Are You Eccentric?

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

I met Betty years ago when I moved to a place teeming with all sorts of progressive people. Still, Betty stood out. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked one day.

We hit it off immediately, riffing on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite) Betty wanted none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honestly was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly even though her poor eyesight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000’s the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up she walked him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps she was never cited for those unruly gardens because she gave him a homemade insomnia remedy.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time, when we’re far freer to be who we are than perhaps in any other time in history. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper fifteen per cent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary “A Different Drummer” highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics and my friends are orchards of eccentricity. Maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

are you eccentric?

What gorilla suit? (image:Greyerbaby)

Keeping Creativity Alive

dbz-obsessed.deviantart.com/art/Creation-19299077

dbz-obsessed.deviantart.com/art/Creation-19299077

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

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

baleze.deviantart.com/art/Playing-with-Shadows-61984249

baleze.deviantart.com/art/Playing-with-Shadows-61984249

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

pixabay.com/en/image-painted-colorful-color-247789/

pixabay.com/en/image-painted-colorful-color-247789/

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

pixabay.com/en/males-art-drawing-creativity-fig-391346/

pixabay.com/en/males-art-drawing-creativity-fig-391346/

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

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

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

waterpolo218.deviantart.com/art/no-creativity-346991145

waterpolo218.deviantart.com/art/no-creativity-346991145

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

pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

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

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity4-128977034

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity4-128977034

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

mrcool256.deviantart.com/art/Basking-in-Creativity-22613894

mrcool256.deviantart.com/art/Basking-in-Creativity-22613894

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

flora-silve.deviantart.com/art/Terre-104561782

flora-silve.deviantart.com/art/Terre-104561782

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Evoking the State of Flow

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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

43 Strangely Interesting Ways to End Dull Date Nights

 end dull date night, best evening out plans, fun dates, unexpectedly romantic dates,

 

When we were dating, my husband and I usually took the easy way out: dinner and a movie. Sure, sometimes we attended live performances, went canoeing, or hiked, but we mostly stayed in the dinner and movie rut. Now that the kids are older, we’re looking for ways to make our time together more memorable than ever before.  So far I’ve come up with 43 ideas for livening up date night. (They’re just as fun with friends or kids.)

1. Challenge each other to a triathlon of your own devising. You might compete in air hockey, tongue twisters, and onion ring eating. Next time, come up with three different triathlon events.

2. Create scavenger hunts for each other. You can do this by hiding clues, old style. Or use apps like Munzee and Klikaklu.

3. Play in a Zorb or any similar giant human-sized bubble.

4. Learn glassblowing at a local art academy.

5. Climb as many things as possible: a wall, a fence, some corralled grocery carts. Take photo evidence of how you get high.

6. Or just climb trees. You probably haven’t done that since you were a kid. You might find a tree you can both climb to sit happily like a pair of love birds.

7. Get together with friends to watch a movie none of you have seen. The catch is watching it muted, inventing dialogue to accompany the screen action.

8. Go on an alternative identity date, either the two of you or with a group of friends. On the way everyone makes up his or her own identity. Make an effort to play along with that identity: call each other by the chosen faux names, enjoy elaborating on your character’s backstory, and interact with strangers through that identity. At the end of the experiment it’s fun to talk about how it felt to try on an alternative self. And if you’ve taken photos, check to see if anyone held their faces or bodies differently. The sense of observing yourself from the lens of another persona can be illuminating.

9. Go Barbie Jeep racing. (This is one of my life goals.) It’ll take some advance planning, some friends, and plenty of thrift store ride-on toys.

10. Go to an attraction in your area that’s embarrassingly tourist-oriented.

11. Visit friends. Throughout the evening, move as many things three inches to the left as possible without them noticing.

12.  Toss Holi Colors at each other. Best followed up with a water fight…  

13. Buy all sorts of flowers, then hand them out at a senior center.

14. Sit together in a cafe to write a short horror story or sci-fi thriller. Or romance if that sounds fun. Only rule: when you need dialogue, incorporate conversation you pick up via eavesdropping.

15. Ask the oldest people you know to tell you about games they played growing up. Then play them, if possible, with those elders.

16.  Try a winter picnic. Choose a bright snowy day, hike off to a perfect spot, then open some thermal containers of hot soup to enjoy with warm-you-from-the-inside drinks.

