Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting

 

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What’s the difference between David Hahn and Taylor Wilson’s pursuit of science?

Back when the boys in our regular book club were preteens and young teens, one of the books that really caught their attention was The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. It’s the true tale of David Hahn, a very gifted teen who became obsessed with learning everything he could about nuclear energy. Hahn gathered materials for experiments in all sorts of enterprising ways, even getting his hands on reactor plans. His father and stepmother forbade him from doing further experiments in the house after his efforts resulted in several chemical spills and small explosions. So he moved in with his mother and used her backyard potting shed for a hugely ambitious endeavor: building a model breeder nuclear reactor. His reactor hadn’t reached critical mass when evidence of his project was discovered during a routine traffic stop. That potting shed was deemed a Superfund site and cleaned up by the EPA in 1995.

Something astonished the boys in our group more than Hahn’s extraordinary project.  They couldn’t understand why no one reached out to foster Hahn’s powerful intellect nor guided him to adult scientists who could have more safely helped him explore his interests. Maybe the boys in our group were so surprised because, as homeschoolers, we’d been accustomed to folding science interests into our days as naturally as we ate when hungry. And we’d had great success asking experts to share what they know with interested kids.

Hahn grew up, but didn’t go on to get advanced degrees or research grants. Instead he’s served in the military, been arrested for stealing smoke detectors (a source of the radioactive substance americium), struggled with mental health problems, and still does what he can to pursue his science passions with math skills he says are limited.

Hahn’s experience is radically different from that of another extraordinarily gifted teen who started investigating all things radioactive at an even younger age.

how to raise a gifted child,

Digging up yellowcake. (image permission: Tom Clynes/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Taylor Wilson, at 14 years old, became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

What’s the difference?

Do scientifically gifted kids advance due to sheer curiosity alone? Or is it absolutely essential to have parents and other adults who foster that curiosity as far as those kids want to go?

That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about Taylor Wilson.

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and later radioactive projects.

But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school aged children in the U.S.  That’s about six to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, giving very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not due to Taylor’s accomplishments alone. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father could access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

His parents were also able to connect Taylor with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital to their success, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scarce in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interests without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.” (It’s notable that Taylor’s experiences were nearly all hands-on, especially in his early years.)
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. Emphasize opportunities for hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector that will more easily secure borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

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Talent, steered toward accomplishment. (image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

When Children See a Parent as a Person

 

parents are people, kids recognizing parents as people,

Every evening at church camp was the same. We tidied up our cabins and then met back at the lodge. There we were taught songs and led in quiet games. Ours was a reserved sort of Christianity. The Presbyterian church  I was raised in proffered no talk of hell or being saved, no witnessing. The congregation was friendly in a formal sort of way. (Even so, I don’t think they entirely deserved the denomination’s nickname—“God’s Frozen Chosen.”)

I was nine years old that summer. My father had volunteered to serve as one of the camp counselors and bunked halfway up the hill in a cabin with the older boys. I was assigned a cabin at the bottom of the hill with the younger girls.

On our last evening of the week-long camp we were called out of the lodge after the final song. There stood our recently ordained young minister. He held flaming torches in his upraised hands like some illustration from a storybook. He passed them out to the counselors and told us to follow.

This was highly irregular. Fire? Hiking after dark? Staying up past bedtime? Our speculative whispers were unsuccessfully hushed by the grown-ups. We arrived at the clearing where morning worship services were held. It looked different at night. Shadowy trees loomed over the ring of log seats. Adults leaned their torches toward a dark stack of wood until a bonfire flared.

The minister offered a prayer and then talked about faith. I was so caught up in this out-of-the-ordinary moment that I didn’t pay close attention to his words. Who would? Kids know grown-ups like to go on and on about things. It’s best to let them. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the flames and how different our faces looked in the firelight.

Then the minister asked a question, something about how we knew God in our hearts. Silence settled over our group. None of us were familiar with faith discussed in such personal terms. The pastor looked around the circle with an expression kids know all too well. It’s the look teachers get when they are going to call on someone.

I was so timid that I tended to blush even for other people. One day in school, after his family had vacationed in Hawaii, Doug Bloomfield brought a grass skirt to Show & Tell. He cheerfully clicked on a cassette of exotic music, pulled the skirt over his pants, and demonstrated a hula dance. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. In my third row seat I blushed a red so deep that kids actually looked away from the hula spectacle to stare at me.

Until now I’d liked this strange after-dark event. The cool night air scented with burning wood felt magical. But I was pretty sure asking people to talk about their own religious experiences was rude. Already I felt flustered on behalf of whoever might have to answer. The minister stopped waiting for one of us to volunteer. He chose someone.

