An Underachiever Named Bart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underachiever indeed.

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

Who Are You When The Power Goes Out?

contemplation time, power outage, technology dependence,

Over a decade ago a power outage started in Ohio, rapidly spreading to four other states and parts of Canada. In some places power wasn’t restored for days. For a time, systems with backup generators continued working but only as long as those generators had fuel. ATM machines couldn’t be accessed, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, phone service was disrupted, and water systems lost pressure.

When it started, my parents checked in with a neighbor who was home alone next door. My mother told the 14-year-old girl if she needed something she only had to ask. “I’m fine,” the girl assured her.

About an hour later the (now distraught) girl rang my parent’s doorbell. “I don’t know what to do!” she said.

“What’s wrong?” my alarmed mother asked her, “Are you okay?”

It turned out no particular thing was wrong, exactly. But this girl was close to panic. She couldn’t get online. She couldn’t recharge her phone. She couldn’t turn on the TV.  Tired of her iPod and without other familiar diversions she was left to her own devices.

She. Didn’t. Know. What. To. Do.

Maybe we’ve unlearned how to be with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in history. Our ancestors, whether hunting or hoeing, had hours each day to think their own thoughts. They had time to notice nuances in the natural world. They had time to know themselves. Those previous eras weren’t all golden by any means, but our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined a future generation populated by people who would suffer when left without moment-to-moment diversions.

What are we diverting ourselves from, exactly?

My friend Urmila, who lives in India, tells me that we most fully inhabit our lives when we’re not doing but being. She says there’s a big different between her culture and ours. In the West believe a good day is spent getting a lot accomplished. Our spare minutes are filled with distractions, our vacations are way to check items off our bucket lists, and family time needs to be fit into a schedule.

To her a good day is one of daydreams, contemplation, meditation, a quiet walk—simply experiencing the flow of time.

(Urmila has motivated me to stop uttering what I think is the curse word of our time.)

Which brings me to a relevant study. Researchers performed brain scans on rats as they went through a maze and again afterwards. They found rats, given a chance to relax, showed enhanced learning and memory retention compared rats who were not. The scientists noted that human experiences also require periods of quiet wakeful introspection to make sense of them.

What we experience is just raw data until we feel it, think about it, and weave it into our personally tapestry. Relaxing and reflecting lets us find meaning in our experiences. That sounds like a life more fully lived, whether the power is on or not.

technology addiction, introspection, studies of memory,

The Ache to Make

My daughter needs a new pair of pants hemmed. I dig through a jumbled box of vintage thread for the right color. I find it, gray the color of a mourning dove, wrapped on a wooden spool. I cut a length, thread a needle, and stitch at a backslash angle. I hope I’m also sewing some love into the hem.

I eagerly take refuge in tasks like hemming pants or pulling weeds or chopping onions, probably because what I do to earn money requires no movement other than typing and no strain other than the effort to keep my wandering mind on the screen.

My life would be unimaginable to most of our planet’s previous generations. Our ancestors lived by the work of their hands. They hunted and hoed. They cut stone to line wells, make fences, and build cathedrals. They turned trees into wagon wheels, bridges, and ships. Nearly everything they wore and ate came from their hands and the hands of people known to them.

Our hands do much less than theirs. I’m typing this on a comfortable chair in a warm house in the middle of a life much easier than my forbears could have dreamed for themselves. Yet I know my worst insomnia happens on deadline nights after I’ve made myself stay at the screen hour after hour. And sitting too long at the computer doing nothing more strenuous than moving ideas to documents makes me feel like a suitcase crammed with stuff, straining at the hinges and ready to burst. I want to MAKE something.

So, even though I’ve got another deadline looming and a community action meeting tonight, I’m going to get up from this desk to go do something with my hands.

As fiber artist Renate Hiller says, “our destiny is written in the hand.” I like what she has to say about the ache to make.

What hands-on work are you drawn to do?

Truly Inhabiting Time

screen addiction, phone addiction, mindfulness,

CC by 2.0 MK Feeney’s flickr photostream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CC by 2.0 epSos .de’s flickr photostream

*Yes, I checked later. The movie took plenty of liberties with the real story.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

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The kids had a bunch of boards, some old nails, a hand saw, and a few hammers. They also had the two most important ingredients, the desire to make something and the freedom to do so.

