17 Playful Cures for a Toy Overload

toy overload, play without toys,

But there’s nothing to do! (CC by 2.0 Dennis Brekke)

Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun,  their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.

I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots and lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products.  And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.

These days, typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.

Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A recent study  done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!

Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.


Rotate toys

Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.


Reserve toys for specific situations.

It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.


Join or set up a toy lending library 

Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.


Assemble play kits using non-toy items

You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.

Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.

Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, band-aids, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.

Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.

Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.

Market:  Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)


Encourage Deconstruction

Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.

We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player,  can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)


Permit hideouts

Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.


Let them play with water

Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water.  Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.

Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.


Help kids set up obstacle courses

A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder.  Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.


Bring back legacy games

All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges.  Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.


Stage treasure hunts

 First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.


Let them help

Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.


Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays

It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.


Take advantage of temporary circumstances

A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.

One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.

The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.

You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house.  Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”


Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine

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.

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.


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. 

Keeping Creativity Alive



“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”—Henry David Thoreau

Imagination springs from nowhere and brings something new to the world—games, art, inventions, stories, solutions. Childhood is particularly identified with this state, perhaps because creativity in adults is considered to be a trait possessed only by the artistic few.



Nurturing creativity in all its forms recognizes that humans are by nature generative beings. We need to create. The best approach may be to get out of one another’s way and welcome creativity as a life force.



If we are familiar with the process that takes us from vision to expression, we have the tools to use creativity throughout our lives. When we welcome the exuberance young children demonstrate as they dance around the room, talk to invisible friends, sing in the bathtub, and play made-up games we validate the importance of imagination.



When we encourage teens to leave room in their schedules for music or game design or skateboarding or whatever calls to them, we honor their need for self-expression. Young people who are comfortable with creativity can apply the same innovative mindset to their adult lives.



Creativity is necessary when dealing with an architectural dilemma, new recipe, marketing campaign, environmental solution, or personal relationship. In fact, it’s essential.



Imagination and inspiration have fueled human progress throughout time. Creative powers have brought us marvels and continue to expand the boundaries. The energy underlying the creative act is life-sustaining and honors the work of others.



But there’s a caveat. Creativity isn’t always positive, visionaries aren’t always compassionate, and progress isn’t always beneficial. After all, a clever mind is required to craft a conspiracy as well as to negotiate a peace accord.



Creativity is a life force when it arises as a healing impulse, as a truth-telling impulse, as an impulse to approach mystery.



Tomorrow’s possibilities call out to our inventive, imaginative selves. Let’s answer.



Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

11 Reasons Sing-Songy Names and Rhymes Are Important

benefits of nursery rhymes, chants for preschoolers,

We make up silly songs and even sillier rhymes in my family. Mostly it’s for fun, but I notice that it ushers in all sorts of other positives. It eases tension and creates fond memories. Sometimes it’s even a strangely effective method of shorthand communication.

You probably do this too without even noticing. Maybe you call your partner and kids nonsense names. Maybe you naturally make up tunes to ease a frustrating experience. Maybe you recite the same chants you learned as a child. Here are some reasons why this is so beneficial.

1. Sing-songy names and rhymes span generations. Your great-grandmother may have said “See you later alligator” when she was a girl. She probably also played finger games like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Passing along these traditions preserves a language of play shared from oldest to youngest.

2. They are a form of cultural literacy. Many of these simple refrains are hundreds of years old, nearly identical to those recited in Shakespeare’s time. As children get older they’ll will be surprised to learn the historical roots of nursery rhymes like “Ring Around the Rosy” and “Humpty Dumpty.”

3. Playground rhymes and chants are part of what sociologists call “folkways.” Even when children don’t know one another, they know how to settle who goes first using “Rock, Paper, Scissors” or “Eenie Meenie Miny Mo.” These classics have surprising staying power and become norms in a child’s world.

4. Hand-clapping rhymes and songs not only promote motor skills and coordination, they’re also linked to academic skills. Research demonstrates that young children who take part in hand-clapping chants become better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills. A round of “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” anyone?

5. Nursery rhymes, songs, and clapping games can advance social skills and confidence. Young children feel comfortable with patterned singing, dancing, and playing because these activities proceed with a predictable sequences of words and actions.

6. Rhyming ditties can teach basic skills (such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”) and reinforce positive attitudes (such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

7. Rhymes help young children expand their vocabularies, become familiar with grammatical structure, and use sound patterns such as alliteration. The rhyming words themselves foster understanding of word families—groups of words with different beginning letters but the same ending letters. When children already know that “ball” rhymes with “call” they quickly recognize that “wall,” “fall,” and “small” also rhyme. This establishes a groundwork for later spelling and reading. 

8. Action rhymes like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” foster full body movement, always a good way to expend energy.

9. Rhymes aid in establishing routines, from clean-up songs to “Teddy Bear Say Good Night.” Familiar tunes and cadences ease transitions from one activity to another in a comfortably upbeat manner.

10. Rhymes are easily customized to fit the moment. Lyrics for “Wheels on the Bus” can be expanded to include such amusements as exhaust on the bus, clown on the bus, and so on. “This Little Piggy Went to the Market” can be played with toes that instead are destined to go to the park where they swing on swings, slide down the slide, drink from the water fountain, and whatever else the child likes to do at the park. The next time it might be played as “This Little Piggy Went to the Beach.” Personalized hand-clapping games, rhymes, and names make play meaningful and memorable.

11. Songs and chants are so essential to our development that we’re coded to recognize them in utero.  Start singing!


Originally published in Holistic Parenting

Public domain image, pixabay.com

Public domain image, pixabay.com


Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”   ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.

As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. I wasn’t at all involved beyond providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.

Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.

She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.

I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.

Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.

Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.

You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.

Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”

In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.

Photo by Claire Weldon

Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.

Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.

Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.

What do we need to remember about this state?

Flow is typically triggered:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.

These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.

That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

How do we encourage flow?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).

  • Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
  • Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
  • Let go of worry and pressure.
  • Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
  • As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
  • Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.

The outcome of flow?

  • Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
  • A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
  • Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.

That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.

Post first published on the wonderful site, Simple Homeschool.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

The Magic of Fresh Air for Babies & Other Beings

fresh air for kids, outdoors every day, babies sleep better in cold,

CC by 2.0 Abigail Batchelder’s flickr photostream

For centuries it was common wisdom that a few hours of fresh air each day was an absolute necessity. Children from infancy on up were bundled in warm clothes and taken out in all seasons. The practice stemmed from a longstanding belief that time outdoors promoted strength and robust health. It was also believed that it kept various character weaknesses at bay. That is, until the practice was poo-poo’ed as nonsense. Nothing but old wives’ tales.

Fortunately, my parents thought otherwise. My mother knew childish energy is best expended outdoors. It never occurred to her that we required her participation as she sent us out every day. When we were small she told us to stay in the yard, checking every now and then from the window. Soon our range expanded to a few acres of woods behind our house plus pretty much anywhere we could go on our bikes while still making it back in time for dinner.

I learned even more about the importance of being outside from my father. He set a quiet example by paying attention to birds, the weather, the garden. If we went somewhere with him other than a hardware store, it was to go hiking in the Cleveland Metroparks.

It wasn’t until I had my first baby that my father showed me a deeper power of nature, again simply by example. When he held babies he almost always walked outdoors with them, particularly if they were fussy.

“Here’s the sky,” he’d point. “That’s a tree over there, you’ll be running on this grass in no time,” he’d gently tell an infant.

Their eyes would get big and they’d look around, more calm and focused than they were indoors.

I started to follow his example. If I couldn’t figure out my baby’s troubles, I’d go out to lie on the grass during the day, or wrap up warmly to look at the stars in the middle of the night. It nearly always settled a crying baby.

It worked even better for toddlers. They’d get cranky in the house, far crankier in the car. They wanted out in the largest sense possible. They’d stay outdoors as long as I’d let them, on our most glorious days this lasted for hours. When she was a year old my daughter liked to pick up little stones, hold them briefly, then place them in little piles. She’d look at me, shaking her head to remind herself they couldn’t go in her mouth. My little children helped me garden and sweep and rake. They dug in the dirt, made fairy houses out of sticks and leaves, filled their little wagons with the hickory nuts that littered our yard in autumn, stomped in puddles, squatted to watch bugs, climbed on logs, and asked endless questions. All these richly sensory experiences happened simply because we were outdoors. I had no idea at the time that all of this movement helped build essential brainpower.

As Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy explain in the wonderful book, A Moving Child Is a Learning Child,

A young child can learn only what her brain is primed and ready for. And in the early years, that’s everything the body has to teach—the tangible, physical, and sensory qualities of the world around her. It’s no wonder preschool learning rarely happens sitting down.

Influential 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, suggested children should spend four to six hours a day outdoors. She wrote in Home Education,

…every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood.

In Scandinavian countries, parents believe it’s healthier for babies and children to be outside for a few hours a day in all but the most extreme temperatures (and they mean extreme, as in 0 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a common practice to dress babies warmly and tuck them in a stroller in the yard, balcony, or outside a shop to nap on a snowy day.

In fact, the Finnish Ministry of Labour specifically recommends it (see page 24 under “naps”).  Does it help babies sleep better? One study showed children took longer naps outdoors compared with naps taken indoors.

Pediatrician Harvey Karp points out, in The Happiest Toddler on the Block, how staying indoors is overstimulating while at the same time boring for children.

Our homes are boring because they replace the exciting sensations of nature (the feeling of the wind on their skin, the brilliant sun, the soft grass, etc.) with an immense stillness (flat walls, flat floors, no wind).

Yet at the same time, he writes, being indoors is overstimulating.

It bombards them with jolting experiences that kids in the past never had to deal with: crazy cartoons, slick videos, clanging computer games, noisy toys, and bright colors everywhere…which can make many little children feel stressed.

There are exhaustive studies showing that time outdoors, particularly in nature, benefit us in myriad ways—from better health to peace of mind.  I think there’s something intangible too, something to do with keeping alive the awe and wonder that is our birthright. That’s something the youngest children can help us relearn.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

fresh air benefits, outdoors every day, cold air good for sleep, babies sleep better outside,

CC by 2.0 pixydust8605’s flickr photostream

Natural Math: 100+ Activities & Resources

math through play, everyday math

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.


~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

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)