The person he asked was my father.

My dad, a quiet and low-key man, wasn’t one to speak up in front of others. There was a long pause. I was sure I could feel his distress. Then my father spoke. He talked a little about growing up in the country where he spent time in the woods and fields. He said he still felt closest to God not in church, but when he was out in nature. He finished by saying he liked silence and that was a way of praying too.

A moment comes when a child begins to see a parent as a separate person. This was such a moment. I knew my father was drawn to the outdoors. He took us hiking, showed us how to skip stones across the water, let us get muddy. But this was a larger context. I saw he had his own reasons to spend time outside. I recognized my father as a man whose life was bigger than I’d imagined.

Although this was my first glimpse of him as a person in his own right, I also I felt closer to him. That’s because what he spoke my truth too. In the little forest behind our house I liked to go to a particular spot by myself. I didn’t have the words for it, but when I sat quietly there I had a sense of being in a sacred place. I looked across the circle at my father and loved him more than ever. He looked back at me. His face was luminous in the firelight.

seeing parent as a person, church camp,

Making Space for Stillness

 

Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.–Rumi

Parents naturally recognize that a long bath settles a restless toddler, that snuggle time is a necessary oasis in a child’s day. We notice when children have solitary moments they tend to daydream, a natural form of meditation. We see even the most active kids settle into stillness, quietly swaying on a backyard swing or humming while looking out the window, entirely at peace until a new idea grabs them or (more frequently) someone interrupts them to do something.

Everyone needs time to simply “be.” In stillness we’re fully present all way to the the quiet center of our being. (The vital counterpoint to this, being energized to the center of ourselves, is the blissful state of flow.) Constant activity can easily crowd our awareness into a jumble of surface impressions. Even when we are mindful of the need to downshift, obligations and diversions intrude. Yet we know contemplation flourishes best in stillness.

For some of us, a specific place helps us to gather what is fragmented in ourselves. We might be drawn to sit on the porch step each evening and watch dusk turn to darkness, we may make a ritual of drinking tea in a certain comfortable chair each morning, we may notice that time alone in nature strengthens our spirits. Many children like making their own hidden realms under blankets, behind furniture, in an outdoor hideout, wherever they can listen to silence by choice. And many families incorporate daily rituals of prayer or meditation that, in addition to a spiritual purpose, also teach children to connect with an essential wisdom within.

That inner wisdom provides important information none of us should ignore. Often the information is coded into physical impressions or sensitivities. Children may have difficulty coping with overstimulation, they may object to certain foods, or they may refuse to play at a new friend’s house. These sensitivities or inclinations aren’t wrong. They are among the many indicators of a wordless knowing. In a world that unrelentingly pushes us to fit in by denying our feelings, a measure of stillness and acceptance at home leaves the child space to know him- or herself. By reacting mindfully we draw the child’s conscious awareness to these differences.

Many of us were taught as children to ignore our inner promptings. We may have felt instinctive revulsion when served particular foods, but were told we had to clean our plates. We may have known that we weren’t ready to practice math facts over and over, but found if we didn’t comply we’d be shamed by bad grades. We may have heard a small voice inside warning us to stay away from a particular person, but were told to do what grown-ups said.

Instead we want our children to recognize that they have an internal system of communication known as intuition. They can tune in to their own impressions, perhaps learning that they get grouchy when they are thirsty or feel a stomachache coming on when they aren’t being true to themselves. They can use these signs when making decisions. The child whose gut feelings are taken seriously will learn to respond to the form his intuition takes.

Paying attention to inner promptings can be crucial. As security expert Gavin de Becker explains in Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safethis is imperative for safety because intuition is a hardwired trait warning us of danger. If the child is aware of his inner warning system he will trust himself well enough to recognize the indicators that something is wrong. As de Becker says, this can save a child’s life.

Incorporating tranquil interludes into our daily lives is an important way to nurture a connection to inner wisdom. In good times as well as difficult times, that connection gives us a sense of self and the inner reserves found in stillness.

This post is an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

Making Memories Through Music

image: pixabay.com

image: pixabay.com

Do you attach any significance to songs that start playing in your mind? I do. Maybe that’s because they often get stuck, becoming earworms that loop around for what seem like hours. Sometimes they even wake me in the middle of the night.

I can’t help but wonder why the underpinning of my consciousness loads a particular piece of music. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out because my husband was whistling it or it was playing at a restaurant or I heard a slice of it when a car stopped next to me at a traffic light. Most of the time it seems too random to be chance. So I try to figure out what the song tells me in lyric or mood or memory.

Today, simply walking into a room, my mind’s playlist came up with a tender song I haven’t heard in decades, “Never My Love.”

