nearly all hands-on, especially in his early years.)
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. Emphasize opportunities for hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector that will more easily secure borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

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Talent, steered toward accomplishment. (image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

seniors and kids, retirement home preschool,

Image: bjwebbiz

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.

Tips

I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.
start nursing home playgroup, preschool in retirement home,

Image: bjwebbiz

Bits of Joy List

Bits of Joy list, five minutes to happiness,

I was spawned by list makers. My mother made grocery lists, task lists, correspondence lists, and gratitude lists. My father, an elementary school teacher, made lists of students who needed individualized attention. He made lists of household chores. He kept lists of conversational topics he wanted to bring up with his kids and, later, lists of things to do with his grandchildren . When he got older he used to write “Hello Earl” at the top of his lists. As he pointed out, lists were a way of talking to his future self so he might as well say “hi.”

I’m convinced we can use out-of-the-ordinary lists to enhance our lives. I have all sorts of suggestions to create Life Lists unique to us and I’m following through on a few goals on my Delights To Cultivate list.

Recently I heard about Bit of Joy lists. These are lists to post somewhere in view. Maybe on the fridge door. Maybe as a screen saver. That way whenever a bit of time opens up we’re prompted to devote it to something we find wonderful rather than whatever has become our default activities (ahem, like checking our phones).

How to consciously savor life’s random free moments? Hmmm. I wrote down some thoughts and asked friends what they’d include. (Friend’s names appear with their suggestions.) As I scribble down these ideas I wonder why oh why don’t I let myself do these things more often? That’s exactly how a Bits of Joy list can be so useful. What would you put on your list?

When You Have Five Minutes

Go outside. Take some deep breaths, look at the sky, notice sounds. Unpleasant weather? Do it anyway.

Balance on one foot, then the other, in an impromptu tree pose.

Hug someone I adore.

Indulge in the reverie kids know as “pretending.”

Donate to a good cause.

Smile at someone for all of the following reasons.

Read just one poem (perhaps “I Confess” by Alison Luterman). This is a very good reason to keep poetry books nearby and to bookmark poetry sites.

Contemplate my blessings.

Make plans to do something with someone dear to me.

Hug a tree.

Sing. Made up lyrics a plus.

Dance, especially to the music stuck in my head.

Click over to Light Weaver for interactive mandalas plus music.

Meditate or (as I practice it, sit quietly and hope this has some meditative effect).

Pray.  Jaylen

Make a good cup of coffee in my favorite mug. Jaylen

Try some laughter yoga with whatever co-workers are in the break room. Jaylen

Water some houseplants and thank them for being part of the family. Margaret

Grab an art book off the shelf and look at beautiful art for a few minutes. Margaret

Watch birds at the feeder.  Yesterday I happened to see Mr. Redbird offer seed, beak to beak, to Mrs. Redbird. That’s as good as it gets. Kim Langley

Daydream for a solid 5 minutes.  Valli Spahn

When You Have A Half Hour

Take a walk, which may be the best problem-solving method around.

Read a book on the porch.

Clean out a drawer. Very small increments of de-cluttering are allegedly fun.

Play the piano (which I never do, but tell myself I will).

Write an actual written-on-paper letter to a friend. Or mail something weirder.

Get out some paints, pastels, markers, or colored pencils; put on some music; then play with colors and shapes and see what happens. Margaret

Let myself get into a cookbook with good pictures. I can practically taste the recipes as I flip through envisioning meals we’ll make and parties we’ll throw. Jayden

Make a batch of cookies or some other treat. Jayden

Watch someone do something in a masterful way.  Creativity exercised often fills me with elation.. I can feel my heart open up in the presence of creativity. Kim Langley

Write a poem. Craig Fawcett

Look at old pictures. Craig Fawcett

Contact someone I’ve been thinking about or need to think about. Craig Fawcett

Sit under a tree. Craig Fawcett

When You Have An Afternoon

Go outside with a notebook and good pen, sit somewhere lovely, and write.

Play a game new to me from Bernie DeKoven’s master list of games.

Do one of the hundreds of projects I’ve saved on Pinterest.

Wander through shops that entice me. I’m not a shopper. I run to the market, grab what we need, and get out. I haven’t been to a mall in over a decade. But there are places that entice me. I know of a dollhouse shop about 40 minutes from here where I’d love to linger. (I’ve nearly convinced my husband to cut a hole in the wall and install a dollhouse-sized door and window, into which I can arrange a miniature scene. This WILL happen.) I love art galleries, import shops, odd niche stores, and of course bookstores.

Sew.

Go to an art museum. My favorite see-it-in-an-afternoon museum is Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Attend a noontime concert. Many of these are free and hosted in beautiful old churches.

Do errands, repairs, or other small-tokens-of-love acts for my daughters. Craig Fawcett

Head to the beach. Find treasures (rocks, shells, fossils, beach glass) and admire the ever-changing views   Margaret

Get a massage. Jayden

Pack a picnic (or pick up tasties) and eat outdoors, which I love and wonder why I haven’t done it for years. Jayden

Thanks to Kim Langley, Craig Fawcett, Margaret Swift, Valli Spahn, and Jaylen Jacobs for adding their joys. 

When Children See a Parent as a Person

 

parents are people, kids recognizing parents as people,

Every evening at church camp was the same. We tidied up our cabins and then met back at the lodge. There we were taught songs and led in quiet games. Ours was a reserved sort of Christianity. The Presbyterian church  I was raised in proffered no talk of hell or being saved, no witnessing. The congregation was friendly in a formal sort of way. (Even so, I don’t think they entirely deserved the denomination’s nickname—“God’s Frozen Chosen.”)

I was nine years old that summer. My father had volunteered to serve as one of the camp counselors and bunked halfway up the hill in a cabin with the older boys. I was assigned a cabin at the bottom of the hill with the younger girls.

On our last evening of the week-long camp we were called out of the lodge after the final song. There stood our recently ordained young minister. He held flaming torches in his upraised hands like some illustration from a storybook. He passed them out to the counselors and told us to follow.

This was highly irregular. Fire? Hiking after dark? Staying up past bedtime? Our speculative whispers were unsuccessfully hushed by the grown-ups. We arrived at the clearing where morning worship services were held. It looked different at night. Shadowy trees loomed over the ring of log seats. Adults leaned their torches toward a dark stack of wood until a bonfire flared.

The minister offered a prayer and then talked about faith. I was so caught up in this out-of-the-ordinary moment that I didn’t pay close attention to his words. Who would? Kids know grown-ups like to go on and on about things. It’s best to let them. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the flames and how different our faces looked in the firelight.

Then the minister asked a question, something about how we knew God in our hearts. Silence settled over our group. None of us were familiar with faith discussed in such personal terms. The pastor looked around the circle with an expression kids know all too well. It’s the look teachers get when they are going to call on someone.

I was so timid that I tended to blush even for other people. One day in school, after his family had vacationed in Hawaii, Doug Bloomfield brought a grass skirt to Show & Tell. He cheerfully clicked on a cassette of exotic music, pulled the skirt over his pants, and demonstrated a hula dance. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. In my third row seat I blushed a red so deep that kids actually looked away from the hula spectacle to stare at me.

Until now I’d liked this strange after-dark event. The cool night air scented with burning wood felt magical. But I was pretty sure asking people to talk about their own religious experiences was rude. Already I felt flustered on behalf of whoever might have to answer. The minister stopped waiting for one of us to volunteer. He chose someone.

The person he asked was my father.

My dad, a quiet and low-key man, wasn’t one to speak up in front of others. There was a long pause. I was sure I could feel his distress. Then my father spoke. He talked a little about growing up in the country where he spent time in the woods and fields. He said he still felt closest to God not in church, but when he was out in nature. He finished by saying he liked silence and that was a way of praying too.

A moment comes when a child begins to see a parent as a separate person. This was such a moment. I knew my father was drawn to the outdoors. He took us hiking, showed us how to skip stones across the water, let us get muddy. But this was a larger context. I saw he had his own reasons to spend time outside. I recognized my father as a man whose life was bigger than I’d imagined.

Although this was my first glimpse of him as a person in his own right, I also I felt closer to him. That’s because what he spoke my truth too. In the little forest behind our house I liked to go to a particular spot by myself. I didn’t have the words for it, but when I sat quietly there I had a sense of being in a sacred place. I looked across the circle at my father and loved him more than ever. He looked back at me. His face was luminous in the firelight.

seeing parent as a person, church camp,

Are You Eccentric?

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

I met Betty years ago when I moved to a place teeming with all sorts of progressive people. Still, Betty stood out. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked one day.

We hit it off immediately, riffing on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite) Betty wanted none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honestly was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly even though her poor eyesight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000’s the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up she walked him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps she was never cited for those unruly gardens because she gave him a homemade insomnia remedy.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time, when we’re far freer to be who we are than perhaps in any other time in history. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper fifteen per cent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary “A Different Drummer” highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics and my friends are orchards of eccentricity. Maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

are you eccentric?

What gorilla suit? (image:Greyerbaby)