17. Visit a haunted house. Or volunteer for one.

18. Go cloud collecting. Bird watchers keep a life list of their sightings, cloud watchers can do the same with The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. You might want to keep a handbook at the ready to help with identifications. Two of the best are The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds also by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and The Book of Clouds by John A. Day, who was known through his long career as Cloudman. Check out resources on Cloudman’s site including instructions for making a cloud discovery notebook, tips for photographing clouds, and cloud history.

19. Eat outside. Pick up something tasty to eat at the park, or the waterside. This is far more alluring when it’s dark outside.

20. Grab a roll or two of quarters and play at a place that still has arcade games.

21. Take selfies trying every option on your phone or every filter offered by Instagram.

22. Tour a brewery or distillery. Take taste notes, each one referencing a video or book. For example, “This beer is Game of Thrones, epic yet vengefully dark.”

23. After nightfall use sidewalk chalk to leave behind some temporary graffiti in an unexpected spot.

24. Relax on a silent date. Read together in a beautiful place or get a massage together.

25. Find a good people-watching spot and make up stories about the people you see: their names, where they’re going, what they’re thinking about, and so on.

26.  Attach a hat to a wire. Take it and a pair of shoes around town, documenting how an invisible person spends the day via photos.

27. Go where the food trucks are. There’s often live music and if not, at least a lively atmosphere.

28. Cook together. Try a science-y cookbooks like The Hungry Scientist Handbook: Electric Birthday Cakes, Edible Origami, and Other DIY Projects for Techies, Tinkerers, and Foodies by Patrick Buckley and Lily BinnsThe Engineer’s Cookbook by Kari Ojala, and Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food by Jeff Potter. Or lighten up with silly cookbooks like Funny Food: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts by Bill and Claire Wurtzel.

29. Try stand up paddle boarding.

30. Take a tour in your area. Unless someone visits from out of town, chances are you don’t check out what your area has to offer. If you’re from the Cleveland area (as I am) you can tour on foot, by bike, trolley, boat, or bus to discover all sorts of obscure places. Tours, as you may remember from field trips as a kid, tend to leave you marveling at the tour guide’s bad jokes as much as the amazing range of information they share.

31. Set free books you’ve already read by registering them with Book Crossing. Leave them in random places around town like a dentist’s office, a park bench, a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room. But do it with a twist. Before releasing them, tuck a note in each book addressed to the next reader.

32. Take a toy figure with you to random areas and photo document it enjoying the evening.

33. Sit around a fire. If you can’t build a campfire, use a fire bowl or fire pit. There’s something timeless about watching flames. Silence feels comfortable, thoughts drift, and you both relax.

34. Try hooping. Find out how advanced hooping has become and learn how to make a hoop that will fit your, ahem, grown-up hips.

35. Rent or borrow some kind of conveyance new to you: scooter, wave runner, snowmobile, snowshoes, kayak, vintage car, or (my preference) an adult-sized Big Wheel

36. Dream up unexpectedly silly items to mail, unwrapped, to friends and family members. Maybe a playground ball (“have a ball!) to a friend who has recently become a stay-at-home dad, a St. Joseph statue to a family member trying to sell her house, or a small handheld fan (“we’re fans!”) to someone who landed a lead role in an upcoming play. Just slap an address and message right on the object.  All you need is a legible address and the correct postage. You both might feel a little silly standing in line at the post office with an address-adorned plush honey badger (perhaps to celebrate someone’s undaunted approach to a problem) but it’ll be worth the look on your recipient’s face when opening the mailbox. There  are plenty of other ways to amuse oneself, postally too.

37. Go to a slam poetry event.

38. Make each other something at a pottery or woodworking class.

39. Seek out the marvels of outsider art in your area, savor, buy if possible. (We bought an amazing piece made by an elderly man out of wood scraps and cotton balls. It’s pictured in the center of the photo collage above.)

40. Grab a copy of your local entertainment paper. Open to listings of music, stand-up comedy, and other entertainment. Close your eyes and pick something to do.

41. Participate in a mud run which is, you guessed it, muddy. You’ll probably have time to practice before a mud run scheduled in your area.

42. Get a pile of friends together to play J’AccuseHumans vs. Zombies, or any of the other amazing games compiled by Bernie DeKoven.

43. Go eyebombing. Very simply, it’s the act of putting sticky googly eyes on inanimate objects. As described on eyebombing.com, “Ultimately the goal is to humanize the streets, and bring sunshine to people passing by.” Buy a package or two of googly eyes and start looking for where they belong. For inspiration, check out the eyebombing flickr group.  Then enjoy your quest.  Anthropomorphizing a mustard bottle never seemed so right.

 

 

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.

How To Learn From Experts

learn from experts, senior knowledge bank, skills clinic, DIY education, DIY homeschooling, cheap homeschooling, community learning, learn together, community apprenticeships, collaborative learning,

Image: drumminhands’ flickr photostream

Successful societies have always respected what the the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn directly from people whose grasp of any subject well exceeds our own, in part because person-to-person learning is easily supplanted by online engagement.

I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Real learning is like a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.

If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, let kids partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Museums, libraries, colleges and universities, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes for adults as well as kids.

This can happen more informally as well. As homeschoolers, we’ve found it doesn’t hurt to ask people to share a little of what they know. A steel drum company owner welcomed our group for a visit. He explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. A potter talked to us about the nature of clay, taught us how to form vessels on a wheel, then invited us back for the opening of his kiln to see our creations emerge.

We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, archaeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Despite offers of barter or pay, we’ve gotten all this expert instruction for free. People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. If someone possesses knowledge or abilities you’d like to gain, try asking. (Ask them to share their interests, not “teach” to get a positive response!) And don’t forget to look close to home. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn coding from your niece, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, go bird-watching with your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined. I call these knowledge networks. Here’s how to activate yours.

Of course, there are plenty of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.

DIY and Maker movements have opened all sorts of avenues, with Maker Faires happening in more and more places. (Not in your area? Check out the Mini Maker Faire Starter Kit.) Find hackerspaces like NoisebridgePumping Station OneNYC ResistorTechShops, and Artisan’s Asylum. Or start your own hackerspace.

Trade School is a barter-based learning space, meaning you don’t have to pay to learn. You might barter for a class with a homemade pie or art supplies or research help. The founders describe it as “a global movement for community, connection, and educational justice.” The first Trade School was started by three friends in a NYC storefront in 2010. Now self-organized Trade Schools are opening up or running in places like Milan, Cologne, Virginia, Oakland, Singapore, New Delhi, and Paris. Want to start one in your area? Here’s how.

The Amazings offer non-traditional workshops and classes set up by ”amazings,” people over 50 with a passion to share what they know. Their site explains, “We want to make learning more fun, more friendly, more social, and more personal.” So far they have 45 people offering expertise in areas such as bookbinding, perfume making, foraging, carpentry, jazz guitar, philosophy, and corset making. The first branch is based in London, but they’re open to starting more around the world.

FreeSkools are created by participants. There’s no central organizing manifesto on one site or in one book. Some are informal gatherings to share knowledge, others are active networks meeting in parks, living rooms, and community centers. All are devoted to learning freely. You’ll find them in IthicaSanta Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. Check out piece in Yes! about what to consider when setting up a FreeSkool.

Skillshare is like the eBay of localized education. You can learn what you want from someone in your community as well as teach others what you know. Some of the classes offered right now are Building Mobile Apps for Android Devices, Rock Poster Design from Concept to Execution, and Launch Your Startup for Less than $1,000. There’s a fee and many of these classes aren’t taught in person, but online.

The School of Life is teeming with great stuff. They feature secular sermons with big thinkers talking about big ideas. Classes by experts with titles like How to Be Creative and Finding a Job You Love. Bibliotherapy: basically book prescriptions custom-designed with your reading history, dilemmas, and desires in mind. The place is also teeming with activity beyond the sit still and think variety. There are engaging programs with transformative potential and weekend adventures developed by scientists, artists, and others. Oh, and what they call Utopian Feasts. So far there’s one in London with a branch opening in Australia. Not in London or Sydney? Start up something similar in your community.

Citizen Circles are small groups of people who meet to learn together for a limited period of time with an emphasis on collective learning and action. There’s no fee. Some Citizen Circle topics have included women as social innovators, systems dynamics, exploring indigenous knowledge, and design thinking. There’s plenty of information to help you start your own.

(un)classes are casual ways to meet and learn from local people. So far the idea has taken root in the San Francisco area. Any fees go to a designated charity and participants walk away with new knowledge as well as new connections. A recent class taught how to make gnocchi while benefiting the area food bank while another taught documentary photography while benefiting a scholarship program.