They spent an afternoon planning their tree fort, enthusiastically arguing over whose plan was best. Their first few attempts failed spectacularly. They were undaunted, even bragged a little bit about the noise the boards made falling down. Several of them asked family members for advice. A few others paged through books and watched YouTube videos as they tried to figure out basic construction techniques. They started again, measuring more carefully as they built a frame. The process took much longer than they’d expected but they stuck with it. When they ran out of materials they scavenged tree lawns on garbage pickup day, dragging back pieces of wood. They got a few cuts and bruises. They were proud of those too. As they worked they talked about how they’d use their clubhouse. It didn’t occur to them how much they were learning.

Conventional thinking tells us that children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, lessons, coached sports, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages. They do this because they believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more their children will benefit.

But learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close. Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking That’s true of a baby as well as older children and teens.

Young people are also cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Research indicates that people are drawn to learn from situations that are “just right” for them.  They may make plenty of mistakes along the way, just as babies fall when learning to walk, but facing those challenges and making those mistakes are pivotal steps in maturity.

It’s also well-known that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play. They pretend, make up games, daydream, wonder, and launch their own projects. They are discovering not only the world around them but a rich inner life as well.

Of course adults are vital to young people’s lives. They provide safety, guidance, love, and much more. Kids know they can ask trusted adults for help or advice. They do so more eagerly when they recognize these adults won’t overwhelm them with information, quiz them on what they are learning, or take over. Adult responses simply need to stay in proportion to a young person’s request.

For an example of how powerful the drive to discover can be, let’s take a brief detour to two Ethiopian villages. These places may be rich in intangibles like family and tradition, but they are poor in every other way. The illiteracy rate is practically 100 percent. There aren’t even written words around for children to see: no books, no labels on packaged foods, no street signs. That’s where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project dropped off 1,000 tablet PCs with solar chargers. They weren’t handed out in a school, but to kids. The devices were pre-loaded with English-language operating systems and software that tracked how the tablets were used. The boxes were taped shut, with no instruction given at all.

In less than five minutes, one child (who’d never seen an on/off switch) powered up a system. The kids collaborated as they learned. Within a few days they were using 47 apps per child, within five months they were taking pictures. That took a while since the kids had to teach themselves to hack Android because the tablet cameras were mistakenly deactivated. The OLPC project is finding, all over the world, that kids are learning to read and speak in multiple languages. They easily search, program, and connect using inexpensive tablets. These kids are also teaching adults in their villages to read and use computers. They’re doing it without adult instruction.

So how did our fort-builders do? They had three sides framed and were working on the fourth when one boy’s father stepped in to help. His help may have been welcomed if they’d asked or if he simply contributed to the team effort, but this very well-meaning man decided the kids weren’t doing a good job. He took over, telling the kids to re-do some of their work and to build the rest of it according to his instructions. They did, but without much gusto. The resulting fort was more sturdily built yet they only used it a few times.

A year or so later they scavenged some boards from it to make a go-cart, and then another go-cart. This time they welcomed the help of another child’s grandfather who worked alongside them, learning together as the project unfolded. Their enthusiasm had returned.

Carly’s Voice

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Carly Fleischmann was unable to communicate. Diagnosed with autism and related disorders by the age of two, she screamed, threw herself to the floor, smeared feces, moved constantly, and barely slept at night. An attentive family plus hours of daily therapy helped teach her rudiments like walking and feeding herself. Experts advised her parents to consider residential care.

But one day during a therapy session, Carly reached for the computer. Slowly, using one finger, she typed

help

teeth

hurt.

Her therapists were astonished. It took months and much coaxing to get her to use the computer again (at that time, an augmentative communication device). But she began to recognize that communication was essential. Technology made it possible.

What emerged from her arduous single strokes on the keypad showed a girl who wasn’t mentally retarded, as her doctors suspected, but someone spirited, insightful, and intelligent. She wrote about wanting to have fun with normal kids. She asked to do things she’d always wanted to try. And she tried to convey what it was like to live in an autistic body. She explained that behaviors (like banging her head on the floor and bleating loudly) erupted from her like liquid would burst from a can of Coke when it had been shaken and opened. She said those behaviors helped block the sensory input of sight and sound that constantly overwhelmed her.

A few years ago, a segment about Carly’s new-found communication aired on 20/20.

Now Carly uses technology to communicate with a world that’s ever more open to her. She keeps up with a busy Twitter  feed and Facebook fans. She answers questions, promotes autism awareness, and says that she feels part of a larger community by connecting with people through social media.

Technology allows Carly to share what she calls her “inner voice.” Check out Carly’s Cafe, an interactive web video, to experience a coffee shop as she experiences it. And take a look at the memoir she wrote with her father, Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism
to better understand this bright engaging girl whose world unlocked thanks to a keyboard.

Oh, and don’t think Carly’s drive to move forward has slowed. Now 17 years old, she was recently asked to appear on a panel at The Nantucket Project, a prestigious request for any expert, even more impressive that she would be their youngest ever. Senator John Kerry was also scheduled to give a presentation. She tweeted him in advance, challenging him to take a seat on the panel so she could ask him questions. Her challenge was retweeted thousands of times by her followers and Sen. Kerry did indeed do as she asked. Her first question to him was, “What have you done in the Senate to help autism and do you think it’s enough?” Watch the video here.
We may not know what sparks autism, from inflammatory responses in a pregnant mother’s body to systemic changes in the body to another step in emerging neurodiversity. We do know that Carly and many more like her are with us, speaking in voices we’re meant to hear.

What’s To Love About Pinterest

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Creativity103's Flickr photostream

Are you on Pinterest?

This virtual pinboard lets us create, organize, and share what we find online. Because it’s a visually-oriented site, it attracts us using something other social media sites haven’t done nearly as well: images. While online we tend to be seekers. We look for information, distraction, connection, and inspiration. Pinterest lets us find (and revel in) all these things through compelling images.

The site was launched in March 2010. One of the founders, Ben Silbermann, said in an interview that the idea stemmed from his penchant for collecting. As a child he was particularly taken with entomology. He realized that collecting bugs said something about him, just as any of our interests say something about us. Co-founder Evan Sharp noted that he too was a collector as a child. As an adult that tendency shifted to amassing images in folders on his desktop. So they, along with the third co-founder, Paul Sciarra, developed Pinterest as a way for users to collect and share related images, linking back to the originating site.

Pinterest didn’t catch on immediately. But within a few months users began applying it in ways the founders hadn’t anticipated. They posted travel hacks, home renovation ideas, Etsy items, wedding plans, and craft tutorials. And it’s really taking off.  From Oct 2010 to March 2012, Pinterest went from 40,000 to 18 million monthly unique visitors.

Articles about Pinterest often focus on how it can drive sales or be used as a PR tool. For example TechCrunch predicts Pinterest could change consumer behavior, causing them to seek out goods favored by other Pinterest users. This may be true.

But what’s noted but little understood is that the primary users of Pinterest, at least so far, tend to be women.  A regular look at the Everything front page indicates that these users aren’t necessarily on Pinterest primarily to share consumer recommendations, although there are plenty of tempting pins for fashion and home décor products. They’re using it to share inspiration for ways to live; with more humor and less angst, with beauty found in an evocative landscape, with clever ideas for raising kids or making gifts or building a garden shed. This in itself makes Pinterest seem like a blessed relief from the endless marketing found online.

I’ve fallen for it for several reasons.

1. It’s hubbub free. Unlike FB, Twitter, or G+ you don’t need to scroll past drama or post repeats, nor do you need to hop in regularly lest it seem you’re ignoring ongoing conversations. Instead of all those voices clamoring for your attention, Pinterest has a peaceful vibe. It’s like moseying through a quiet gallery of images, each one ready to tell you more with a click.

2.  It’s a wonderful method of storing visually inspiring ideas for later use. Going back over your own boards can be like flipping through magazines made entirely of what you love. Previous pins can help you find that entree you want to make today, the shelves you want to build in your kitchen next summer, and the song that teaches your kids about the periodic table as soon as they’re old enough.

3. It’s a way to browse freely and casually within any interest you might have. Yes, you can create circles on G+ and lists on Twitter, but on Pinterest it’s easy to follow any chosen user’s specific boards. Whether you want ideas for DIY projects or images of trees or ways to preserve family peace, you’ll find it on Pinterest.

4.  Marketers assume Pinterest will drive sales and yes, there are plenty of luscious products pinned. But I wonder if it might actually serve as an antidote to materialism.  Sorting and sharing images may satisfy the urges often channeled into shopping or ordering online. If purchasing has something to do with acquiring and keeping, maybe, just maybe, acquiring and keeping images may fill the same need.

5. It’s a way of sharing what simply delights us. By organizing what appeals to us, we make it easier for other people to find interesting ideas and images. It’s heartening, in a way, to find that a woman I know as a writer of math books also has a thing for Spanish architecture, punk t-shirts, frothy cocktails, and Daniel Craig movies.

Connect with me on Pinterest!

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototyles on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

The Boy With No Toys

why toys are bad for kids, overstimulated kids,

Image courtesy of eyeofboa.deviantart.com

Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

natural play best for kids, free play, no toys,

Image courtesy of karenelrick.deviantart.com

When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

Image courtesy of nadiaaaaaaaa.deviantart.com

Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

play develops intelligence, benefits of free play, deprive your kids of toys, handmade toys,

Image courtesy of kruzy.deviantart.com

Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011

If Jane Goodall Were An Alien

view of U.S. childhood, impeding humanity, how to better raise our children,

Imagine someone with Jane Goodall’s observational powers coming from outer space to observe us for a few days.

Let’s narrow this alien’s study down to something relatively simple. Our imaginary alien doesn’t have time to report on Earth’s progress toward peace, justice, and environmental balance. Our imaginary alien doesn’t even have time to cast her gaze across the whole planet.

Instead, the alien watches a few children in a typical American suburb before filing this report. (Alien disclaimer:  this report isn’t representational of all humans or all time spans on Earth.)

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How to Impede Humanity

Each human is born with vast potential which unfolds in ways unique to that person’s talents and experiences. Human culture starts immediately to prevent that newborn’s potential from being fully realized.

The smallest humans are kept for much of their waking day in devices called car seats, booster seats, high chairs, playpens, cribs and strollers. Without sufficient and varied movement, learning can be impeded.

They are kept indoors most of the time. This limits their vision, their sense of connectedness, and their happiness.

Instead of foods harvested directly from nearby sources, the taste preferences of these small humans are developed on diets of lower nutrient but more expensive packaged substances. The health effects of these foods is beyond the scope of this report. It is, however, noted that transporting and purchasing these foods has an economic impact on the families of these small humans.

Humans are a people of story and image. As small humans get older they more readily absorb the lessons surrounding them from such objects as billboards, magazines, television, video games, and toys. These stories and images teach humans that success and happiness come through power, the right possessions, perfect appearance, rare skill, and of course, wealth. Small humans learn this quickly.

For example, appearance. They are repeatedly exposed to images of impossible bodies.  Note evidence—-a process called retouching applied to human Jennifer Anniston and to humans Twiggy and Keira Knightley.  As a result, five year old females judge their bodies harshly. By what humans call adolescence, 92 percent of females are unhappy with their bodily appearance.

Males also experience self-loathing due to impossible body images and behavior of heroes in movies, video games, and comics.

Movies, television, politics, and pundits teach small humans that the world is more violent than it is and games teach them that aggression is the best response.

The whole market-driven culture pushes materialistic values on young humans, which can leave them depressed, anxious and unhappy when they most need the powerful boost of optimism.

Even though young humans are perfectly suited to learn in ways matched to their abilities and interests without coercion, even though humanity has evolved throughout time by learning directly from wisdom-bearers in their own fields, these youth are put in institutions called schools. There each young human is judged by pre-determined standards. A large percentage don’t measure up.

It has been determined that the primary need of young humans is for self-expression, reasonably consistent guidance, and what on Earth is called love.

It is beyond the scope of this field report to discuss all the factors impeding humans but this observer notes that humanity flourishes due in large part to the overwhelming ability of human families to raise children using tools of kindness, laughter, and true affection. These behaviors are observed every moment, shared freely. This seems to be the essence of this species, so the report overall views humanity’s progress as positive.

(We prefer, however, that humans stick to their own planet. See the following video update.)

Image courtesy of Jean Kern’s flickr photostream