Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit (8 Better Options)

There are all sorts of companies selling STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) kits and Maker kits these days, often as pricey subscription services.  They promise adventure! inspiration! empowerment! They claim to “teach” creativity and innovative thinking, as if such things can be prepackaged.

My kids didn’t like to do kits of any kind with a parent or without a parent. They didn’t like to do them alone or with friends, on a rainy day or when they were sick. They’d occasionally fiddle around with a kit I’d bought just to appease me, but a kit never lit the gleam that real investigation and real building does.

Why would it? You open the box, follow a set of instructions using pre-measured supplies and get the predicted outcome. Or, sometimes, don’t get it. Plus, there’s an extra layer of pressure involved because an adult paid for that kit and hopes their kids get the advertised benefits.

It’s entirely different when children seek out an interesting endeavor and, once they have the general concept, riff on the idea in new ways. That’s how my kids, left to their own devices, would build and create, referring to YouTube or books or Instructables or their dad for instruction as needed. Then, if inspired, they’d ramp it up, try something more challenging, until that lovely tantalizing hunger we call curiosity was sated, at least for the moment.

It’s not just my own children. When I led enrichment classes and summer camps for kids I brought in all sorts of supplies and issued open-ended challenges. I’d say, “Here’s some equipment, go ahead and make a movie” or I’d haul in boxes of junk and say, “You’ve got x number of days, go ahead and invent something.” They’d brainstorm, work hard to persuade other kids their own ideas were the best,  compromise, make mistakes, add or subtract ideas, get confused, get clarity, refer to how-to books, and somewhere along the way each project transformed into something greater than anyone had imagined. The kids grew to love what it meant and how it made them feel. They’d beg to continue when our sessions were up and once, when a summer program was ending, no one could agree who’d get to keep the articulated dragon they’d made as part of a larger project. They fashioned a cape out of a tarp and in a solemn ceremony, each child took a turn wearing the cape to hack off part of the dragon. They walked out that last day into the sunshine proudly carrying a snout, a leg, or brightly colored swath of scales.

Adults tend to cast a holy light around the value of following specific instructions. They insist it is important for small things, like every project ever, and for big things, like getting good grades and great test scores as if the future is a board game won by the right moves. (It’s not.) Kids have plenty of opportunities to follow step-by-step instructions, heck, life is full of unavoidably necessary rules everyone has to follow. Mutually agreed upon rules are a cornerstone of civilization.

Too much specific instruction may actually give kids too little experience with uncertain steps and ambiguous outcomes. To consider this further, let’s take a look at the difference between well-defined and ill-defined problems.

  • A jigsaw puzzle, multiplication problem, and Lego kit are well-defined problems. That means they have a goal solved by following exacting procedures to reach that goal, with no real ambiguity involved.
  • Starting a business, maintaining a relationship, and building with random Legos are ill-defined problems. That means there are many possible, equally plausible ways to reach goals that may not be initially clear-cut but tend to clarify as time goes on. Life’s biggest challenges (and satisfactions) tend to be ill-defined problems.

Speaking of Legos, let’s take a closer look at what science says about step-by-step directions as a means of fostering creativity and innovation, as so many kits say they do. There’s been a longstanding debate about whether kids get more out of building with a giant pile of random Lego pieces or building boxed Lego sets using instructions. Obviously there can be a place for building kits and free-building in every child’s life, but what if these two approaches lead to different outcomes?

Researchers compared people building Lego kits to those who free-built with Legos. They found, in several studies, that participants who’d built kits scored lower when asked to do projects immediately afterwards that required creativity, originality, divergent thinking, and abstractness. They also were more likely to avoid free-build Legos to choose well-defined problems. Those who’d been free-building were, in contrast, as adept at well-defined problems as ill-defined problems, and didn’t lean away from future ill-defined problems. Science writer Garth Sundem provides an excellent review of this research, including its limitations, and sums it up this way.

If you take these experiments at face value, the “better understanding” of this research is that the more we are confronted by and complete well-defined problems like Lego kits or word finds or color-in-the-lines pictures, the less we choose to engage in and the worse we are at solving ill-defined problems: create something beautiful, discover something meaningful, find someone to love.