School of Everything, based in the U.K., connects those who want to learn with those who can share what they know. In Glasgow, for example, you can find instructors to teach you Mandarin, classical piano, acting audition techniques, hypnosis, and the tango. Some instructors charge for classes, others do not.

Go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, dough, or paint as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.

Image: drumminhands' flickr photostream

Image: drumminhands’ flickr photostream

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.

Where Fascination Leads

child's interests, toddler's fears show inclinations, fear is fascination,

Born with uniqueness.

“I didn’t say I liked it. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” Oscar Wilde

My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.

As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.

For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.

One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.

He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.

The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.

Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Itzhak Perlman, now one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.” Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.

What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life? 

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

How To Grant Wishes

fostering success, partnering for success, making dreams happen, goal group, fostering goals,

Image:helen-carter.deviantart.com

When I was a child an elderly neighbor shared her life-long dream. Lottie Borges had always wanted to get behind the wheel of a semi, start it up, and drive. I got a glimpse of the yearning that couldn’t be hidden by her apron and heavy orthopedic shoes. Years later when I heard she’d died I was sorry that the feeling of power and competence she longed to experience driving an 18 wheeler had never come to pass.

Each one of us has dreams. Sometimes they’re suppressed for so long that it’s not easy to remember them or the spark of vitality they once roused in us. We forget because we’re busy funneling our efforts into accomplishing what what our families need, what the boss wants, what amusements can fill the moments we have left over. We set aside the goals we once held dear. They are not gone, just dormant.

Our culture emphasizes personal effort. It’s assumed that failure to achieve our aims lies entirely with the individual. But that’s not how wishes usually come true. They happen in the context of relationships. When we talk about our goals with people dear to us we infuse our ideas with energy. It’s a way of activating a network of people who, along with us, envision our dreams taking place. That network may help bring about the exact circumstances necessary to achieve the goal. Perhaps if my former neighbor had shared her wish with someone other than a child she might have found a truck driver who’d have gotten a kick out of letting her take his rig for a run around a backlot.

A few years ago I got together with a group of friends and on the spur of the moment we decided to write down our long-held wishes. We laughed, wondering if old fantasies (such as running away with a teen idol) should be included. But the challenge was compelling, so we started writing. When my friends shared their goals I saw sides to them they rarely revealed. Here are some of their wishes:

  • I will get a lead role in community theater.
  • I will travel to Ethiopia.
  • I will master class 5 white water rafting.
  • I will record my parent’s reminiscences.
  • I will have a graphic novel published.
  • I will get a master’s degree in library science.
  • I will become a foster parent.
  • I will take a class in conflict resolution.
  • I will paint wall-sized murals.
  • I will build a clay oven in the back yard.
  • I will finish the quilt my grandmother started.
  • I will learn to speak Russian.
  • I will be elected to city council.

We realized that we should meet occasionally to support each other’s dreams. By discussing what we are doing to reach our goals and how we can help each other, we’re more likely to turn intention into reality.

If you’re interested in our wish granting process, here’s the method we’re using.

1. Get together with at least one other person with whom you have a mutually supportive relationship.

2. Brainstorm. Call up the longings you had as a child, the grand plans you envisioned as a young adult, the places your mind wanders when you daydream.

3. Write down those yearnings. Word them concretely. It is easier to check off a goal such as “Complete a pottery class” than a vague listing such as “Try making pottery.” Instead of vowing to “appreciate people more,” expect yourself to “Write letters to six people telling them why you appreciate them.” Include a range of possibilities— creative, professional, interpersonal, physical, and inspirational. Make some challenging, some just for fun.

4. Make the list as long as possible. Shoot for 50 or 100. Pushing yourself to write so many goals forces you to look inward, uncovering deep desires that you may have buried.

Such a list will take some time, but you may find that long-suppressed dreams ease back into your consciousness only after you’ve written down goals that seem silly or impossible.

5. Put stars by at least five of the most important dreams. Remember your list isn’t a set curriculum. It can change as your goals evolve. Keeping this list is a reminder that you are in charge of your life’s direction.

6. Talk about what steps you need to take to accomplish them and how can you support each other in these steps. Often it’s helpful to plan on baby steps, starting small and recognizing there may be tumbles as you work your way up to bigger steps.

