Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

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)

Are You An Anthropocentrist?

 

animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.

 

Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.

 

Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

 

animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

The Dart Collection

summer enrichment?, kids and collections, free range summer,

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Margaret Swift, one of the most creative people I know. She writes about a neighborhood of free ranging kids and the girl whose mysterious summer project surprised them all.  
 

When I was five years old, we moved to a neighborhood that contained a wealth of little girls around my age. After living on a farm with no one to play with but three rotten older brothers, this was heaven. During summer vacation, we girls scrambled around together playing jacks on cement porches, dressing Barbie dolls under picnic tables, holding roller derbies on cracked and heaved-up sidewalks, and catching tadpoles in local ponds. We’d generally eat lunch at the home of the mother unlucky enough to be closest when our stomachs started growling. We wandered from one activity to the next in gentle summer chaos.

But just as every rule has to have its exception, our neighborhood of scrape-kneed, ragamuffin girls also contained Mr. and Mrs. Dart and the five little Darts: Mary, Mindy, Mandy, Molly, and Mavis.

Most of us dressed each morning in the first clothes that came to hand, in a wild rush to get outside and fall off our bikes or crawl through the grass in search of lost Barbie shoes. The Dart girls were always immaculately turned out in pressed white cotton shirts, navy or red shorts, terribly white socks, and tennis shoes that were never anything but blazingly white. The rest of us had wild kinky hair (long before it was fashionable) or lumpy uneven braids or ponytails escaping from rubber bands. The Dart girls had short bobs with picture-perfect bangs always half an inch above their eyebrows. And while the rest of us roamed wild and free, Mrs. Dart felt her girls’ growing minds would best be developed by Summer Projects.

So every summer, on the first day of vacation, Mrs. Dart would meet with her girls to outline The Project. One summer it involved physical fitness, and a flurry of swimming, tennis, and horseback riding lessons ensued, all skillfully and cheerfully taught by the indomitable Mrs. Dart. Another summer occasioned the Household Arts Project, during which the girls learned baking, knitting, dressmaking, and how best to wield a dust rag.

Mrs. Dart always graciouisly invited us to join in, and often we eagerly began, but we never lasted long. One by one, we’d fall off the Projects wagon. Later we’d be found lying in the dust poking sticks at anthills or arguing over whose turn is was at the Monopoly game we’d started three weeks earlier. We lacked the diligence to stick to a Dart Project, but occasional bouts of boredom led us up on the Darts’ steps for progress reports, and during the Dart girls’ two free hours every afternoon, when they joined us in tag or jump rope or bike riding, they filled us in.

In my tenth year, Mrs. Dart announced the Summer of the Collections. She expounded on the delight, education, and camaraderie to be gained from joining the legions who gathered this and that. She then sent the girls to the library to decide what they would collect.

Mary, two years old than I, decided on foreign recipes. She spent her summer carefully copying curries, crepes, pilafs, and stews into a loose-leaf folder. Once a week she cooked a recipe whose ingredients weren’t impossible to come by or too objectionable to a good Lutheran family. (This particular collection must have been hard on Mr. Dart, a staunch meat-and-potatoes man. He tried. He persevered. But he drew the line at chocolate-covered bees and bull testicles in aspic.)

Mindy and Mandy, the twins one year my senior, decided on tried-and-true collections: butterflies and matchbooks. Mindy was much too kindhearted to actually kill a butterfly, so instead she made a scrapbook of pictures cut from magazines and nature pamphlets. Under each picture she entered, in a neat hand, each specimen’s common and Latin names, locale, habits, and any other tidbits she could cull. We all found her book quite impressive.

Mandy was allowed to collect matchbooks on the condition she bring them to her mother or father to have the matches removed. In those days, every bank, restaurant, gas station, and hair salon had bowls of matching sitting out. Relatives traveling to New York or Hawaii sent back exotic samples. Mandy even made friends with a local printer who saved her a matchbook from every wedding he handled.

Seven-year-old Mavis, the baby, took a short cut. The girls’ grandparents had brought back a basket of seashells from a trip to Florida. She simply looked the shells up and then glued the shells to sheets of posterboard, printing their names in bold block letters underneath. Nini Fizzarelli commented that they didn’t look real because they didn’t look wet, and Patsy McMullen suggested clear nail polish. Mavis nearly asphyxiated herself, but at the end of two days every shell was covered and did indeed look perpetually wet.

That left nine-year-old Molly. She came up with an idea which she happily hugged to herself and would not share. She had always been the perfect little Dart, following through Projects without a qualm. But this summer she begged Mrs. Dart to let her work on her project privately and surprise them all at the end of the season. When the Dart girls joined us in the afternoons, Molly refused to talk. The more we questioned, the more tight-lipped she became. It was maddening. We pretended not to care.