Again, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for step-by-step instructions. Detailed, exacting instructions are vital to all sorts of endeavors from making pastry to launching satellites. And building Lego models certainly is not the route to any child’s ruination. These studies are simply more evidence that filling up a child’s free time with adult-designed instructional endeavors isn’t the best way to foster creativity or innovation, despite what companies selling kits might tell us.

 

Here are some cheap, easy, playful ways to raise Makers.

Emphasize loose parts play. Pretty much any free-form materials kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as they choose inspire wildly creative loose parts play. Outdoors that might be twigs, stones, pails, water, rope, sand, and pine cones. Indoors that might be pillows and blankets to build a fort, dress-up clothes and cardboard to make props, and  the freedom to use disparate items for divergent uses.

Save broken things for kids to take apart.  The more moving parts they can disassemble, the better. For safety: cut off any cords and plugs, avoid items with glass, remove blades and batteries. Insist on safety glasses, then get out pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools and let them get to work.  A glorious mess is likely. One way to contain it is to put the item in a shallow cardboard box. That way all the little bits and pieces won’t roll off on the floor indoors or the grass outdoors. My kids have taken apart old clocks, computers, a typewriter, cassette players, a lawn tractor, weed trimmers, and a number of toys (including a Furby that had been broken for years but spoke a few final creepy words as my sons and their friends reduced it to parts.)

Start inventing. Save cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, straws, corks, plastic utensils, twist ties, and so on.  Kids can use them to build whatever they choose —- like a junk marble run or wall ball drop. We’ve had lots of fun when kids form teams, get equal amounts of this “junk” and try a  specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars, such ainventing sorters that send pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that hold weight, catapults that toss ping-pong balls, or building as inspiration leads.

Create your own board games. Amy from MamaScout suggests getting out cardboard suitable for a game board, paper to make cards, dice, a cast off spinner from an old game, and some tiny toys to serve as game pieces. Then get out of the way. As she says of her kids, “backing off is the important part, because their ideas for this game were so much more open-ended than I could understand. They were playing the game and playing in the world of the game at the same time.” Science documentary-maker Steven Johnson prefers more parent involvement. He advocates creating a board game in partnership with a child in an article titled “The Game Worlds We Make.” He writes,  “It’s one of those magical parent-child activities where the two of you occupy shared ground in terms of both comprehension and engagement. Even simple games present intellectually interesting puzzles for an adult brain in their design phase, and children are incredibly adept at picking up on the nuances of gameplay.”

Honor flow.  When we see kids deeply engaged, lets do our best to let them stay engaged whether they’re off in a make-believe world, building with blocks, drawing, or tinkering. Psychologish Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what they’re doing in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. These are not “passive, receptive, relaxing times,” he writes. Instead they are times when “the body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Avoid interruptions! (Here’s more about fostering the state of flow for kids.)

Say yes. As I write in Getting Science on Everything, “We found 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.” This starts in infancy, which we learned from the baby who wanted to play in driveway gravel and the baby who was afraid of the vacuum. It’s never to early to experiment!

Weave math explorations into everyday life. Investigate yourself, measure your world, make math toys, devise your own codes, and more. Here’s how.

Be an example. Take an active role in building, fixing, and finding out what you want to know in your own life. As you do, let your kids get involved as far as their interests lead them. Chances are if you’re designing a better closet shelf,  teaching your dog new tricks, rebuilding a carburetor, experimenting with bread making,  or learning to make chainmail, your kids will see firsthand what it takes to pursue a hands-on interest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sidenote: There’s a lot of energy put into getting kids into STEM and STEAM fields. We need to rethink funding priorities so that these fields move ahead. Here’s research scientist Hope Jahren’s perspective, from her recent book Lab Girl.

“You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of ‘falling behind’ … Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Doorknobs

 

betting on religion, choosing faith when dying,

When I ring the bell Denise has to pull her three dogs away from the door to let me in. We’re at an awkward juncture. She’s actually my husband’s friend but I’m here alone. I come bearing gifts although she is more comfortable giving.

“I’m glad you called,” she says over the barking. “It gave me the first reason to get dressed in a week.”

“I hear PJs are a fashion statement,” I say.

She pulls the largest dog off my leg. Her face is puffy and she’s breathing heavily from the exertion.

“He’s not bothering me at all,” I protest. “Maybe he’s trying to protect you from my cooking. Let me just put this stuff away.”

She follows me to the kitchen. She is older and taller, yet around her I feel as if I lead. Her counter is full of supplements with names that sound like a bottled meadow —sorrel, motherwort, red clover. When I put down the dishes she pulls back lids and sniffs the contents deeply. She wants to hear about each one.

“Everything smells so good,” she says. “Mark tells me your recipes are never the same twice. What’s in this pan?”

“Oh, it’s just some curry. Brown basmati rice with cauliflower, peas, paneer, onions, spinach, raisins, almonds—you want me to go on? I just keep adding things till it seems done,” I laugh. “Drives the kids nuts. They long for boxed macaroni and cheese like everyone else makes.”

She scoops up a fingerful and slides it in her mouth. Her eyes briefly fill with tears. “This tastes like love.”

I’ve never heard Denise speak this way. Her shtick is sharp humor and witty complaints. She and her husband Greg have a somewhat difficult relationship, but they both find pleasure in spending. Greg lavishes money on cars. Denise adores buying riding tack, clothes, and gifts. We have been the recipients of her largess many times. She not only gives lavishly, she also offers her time. The week we moved to our new home, she and Greg helped with the last U-haul load, took the truck back, and surprised us by cleaning our empty house so we wouldn’t have to return the next day. It must have taken them hours.

No matter how kind her actions, Denise is uncomfortable being thanked. Brusque even. Usually she goes right on complaining about her job, her expenses, her marriage, even her beloved horse. With four kids and precarious finances, I’m perpetually behind when it comes to reciprocating. Sometimes I send along produce from our garden or homemade goods when my husband Mark meets Denise and Greg for their weekly breakfast.

Today she shows me things she has ordered online, some still unopened. At least a dozen hats, several specially made for cancer patients. When her dogs start to play with the boxes, she ushers them out to the back yard.

“Let’s go sit outside,” I venture. “It’s a beautiful day.”

“The landscaping is a mess,” she says, “I don’t even want to look at it.”

“Have you been out much at all since you started treatment? There’s something to be said for the restorative power of nature.”

“Not in this yard.”

Birdsong, sunshine, growing things, and fresh air all wait right beyond her patio doors. It is difficult to imagine healing in her house. The curtains are closed. Every surface is congested. Couches and chairs are crowded with pillows. The walls are jammed with prints, tables are laden with objects, bags with new purchases are stacked against the walls. But she wants to stay inside.

I notice piles of new books. I tell her they are the same things I like to read; spiritual examinations across many cultures and faiths. Denise says she has read a few and is drawn to their open-hearted messages, but she is afraid.

I’m not sure what she means.

“I hope there’s some kind of eternity,” she says with sudden candor, “but how do I know which religion will get me there? I can’t just suddenly decide to be a Baptist or a Buddhist and  …  believe.”

“I think there are truths bigger than anything religions squabble over.” I say.

“True, but now isn’t the time for me to piss off God,” she says dryly. Then adds, “If there is a God.”

I nod, “I’ve gotten hung up on the ‘G’ word too.”

“Well I started going to a church. I just picked one. I figure it’s like an insurance policy,” she says. “That way if there’s life after death, maybe I’m in.”

We sit on the couch crossed-legged and talk about approaching faith as a stranger might visit a new land, eyes open for wonders. Denise keeps the tone light but her anxiety hangs right on the surface until she finds a familiar groove and gets back to complaining about her husband. Greg only cares about his cars, Greg wants her to go back to work, Greg doesn’t understand.

Soon she looks tired. We say our goodbyes and I give her an awkward hug. My intention was to be fully in that room with her, sending love from my heart to hers like a soothing balm, yet as I walk out to my car I feel an ache somewhere in my chest. I realize her quandaries with religion grieve her almost much as her cancer does.

~

A few months after that visit, complications from her final round of chemo leave Denise in a hospital room too sick return home. The doctor tells her she needs to go directly to hospice care. Mark and I sit near her bed.

Greg says from farther back in the room, “Yeah, but how expensive is that?”

“You and your wife both have health insurance.” the doctor replies. “There shouldn’t be significant extra costs.”

“There have been a lot of costs with this whole thing,” he says, waving his hand at the hospital bed, intravenous lines, and monitors. Mark stands and walks Greg out of the room so Denise can talk to the doctor. A month later she waits until Greg goes on an errand, then dies with Mark at the side of her bed.

~

Greg has a beautiful photograph of Denise posing with her horse and dogs printed for the funeral program. I see he does understand what was important to her. When the new minister she chose gives the eulogy it’s clear he didn’t know her at all. As a bagpiper walks over the hills at the close of her memorial service, I pray that Denise has found a more loving Beyond than she ever imagined.

A few nights later I have a dream that seems to go on and on. In it I am surrounded by doorknobs. I examine them with fascination. Faceted crystal doorknobs cut in geometric perfection, each reflecting different shapes and colors. Polished wooden doorknobs darkened with age. Intricately patterned cloisonné knobs rich in lapis, green, and violet. Simple white porcelain doorknobs mapped with tiny cracks.

I understand, while still asleep, that I’m dreaming. It occurs to me to look up from this vast field of doorknobs. There I see a door. It’s huge and gleams with holy light.

Denise is nearby, more vibrant and confident than I’ve ever seen her in life. She’s looking with amusement at the array of doorknobs.

“The doorknob we choose doesn’t matter,” she says. “Each. One. Opens. The. Door.”

~

This is her final gift. Once again, I can’t reciprocate. Unless, I realize, I share her story with others.

 

Originally published by First Day Press.

 

 

Take a Picture

We’re walking the dogs near dusk. The sky is darkening, the sun slanting in a way that casts everything around us in a luminous glow. “Let’s take a picture,” I say. I don’t mean capturing an image on a device. Instead we pause, breathe deeply, let ourselves appreciate this particular moment as fully as possible.

I used to do this more often when our children were small. They’d tumble in happy and tired from play, bringing outdoor freshness with them, clamoring at the sink to wash their hands for dinner. The house was filled by their voices and the scent of food in the oven, and I’d ask them to pause so we could cherish it. A thousand such pictures are stored somewhere in our minds’ eyes from moments when we stopped, breathed in, and nourished ourselves on the beauty happening right then.

Sometimes life calls us to do this. A baby’s first steps, a lost cat found, a brother returning safely from military service,  a scholarship awarded, a friend’s biopsy coming back clear.  Studies show our lives feel more packed with meaning when we stop to savor such turning points. (Other milestones happen as well, except we don’t see them until they’re past. The last time you’ll hold a child’s hand to cross a street, last time you’ll talk to a neighbor, last time you’ll visit an elderly relative….)

Savoring doesn’t have to be limited to our best moments.  Stop to really take it all in when you’re grieving, furious, exhausted, lonely,  bewildered. Pausing to let yourself feel what you feel throughout your whole body, anchored in a painful moment, is also a way of honoring your life.

Our lives are stitched together by what we notice and remember. Look back at any particular phase of your life. What you recall is constructed from what you fully noticed. Each moment there are sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to your experience. The way you pay attention to those elements forms your memories. The shocking part? Looking back and realizing how few rich and full memories we really form.

Let’s form them intentionally.  Whenever possible, pause to take a mental picture. Let everything flood your being until the moment you’re in fills your very marrow. It’s a way of wakening.

 

“I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.”

“Portrait of a Young Woman Reading a Letter” unsigned

A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia degli Aldobrandeschi
written Christmas Eve
Anno Domini 1513

I salute you.  I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.

Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see.  And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

And so, at this time, I greet you, not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and shadows flee away.

Fra Giovanni Giocondo

Over 500 years ago, Giovanni Giocondo wrote this letter to a dear friend. He was 80 years old at the time and had already lived a full life as a teacher of Latin and Greek, a Franciscan priest, archaeologist, translator of ancient manuscripts,  architect, and engineer. Many of his designs still stand including Loggia del Consiglio in Verona, Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, and the Pont Notre-Dame bridge in Paris. Works he translated went on to advance architecture, medicine, and theology. Yet these sentiments shared with a friend are his most personal legacy. Although authorship can’t be verified with complete certainty, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter how touched the Contessina must have been to receive it 503 years ago. We have no way of knowing what cast shadows in her life, but it’s easy to imagine her unfolding the page to read again and again, until each word was committed to memory. All these centuries later, the letter still has the power to nourish hope in our hearts. May it do so for you too, my friend.

Rare Exports: Holiday Horror Movie

I usually write about peace, love, and understanding. This post is not one of those. It’s devoid of deeper meaning unless an ancient angry Santa sounds refreshing right about now. 

Tired of Christmas movies drenched with syrupy cliches? Need something with a sharper edge to watch with teens or friends or the house guests who stay up till all hours? The film I recommend contains no overly sweet sentiment, although there are characters wearing sweaters without a trace of irony. It’s an unexpectedly entertaining horror movie made in Finland.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is supposedly based on old Norse legends. We know our familiar fairy tales are cleaned-up versions of older, far more gruesome stories. Today’s Santa story is heavily sanitized as well.

This 2010 subtitled movie takes place in a rural, hardscrabble area of northern Finland where ten-year-old Pietari lives with his widowed father. Pietari and a friend spy on a secretive mining operation near the Russian border, trying to figure out why the workers are blasting apart a hill. It’s rumored the place is where the original Santa Claus is buried. When the child is told that Santa doesn’t exist, Pietari looks into the legends. He finds that the old stories portray Santa as an angry being who wreaks vengeance, even tossing naughty children in a boiling cauldron.

Pietari’s father, who makes a living hunting and butchering reindeer, discovers that a large herd has already been massacred. Other frightening things begin happening in the area as well. Pietari begs adults to consider that an evil Santa is responsible, but no one takes him seriously. — not even when the town’s children start to disappear. It’s only when a dangerous old man appears that they swing into action. It may be too late.

For viewers old enough to enjoy lots of Santa-related mayhem, this movie is the perfect antidote to crassly commercial holiday fare. It’s stark, unusual, and quietly menacing. Pay close attention and you’ll notice homage is given to all sorts of American films. But I’m pretty sure the herd of naked old guys is a cinematic first.

Rare Exports, a Christmas horror movie

 

First published in Wired.com

15 Smarty Pants Ways To Enjoy Snow

 

Save some coldness for summer. (CC by 2.0 dumbledad)

Explore the science, art, and dessert potential of snow. Image: CC by 2.0 dumbledad’s flickr photostream.

There’s much more to snow than its seasonal good looks. It’s invigorating to get out in the frosty cold (it’s even good for babies). And those lovely piles of frozen water vapor just might inspire you to indulge in some brain-boosting activities.

1. Identify snowflakes. Look carefully at snowflakes that fall on your sleeve or cling to your window. Although no two snowflakes are alike, there are basic shapes. 

snow activities, learn from snow, snow learning activities,

IDing snowflakes. Image: caltech.edu.

 2. Stalk snowflakes. Go outside with a sheet of black paper, a good way to see individual shapes. You can even hunt for specific snowflake types using Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes or make quick sketches (still quite possible with mittens) in a journal. Enough snowflake stalking and you may I.D. quite a few.

3. Photograph snowflakes. Snowflakes seem to be everywhere, but they’re reluctant to pose for photos. They twirl away in the wind, clump together, or simply melt when you breathe on them. Persistence is the key. Get out there when flakes are falling slowly and there’s little to no wind. If you keep your phone (or camera) out, you’ll be ready to capture that brief moment when you can see individual flakes on your jacket.

A little planning can make decent shots more likely. We’ve had some success with this method. Take heavy dark blue or black plastic outdoors (we used a trash can set on its side). Place it in a bright area without shadows and let it chill to air temperature. Then, quickly photograph flakes as they settle on the surface. It’s best if you put your device on a tripod and set it to telephoto. Chances are you’ll get a few good images.

how to photograph snowflakes,

Snowflakes on jacket. Image: CC by 2.0 jenny mcflint.

4. Make paper snowflakes. Lacy snowflake cut-outs dangling from thread are classic winter decorations. Plus, they have a lot to teach us about symmetry—and patience. For ideas, check out easy paper snowflakes from coffee filters or more exacting snowflake designs.  I tend to skip all design recommendations. Just fold, cut, and unfold. The results are likely to be as unique as, well, a snowflake.

cut out paper snowflakes

5. Learn snow symbols There are  100 weather symbols used in meteorology. Check here, they’re pretty interesting. Snow symbols jump around, starting with number 22, which is pretty much an asterisk followed by a square bracket. Right now out my window, we’re experiencing #72 conditions, which look much prettier than their symbolic representation:

6. Grow your own snowflakes. This experiment calls for things we don’t usually have around the house like Styrofoam cups, soda bottles, and dry ice. But it’s worth it for the chance to briefly impersonate Boreas, the ancient Greek god of winter. You might also want to grow salt crystals, borax crystals , alum crystals, or the ever-reliable rock candy.

make rock candy

Rock candy. Image: CC by 2.0 gazeronly.

 

7. Chill out with some snowflake history. Wilson A. Bentley, a homeschooled Vermont farm boy born in 1865, became an amateur scientist and artist whose work remains a standard in the field.  Younger children will enjoy learning about him in Snowflake Bentley, while teens and adults may enjoy The Snowflake Man: A Biography of Wilson A. Bentley. And stop in to see his original photos at the Jericho Historical Society, if you ever find yourself near Bentley’s hometown of Jericho, Vermont.

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley. (Wikipedia.org)

Snowflake photos by Wilson Bentley. Wikipedia.org.

8. Shovel snow. It’s a great workout for the whole family. It’s also a warm act of kindness to surprise a neighbor with a shoveled drive, particularly for folks who are unwell or home with a new baby. For some reason, it’s even more fun to do this sort of favor secretly, so if you know the elderly couple next door won’t be home for a few hours, it’s a great time to dash over there with shovels. (There are plenty of other great ways to volunteer with kids, too.)

Good deed, good exercise. Image: Pippalou

Good deed, good exercise. Image: Pippalou

9. Build a snow fort. A snowdrift or a nice pile of snow from all of that shoveling is the perfect way to start. If there’s not enough snow, just hollow out a kid-sized space in the snow and anchor a sheet with a few snowballs to make a temporary roof.

Easy snow fort. Image: CC by 2.9 popofatticus.

Easy snow fort. Image: CC by 2.9
popofatticus.

10. Look into flaky science. Do snowflakes always have six branches? Are most snowflakes damaged before they land? What are the chances a similar snowflake has fallen in Earth’s history? Delve into these books to find out. Kids 4 to 7 will enjoy The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s WonderThe Snowflake : A Water Cycle Story, and a glimpse into where wild creatures handle winter in Under the SnowKids 8 to 12 will enjoy The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes.

11. Make snow candy.  It’s unusual, memorable, and very sweet. Try the maple syrup method.

All natural! (CC by 2.0 the seafarer)

All natural! Image: CC by 2.0 the seafarer.

12. Mix up some snow ice cream. Try vanillachocolate peanut butter, or chocolate peppermint. Be sure to mix up all of the ingredients in advance, then go collect clean snow to mix in. Otherwise it’s a melty mess.

snow ice cream

 

13. Conduct the Clean Snow Experiment. You may, ahem, want to do this before making maple sugar candy or snow ice cream. All you need is a coffee filter and some snow. Pile the snow in the filter and let it melt completely, then examine what particulates may have been lurking in that white fluff.  It may deter you from eating snow and snow-related goodies, it may not.

Snowy crystals. (Image: pixabay.com)

 14. Read wintry fiction. For the little ones, try books like Snowflake Baby by Elise Broach,  Little Penguins by Cynthia RylantWhen Snowflakes Fall and Winter Friends, both by Carl SamsFor kids 4 to 7, snuggle up to read Snow by Cynthia Rylant, Snow by Uri Shulevitz, and the classic The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader. Wintry YA books include The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin,  Snow-walker by Catherine Fisherand Jack London’s enduring tale White Fang

Cooperation in the forest. (Image: Wikipedia.org)

15. Freeze snowballs. Time to stock up. Get out there and pack lots of nice tight snowballs to save for the long snow-free months of summer. If you have lots of room, let each member of the family label and freeze his or her personal bag of snowballs. Wait patiently. Then on the steamiest, most uncomfortable day of summer, get those snowballs out. You’ll find something to do with them, guaranteed.

freeze a supply of snowballs

 

Whatever you do, just don’t forget to savor snow. Take a cue from kids so young they don’t remember last year’s winter. On their faces you see awe at how snow turns an ordinary neighborhood into a wonderland.

 

I Want You To Meet Kathy Ceceri

 

Kathy with one of her newest books.  Photo provided by Kathy Ceceri.

Educator and author Kathy Ceceri  and I have been colleagues on and off for nearly 15 years, writing for some of the same publications and collaborating on projects. Kathy has always been an inspiration to me — focused and innovative with a powerful can-do approach. It’s not just me. Her work inspires kids, parents, and educators every day.

Kathy has written nearly a dozen books and kids in her hands-on workshops make fascinating things. Really fascinating — like a hydraulic Lego 3D food printer, solar baked oatmeal cookies, a light-up paper cat, or a swarm of gliding vibrobots. Better yet, her goal is getting them to come up with their own creations.

I suspect all of us would like to know more about Kathy. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My background is in journalism, although my training was all “on-the-job,” writing news reports, lifestyle and art features, and investigative pieces for newspapers, magazines, and websites.

My training in education was all “on-the-job” as well — I homeschooled my two sons from kindergarten up until college. I have written about kid-friendly hands-on learning projects for Family Fun and Wired.com, and as the “Homeschooling Expert” (yes, that was really my title) for About.com. I currently produce books and articles for Make Magazine and other publishers and lead workshops for kids, families, and educators.

How does starting out as a writer and artist lead to a quest to advance STEAM and Maker learning?

STEAM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math,” and the Maker Movement is about building, inventing, and exploring in the physical realm (as opposed to creating software). Both these educational trends excite me because as a kid I was always creating homes, environments, and accessories for my dolls and recycling materials into playthings. I was also very crafty, trying a little bit of everything that came along from stained glass to candlemaking to macrame. And my favorite type of reading was fantasy and science fiction.

I studied some art in college but never really applied it until I discovered ways to incorporate it into projects that involved engineering and science. Today design and technology is an area of concentration in many art programs, but not when I was in school! Making robotic systems out of cardboard and duct tape is a perfect expression of everything I enjoy. And it seems to appeal to an audience of teachers and students who want to get started but don’t know where to dive in (or don’t have the resources to start big).

Can you share a project or two in depth? (including a link to instructions?)

Sure! This Tin Can Cooker project from my latest book Edible Inventions dates back to my days at Girl Scout camp.

And these recipes for Refrigerator PIckles and Yogurt in a Mug are family standards.

You can find links to more projects from my books at my website Crafts for Learning.

Are your projects do-able for people who don’t have much in the way of DIY experience.

Definitely. I describe my projects as “low tech/no tech” and I design them to draw on skills and materials that most people already have. As I always say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Can you share a story of how hands-on projects can empower kids?

My favorite stories are the parents who come back and say, “He spent the whole weekend working on making his robot better,” or “She went home and taught her sister how to make that project.”  If nothing else, kids who try my books and workshops come away knowing how to troubleshoot, and have a little more confidence about trying something to see where it leads. The nice thing about Maker projects is there’s no one right answer. Unlike math worksheets, there are many ways to set out, and many different directions you can go in. That’s something kids don’t get enough of nowadays.

You are making a difference. Can you give us some encouragement to follow our own passions? 

That’s very nice of you to say! If I’ve followed my passion, it’s because it was the path that best fit the life I had at that moment. I guess my advice is don’t be afraid to promote yourself and your particular strengths and talents. If you’re passionate, sooner or later you’ll find someone who responds to that energy and will open up new ways to channel it that you might not have imagined.

Kathy’s book titles include:

And her newest, due out in March 2017.

Check out Kathy’s site Crafts for Learning for low-tech projects, her workshop schedule, and Makerspace suggestions. Thanks Kathy!

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Leftovers As Love

why we cook for people we love

Ingredients? I’ve got the stinking ingredients.  (Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1564)

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.” ~M.F.K. Fisher

I’m scooping Thanksgiving leftovers into containers with tears in my eyes. Mashed potatoes, turkey, wild rice stuffing, cranberry pomegranate sauce, Aunt Tricia’s pecan bars and her pumpkin parfait are packed into a cooler along with mason jars of peach jam, applesauce, and salsa. They’re for one of my sons, who has a full day of driving to get back to his regularly scheduled life a few states away. He’s got a fantastic career, wide-ranging hobbies, and wonderful friends. I’m entirely happy for him and don’t for a moment want to hold him back. There’s just something about feeding him into the next week that gets to me in a tear-inducing way. I suspect it’s more than a mom thing.

There are names for people like me in nearly every language, some of them not very flattering. We lavish attention on people we love, in part, by cooking for them. We’re the ones foisting leftovers on you as you try to leave. We’re the ones who do our best to have (what we believe are) your favorites available when you visit — even if you last said you couldn’t get enough bean pate back in the 90’s. We’re the ones who hardly taste the food we serve, our senses already full from making it. We can be annoying. We can’t help it.

Speaking for myself, it’s not entirely about the people I cook for.* It’s about me too.

I can ignore serious pressing deadlines without a sideways glance when it’s time to cook for our weekly Sunday extended family get-togethers. For a few glorious hours on Saturday I make dishes for two meals the next day, sometimes happily getting up before dawn on Sunday to knead dough or roll out pie crust to complete those meals. I can also ignore my deadlines when we host one of our regular potlucks or, as we did last month, have a house concert here. Actually, I can rely on the Feeding People Excuse pretty much every day, whether I’m working in the garden or harvesting produce from that garden to make a pot of soup. Chopping vegetables is, for me, a more reliable way to enter that lovely state of flow than clattering at a keyboard, although I wouldn’t give up writing any more than I’d give up cooking.

All this time spent in the kitchen hasn’t made me more accomplished than anyone else. I have serious faults that include broiling when I shouldn’t broil, horrendous knife skills, an overly casual approach to measuring, and chronic delight in using strange ingredients when normal ones would have worked better. I’m also (rightly) accused of making enough food for a lumberjack camp. Which gives me all those leftovers to send with you…

But I can say this. The cells of our bodies are built by the air we breathe as well as by the food and drink we ingest. To grow that food, to cook that food, is to be part of nourishing life in those we cherish. This, to me, is one of the most basic ways to demonstrate love.

 

*Yes I ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m breaking rules outside of the kitchen too. 

Dinner To Bring a Nation Together

 

This is Sarah Josepha Hale. You may know her as the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Don’t let the demure smile fool you, this woman leaned in.

She was born in 1788 to parents so shockingly progressive that they believed in equal education for boys and girls. Sarah was homeschooled and didn’t marry until she was well over the hill for her era — all of 25. Nine years after their marriage, her husband died of pneumonia while she was pregnant with their fifth child.

This aspiring author and newly single mother sold hats to make money and wrote at night after the children were in bed. A few years later, her novel decrying slavery was published (25 years before the more widely known Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print). On the strength of that novel, she was offered the editor’s job at Ladies’ Magazine, a periodical that later merged with  Godey’s Lady’s Book. While other publications of the era packed their pages with reprinted British articles, Sarah insisted this magazine would be written by American authors as much as possible. Early on that sometimes meant she wrote much of the content herself. She worked as editor until she was nearly 90, also finding time to write close to 50 books.

Her position at the only major women’s magazine in the country gave her a powerful platform — imagine Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling, and Beyonce’s influence combined. Sarah’s tastes affected everything from the nation’s literature to its architecture. Although she accepted the era’s norms when it came to gender roles, she used her influence for profound social change. Sarah pushed for children’s rights, women’s education, and the abolition of slavery between pages of fashion, homemaking advice, and recipes.

Sarah Hale, Thanksgiving

As tensions built in pre-Civil War America, she took on another cause.  At the time, the holiday we call Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January in the United States. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.

Starting in 1846, Hale used the magazine to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War.  Year after year she wrote editorials asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day. In November 1857 she wrote,

Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world.

Marketing wizard that she was, Sarah didn’t stick to editorials. She shifted popular public opinion by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including the now traditional roast turkey and pumpkin pie) along with sentimental poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered around the Thanksgiving table. She also wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.

Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. He recommended his fellow citizens, “…reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of Events for a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land…”

No, it didn’t help to unify a nation that year. Frankly that’s asking a lot out of dinner. But this year let’s do our best to sit down at the table together in the spirit of peace, union, and harmony. And then, with a nod to Sarah’s enviable energy, let’s get back up to work for profound social change.

Ways of Speaking

faith like a spider

 

Ways of Speaking

 

I’m weary of those who talk

in slogans stamped and packed

by someone else, like

long distance truckers paid to drive

without knowing the weight

hauled onto that dark highway.

 

I want to walk, instead

where I can read the body’s slow knowing.

Where each thing watched long speaks aloud.

 

A spider tossed by the breeze reaches one strand

thin as faith. As it takes hold she dances between twigs

and waits within a design both beginning and end.

When the web breaks she begins again

tiny legs speaking in ways

we’re meant to hear.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Find this and other poems in my collection, Tending.