Natural Math: 100+ Activities & Resources

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image: pixabay.com

“The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple.”   ~Stan Gudder

Today’s children are much less likely than previous generations to learn through play, exploration, and meaningful work. Concern about the math scores of the nation’s youth should instead turn to concern about the manipulation of childhood itself. We’ve substituted tightly structured environments and managed recreation for the very real, messy, and thought-provoking experiences that are the building blocks for higher level thinking.

Learning math requires children to link language with images as they work through equations. It helps if they can easily picture the problem being solved before they move ahead into representational and abstract math. Normally a child who has spent plenty of time playing with manipulatives (water, sand, building blocks, countable objects) and who uses real world applications of math (cooking, carpentry, budgeting) has a wealth of experience to fall back on. This child can call up mental images that are firmly connected to sensory memory, helping him understand more advanced concepts.  Applied math, especially as it relates it a child’s needs and interests, is the bridge to mathematical success.

Computational readiness varies widely from child to child. Some are eager to do mental math, memorize math tricks, and take on increasingly complex calculations. Others need much more time before they are ready to tackle math this way. When readiness is paired with self-motivation there’s no limit to what a child can accomplish.

Benoit Mandelbrot is the Yale mathematics professor credited with identifying structures of self-similarity that he termed fractal geometry. His work changed the way we see patterns in nature, economies, and other systems. Mandelbrot doesn’t believe students need to struggle with Euclidean mathematics. Instead, he says,”Learning mathematics should begin by learning the geometry of mountains, of humans. In a certain sense, the geometry of . . . well, of Mother Nature, and also of buildings, of great architecture.” In other words, by focusing on inspiration found everywhere around them before turning to formal equations.

Natural math, according to math expert Maria Droujkova, is about,

people making mathematics their own, by posing their own problems, pursuing their own projects, and remixing other people’s activities in personally meaningful ways. We believe that “learning math” means two things—developing mathematical state of mind and acquiring mathematical skills.

Droujkova goes on to say,

Most parents we talk to, including the ones who work in STEM fields, tell us that their math education wasn’t satisfying. They want their kids to have something better: to see mathematics as beautiful, meaningful, and useful, and not to suffer from math anxiety and defeat. The two major ways the markets respond to these worries and dreams are via edutainment toys and games, and private early teaching in academic settings.

We suggest a different approach, centered on families and communities. We introduce advanced math through free play. Formal academic environments or skill-training software can’t support free play, but friends and family can. Mathematics is about noticing patterns and making rules that describe and predict these patterns. Observe children playing in a sandbox. At first it doesn’t look meaningful. But in a little while kids make up elaborate stories, develop a set of rules, and plan for what’s going to happen next. In a sense, what we do with math is setting up sandboxes where particular types of mathematical play can grow and emerge.

Let’s fling our limiting concept of math education wide open by eagerly using it in our lives.  Math is everywhere. Equations, patterns and probabilities surround us. Sometimes it takes a larger way of thinking about math to celebrate the beauty and perfection it represents.

natural math, math through play,

Applied math (images: morguefile.com)

Here are some of the starting points suggested in Free Range Learning to spark your own math-fueled journey.

 ~Learn more about yourselves. One family hangs a new chart each week to gather data. One week they might mark off where the dog takes a nap, then figure the percentage at the end of the week (40 percent of the time she sleeps in the window seat, 5 percent of the time under the table, etc), another week they might pick a subject like hours of computer use per person. They are also keeping several year-long graphs. One tracks the weight of trash and recyclables they discard weekly and a second graphs the amount of the produce they harvest from the garden. Yet another tracks money they are saving. They notice that in busy weeks, such as holidays, they fall short of sustainability goals they’ve set for themselves.

