Most Of Us Are Ugly Ducklings

Our early hatching is lauded, our late hatching a reason for worry.

We’re expected from our earliest years be like the other ducklings. (Well, better than others but not stuck up about it.)

If we keep flying when it’s time to swim there’s medication to calm our out-of-bounds impulses. If we like to sing but can’t quack there’s a star chart to reinforce more appropriate sounds.

We’re graded on the dexterity we demonstrate when curling our beaks under our wings at nap time, tested on our ability to dip our heads under water, judged by our willingness to stay in line. Poor results means doing these things over and over again until we thoroughly detest ourselves for not measuring up.

When we don’t do as well as expected we’re told we just need to try harder to be the very best duckling we can be. We’re told that we aren’t living up to our potential. We’re told we need to get our priorities straight (or a growth mindset, or grit, or an attitude adjustment).

Ducklings from more affluent families might be enrolled in perfect-your-waddle coaching camps. Their preening may be assisted and their diets enhanced with imported bugs. Less fortunate ducklings may just get some quack tutoring.

When we’re still not like other ducklings most of us try even harder to be normal. Remember those reindeer who wouldn’t let someone different play their reindeer games? Yeah, peer culture is harsh that way, especially when we’re segregated with our age-mates rather than interacting with many fowl sorts in the larger community.

As adults, we measure our own success against the most attractive and capable ducks. That’s painful, but it’s what we learned from our earliest days on.

This isn’t to besmirch ducks. Ducks are great, particularly at being ducks. But some of us

are swans,

a

or storks,

or kingfishers,

or great blue herons.

Some of us aren’t birds at all.

 We’re frogs,

otters,

squirrels,

or dragonflies.

Every creature in and around the pond is necessary. Each is integral to the larger ecosystem’s wisdom.

We have to be extraordinarily stubborn day after day, year after year, in order to be ourselves.

The ugly ducklings of this world, the ones who still aren’t who they’re “supposed” to be, are the ones with the vision big enough to create a future for us all.

All images in the public domain. 

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!

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

Living Beyond Boundaries Thanks To Dad

couldn't have done it without you. Father's Day, father's support, thanks Dad,

Image: Florian K

Living beyond the boundaries of streetlights, I often drive on dark country roads where fog hides in the hillsides. Sometimes only tendrils of mist reach up from the ground. More often I’m engulfed in clouds so heavy that the road is obscured. Straining to see the turns on these narrow lanes, I’m not stressed. I smile. I’m thinking of my father.

“People call this kind of heavy fog ‘pea soup,’” my father had explained to me when I was a first grader.

Although he leaned intently over the steering wheel, he easily kept up our conversation. “But it doesn’t look like soup to me,” he asked. “What would you call it?”

Beyond our windshield it looked like a white wall as our headlights reflected off the water vapor. His voice remained cheerful. He told me about being a radar man in the Navy and described the sound of foghorns.

“What we’re going to do, Honey, is blow the car horn to let other cars know we’re coming. It’ll be our foghorn. That way we can navigate our way past the fog.”

We drove on through the dark, he and I, talking and laughing and pretending we were piloting a ship through the waves. Before each bend he gave a blast on the car horn. It was delicious to me—my daddy taking part in a giant game of pretend. And better yet, engaging in the forbidden act of making noise, waking up the night to say we’re here.

My father never let on that the ride that night was dangerous or that the prattling of a little girl was hard on his concentration.

Although his own childhood was marred by the early death of his father, his mother’s chronic illness, and the hard work that comes with poverty, he overcame those limitations. He went on to a career as a public school teacher where he helped hundreds of other children find the best in themselves.

I know he had a way of making me feel important, no matter the task. On our camping trips he assigned me the job of signaling as he backed up the trailer. At home I got to help with all sorts of repairs. Once when I wanted to help him install a hot water tank he didn’t let on that an eight-year-old would be in the way. Instead he said what he really wanted was for me to read him some poetry because that would make a difficult job more pleasant. He put me safely on a stool a few feet away where I read aloud from a junior book of verse while he wrestled with the chore. Occasionally he sat back on his heels in appreciation at the end of a poem. He talked about discovering the great poets when he got to college, even described the large brown book he’d saved from a literature class for his own children to enjoy some day. When he was done, he said he couldn’t have done it without me, the same thing he always said.

He never found that big book of poetry he’d hoped to share. But my father gave me something more precious.  Complete acceptance. And when a girl has that kind of love from her father she carries with her the self-assurance to transcend any boundaries.

My dad always shrugged off praise and begged his kids not to bother giving him gifts. So each year when Father’s Day rolled around I bought a blank card. Inside I wrote him a fond memory of my childhood and how that resonated in my sometimes challenging life.

This is my fourth Father’s Day without my dad. If I could I’d tell him, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

thanks Dad, dad as lighthouse,

Originally published on Wired

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

child

School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

build divergent thinking, creative children, more imagination, creativity builds leaders, nurture divergent thinking,

Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

exercise and learning, overtaxed impulse control, full body learning, sensory education,

Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

goldilocks effect, individualized education,

Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

 too much adult-run learning, stubborn kids, child-led learning, natural learning,

Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. 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 and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

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.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

free play benefits, play versus learning, chores, self-regulation,

Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

why homeschool, democratic schools, raise successful children,

I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

The Dart Collection

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

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Margaret Swift. 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

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

theory of loose parts, kid innovators, creativity, learning is discovery, self-motivation,

misspenthopesxx.deviantart.com

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.

Don’t Deprive Kids Of Risk

let kids take risks, don't overprotect,

jessicareeder’s flickr photostream

I publicly admitted to letting my teen take risks that would make most parents shudder. I’m not talking about the month long backpacking trip my 16-year-old took with his older brother and a friend. Nope, I’m talking about letting him meet up with middle-aged guys he talks to online.

The circumstances were perfectly suited to advancing his maturity as well as his skills. But to most parents, that decision marks me as a very bad mother. I’ll take that risk. Parenting has a lot to do with drawing the line between safe and unsafe. And then there’s that pesky line between good and bad.

It found it easier to see absolutes when my kids were babies. Bottle or breast, free play or playpen, guiding or scolding. The choices seemed easy. As they got older I didn’t lose my cherished parenting philosophies and obnoxiously healthy dietary scruples, but I did relax into the gray area. Some would say I’ve gotten too relaxed.

Every day I watch as parents pile their cars with their darling backpack-laden children, then transport them all the way to the end of the driveway where they sit, engines idling, until the school bus arrives. The reverse process takes place in the afternoon. These kids are spared more than the exercise required to get from house to curb. Presumably they’re also kept safe from potential child abduction. I don’t know if this is the case in your neighborhood but it’s a standard practice around here, even though I live in a rural township so small that it doesn’t have a single traffic light. (It’s rumored we may get lines painted on the streets.)

Despite the pastoral beauty of our area, kids rarely play outside. Clearly their parents are quite a bit more cautious than I am. Apparently this is a major trend. With the very best intentions kids are kept indoorswatched closely, even monitored. But why?

According to How to Live Dangerously by Warwick Cairns, “stranger danger” is so vastly overblown that you’d have to leave your child outside (statistically speaking) for about 500,000 years before he or she would be abducted by a stranger.

Violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. A teen is three times safer today than a teen in 1979. Sure, there was no Internet in the 70’s but online, the real danger to kids tends to be peer harassment. A larger danger? Kids who have no experience with real challenges.

Kids require escalating responsibility as well as escalating risk in order to grow toward a healthy adulthood. The common practice of delaying risk (and often responsibility as well) stems from the best motivations: love, concern for their safety, interest in staying closely involved. But today’s highly cautious approach to parenting actually inhibits a young person’s healthy development, according to Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by resilience expert Michael Ungar. It can result in young people who are overly anxious or who take unnecessarily dangerous risks. It can also leave them unprepared for adulthood.

The decisions I make for my family probably aren’t the ones you make for yours. I give my kids the go-ahead to build spud cannons in the name of science but I wouldn’t dream of giving them non-organic celery. I encourage them to join online special interest forums but abhor movies with gratuitous violence. It’s not easy to keep looking at where we draw the line, but just like you, I’ll risk anything for my kids.

Raising Aspiring Emigrants

Kids are their own people. Any of us can see this is an underlying theme in drama (in books, on the screen, and in real life dramas).  It’s obvious from a quick look at how much our friends differ from their own parents. Years ago I joked that my anti-establishment neighbor’s son might just grow up to be a conservative stockbroker and that my frantically risk-averse friend could end up with a thrill-seeking daughter. I learned pretty quickly such jokes are not appreciated.

But I thought I understood that kids go their own way reasonably well. I’ve managed to celebrate the unique passions my own kids pursue, even though their interests are nothing like mine. I’m glad to see that we’re largely in sync on bigger issues. My kids and I tend to agree on politics and religion, we share a disinterest in most sports, and we’re all somewhat introverted. What we don’t share? A desire to stay close to our roots, geographically speaking. I’ve tried to raise them to be global citizens. Is it possible to take that too far? I’ve always lived close to my hometown and extended family. One or two of my four kids may not have that gene.

One of my sons is entranced by Finland. I think it started while chatting with online Finnish friends. Hankering to drive, he told me that kids in Finland are encouraged to get driving experience starting at a very young age and given training to handle slippery and hazardous road conditions (ice + moose, for example). The licensing requirements are some of the strictest in the world, he explained, a pointed contrast to the jerk on the road in front of us at the time who was cutting off cars and weaving across lanes.

My son also has a thing for Finnish music, starting with the now iconic band Apocalyptica formed by classically trained cellists.

Finnish musicians offer plenty of diversity, including partially submerged folk singers

and dancing puffballs.

And he is inspired by the Finnish spirit. He sees it in their traditions and history (I never thought I’d hear so much about the Winter War). Finnish character is said to have a lot to do with the term sisu. This doesn’t translate easily. It’s related to inner will and the determination to persist despite the odds. This spirit, as my son sees it, also has to do with the Finnish way of doing things. That includes summer competitions that Finns call “world championships” in swamp soccer, mobile phone throwing, and wife carrying. Or a recent proposal in Parliament to extend the annual four-week paid holiday by another week, for a “love holiday.”

Browsing around the web, I can see the allure. The country has stunning beauty and cultural richness. Newsweek ranked Finland the world’s best country in 2010 based on high life expectancy, high literacy rates, minimal income gap, excellent access to health care, and a good work-leisure balance. In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World it was noted that people in Finland are remarkably content. Of course we’ve all heard about Finland’s world-class school system. Their educational approach says quite a bit about the country. Schools there don’t rely on standardized tests or a heavy homework load but instead emphasize balance, giving kids plenty of time for outdoor play, art, and music. That seems to reflect a general emphasis on living at a slower pace and enjoying life’s simpler pleasures. I may have to adjust to having one of my beloved offspring emigrate some day. (sob)

But another of my kids is talking up New Zealand. Land of fascinating spider species, amazing diversity, and gorgeous vistas.

Also home to the compelling Haka, traditional ancestral war cry of the Maori people, now performed by the All Blacks, NZ’s rugby team, before their matches.

Serves me right for joking about other people’s children. Come to think of it, my attempts at humor weren’t all that far off. My anti-establishment neighbor’s son is now in college getting a degree in business, hoping to work in investment banking. The daughter of my risk-averse friend is into barefoot climbing.

Guess I’d better make sure my passport is in order.