August came and the day approached when the girls would exhibit their completed collections. The grandparents were invited, a backyard picnic was planned, and excitement mounted in the neighborhood. We knew we’d be invited over to see the collections and to share homemade peach-vanilla ice cream. Two more weeks…nine more days…

On day minus-five it happened. I overheard my dad whispering to my mom. The Dart girls had been out with their grandparents, and Mr. Dart came home to find Mrs. Dart in a swoon on Molly and Mavis’ bedroom floor. Evidently she had finished the laundry and was putting away Molly’s white socks when she saw in the back of the drawer the nine-by-twelve inch clear plastic box Molly had requested to house her collection.

Inside the box, Mrs. Dart saw rows of cotton balls, each with a label declaring a date and body part, such as “July 3, elbow.” There was something else on each cotton ball. Molly had acquired a collection of scabs.

We found out later that she had carefully lifted off the souvenir of every bump and scrape she’d gotten over the summer and had paid Billy Barnstrom on the block behind us for several of his scabs as well. (The well-mannered Molly just didn’t bang herself up enough.)

At the picnic, Molly made an official announcement, under her mother’s stern eye, that her collection had gotten misplaced somewhere, though it seemed clear from the buzz and a couple of odd jokes made by Grandfather Dart that everyone knew all about it.

Summer came to a close and school began again. The following summer, Mrs. Dart enforced a Full Disclosure Act on all Summer Projects.

By the way, I hear Molly now lives in Washington State and is a well-respected hematologist.

~

Margaret Swift is a free spirit with metanoic* tendencies. She’s a writer, fiber artist, calligrapher, energy healer, meditation teacher, spiritual counselor, and ardent gardener. She likes to sip enticing drinks (tea or wine depending on the time of day) and is an insatiable knitter. To find out more about her about her work, contact her at margaret.a.swift@gmail.com 

*met·a·noi·a  [met-uh-noi-uh]  noun:   a profound, usually spiritual, transformation

Getting Science On Everything

raising scientists, toddler science, teen science, unschooling science, supporting kids' curiosity, science at home, science happens naturally,

crystals of vitamin B6 ( CC by 3.0 Josef Reischig)

 We spread thick layers of science on everything at our house. Yes, occasionally it smells.

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

encouraging young scientists, love of science starts early,

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbo charged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. They insist I look at video clips that go on much longer than my attention span. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family. By the time the youngest was 11, my head was the smallest.

And then there’s the front yard. By the garage door a headstone leans. It has nothing to do with Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural. Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. He thought it was funny to make it a two-fisted drinker. I’m plotting to put a trumpet in one of the metal man’s hands so it looks like a rowdy jazz player. And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.

raising scientists, natural curiosity makes scientists,

Science shouldn’t be confined to a formal study. My husband and I have never worked in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity, heading in all sorts of directions.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then picking up handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied.

When one of my boys was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and on occasion unintentionally left those fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so intensely curious and active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame that compelled him to disobey. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warming about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn but can be conquered in the presence of a parent.

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened.  One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one.

My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable of discovering anything they want to know.

A Child’s Place Is In The Kitchen

kids learn in the kitchen, kids learn by helping, kids help in the kitchen, what kids can cook,

flickr.com/photos/eyeliam

It’s easier to cook when kids aren’t in the way. Bubbling pots and sharp knives, after all, are hardly child-friendly. But the kitchen shouldn’t be off-limits to kids.

Yes, dinner takes longer to make when Mason snips the cilantro to shreds and Sophie reads the recipe out loud. And you’ve got places to go — probably places to take your darling children, like T-ball practice or that great science program at the museum.

But how much, really, do our beloved kids benefit from a steady schedule of, well, scheduled activities? Those educational, adult-led activities may very well be counterproductive. We tend to forget that ordinary things like cooking together are flexible, hands-on, purposeful learning experiences.

As they snip, read, and converse with us, our kids are learning physical, mental, and social skills. Here’s how cooking can be educational for them.

Mirror neurons. Even a baby in an infant seat benefits from time in the kitchen. She pays attention to your actions. She’s delighted when you talk to her and show her what you’re doing. Due to mirror neurons in our brains, all of us mentally duplicate actions and emotions we see. This inborn way of learning means that we’re continually participating in what we observe. Your baby’s mirror neurons allow her to vicariously experience what you’re doing. As she sees you wash, peel, and cut carrots, she’ll form a mental template for that task, essentially allowing her to practice in advance.