~Revel in measurement. Investigate joules, BTUs, calories, watts, gallons, degrees, fathoms, meters, hertz, attoseconds and more. Measure your everyday world. Calculate such things as the energy usage to get to grandma’s house in the car compared to taking the train, what angle a paper plane can be thrown and still fly, how much wood it will take to build a shelf for the baby’s toys, how many footsteps are required to walk to the corner. Figure out how to gather measurements and apply data.

~Enjoy math songs. Play them while traveling and sing them casually as you go about your day; you’ll find your children are memorizing math facts effortlessly. There’s something about a catchy tune that helps the mind retain concepts. There are many sources of math songs including Sing About Science and Math with a database of 2,500 songs.

~Say yes. When kids want to explore off the trail, stomp in puddles, mix up ingredients, play in the water, and otherwise investigate they’re making math and science come alive on their own terms. It’ll probably make a mess. Say yes anyway.

~Use wheels. Plan and build a skateboarding ramp. Time relay races using tricycles (the bigger the kids the greater the fun). Estimate how many revolutions different sized bike wheels make to cover the same distance (then get outside to find the answer). Adjust a wheelbarrow load to carry the greatest amount of weight. Use mass transit to get where you are going after figuring out the route and time schedule.

~Make math a moving experience. Instead of relying on flash cards, remember equations by clapping or stomping to them, rhyming and dancing with them, kicking a ball or tossing a bean bag to them, making number lines on the sidewalk with chalk and running to answer them, or any other method that enlivens learning. Games for Math: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn Math, From Kindergarten to Third Grade offers many moving math activities for children.

~Learn to dance. The fox trot or the hokey pokey may be funny names to children, but they also describe specific patterned steps. Mastering simple dances are a way of transforming mathematical instruction into art. Choreographers use dance notation to symbolize exact movements. Over the years different methods of dance notation have been used including: track mapping, numerical systems, graphs, symbols, letter and word notations, even figures to represent moves. Choreograph using your own system of dance notation. Draw chalk footprints on the floor to show where the dancer’s feet move to a waltz. Try dance classes. Music and dance enliven math concepts.

~Think in big numbers. Figure out how many days, minutes and seconds each member of the family has been alive. Estimate the mass of the Earth, then look up the answer. Stretch your mind to include Graham’s Number. Talk about why big numbers are best expressed in scientific notation. Check out the Mega Penny Project. Read stories about big numbers, such as Infinity and Me, How Much Is a Million? Millions to Measure, On Beyond a Million: An Amazing Math JourneyCan You Count to a Googol? , and One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale

~Fold your way into geometry. Print out paper designs that fold into clever toys and games from The Toy Maker including thaumatropes and windboats. Check out instruction books such as Paper, Scissors, Sculpt!: Creating Cut-and-Fold Animals or Absolute Beginner’s Origami. Although these may seem to be for amusement sake, they teach important lessons in conceptualizing shapes and making inferences about spatial relations.

~Play games. Nearly every board game and card game incorporates arithmetic. Make time to play the games your children enjoy. Try new ones and make up your own. Many homeschoolers set up game days so their children can share games with their friends, this is a worthy tradition for kids whether they’re schooled or homeschooled. Games make strategizing and calculating effortlessly fun. For the latest information on games, check in with the aficionados at Board Game Geek. For educational game reviews, consult Games for Homeschoolers  and The Board Game Family.

~Learn chess. This game is in a class all its own. Research shows that children who play chess have improved spatial and numerical abilities, increased memory and concentration, enhanced problem-solving skills as well as a greater awareness of these skills in action. Interestingly, chess also promotes improved reading ability and self-esteem.

~Get hands-on experience in geometry. Geometrical principles come alive any time we design and build, whether constructing a fort out of couch pillows or a treehouse out of scrap wood. Make models using clay, poster board, craft sticks, or balsa.

~Find out about the math in meteorology. Learn about weather trends and predictions, measurement of precipitation and temperature conversion. Keep a weather log using instruments to measure wind speed, precipitation, temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity: then graph the results to determine average, mean, and median for your data.

~Play with shapes. Enjoy puzzles, tangrams, and tessellations. Notice the way shapes work together in the world around you both in natural and constructed settings. Keep a scrapbook of appealing shapes and designs. Create a sculpture out of toothpicks and miniature marshmallows. Cut paper snowflakes. Make collages out of pictures and three-dimensional objects. Grout bits of tile or broken dishes into mosaic designs. Make mobiles. Cut food into shapes.

~Pick up a musical instrument. Learning to play an instrument advances math skills as well as sharpens memory and attention.

~Learn to code. It’s not only fun, it’s really a basic skill.

~Estimate, then find out how to determine an accurate answer. Predict how much a tablespoon of popcorn will expand, then measure after it has been popped. Before digging into an order of French fries, estimate how many there are or how far their combined length will reach. See how the guess compares with the actual figure. Guessing, then finding out the answer enlivens many endeavors.

~Get into statistics.

  • Kids go through a phase when they want to find out about the fastest, heaviest, most outrageous. Once they’re duly impressed with the facts in such books as Guinness World Records it’s a great time to pique their interest using almanacs and atlases.
  • Sports offer a fun way to use statistics. Player and team stats are used to calculate odds, make comparisons and determine positioning. Children may want to keep track of their favorite teams or of their own activities. The numbers can help them to see patterns, debate trends and make predictions.
  • Data provided by WorldoMeters makes fascinating reading and may lead to further investigation.
  • Collect and interpret your own statistics. You might develop a survey. Or record measurements, weights, and other information about specific data, then analyze the statistics using a graph, histogram, or other instrument.

~Make calculation part of household rules. If children are permitted a certain amount of screen time per week, let them be responsible for charting that time. If children rotate chores or privileges, assist them to create a workable tracking system.

~Learn to knit. This useful skill also provides hands-on experience in basic math including counting, skip counting, multiplication and division, patterning, following a numerical guide, visualizing shapes, and problem solving.

~Make time for calendars. Check out the history of African, Babylonian, Roman, and Egyptian calendars. Learn how our calendar system came into use. Would it make sense to change to 13 equal months of 28 days each, with one remaining “day out of time” set aside? What are the definitions of “mean solar time,” “sidereal time” and “apparent solar time”? Make a homemade sundial to see how accurately you can tell time.

~Make math edible. Cereal, pretzels, crackers, small pieces of fruit or vegetables, cubes of cheese, nuts and other bite-sized foods are excellent tools to demonstrate addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percentages, measurement and more. Using food to make math functions visible is a tasty way to solve equations. Your children can calculate recipe changes such as doubling or halving while they learn other useful meal preparation skills at home.

~Use trial and error. This is a fun process, especially when applied to brain teasers, puzzles, and mazes; try making up your own. Other math-related ways to stretch your mind include optical illusions, magic tricks, and drawing in perspective. These activities go well beyond solving equations to figuring out larger concepts.

~Devise your own codes and use them to send messages to one another. Check out the history of codes and code breakers. Set up treasure hunts by hiding a tiny treat and leaving codes or equations to be solved that lead to the next set of hints.

~Compete. 

~Enjoy the intersection of math and art. Muse over puzzling visual patterns, for example the work of M.C. Escher. Learn about rug making, sculpture, weaving, basketry and many other art forms to discover the calculation, patterning, and measurement used to create objects of beauty.

~Delve into maps. Look at maps of the world together. Find maps of your locality. As well as road maps, your child may be intrigued by topographical and relief maps, economic and political maps, navigational and aeronautical charts, weather maps or land ownership maps. Draw maps of your neighborhood, home, yard, or bedroom—notice what details your child includes. Make imaginary maps, perhaps to accompany a story or to demonstrate what an eight-year-old would consider a perfect place. Consider mapping somewhere you know well, but from different time frames—how might this place have looked 100 years ago, now, in the distant future? Some children who are reluctant to keep diaries or sketchbooks will cheerfully keep records of places they’ve been by drawing maps. Maps and mapping can teach measurement, spatial awareness, and complex geographical concepts.

~Use logic. Apply critical thinking to current events.

~Compare related things like the weight of a puppy to a full-grown dog, or the size of a pitcher compared to the number of glasses it can fill.

~Use math at the store. While shopping, have children help check prices as part of the process of choosing a better deal. Talk about what other factors come into play—durability, ecological impact, value, overall worth. If you need to make a bigger purchase like a refrigerator, have the children compare the special features and cost effectiveness of running the appliance.

~Try travel math. Traveling is a great time to use math. Children can figure out fuel usage, keep track of expenditures, consult maps, estimate time of arrival, and more. Playing math games also provides excellent distraction during a long trip!

~Talk about math as if you are thinking out loud. “I wonder how many bricks it took to make this entire wall?” then look up a formula for figuring that out; or “If we don’t buy ____ for a whole month do you think we’ll have enough money left over for a ____?”

~Enjoy hands-on projects requiring sequential instruction. These hone logic and spatial skills as well as patience. Model-building, quilting, making repairs, knitting, carpentry, origami, beading and Legos® are examples of such projects.

~Learn how alternative languages relate to numbers. Check out Morse code, semaphore, Braille and sign language.

~Play pool. The sport known as billiards has a lot to teach about angles, trajectory, speed and calculation. And it’s fun.

~Expect kids to participate in household chores. All sorts of mathematical concepts are learned when the youngest children put away silverware, stack plastic containers in the cupboard, and sweep the floor. Even more while older kids help make meals, do repairs, and brainstorm solutions to make the household runs more smoothly.

~Make puzzles a family tradition. They can increase concentration as well as promote spatial learning and reasoning.

~Start or join a math circle. Meet regularly with others who enjoy making the subject fun and intriguing. Most are run by math experts and include projects, games, and field trips related to math. Some resources to get you started:

~Play with math and critical thinking, together.

~Check out learning games suggested by math teachers and math bloggers.

~Read literature that incorporates math.  Find lists of specific math concepts in children’s literature through the National Association for the Education of Young Children as well as the math in children’s literature list on Love2Learn2Day.  Here are some age-related suggestions.

~Read-aloud math stories for children under 8.

~Math Stories for Children 8 and up.

~Math inspiration for older kids.  

Enjoy math-y videos.

~Keep math references handy, you’ll find them endlessly useful.

This post is third in a series on natural math. 

The Benefits of Natural Math. Data that turns turn our assumptions about math instruction upside down. If you read only one in this series, read this. 

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Experiment. What happened when formal math instruction was eliminated? 

image adapted from livescience.com

image adapted from livescience.com

Understanding Children Through Imitation

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Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both agreed we felt incredible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Learning Must Be Hands-On

 

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images: morguefile

Children are drawn to explore the world through their senses. (We all are, at any age.) When they are fully involved, what they learn is entwined with the experience itself. A child’s whole being strains against the limitations of curricula meant only for eyes and ears, or that assigns closed-ended tasks.

A typical school or school-at-home lesson intended to teach a child about worms may have diagrams of a worm’s body to label and a few paragraphs about the importance of worms, followed by comprehension questions. If the child musters up enthusiasm to learn more about worms despite this lackluster approach, there’s no time to do so because directly after the science lesson the child must go on to the next subject. When education is approached in this disconnected manner, the brain doesn’t process the information in long-term storage very effectively. It has no context in the child’s experience and no connection to the child’s senses.

On the other hand, a child encountering a worm while helping in the garden gains body memories to associate with the experience. The heft of a shovel, sun on her face, fragrant soil on her knees, and the feel of a worm in her hands provide her with sensory detail. She also encodes the experience with emotion. Her father likes to read books about soil health and sometimes she looks at the pictures. When she asks about worms he answers the few questions she has. And when she is satisfied he doesn’t go on to give her more information than she can handle. Next time they go to the library or get online they may decide to find out more about worms. She may be inspired on her own to draw worms, save worms from the sidewalk after the next rain, or otherwise expand on that moment in the garden. She is much more likely to retain and build on what she has learned.

The difference between these two approaches is worlds apart. Separating children from meaningful participation, as in the first example, doesn’t simply impair comprehension. It changes the way learning takes place. The child is made a passive recipient of education designed by others. Then the excitement of learning is transformed into a duty.

Education that treats the brain apart from the body will ultimately fail. Our senses cannot be denied. They inform the mind and encode memory. We must see, hear, smell, touch and, yes, taste to form the kinds of complex associations that make up true understanding. We humans are direct hands-on learners.

Brain development and hand use are inextricably intertwined. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers to understand this connection, he found that people credit their success to attributes learned through hands-on activities.  In The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture Wilson writes:

I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and expertise in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modeled on conventional norms of success.

Hands-on experience makes learning come alive. For example, principles of geometry and physics become apparent while children work together figuring out how to stack firewood. They develop multiple layers of competence as they solve tangible problems. Their bodies are flooded with sensation, locking learning into memory. Such experiences develop a stronger foundation for working with abstract postulates, theorems, and formulas later on. (Household responsibilities are actually a vital way to incorporate more hands-on experience, with amazing long-term benefits.)

When we’re engaged hands-on something greater can come into being. We gain a sense of effortlessness, of becoming one with the movement. Then it seems we’re longer working with things, but with material partners in a process of co-creation. Work and play are one, we are whole within it.

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image: morguefile

Portions of this article excerpted from Free Range Learning.

 

Family Stories Form Us

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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image: Navanna

 

Free Range Chickens & Free Range Learning

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“Don’t help, Mom,” Claire says as I go to pick up the three-day-old chick. So I watch instead. It’s peeping helplessly at the side of the ramp leading up to the chicken coop. The mother hen and her other chicks are already at the top but this chick can’t find the way. The hen answers each of its cheeps of distress with distinctive low clucks. After repeated attempts to hop directly up to its mother the chick turns and scurries back, finds the bottom of the ramp, and hurries to the comfort of her waiting wings.

“See?” Claire says. “It’s already learning.”

I’m amazed that a chick that tiny could learn to go away from the sound of its mother’s voice in order to find her, but it did. I guess I still need to trust that things tend to work out fine without well-intended intervention.

Reams of instructional books once languished on our shelves. Shiny packaged educational programs with CDs sat waiting for my children to learn foreign language, history, and math. But they always had better things to do. Sometimes that looked a lot like reading a book on the couch, looking things up on the net, or lying by the pond with the dogs. Other times that looked like gathering oddities from the dusty basement for an experiment. Or like all of us hustling off to a field trip with friends. The textbooks came in handy as references; the fussier educational materials were packed away in boxes to pass along. We knew another new homeschooler would need to go through the same ritual of grumbling over them.

My children have ample opportunities to explore their interests out here in the country. Currently Ben restores old farm equipment in anticipation of running his own farm some day. He’s so busy that some of his projects have become long-term decor out near the beehives. Flowering vines decorate hay rake tines and birds nest atop a combine. Right now he’s making a custom desk out of a circular saw blade for a friend. The garage glows as he welds, one of the many skills he taught himself.

Claire observes everything with a scientist’s eye. She journals about her hikes in the woods, her daily farm chores, and her volunteer work rehabilitating birds of prey. One summer she made a practice of examining a dead muskrat as the decomposition process reduced it to a skeleton. Her descriptions of it (yes, at the dinner table) clearly demonstrated how wondrous she found the natural world, even though her age group is depicted as finding more meaning at the shopping mall.

When Kirby isn’t playing his guitar or bagpipes or computer games, he likes to stroll around with a camera. His photos show that he sees things in a different light. He’s interested in the science and art of sound, and using the money he earned from cleaning stalls at local horse farms he’s made his bedroom into a recording studio. Friends come to record their music. He can edit out the laughter.

Sam, who was once the master of finding snakes and toads everywhere on our property, is now intrigued with greater feats than grabbing hapless creatures. He investigates the engineering behind propulsion systems and then conducts his own experiments. This involves shooting tennis balls, potatoes, or pumpkins long distances (often in collusion with his brothers). He’s been talking about designing advanced fuel systems for cars. And he’s started restoring a vintage Opel he bought with his own savings although he’s not old enough to drive.

While Claire and I watch chickens, she points out how the newly hatched chicks are perfectly suited to learn naturally. Days old, these tiny fluff balls listen and respond to different sounds from their mother which clearly tell them where to find food and when to run for cover under her wings. They range across our property while staying close to their mother. They locate each other through the underbrush, ramble into the pasture under the cow’s feet safely, and come into the coop at dusk as the older chickens do.

“Compare them to chicks we bought from the hatchery,” Claire says.

I see what she means.

Many times we have purchased a batch of day-old chicks and kept them in a large indoor pen. We brought them out of the house each day to a grassy enclosure so they could forage, but the chicks raised for their first two months with their age-mates were very different from the chicks hatched by their mothers and raised with the flock. The confined chicks were more sickly, panicked easily, and were more overtly aggressive or passive. Even after they were released out with the flock it took them quite a while to catch up. They didn’t problem-solve as easily. And it took them longer to react naturally, such as taking flight and roosting in low branches when sensing danger. Overall they were less likely to survive.

Interestingly, agricultural extension offices and poultry manuals insist that the treatment we’ve given the confined chicks is the only correct way. Their expert advice includes maintaining them on a diet of protein-enhanced feed, keeping them under warming lights, and watching over them carefully for their own good. Not being hatched by and raised by a hen.

Aside from small family farms like ours there are few chickens living in natural conditions—roaming freely in pastures and woods without fences, choosing their own food and affiliation groups, living with mixed age flock. (Right now we have 30 laying hens, five  roosters, three chicks, a few geriatric hens.) Even chickens described as “free range” are left inside with a small door open to a cramped outdoor pen to meet that definition. This door can be a single opening inaccessible to the hundreds of chickens in the flock.

Claire, who has experienced both schooling and homeschooling, can’t help but see a comparison. “Doesn’t that remind you of how people treat children? Experts supposedly know what’s right for them. I mean, how can anyone learn if they’re stuck in the same situation all the time? You learn as things come up.”

Confinement education, especially when based on tactics that feel like coercion to students, isn’t a whole education. Children thrive as free-range learners. They want to be a meaningful part of family and community, aware of their place as both givers and receivers. They’re cued to advance the growth of their minds, bodies, and spirits in ways unique to them. Their curiosity prompts them to explore and challenge themselves, gradually integrating what they’ve learned to advance their own possibilities. Although there are worlds of difference between raising children and raising chickens, we can trust that learning freely comes naturally to them both.

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Image: superfry

This is a throwback post, originally published in Home Education Magazine

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

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

child

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

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

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

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

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

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

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Value full body learning

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

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

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

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

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

goldilocks effect, individualized education,

Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

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

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

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

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

Diminish the focus on instruction

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

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

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

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

Recognize free play is learning 

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

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

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

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

why homeschool, democratic schools, raise successful children,

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

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Getting Science On Everything

raising scientists, toddler science, teen science, unschooling science, supporting kids' curiosity, science at home, science happens naturally,

crystals of vitamin B6 ( CC by 3.0 Josef Reischig)

 We spread thick layers of science on everything at our house. Yes, occasionally it smells.

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

encouraging young scientists, love of science starts early,

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbo charged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. They insist I look at video clips that go on much longer than my attention span. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family. By the time the youngest was 11, my head was the smallest.

And then there’s the front yard. By the garage door a headstone leans. It has nothing to do with Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural. Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. He thought it was funny to make it a two-fisted drinker. I’m plotting to put a trumpet in one of the metal man’s hands so it looks like a rowdy jazz player. And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.

raising scientists, natural curiosity makes scientists,

Science shouldn’t be confined to a formal study. My husband and I have never worked in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity, heading in all sorts of directions.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then picking up handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied.

When one of my boys was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and on occasion unintentionally left those fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so intensely curious and active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame that compelled him to disobey. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warming about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn but can be conquered in the presence of a parent.

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened.  One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one.

My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable of discovering anything they want to know.

Where Fascination Leads

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Born with uniqueness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, 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, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

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

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

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

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

misspenthopesxx.deviantart.com

The kids had a bunch of boards, some old nails, a hand saw, and a few hammers. They also had the two most important ingredients, the desire to make something and the freedom to do so.

They spent an afternoon planning their tree fort, enthusiastically arguing over whose plan was best. Their first few attempts failed spectacularly. They were undaunted, even bragged a little bit about the noise the boards made falling down. Several of them asked family members for advice. A few others paged through books and watched YouTube videos as they tried to figure out basic construction techniques. They started again, measuring more carefully as they built a frame. The process took much longer than they’d expected but they stuck with it. When they ran out of materials they scavenged tree lawns on garbage pickup day, dragging back pieces of wood. They got a few cuts and bruises. They were proud of those too. As they worked they talked about how they’d use their clubhouse. It didn’t occur to them how much they were learning.

Conventional thinking tells us that children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, lessons, coached sports, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages. They do this because they believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more their children will benefit.

But learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close. Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking That’s true of a baby as well as older children and teens.

Young people are also cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Research indicates that people are drawn to learn from situations that are “just right” for them.  They may make plenty of mistakes along the way, just as babies fall when learning to walk, but facing those challenges and making those mistakes are pivotal steps in maturity.

It’s also well-known that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play. They pretend, make up games, daydream, wonder, and launch their own projects. They are discovering not only the world around them but a rich inner life as well.

Of course adults are vital to young people’s lives. They provide safety, guidance, love, and much more. Kids know they can ask trusted adults for help or advice. They do so more eagerly when they recognize these adults won’t overwhelm them with information, quiz them on what they are learning, or take over. Adult responses simply need to stay in proportion to a young person’s request.

For an example of how powerful the drive to discover can be, let’s take a brief detour to two Ethiopian villages. These places may be rich in intangibles like family and tradition, but they are poor in every other way. The illiteracy rate is practically 100 percent. There aren’t even written words around for children to see: no books, no labels on packaged foods, no street signs. That’s where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project dropped off 1,000 tablet PCs with solar chargers. They weren’t handed out in a school, but to kids. The devices were pre-loaded with English-language operating systems and software that tracked how the tablets were used. The boxes were taped shut, with no instruction given at all.

In less than five minutes, one child (who’d never seen an on/off switch) powered up a system. The kids collaborated as they learned. Within a few days they were using 47 apps per child, within five months they were taking pictures. That took a while since the kids had to teach themselves to hack Android because the tablet cameras were mistakenly deactivated. The OLPC project is finding, all over the world, that kids are learning to read and speak in multiple languages. They easily search, program, and connect using inexpensive tablets. These kids are also teaching adults in their villages to read and use computers. They’re doing it without adult instruction.

So how did our fort-builders do? They had three sides framed and were working on the fourth when one boy’s father stepped in to help. His help may have been welcomed if they’d asked or if he simply contributed to the team effort, but this very well-meaning man decided the kids weren’t doing a good job. He took over, telling the kids to re-do some of their work and to build the rest of it according to his instructions. They did, but without much gusto. The resulting fort was more sturdily built yet they only used it a few times.

A year or so later they scavenged some boards from it to make a go-cart, and then another go-cart. This time they welcomed the help of another child’s grandfather who worked alongside them, learning together as the project unfolded. Their enthusiasm had returned.