Truly Inhabiting Time

screen addiction, phone addiction, mindfulness,

CC by 2.0 MK Feeney’s flickr photostream

Last night I sat in a dark theater next to the man I love watching The Imitation Game. It was a compelling story, brilliantly acted. Yet several times during the movie I was tempted to take out my phone. I wanted to verify the story* and find out more about its subject, Alan Turing. I’m not rude enough to actually check my phone during the movie, instead I sat there castigating myself for having the urge in the first place.

Although I write a lot about living in the moment and cultivating awe, I’m apparently on my way to becoming a phone junkie.

We tune out from ourselves because the options are so enticing. There’s an endless wealth of information and entertainment for us to discover. A walk with earbuds, sure. A phone to check while we’re waiting in line, entirely handy. Social media to indulge in, masterful performances to watch, obscure online articles to read.. (Guilty throat-clearing noise from me.)

What we forget is that each repeated choice we make teaches our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer away. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a friend’s smile across the room, kiss, a hug—ding goes a dopamine reward.  That’s also true of an answered tweet—ding. A text—ding. Ding ding ding from Instagram, channel flipping, and Candy Crush Saga.

A study found that people who were asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV, or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings, and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired. College students now say they spend 8 to 10 hours a day on their phones, 60 percent admit they’re addicted.

We’re actually rewiring the way we live minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to need distraction. Side effect? This makes us less comfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation, daydreams, and face-to-face conversation.

I don’t want to be trapped in the cage of my skull. I want to live fully in body and spirit as well as mind, to truly inhabit the mortal time given to me.

So I’ll be watching more closely where I direct my attention, hopefully rewiring the way I engage with the world around me. Next time I want to be in the theater next to my husband entirely drawn into the movie. When I walk out of the theater I want to look up and enjoy the stars. Then I want to drive to the home we’ve made together, staying right there in the moments unique to our lives. That’s it. That’s enough.

I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred.  I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant.   ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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CC by 2.0 epSos .de’s flickr photostream

*Yes, I checked later. The movie took plenty of liberties with the real story.
Posted in attention, memory, mindfulness, technology | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Dangerous Accessories

Beauty can be deceiving. (image: L. Weldon)

Beauty can be deceiving. (Image: L. Weldon)

I’m all about buying handmade things. I like the idea that my money supports people who pursue their passions. It’s a feel-good way to buy lovely gifts and grab some loot for myself. I’ve always been happy with my purchases. That is, until I came across the Scarf From Hell for sale at an urban pop-up craft fair. Its softness was devilishly enticing and it came in all sorts of lush colors, with a hand-written tag noting the yarns were spun from reclaimed silk saris. Definitely my kind of thing. I bought two, one to give as a gift and one for me.

I mailed one scarf to a friend as a birthday present. She got back to me with effusive thanks, no hint that the scarf had yet wreaked havoc in her life.*

I didn’t break out the other one until I was leaving for a weekend conference. As I put on my black wool jacket I thought, in a last minute inspiration, I’d wear my new scarf.

After a few hours of travel time I got to the conference. I talked to a keynote presenter and greeted fellow attendees. I may have registered a few what’s-wrong-with-her glances but attributed them to my own insecurity. Before the first workshop started I dashed off to the restroom. I gasped in horror as the mirror revealed the depths of my scarf’s treachery.

The yarn was deconstructing. Hundreds of tiny, vividly colored bits had pulled away from the scarf and were clinging to my coat like burrs. As I leaned over the sink more yarn confetti fell. These shreds were also in my hair and clinging with static determination to my neck. Picking them off successfully meant grabbing one strand at a time. I did what I could to clean up, then folded my jacket over my arm hoping I’d have time later to de-fuzz it. When I left the bathroom, scarf tucked into my tote bag, I noticed that a trail of yarn detritus marked every step I’d taken. The conference hallway looked like a knitter’s Hansel and Gretel re-enactment.

It was a long weekend. The cold weather meant I couldn’t go without my yarn-spangled jacket. Every time I thought I’d nearly picked it clean I found more lurking under the collar, inside my pockets, clinging in strands to the lining. The yarn invasion was so drastic that fibers were even evident when I blew my nose.

Strangely, I haven’t thrown the scarf out. It still lurks in my yarn-wrecked tote bag. This is fair warning. I may be a pacifist, but if riled I might just pull Scarf From Hell out of hiding as my secret weapon

*My friend insists her scarf is fine. I’m guessing she either suffers from a serious case of politeness or she’s so traumatized by her own Scarf From Hell experience that she’s repressed all memory of it.
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Make a List of Non-Resolutions

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image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.

Listen.

Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.

Play!

Posted in attention, gratitude, mindfulness, optimism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Posted in Christmas, family, gratitude, holiday, memory, optimism, simple living, stress | Tagged , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

You Are the Food You Think About

fast food changes behavior, junk food brain, fast food thinking,

There’s such a thing as “fast food thinking.”

There’s plenty of evidence that food choices affect our behavior. But here we’re talking about what happens when we simply think of fast food.

You don’t even have to eat fast food to see behavior changes. It merely has to cross your mind.

We think we’re in charge of our choices. Our moods. Our long-term goals.

Apparently not.

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior. They use neuroscience findings to figure out how to attract our attention. They use psychological research to manipulate our needs. Of course we rationalize, “I’m the exception. I know my own mind. Just thinking about fast food can’t affect me.”

Chances are, it does.

A three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Wonder why we all feel hurried? In the first experiment of the three-part study, half of the participants were shown subliminal images of six fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s). The images were seen only twice, for just 12 milliseconds — much faster than the conscious mind can recognize. Participants who were exposed to these subliminal images rushed through tasks even though they were under no time pressure.

Wonder why eco-friendly, well-made products aren’t top sellers? In the next experiment, participants were asked to recall a recent fast-food meal before rating products. When they did so, they were more likely to choose time-saving as the best rationale for making a purchase over other factors, such as environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or quality.

Wonder what happened to saving money? In the final experiment, participants who briefly looked at fast-food logos were much more likely, when considering compound interest, to choose a small payout immediately rather than wait for a larger payout later.

Children are even more at risk from this “fast-food thinking.” Because their brains are still developing through the teen years, young people are much more vulnerable to techniques used by marketers. Child-development experts see all kinds of detrimental effects, including what psychologist Allen D. Kanner calls the “narcissistic wounding” of children.

The problem is more, much more, than fast food. It has to do with a daily bombardment by messages telling us we should have it all and have it quickly — even though neither leads to greater happiness. As Robert V. Levine noted in A Geography of Time, people actually feel more impatient when they have access to time-saving devices.

There are benefits to waiting. Things like patience and a rush of pleasure when what you’ve been anticipating is finally ready. Picking apples together, cutting them, and baking them into a pie takes time. The smell of the crust breaking under your fork and the shared exclamation as you take the first bites together: bliss.

This experience can’t compare to a McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve.

What we eat and how we eat may no longer satisfy one of our deepest hungers: the desire for connection to people, place, and culture. We see the results of that separation in our health and environment.

Contrast these slogans:

  • “Have it Your Way” (Burger King)
  • “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s)
  • “Your Way, Right Away” (Burger King)
  • “What you want is what you get” (McDonald’s)
  • “You can eat great, even late” (Wendy’s)

with this thought:

“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly existence — love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth — through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”  ~Marc David

Living in a fast-food society changes more than our eating habits. As that recent study indicated, we unconsciously hurry other aspects of our lives as well. When we find ourselves “getting through” anything to get on to the next thing, we’re ignoring the here and now. We’re ignoring our lives as they are in this moment.

Let’s think instead of fast food as a metaphor, a symbol showing us that there’s another way to experience what’s right in front of us.

 

Originally published in Culinate 

fast food behavior, food related behavior,

A McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve can’t compare to sharing a slice of home-baked pie with a friend. (image: pixabay.com)

Posted in attitude, food, media, mindfulness, science, subversive cooking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens

What do we really want when we offer gifts to our kids? I’m guessing excitement, happiness, hopefully some lasting joy. It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget, only to see it ignored a week or two later. The antidote? Fewer presents of better quality, as well as an emphasis on experiences. According to science, these are the gifts that result in real pleasure.

Real Tools for Real Work

Young kids beg to help out. Saying yes to those offers is more important than we might imagine and helps us raise kids who are more likely to take on household responsibilities as they get older. Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware and home goods store. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime. Starting at four years old we got our kids woodworking tools, plus gave them access to scrap wood. We also kept a stool handy for little kids to help at the counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes—-cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement. When our oldest was three,and loved to turn machines on and off, we got him a hand vac as a gift. He used it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission.

Woodworking tools: Rubber mallet, vintage manual hand drill , work gloves, level, safety glasses, tool belt, battery-powered drill, cordless screwdriver, tool box, plus books such as Builder Boards: How to Build the Take-Apart Playhouse14 Woodworking Projects For Parents and Kids To Build Togetherand The Kids’ Building Workshop. For teens, more complex project books as well as power tools, adult-sized hand tools, a sturdy workbench, and the freedom to work on their own.

Kitchen-y enticements. Apron, egg slicer, small rolling pin, small pitcher, rotary egg beater, small mixing bowls,
Doodle by Stitch apron, safe Curious Chef knives, a step stool or adjustable kitchen helper stoolEngaging cookbooks like The Do It Myself Kids’ CookbookTwist It Up, and Kids’ First Cookbook. For teens, a high quality kitchen utensil of their own (a good chef’s knife is a classic gift) along with cookbooks they’ll be eager to test out such as Cooking for GeeksThe Everything College Cookbook, or a cookbook aimed at particular tastes.

Gardening tools: Seeds, small gloves, trowel, bucket, small rake and shovel, (there are lots of child-sized tools at For Small Hands), containers to start indoor plants from sprouting vegetables like sweet potatoes, a kit to grow sprouts for salads and stir fries, books such as Gardening Lab for Kids and Gardening Projects for Kids. Teens with horticultural interests will appreciate adult-sized tools, gift certificates for seed companies, and specialty books.

Outdoor adventure tools: magnifying glass, collapsible cup
or collapsible water bottle , water bottle sling, spork, sleeping bag, flashlight, hand-warmers, vest with lots of pockets for gear
, binoculars, raincoat or rain parka, headlamp, compass, lantern, multi-tool.  (Thanks to Gillian for these suggestions.)

Interest-Based Classes 

Favorite lessons for one of my kids were surprisingly affordable one-on-one bagpiping lessons with a gentleman who’d once been Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch.One-time or ongoing classes geared for enjoyment as well as competence can expand on an interest. For teens, one-on-one mentoring in an area of passionate interest is even better.  Here are some ways you can connect teens to experts in all sorts of fields. Class ideas?

coding

whittling

horseback riding

yoga

fencing

skiing

dance

pottery

rock climbing

archery

gymnastics

parkour

glass blowing

Membership or Season Passes

My oldest son was the youngest member of a model railroad club and almost never missed their regular meetings. Consider a membership to an organization that fits your child’s quirky passions. You might join local historical society, rock collector’s group, chess club, amateur archaeology organization, herpetology society, magician’s guild, whatever builds on a young person’s fascination. Be sure to read newsletters, attend classes, and otherwise enjoy member benefits. Other possibilities include:

hacker space

Maker programs

museum

aviary

botanical garden

wildlife area

Maker programs

amusement park

recreation center

aquarium

One Time Passes

Make this a parent-child activity for young children, for older kids buy two or more passes so they can go with friends.

ski slopes

challenge courses

paintball range

climbing gym

skating rink

golf course

bowling alley

Event Tickets

These are special occasions, ones that’ll stay in their memories. Don’t forget to take pictures when you arrive.

live theater

concert

sporting event

con

Maker Faire 

Out-of-the-Ordinary Things to do Together 

These ideas are great coming from a parent, they may be even more thrilling coming from relatives who want to spend more one-on-one time with younger members of the family. Simply give materials, instructions, or brochures for something you’ll be doing together.  When you give the gift, make sure to set a date!

Print out a recipe you’ve never tried, include ingredients, set a date to make it together.

Go on a train ride.

Make a fairy garden together. Gift a few supplies for the project, like a tiny watering can fairies might use.

Give a bunch of boxes along with the inspiration of Welcome to Your Awesome Robot or find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Give fabric markers and white or light-colored plain pillowcases (well-worn ones from thrift stores are perfect for this) to decorate your dreams with drawings, quotes, or wishes.

Take a road trip, maybe aiming to see oddball attractions in your state.

Give some beanbags and learn to juggle together.

Go on a hike. Give hike-related gear and maybe a book like My Nature Book or any of Jane Kirland’s books in the Take a Walk series

Go on a more challenging hike with teens, maybe take along a book like Wreck This Journal Everywhere.

Enjoy plein air art experiences together. You might want to give the youngest child a special tote bag to bring art supplies to the park, zoo, or local wildlife spot to draw or paint. For older youth, consider gifting a small sketchbook along with a  compact set of watercolorsoil pastels,  sketch pencilsor charcoal.

Try stand up paddle boarding together.

Take kayaking lessons together.

Give a roll of quarters to play at a place that still has arcade games.

Try geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt is made possible with a GPS.  Learn more at geocaching.com or navicache.com

Participate in a mud run scheduled in your area.

Construct an insect hotel together, you might pair it with a book like Insectigations. Teens may enjoy creating larger-scale insect habitat.

Build a clay oven together. Test it out by baking homemade pizza.

Give a bird feeder or binoculars, and sign up together to log your bird sightings at eBird or participate together in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Give rubber stamps and a logbook to go letterboxing together.  Learn more at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com

Go cloud watching. Consult The Cloud Collector’s Handbook as you “collect” different cloud types. Post photos to the online gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Make treats for  birds and animals including pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, popcorn strings, and cranberry garlands. Then go outside to hang them on a tree together.

Mark cardboard squares with Scrabble letters for a giant game to be played outside.

Set aside open-ended project time together. Get inspiration from books such as RoboticsTinkerlab, and Unbored.

Subscriptions

Magazines are often the only things kids receive in the mail. (Although you can change this with strange and interesting ways to send snail mail.)

There are wonderful magazine for kids. For babies there’s  Babybug, toddler to preschool ages consider Ladybug, National Geographic Little Kids, Click, and Ranger Rick Jr..

For elementary-age kids, New Moon Girls, MuseFaces, and OWL.

Boomerang subscriptions are one of the best things ever and a favorite with my kids. We saved every one we got. It’s like a radio show wrapped up in an audio magazine, covered with a delicious layer of smart. Perfect to save for a long trip, great to pass along to younger siblings.

For teens, find a publication that meets their interests, whether hip hop or high fashion. Look for indie magazines if you can’t find something that’s just right.

 Quality Musical Instruments 

Real instruments, scaled for a child’s size, sound great and inspire interest. Even very young children can pluck along to sheet music tucked under the strings of a lap harp. For impromptu playing at my house we leave out a number of instruments including a wooden flute,  set of panpipes, ukulele, small pentatonic scale harp, and a small accordion. And one of the best gifts we gave one of our sons was a much-desired, even if used, electric guitar when he turned 13. You might want to start with something affordable, such as a harmonica or ocarina. (Thanks to Silvia for suggesting instruments as gifts.)  Here are some sources for child-sized instruments.

HearthSong lap harp and extra sheet music

Schylling accordian or Woodstock accordion

For Small Hands percussion instruments such as shakers and drums

Harps of Lorien child-sized or larger lyre

ocarinas and harmonicas

Woodstock chimes and children’s hand bells

Hohner guitars, variable sizes

Bella Luna pentatonic flute

Zither Heaven bowed psaltery or a Roosebeck psaltery

Parent-Made Gifts

There’s something special about gifts you make. A snuggly fleece blanket, a second-hand riding toy with a custom paint job, a refinished child-sized rocking chair. You can find plenty of ideas online, but don’t forget these old standbys.

Homemade coupons they can “spend.”

  • Get-out-of-one chore.
  • Kid’s choice movie night.
  • Stay up an hour past bedtime.
  • Solo time with mom or dad all Saturday, kid’s choice of activities.
  • Sleep-over party.
  • After dark walk.
  • Scary storytelling around a fire.
  • A “yes” to any one project on Instructibles.com.

A dress-up trunk with lengths of fabric for capes, interesting hats, strange shirts and skirts, badges, belts, purses, jewelry, masks, and more.

Memorabilia to celebrate a teen’s birth. This is easier than ever with eBay. Find an issue of a magazine from the month of his or her birth. You might add music popular in that year, a political button, a piece of vintage clothing, etc.

A collection of family-favorite recipes. This is particularly useful for older teens. Just scan them and print out, or use one of the many services that prints hardbound books with your content.

A legacy present. If you’re lucky enough to have things from earlier generations, pass them on. Give grandpa’s fountain pen to your daughter, explaining that he loved to write as much as she does. Give a great uncle’s watch to a teen who shares his wanderlust. Give the funky afghan your aunt made to the kid who is as offbeat as she was. Tell them some stories about these relatives when you give such gifts!

Posted in Christmas, gifts, simple living, teens | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Natural Math: 100+ Activities & Resources

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image: pixabay.com

“The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple.”   ~Stan Gudder

Today’s children are much less likely than previous generations to learn through play, exploration, and meaningful work. Concern about the math scores of the nation’s youth should instead turn to concern about the manipulation of childhood itself. We’ve substituted tightly structured environments and managed recreation for the very real, messy, and thought-provoking experiences that are the building blocks for higher level thinking.

Learning math requires children to link language with images as they work through equations. It helps if they can easily picture the problem being solved before they move ahead into representational and abstract math. Normally a child who has spent plenty of time playing with manipulatives (water, sand, building blocks, countable objects) and who uses real world applications of math (cooking, carpentry, budgeting) has a wealth of experience to fall back on. This child can call up mental images that are firmly connected to sensory memory, helping him understand more advanced concepts.  Applied math, especially as it relates it a child’s needs and interests, is the bridge to mathematical success.

Computational readiness varies widely from child to child. Some are eager to do mental math, memorize math tricks, and take on increasingly complex calculations. Others need much more time before they are ready to tackle math this way. When readiness is paired with self-motivation there’s no limit to what a child can accomplish.

Benoit Mandelbrot is the Yale mathematics professor credited with identifying structures of self-similarity that he termed fractal geometry. His work changed the way we see patterns in nature, economies, and other systems. Mandelbrot doesn’t believe students need to struggle with Euclidean mathematics. Instead, he says,”Learning mathematics should begin by learning the geometry of mountains, of humans. In a certain sense, the geometry of . . . well, of Mother Nature, and also of buildings, of great architecture.” In other words, by focusing on inspiration found everywhere around them before turning to formal equations.

Natural math, according to math expert Maria Droujkova, is about,

people making mathematics their own, by posing their own problems, pursuing their own projects, and remixing other people’s activities in personally meaningful ways. We believe that “learning math” means two things—developing mathematical state of mind and acquiring mathematical skills.

Droujkova goes on to say,

Most parents we talk to, including the ones who work in STEM fields, tell us that their math education wasn’t satisfying. They want their kids to have something better: to see mathematics as beautiful, meaningful, and useful, and not to suffer from math anxiety and defeat. The two major ways the markets respond to these worries and dreams are via edutainment toys and games, and private early teaching in academic settings.

We suggest a different approach, centered on families and communities. We introduce advanced math through free play. Formal academic environments or skill-training software can’t support free play, but friends and family can. Mathematics is about noticing patterns and making rules that describe and predict these patterns. Observe children playing in a sandbox. At first it doesn’t look meaningful. But in a little while kids make up elaborate stories, develop a set of rules, and plan for what’s going to happen next. In a sense, what we do with math is setting up sandboxes where particular types of mathematical play can grow and emerge.

Let’s fling our limiting concept of math education wide open by eagerly using it in our lives.  Math is everywhere. Equations, patterns and probabilities surround us. Sometimes it takes a larger way of thinking about math to celebrate the beauty and perfection it represents.

natural math, math through play,

Applied math (images: morguefile.com)

Here are some of the starting points suggested in Free Range Learning to spark your own math-fueled journey.

 ~Learn more about yourselves. One family hangs a new chart each week to gather data. One week they might mark off where the dog takes a nap, then figure the percentage at the end of the week (40 percent of the time she sleeps in the window seat, 5 percent of the time under the table, etc), another week they might pick a subject like hours of computer use per person. They are also keeping several year-long graphs. One tracks the weight of trash and recyclables they discard weekly and a second graphs the amount of the produce they harvest from the garden. Yet another tracks money they are saving. They notice that in busy weeks, such as holidays, they fall short of sustainability goals they’ve set for themselves.

~Revel in measurement. Investigate joules, BTUs, calories, watts, gallons, degrees, fathoms, meters, hertz, attoseconds and more. Measure your everyday world. Calculate such things as the energy usage to get to grandma’s house in the car compared to taking the train, what angle a paper plane can be thrown and still fly, how much wood it will take to build a shelf for the baby’s toys, how many footsteps are required to walk to the corner. Figure out how to gather measurements and apply data.

~Enjoy math songs. Play them while traveling and sing them casually as you go about your day; you’ll find your children are memorizing math facts effortlessly. There’s something about a catchy tune that helps the mind retain concepts. There are many sources of math songs including Sing About Science and Math with a database of 2,500 songs.

~Say yes. When kids want to explore off the trail, stomp in puddles, mix up ingredients, play in the water, and otherwise investigate they’re making math and science come alive on their own terms. It’ll probably make a mess. Say yes anyway.

~Use wheels. Plan and build a skateboarding ramp. Time relay races using tricycles (the bigger the kids the greater the fun). Estimate how many revolutions different sized bike wheels make to cover the same distance (then get outside to find the answer). Adjust a wheelbarrow load to carry the greatest amount of weight. Use mass transit to get where you are going after figuring out the route and time schedule.

~Make math a moving experience. Instead of relying on flash cards, remember equations by clapping or stomping to them, rhyming and dancing with them, kicking a ball or tossing a bean bag to them, making number lines on the sidewalk with chalk and running to answer them, or any other method that enlivens learning. Games for Math: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn Math, From Kindergarten to Third Grade offers many moving math activities for children.

~Learn to dance. The fox trot or the hokey pokey may be funny names to children, but they also describe specific patterned steps. Mastering simple dances are a way of transforming mathematical instruction into art. Choreographers use dance notation to symbolize exact movements. Over the years different methods of dance notation have been used including: track mapping, numerical systems, graphs, symbols, letter and word notations, even figures to represent moves. Choreograph using your own system of dance notation. Draw chalk footprints on the floor to show where the dancer’s feet move to a waltz. Try dance classes. Music and dance enliven math concepts.

~Think in big numbers. Figure out how many days, minutes and seconds each member of the family has been alive. Estimate the mass of the Earth, then look up the answer. Stretch your mind to include Graham’s Number. Talk about why big numbers are best expressed in scientific notation. Check out the Mega Penny Project. Read stories about big numbers, such as Infinity and Me, How Much Is a Million? Millions to Measure, On Beyond a Million: An Amazing Math JourneyCan You Count to a Googol? , and One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

~Fold your way into geometry. Print out paper designs that fold into clever toys and games from The Toy Maker including thaumatropes and windboats. Check out instruction books such as Paper, Scissors, Sculpt!: Creating Cut-and-Fold Animals or Absolute Beginner’s Origami. Although these may seem to be for amusement sake, they teach important lessons in conceptualizing shapes and making inferences about spatial relations.

~Play games. Nearly every board game and card game incorporates arithmetic. Make time to play the games your children enjoy. Try new ones and make up your own. Many homeschoolers set up game days so their children can share games with their friends, this is a worthy tradition for kids whether they’re schooled or homeschooled. Games make strategizing and calculating effortlessly fun. For the latest information on games, check in with the aficionados at Board Game Geek. For educational game reviews, consult Games for Homeschoolers  and The Board Game Family.

~Learn chess. This game is in a class all its own. Research shows that children who play chess have improved spatial and numerical abilities, increased memory and concentration, enhanced problem-solving skills as well as a greater awareness of these skills in action. Interestingly, chess also promotes improved reading ability and self-esteem.

~Get hands-on experience in geometry. Geometrical principles come alive any time we design and build, whether constructing a fort out of couch pillows or a treehouse out of scrap wood. Make models using clay, poster board, craft sticks, or balsa.

~Find out about the math in meteorology. Learn about weather trends and predictions, measurement of precipitation and temperature conversion. Keep a weather log using instruments to measure wind speed, precipitation, temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity: then graph the results to determine average, mean, and median for your data.

~Play with shapes. Enjoy puzzles, tangrams, and tessellations. Notice the way shapes work together in the world around you both in natural and constructed settings. Keep a scrapbook of appealing shapes and designs. Create a sculpture out of toothpicks and miniature marshmallows. Cut paper snowflakes. Make collages out of pictures and three-dimensional objects. Grout bits of tile or broken dishes into mosaic designs. Make mobiles. Cut food into shapes.

~Pick up a musical instrument. Learning to play an instrument advances math skills as well as sharpens memory and attention.

~Learn to code. It’s not only fun, it’s really a basic skill.

~Estimate, then find out how to determine an accurate answer. Predict how much a tablespoon of popcorn will expand, then measure after it has been popped. Before digging into an order of French fries, estimate how many there are or how far their combined length will reach. See how the guess compares with the actual figure. Guessing, then finding out the answer enlivens many endeavors.

~Get into statistics.

  • Kids go through a phase when they want to find out about the fastest, heaviest, most outrageous. Once they’re duly impressed with the facts in such books as Guinness World Records it’s a great time to pique their interest using almanacs and atlases.
  • Sports offer a fun way to use statistics. Player and team stats are used to calculate odds, make comparisons and determine positioning. Children may want to keep track of their favorite teams or of their own activities. The numbers can help them to see patterns, debate trends and make predictions.
  • Data provided by WorldoMeters makes fascinating reading and may lead to further investigation.
  • Collect and interpret your own statistics. You might develop a survey. Or record measurements, weights, and other information about specific data, then analyze the statistics using a graph, histogram, or other instrument.

~Make calculation part of household rules. If children are permitted a certain amount of screen time per week, let them be responsible for charting that time. If children rotate chores or privileges, assist them to create a workable tracking system.

~Learn to knit. This useful skill also provides hands-on experience in basic math including counting, skip counting, multiplication and division, patterning, following a numerical guide, visualizing shapes, and problem solving.

~Make time for calendars. Check out the history of African, Babylonian, Roman, and Egyptian calendars. Learn how our calendar system came into use. Would it make sense to change to 13 equal months of 28 days each, with one remaining “day out of time” set aside? What are the definitions of “mean solar time,” “sidereal time” and “apparent solar time”? Make a homemade sundial to see how accurately you can tell time.

~Make math edible. Cereal, pretzels, crackers, small pieces of fruit or vegetables, cubes of cheese, nuts and other bite-sized foods are excellent tools to demonstrate addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percentages, measurement and more. Using food to make math functions visible is a tasty way to solve equations. Your children can calculate recipe changes such as doubling or halving while they learn other useful meal preparation skills at home.

~Use trial and error. This is a fun process, especially when applied to brain teasers, puzzles, and mazes; try making up your own. Other math-related ways to stretch your mind include optical illusions, magic tricks, and drawing in perspective. These activities go well beyond solving equations to figuring out larger concepts.

~Devise your own codes and use them to send messages to one another. Check out the history of codes and code breakers. Set up treasure hunts by hiding a tiny treat and leaving codes or equations to be solved that lead to the next set of hints.

~Compete. 

~Enjoy the intersection of math and art. Muse over puzzling visual patterns, for example the work of M.C. Escher. Learn about rug making, sculpture, weaving, basketry and many other art forms to discover the calculation, patterning, and measurement used to create objects of beauty.

~Delve into maps. Look at maps of the world together. Find maps of your locality. As well as road maps, your child may be intrigued by topographical and relief maps, economic and political maps, navigational and aeronautical charts, weather maps or land ownership maps. Draw maps of your neighborhood, home, yard, or bedroom—notice what details your child includes. Make imaginary maps, perhaps to accompany a story or to demonstrate what an eight-year-old would consider a perfect place. Consider mapping somewhere you know well, but from different time frames—how might this place have looked 100 years ago, now, in the distant future? Some children who are reluctant to keep diaries or sketchbooks will cheerfully keep records of places they’ve been by drawing maps. Maps and mapping can teach measurement, spatial awareness, and complex geographical concepts.

~Use logic. Apply critical thinking to current events.

~Compare related things like the weight of a puppy to a full-grown dog, or the size of a pitcher compared to the number of glasses it can fill.

~Use math at the store. While shopping, have children help check prices as part of the process of choosing a better deal. Talk about what other factors come into play—durability, ecological impact, value, overall worth. If you need to make a bigger purchase like a refrigerator, have the children compare the special features and cost effectiveness of running the appliance.

~Try travel math. Traveling is a great time to use math. Children can figure out fuel usage, keep track of expenditures, consult maps, estimate time of arrival, and more. Playing math games also provides excellent distraction during a long trip!

~Talk about math as if you are thinking out loud. “I wonder how many bricks it took to make this entire wall?” then look up a formula for figuring that out; or “If we don’t buy ____ for a whole month do you think we’ll have enough money left over for a ____?”

~Enjoy hands-on projects requiring sequential instruction. These hone logic and spatial skills as well as patience. Model-building, quilting, making repairs, knitting, carpentry, origami, beading and Legos® are examples of such projects.

~Learn how alternative languages relate to numbers. Check out Morse code, semaphore, Braille and sign language.

~Play pool. The sport known as billiards has a lot to teach about angles, trajectory, speed and calculation. And it’s fun.

~Expect kids to participate in household chores. All sorts of mathematical concepts are learned when the youngest children put away silverware, stack plastic containers in the cupboard, and sweep the floor. Even more while older kids help make meals, do repairs, and brainstorm solutions to make the household runs more smoothly.

~Make puzzles a family tradition. They can increase concentration as well as promote spatial learning and reasoning.

~Start or join a math circle. Meet regularly with others who enjoy making the subject fun and intriguing. Most are run by math experts and include projects, games, and field trips related to math. Some resources to get you started:

~Play with math and critical thinking, together.

~Check out learning games suggested by math teachers and math bloggers.

~Read literature that incorporates math.  Find lists of specific math concepts in children’s literature through the National Association for the Education of Young Children as well as the math in children’s literature list on Love2Learn2Day.  Here are some age-related suggestions.

~Read-aloud math stories for children under 8.

~Math Stories for Children 8 and up.

~Math inspiration for older kids.  

Enjoy math-y videos.

~Keep math references handy, you’ll find them endlessly useful.

This post is third in a series on natural math. 

The Benefits of Natural Math. Data that turns turn our assumptions about math instruction upside down. If you read only one in this series, read this. 

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Experiment. What happened when formal math instruction was eliminated? 

image adapted from livescience.com

image adapted from livescience.com

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