If you change an element of that familiar activity — perhaps by using garden-fresh carrots with long waving fronds instead of milled carrots from a plastic bag — your little one will pay heightened attention. If your knife slips and you cut yourself, she’ll react to your surprise and pain, making her understanding of sharp implements more real than any warning might accomplish.

Meaning. Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with a toy cooking set; he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but your child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Responsibility. Research has shown that children who participated in household tasks starting at age three or four were more likely to succeed in adulthood. I’m talking really succeed: educational completion, career success, and good relationships with family and friends. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities. And waiting until children were older tends to backfire. We spend much time and money on enriching activities and products for our children, but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Higher-level learning. Kitchen-related tasks allow kids to learn more than how dry pinto beans can transform into enticingly tasty refried beans. Kids begin to see scientific principles at work. They develop personal qualities such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as children become proficient in the kitchen, they also see themselves as capable learners. That perception transfers across all endeavors. 

Sensory learning. Full sensory learning has staying power. Apart from nature, it’s hard to find a more sensory-rich environment than the kitchen. As your child’s little fingers crumble blue cheese into dressing, add raisins to a measuring cup, or tear mint leaves for chutney, the tactile and olfactory pleasure help encode specific memories. Perhaps the happiness your daughter feels making mint chutney with you today will be evoked each time she smells mint in the future. We humans must see, hear, smell, touch, and, yes, taste to form the complex associations that make up true comprehension.

Active learning. Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who spends plenty of time with manipulatives (arranging veggie on a platter, sifting flour, washing silverware) and using real-world math (measuring ingredients, counting celery stalks, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which in turn enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts. These movement-oriented activities also contribute to reading readiness. Another benefit of kitchen learning? Cooking and tasting the results a short time later provides wonderful lessons in cause and effect.

Simplicity. Children accustomed to blinking, beeping toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it, they’re bored. The slower pace of kitchen conversation and cooking tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, simplify so you can make your time together in the kitchen enjoyable. Slowing down is better for digestion, concentration, and overall happiness. Letting a small child spread his own peanut butter, cut his own sandwich, and pour milk from a tiny pitcher into his cup is a way of affirming the value of the present moment. It also makes for an effortless tea party.

Skill building. There’s no denying that children who help out in the kitchen pick up useful skills. They learn that a cake takes lots of mixing, but muffins very little. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four years old or 40 years old, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy peeling potatoes and crumbling bacon, try renaming the entrée “Max’s special potato soup” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose. When we prepare a family meal, bake a cake to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have noticeable value. As our children participate along with us, they feel that same satisfaction. So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but spark enthusiasm. Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we’ll see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

kids help in the kitchen, how kids can cook, preschoolers help in kitchen,

flickr.com/photos/limevelyn

Getting Started

Even toddlers can help. Let small children cut mushrooms, pears, bananas, and other soft items with a blunt knife. Encourage them to stir (as long as you or they hold the bowl). They’ll be happy to add ingredients, tear lettuces, and grate cheese. When putting together forgiving dishes like soups or casseroles, have them help you choose herbs and spices by smell before you toss in a pinch or two.

Encourage your small fry to wash unbreakable items in a sink of warm soapy water. Let them clean up crumbs on the floor with a small whisk broom or handheld vacuum. Put them in charge of setting out napkins on the table and calling family members to dinner.

Give them the job of stacking unbreakable containers in a low cabinet. Solicit their opinions on aroma, taste, and appearance as you cook together. And remember to thank them for their assistance.

As they get older, children can read recipes, plan meals, and do nearly every task required to make the dishes they enjoy. The time will come when they won’t want you in the room explaining how to fix a lumpy cream sauce or talking about how Nana always mixed pastry dough with her fingers. They’re on their way to making the kitchen a proving ground for their own culinary adventures. Hopefully you’ll be invited to taste-test while you relax for a change.

Parking the kids in front of the TV while we dash to get dinner ready may be efficient, but it’s not the way young people have matured throughout human history. Children need to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They’re drawn to see how their elders handle a crisis, fix a car, create a soufflé, build a bookshelf, heal what’s broken, and fall in love.

So welcome your little ones into the kitchen. Let the cooking begin.

 

First published in Culinate.com

Conduct Human Experiments of the Word Kind

bring back obscure words, get people to say strange words,

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have provided their informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

Over the summer he worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed one habit: avid reading.

He used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results are now in. His experiment was a resounding success. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.

Purpose. 

You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary.)

Hypothesis. 

Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Yes, you get people to say funny words.

Materials.

1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,”  and “tarnation.”)

Method.

This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you might choose to insist it is back in style. Or you might use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging this Human Experiments of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance the world as we know it.

Observation.

See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.

Conclusion. 

Have you gotten subjects to saying funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind!