Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. (Check out Little World’s post on ways to encourage loose parts play.)

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

Teaching a Squirrel to do Tricks, Almost

happiness is process not outcome

No squirrels were harmed in this post. Image by easterngraysquirrel.deviantart.com

Eric* and I knew we could teach a squirrel to do tricks.

First, get it to eat food we’d thrown.

Then, get it to eat from our hands.

Next, train it to come when called.

Ultimately, get it to wear a costume and ride a squirrel-sized bicycle.

We talked about this at length, interrupting each other eagerly as new thoughts occurred to us. I was so thrilled at the prospect that my spine seemed to jingle with sparks.

Eric and I didn’t normally play together. We didn’t normally speak to each other. Boys and girls almost never hung out together in my neighborhood, and besides, he was going into fourth grade that fall while I’d only be a third-grader.

But Eric and I were united by a vision. Sitting in his front lawn, grass bristling against our legs, we bragged about how much animals liked us. Eric said he could whistle and a bird would land on his arm. He didn’t offer to demonstrate that skill right then. I implied I was some kind of mystic who could hear animals talk to each other. I was pretty sure I could hear that squirrel, sitting on its haunches in a nearby tree, practically begging us to be its friend.

All our efforts to lure it closer failed, so we reluctantly decided to build a squirrel trap. Not that we were the trapping sort of kids, but we’d make it up to the squirrel once we’d captured him.

Enthralled, we didn’t pay any attention to the likelihood of our vision becoming a reality. The moment was everything. We were in the powerful state of flow. You know what this feels like — invigorating, enlivening, wholly absorbing.

Process actually has more to do with our happiness than outcome, according to some psychologists. Maybe this is what happens when highly successful people don’t appear all that blissful once they’ve gotten to the top of their fields. Celebrities, sports figures, and others sometimes reach what seems to be the pinnacle of wealth and status only to self-destruct. Eric and I weren’t likely to reach the pinnacle of squirrel training, but we didn’t care.

We rustled up some scrap wood, a hammer, and nails. Squatting on a driveway too hot to sit on, we tried to transform small and oddly shaped plywood pieces into the trap of our dreams. When that failed we simply tried to build some kind of 3-D shape. We failed, failed again, failed a few more times, then resorted to something else. A cardboard box.

This material was easier to handle but not easy enough. The dull mat knife we were allowed to use barely sawed through the cardboard. Our attempts at making a door we could shut from a distance gave us several quite painful rubber band-related injuries. We slowed down as we realized our grand plans might not be workable. Not because it wasn’t a great idea, we agreed, but due to our construction skill deficits.

Both of us still loved the vision of that squirrel becoming our friend. Even if he didn’t wear a costume and learn to ride a squirrel-sized bicycle, we were happy there in the driveway where we’d realized magic was just a little too hard for us to build right then. There was awkward silence.

Thankfully, two bigger boys rode by on their bikes and mocked Eric for playing with a girl. Relieved, we took this as an excuse to go our separate ways, completely satisfied with our attempts. That squirrel never knew how close it was to fame.

 

*Name changed just in case Eric is now a squirrel whisperer.

Most Of Us Are Ugly Ducklings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

are swans,

a

or storks,

or kingfishers,

or great blue herons.

Some of us aren’t birds at all.

 We’re frogs,

otters,

squirrels,

or dragonflies.

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

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

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

All images in the public domain. 

Poet Seeks Words

Unraveling Y, acrostic poet, Amy Heath,

Amy Heath. Sojourner, tinker, acrostic poet.

Amy Heath is a writer, poet, and artist. The past few years she’s lived a somewhat nomadic life, exploring ways to sustain herself while being true to her spirit.

I met Amy when she was a children’s librarian and children’s book author, back when I spent a lot of time in the picture book section with my four kids.  I was drawn to her friendly blue eyes and gentle manner. I cherished our brief, always lively conversations. I’d walk away thinking how much I’d like us to be friends but I was too shy to ask if we could get together because she was older, vastly cooler, and far more fascinating than I’d ever be. Fast forward to the last few years, when Amy befriended me. I’m giddy about it in a can’t-believe-my-luck sort of way.

One of the many things Amy is up to lately is a poetic challenge. About a year ago she decided she’d write an acrostic poem a day. Being Amy, she amped up the challenge by making a rule for herself that the acrostics must be composed around words chosen at random from a book or words others chose for her.

a·cros·tic   (ə-krô′stĭk, ə-krŏs′tĭk) n.
1. A poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence.

“The main point of this project was to play with words every day until I reach 60,” she says. “Until that idea struck me, I had been writing acrostics in a more serious vein, on words like mindfulness, anxiety, patience, empathy. I have seen many people approach the Big 6-0 with trepidation. Well, I would play my way there!”

And no matter what, she vowed to post each piece on her blog, Unraveling Y. She says, “After reading the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I decided that if I blogged these short daily creations I would feel somehow more accountable to my intention. My wordplays would be out there. And being fairly sure that very few people would read them, I felt liberated to do my best without worrying about what anyone thought of them. That’s good practice anyway. Worrying about what other people think is trespassing in their heads. Not cool.”

Amy’s poems find an inner presence in words, making each one into something so alive we can feel it breathe, as she does with equanimity.

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/space-sky-hand-fingers-paint-636894/

Even in the space of a few syllables.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/background-branch-dusk-evening-20862/

She turns a word into a tale that leaves us wondering.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/890638

She helps us understand why the Latin word for hearth has come to mean “center of activity.”

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

She shares little known history, explaining in her blog entry: “The lighthouse built by Ptolemy I Soter and completed by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus was a prototype for subsequent structures. Pharos, a small island, ultimately the tip of a peninsula near Alexandria, became the root word in many languages for lighthouse.”

Andreas Achenbach, Pharos, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/andreas-achenbach-sea-ocean-water-85762

She’s undaunted when faced with a word like quitch.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/951061

Among my favorites is a poem she composed around the word orenda, which is defined as “a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois to be present, in varying degrees, in all things and all beings, and to be the spiritual force underlying human accomplishment.”

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, birthday poem, orenda, pixabay.com/en/background-gold-golden-texture-630417/

Amy is brimming with acrostic-related ideas. She may write a book on a single theme or compose a children’s story using words for various literary devices. She may illustrate her poems using paint or yarn or glass. The future is open for my playfully creative friend.

What is she seeking right now?

Words.

She’s continuing her daily acrostic challenge and invites you to send her a word which she’ll gladly transform into a poem. Her email is unravelingy@gmail.com

While you’re at it, I suggest you:

visit her blog Unraveling Y 

read her memoir I Pity The Man Who Marries You

share her poems on social media

contact her to let her know how much you enjoy her work

consider embarking on a challenge of your own!

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. My only involvement was 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.

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius

 

Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

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.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, 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. 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.

Free Range Learning, all kids geniuses,

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

I Heckle, You Heckle, Let’s All Heckle

heckle, roots of word heckle, change the world,

I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.

That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.

I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).

Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task.  People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.

Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news.  There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.

When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.

Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.

Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.

Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.

PITY THE NATION
(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except  to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.

I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.

We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.

social change, heckler,

Heckling combs. Image: nimpsu.deviantart.com

A New Curse Word

 relax your words,

We hear it all the time. Chances are we say it all the time.

I swear (hah!) it’s the curse of our era.

What’s up with you?

Busy

How’s work?

Busy

How are the kids?

Busy

What was your vacation like?

Busy

What’s next week like for you?

Busy

Ack!

We are busy, pulled in so many directions that we don’t have words powerful enough to describe how time starved we feel. Swamped, hectic, rushed, hurried, slammed, or crazy busy can’t come close.

I suspect that we aren’t busier, in terms of obligations using up our time, than someone our age might have been 100 years ago. Chances are those folks kept the house warm with coal shoveled into a furnace; worked long hours for poor pay in factories, mines, slaughterhouses or worse; traveled at low speeds to get where they were going; struggled to stay healthy in a population easily ravaged by flu, tuberculosis, polio, and other diseases; and put a lot of hands-on hours looking after their homes and families. Talk about busy.

But there’s something going on, because so many of us are constantly overwhelmed. I planned to have some handy studies to cite but the books I meant to consult, The Distraction Addiction and Time Warped were overdue before I’d gotten more than a few chapters in. (Partially the fault of more alluring library books like Someone, The Name of the WindAnd the Mountains Echoed.) And I was busy!

Since the sun’s magnetic field is about to flip, I’d be happy to blame our time hunger on a wavering magnetic sheet and extra cosmic rays but science tells us there’s not a noticeable effect.

Mostly, I’m tempted to point the finger at all those things fracturing our attention. I’m pretty sure that ample time for daydreaming and contemplation is essential to a sense of peace, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Which gets me back to the curse word of our times, busy. I’ve decided that using it is a form of negative self-talk. So I’m not saying it anymore. It is banished from my vocabulary.

My friend Margaret is sure that our perception of time will slow down to a more manageable pace if we replace frantically busy words with words that describe a slower, more relaxed attitude. Maybe then our lives will slow down too. She suggests words like,

meander

amble

mosey

saunter

dawdle

You may be flinging yourself from store to store to get errands done. But consider describing it to yourself as strolling through stores, pondering some purchases, relaxing in check-out lines. A time-shift may just happen.

But give that attitude shift time, lots of room-to-stretch time.

no time, slow vocabulary, slow conversation, self-talk

How To Walk Your Talk

walk your talk, unconscious to conscious competence, cultivating good habits, being your best self,

Emilian Robert Vicol’s flickr photostream

Chances are you’ve never heard of Richard Enty. He’s the executive director of Metro Regional Transit in Akron, Ohio where there are firm safety policies in effect. Consider texting. For the first texting/phoning offense, a bus driver will be suspended for three days (executives will be suspended for five days). Second offense requires a 15-day suspension and a third offense can result in dismissal. The policy applies specifically to those who are driving revenue-producing vehicles, such as buses or trains.

Enty is tuned in to accident prevention. He was once a passenger when two trains collided, an accident that cost another passenger both legs. His current job involves ensuring a climate of safety. So one day when was driving his own car, just as a bus pulled up next to him, he was startled to realize what he was doing. He had a texting problem. Even though he wasn’t driving a revenue-producing vehicle, he decided to turn himself in. The board wanted to respond with a letter of reprimand but Enty asked to be treated like anyone else. So he was suspended without pay for five days. He tells the local newspaper,

As the leader of an organization that stresses safety and always striving to do the right things, even when no one is looking, I had to make this [decision]. Because, again, we are all human, we all have certain habits and what I have learned in accident investigations…is that accidents usually result from series of bad habits that go unchecked over a period of days, weeks, months, or possibly even years.”

This man walks his talk.

Truly living out what we believe is never easy. It’s essential to be attuned to the positive, to see how we’re making progress rather than focusing on where we’re going wrong. That said, we’re never going to live up to our ideals all of the time. Not even close.

It helps to understand what’s called the four stages of competence as we learn a skill or act on new knowledge. For example, say you became aware of an issue a few years back such as sweatshop labor. You were troubled to realize how much your purchases contributed to the problem as you grabbed great deals without thinking. You were in the first stage. Finding out, becoming conscious of your incompetence, is the next stage. It can be a blisteringly self-conscious process as you struggle to figure out what you didn’t know and how to react. You’re aware of what you’ve done wrong without having sufficient tactics or information to do a whole lot better, although you try. Working to adopt new behaviors is the third stage and it requires sustained effort. For this particular issue, it might be shopping less, seeking out sustainable and local sources, thrifting, advocating for change, and more. You’ll still make mistakes, falling into old patterns when you’re stressed or rushed. The fourth stage is effortless. The knowledge and skills you once sought simply become habit.

unconscious to conscious competence, walk your talk, creating good habits,

I’m somewhere between the Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence in many parts of my life. Blurting out what’s on my mind before thinking. Starting projects I don’t have time to finish. Not making enough time for those projects in the first place. Worrying. Pouring another glass of wine. Not remembering conflict resolution tactics until after the moment has passed. Skipping pleasure for work when I know damn well life is to be savored. But castigating myself isn’t useful. Paying attention is.

Kids certainly do their best to assist. They have a way of spotting hypocrisy and tossing our words back in our faces. I can’t rant about a crazy driver or duplicitous politician without getting one of my adages right back at me, like, “Everyone has a beautiful gleaming soul.” Ouch. Yeah, I believe it but don’t always feel like applying it. I have all sorts of standards I don’t entirely live up to. That’s okay, it’s a process.

Those four stages aren’t comfortable. That’s just who we are, people continually unfolding. We make mistakes, struggle, and slowly grow to new ways of being. Even our small personal changes make a difference to the larger reality. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching courses on non-violence. When I work with teens, many weeks into our time together, we start talking about what is important to us. Everyone has strong opinions, everything from “being respected” to “making the planet a better place.” Then they come up with how to live that in their daily lives, from acting in ways that draw respect to making decisions that benefit the ecosystem. When they’re ready, I get out permanent markers and we write on the soles of our feet, reminding us to walk our talk.

That’s why I want to remember Richard Enty. He knows it’s easier to mandate how others should behave rather than follow it ourselves. He’s walking his talk even if it costs him five day’s pay and more public attention than he expected. He seems fine with that. I bet it’ll help him move on to the next stage.

Do you see yourself in Enty’s story? How are you trying to walk your own talk?

Feeding Creativity With Constraints

Learning to Love You More, creativity thrives on constraints, innovation fueled by challenges, be odd, try something new,

Maybe an unusual assignment will amp up your creativity. Perhaps:

~make a poster of shadows

~write the phone call you wish you could have

~compose the saddest song

~describe your ideal government

~plant a surprise garden

~make a documentary video of a small child

These assignments were devised by artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. Their work called them to be original every day, but they realized that their most enlivening experiences came when they worked under constraints. An assignment, a challenge, even an annoyance spurred them to different, sometimes more profoundly joyous productivity.

Although we set creative people off in a special category, being creative is simply part of the human experience. You’re creative all the time. You might change your approach to a difficult neighbor, tackle a work problem from a new angle, adapt a recipe to suit ingredients on hand, make up a game to amuse a fretful child, figure out another way to do your errands when a road is closed. We have to come up with new ideas and different tactics constantly. Often they’re imposed on us by obstacles. Annoying as constraints might be, as something original comes forth in response we’re likely to feel that zing of aliveness that creativity sparks.

Constraints can actually promote creativity. A study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “Stepping back to see the big picture: when obstacles elicit global processing” explains that obstacles blow open the approach we ordinarily take. This even has a spill-over effect into the way we approach other challenges. As the researchers explain,

These studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.

That’s why artists July and Fletcher developed a project, called Learning to Love You More, back in 2002. The idea was to encourage the general public to take on assignments, then post the results on the project’s site. The assignments are themselves a sort of constraint, forcing us to do something within new boundaries, thereby provoking a shift in perception of ourselves and the world around us. Creativity has a way of doing that.

A few years ago I wrote an article about Learning to Love You More for the Canadian magazine Geez. To prepare for the piece I did about ten of the projects; some with friends, some with my kids, some alone. Each one felt entirely odd and yet liberating. And because they were so unusual, they stand out in my memory, as we want the moments of our lives to do. Some assignments felt delightfully silly, like drawing constellations made of freckles (#9). Some felt radical, like making a public information plaque to hang at the door of City Hall (#62). Some felt fun, like creating a wind chime from a coat hanger and old kitchen utensils to hang on a parking lot tree (#15). Some felt wrenchingly poignant as I carried out the assignment, like this one.

All Holy

Assignment #63:  Make an encouraging banner. I cut a worn blanket into squares and shaped felt into letters to create a banner reading, “It’s All Holy.” The blanket was once my mother’s. The project not only re-purposed a ripped blanket but also satisfied my restlessness, as the day I spent creating the banner was the first anniversary of her death.

I hiked through the snow to hang the message outside between winter-bare trees. Beyond the banner lay our land where carefully tended free-range cows and chickens live.  On the other side, the banner’s words faced a conventional farm where animals are confined and raised on unnatural feed. I believe it’s all holy, but faith isn’t easily applied to real life. Standing there on a bright cold day with those words lifting in the breeze I could almost imagine what it would mean to live beyond concepts of good and bad, sorrow and joy, ordinary and sacred.

Somehow creativity thrives on the limitations found within the constraints of a particular challenge. One family, captivated by the Learning to Love You More project, did every assignment together. They ended up showing their work at a local gallery, giving talks titled “Art is Where You Find It and Everyone Can Do Art.”

The site is no longer listing new assignments, although previous submissions can be viewed. And the founders have put out a Learning to Love You More book. But we carry it on as long as we recognize just how enlivening challenges can be for ourselves, our kids, our creative lives.  Constraints, annoying as they may be, can push us to engage in new ways of seeing and being.

A Few Creativity Generators

16 Ways to Spark Creativity

Don’t Say It, Draw It

Throw Strangely Amusing Parties

38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail

7 Ways to Make Your Day More Magical

Have some ideas for quirky, fun, or heart-expanding Learning To Love You More type assignments? Share them in the comments.