7. Write yourself a note to be opened three months from now. Or write an email using Future Me timed to arrive in three months. This note should be in present tense and action oriented, “I am saving $50 a week towards my trip” or “I am practicing Russian each evening and looking for a native speaker to build my language skills.” This is a great way to promote progress. Then write another message to yourself, to be opened in another few months.

8. Keep the wishes shared by others alive through encouragement but also through your belief that the goal will be reached. Continue to pay attention to circumstances that may be helpful to others as you work toward your dreams together.

Something happens when goals are written down. When we make a conscious decision to guide our lives in the direction of our dreams, possibilities begin to open. And when we share that process with others, we have the delight of helping them make their wishes come true.

By the way, the wish lists written with my friends are already adorned with check marks.

We Don’t Need No Age Segregation

open-source teen learning, active learning, teen unschooling,

My teenaged son just spent the day with middle-aged guys he met online.

Let me explain. Before he could drive, my son earned enough money shoveling out horse stalls to buy a 1973 Opel GT. Or what was left of one.

The car sits out back in a dark barn, its classic little outline like a rough sketch waiting for functional automotive details to be filled in again. He is restoring it himself, but not alone. He’s in touch with an online community of automotive enthusiasts from around the world. They eagerly share experiences and resources on forums. They also boast, complain, and talk about their interests just as any friends do.

My son and his father have met some of these folks at auto meets and car shows. When my son discovered an Opel club not far from our family farm he was invited to join. Today he and his older brother drove out for a day-long gathering. Although my boys were the youngest by decades they enjoyed an open-hearted welcome.

Yes, I realize there are significant concerns about teens talking online with adults, let alone meeting them. I try to keep those concerns in perspective. Studies of online behavior by youth indicate the biggest risk they face is peer harassment, not sexual predation. Today’s young people are much more overprotected than previous generations even though violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. Overly cautious, restrictive parenting practices actually inhibit a teen’s growth toward maturity and responsibility. So I watch, ask questions, and recognize that my son benefits from online friends and mentors.

It’s a pivotal coming of age experience to be accepted by elders one admires. Until that time it’s hard to feel like an adult. These experiences are frequently depicted in movies, but children and teens in our culture are almost entirely segregated from meaningful and regular involvement with adults.

These days kids spend their formative years with age mates in day care, school, sports, and other activities. So their adult role models are largely those whose main function is to manage children. This subverts the way youth have learned and matured throughout human history. Children are drawn to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They want to see how people they admire handle a crisis, build a business, compose music, repair a car, and fall in love. Separate kids from purposeful, interesting interaction with adults and they have little to guide them other than their peers and the entertainment industry. That’s because our species learns by example. Ask any child development expert, neuroscientist, or great grandparent.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing, and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

Because my kids are homeschooled they’ve have more opportunities (and a lot more time) to hang out with interesting adults. My daughter volunteers for hours each week alongside a woman who rehabilitates birds of prey. Another of my sons has played bagpipes for years with an 80-something gent who once served as a Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. The age range of my kids’ friends spans decades. Natural mentors such as these are a rich source of authentic experience. And they’re in every community. It’s not hard to find them.

Along with other homeschooling families, my kids have also taken a close look at the workaday adult world. The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. An engineer took us through his testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. We’ve spent days with potters, woodworkers, architects, chemists, archeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics and others.

People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. Age segregation goes both ways–adults are also separated from most youth in our society. After an afternoon together we’ve gotten the same feedback again and again. These adults say they had no idea the work they do would be so interesting to kids. They marvel at the questions asked, observations made, and ideas proffered by youth that the media portrays as disaffected or worse. They shake hands with young people who a few hours ago were strangers and say, “Come back in a few years, I’d like to have you intern here,” or “We could use an engineer who thinks the way you do. Think about going into the field,” or “Thanks for coming. I’ve never had this much fun at work.”

So today my teenaged son hung out with fellow Opel aficionados. They trust he will drive his car out of the dark barn and into the sunlight soon. It will be a shared accomplishment, the kind of thing that happens all the time when young people aren’t separated from the wider community.

unschooling teens, homeschooling teens, teens free to learn,

I wrote this piece nearly two years ago for Shareable.com. Since then this son of mine has become a mechanical engineering student at a private college. His fellow classmates brought with them years of advanced placement math and science classes. The advantage he brought? Lots of hands-on experience, an active approach to learning, and insatiable curiosity. He’s at the top of his class.