It took me right back to my childhood home. Most evenings my schoolteacher father sat in an armchair grading papers. I liked to sit on the floor with my back against his chair reading a book in the same warm circle of lamplight. On those nights he played music like  “Only You” by The Platters, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Cherish” by The Association, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, “So Far Away” by Carole King, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, and just about anything by Burt Bacharach.

My father loved all kinds of music. In college he was nicknamed “Pitch Pipe” – a play on his surname Piper and an homage to his perfect pitch. When my siblings and I were tiny he’d turn the stereo up so we could dance to big band music, the score from a musical, or a classical standard. He’d sing along, harmonizing against the melody. Without a shred of self-consciousness he’d lift up his arms to conduct a particularly tantalizing portion of Bach or Mozart. And sometimes after dinner a song would come on the radio and he’d dance with my mother, both of them smiling as they swooped around the kitchen linoleum.

My father’s father died when my dad was only five years old. The only thing my dad owned of his father’s was a guitar, which he taught himself to play. Supervising little kids’ baths was one of his chores in the parental division of duties, so he’d sit on the toilet lid singing and strumming that guitar while we played in the tub. My splashy siblings and I sang right along with him to tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” We also sang songs he remembered from his college days, lyrics edited for little ears.

I don’t know what it means that I’m hearing “Never My Love.” Most likely something below the surface of my awareness triggered a childhood memory. But I prefer to think it’s a form of connection that lasts even when death separates us.

I’m singing it aloud Dad. I’m singing it for you.

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

The Magic of Fresh Air for Babies & Other Beings

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CC by 2.0 Abigail Batchelder’s flickr photostream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CC by 2.0 pixydust8605’s flickr photostream

Understanding Children Through Imitation

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Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both agreed we felt incredible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Stories Form Us

 

My mother kept family stories alive by folding them into our lives as we grew up. She’d remark, “This would have been your Uncle John’s birthday,” and then she’d tell us something about him. Like the time he taught her how bad cigarettes were. That day he took her behind the garage and let her smoke until she was sick. (She was four years old.) Or how he skipped out on his college scholarship and pretended he didn’t have a bad back so he could sign up for the Air Force. His plane was shot down on his 47th mission, his body never found.

She told us about a great-great-grandfather, left to take a nap under a shade tree as a baby. He was taken by passing Native Americans, who may very likely have thought the tiny boy was abandoned. His parents didn’t go after him with guns, they brought pies and cakes to those who’d taken him to ask for him back.

She told us about a tiny great grandmother who expected other people to meet her every need, but when a candle caught the Christmas tree on fire that same helpless little grandmother immediately picked it up and threw it out the plate glass window to keep the house from burning down.

She told us about her Swedish grandmother who was widowed not long after coming to this country, but kept the family together by taking in laundry. And about the only son growing up in that family who ran away as a teen. They didn’t hear from him till he’d made a new life under a new name, years later.

My mother didn’t just talk about long-gone family members. She told us about people in our everyday lives too. She talked about dating our father, saying he was still the most wonderful man she ever met. She told us about meeting his sister and her husband for the first time—they were on the roof of the house they were building together, hammering down shingles. And she shared inspiring stories from friends, neighbors, and people she’d only read about. She never said it aloud, but her stories gave me the sense that I too had within me the sort of mettle and courage to handle whatever came my way.

Turns out there’s more value to stories than my mother might have imagined.

1. Child development experts say young children who know family stories have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, more family cohesiveness, and stronger internal locus of control. When mothers were taught to respond to their preschool-aged children with what researchers call elaborative reminiscence, their children were better able to understand other people’s people’s ideas and emotions—a vital skill at any age.

2. Family storytelling provides remarkable benefits as children get older. Preteens whose families regularly share thoughts and feelings about daily events as well as about recollections showed higher self-esteem. And for teens, intergenerational narratives help them to shape their own identity while feeling connected

3. Researchers asked children 20 questions on the Do You Know Scale, such as:

  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the story of your birth?

Results showed that the most self-confident children had a sturdy intergenerational self, a sense they belonged and understood what their family was about. This sense of belonging was called the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

I’ll admit, the stories my mother told throughout my childhood didn’t skimp on tragedy but always highlighted positive character traits. It wasn’t until I was much older that more shadowed family tales slipped out—stories of mental health problems, alcoholism, and lifelong rifts. Those stories are just as important.

Our family tales are simply stories of humanity. All stories help to remind us what it means to be alive on this interconnected planet.  Every day that passes gives us more stories to tell. Even better, more to listen to as well.

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image: Navanna

 

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius

 

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A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Itzhak Perlman, 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 and broke 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.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

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Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.

 

This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine