Make Storytelling a Family Tradition

importance of family stories

image: CC by 2.0 echoroo

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.” ~Rita Mae Brown

We began to tell stories not long after we humans gained the power of speech.   Stories gathered people together, giving them a way to remember their shared history, to transmit wisdom, to laugh and ponder, to awaken possibilities.

Stories were told over and over and listeners came to know them well. They participated through call-and-response, or by drumming, chanting, or swaying. The tale came alive.

We’re still a storytelling species. Look at the way children experience stories. They beg us to tell (or read) a particular story over and over, one that resonates inside where only stories can reach. Children incorporate stories into make-believe. Their favorite books may very well help to shape who they will become.

Particularly when they’re young, many children can’t help but get involved in the same ways their earliest ancestors once did. They instinctively call out a repeating phrase or yell a warning to a main character. They tap their knees in excitement, hum a tune, or otherwise accompany the story with movement. They feel the story. They become the story.

It’s important to read to our children regularly, but we can go beyond the printed page by making storytelling a family tradition. This has amazing benefits. In fact, it appears that children whose relatives share family anecdotes feel a stronger sense of belonging —- a quality researchers call  best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Children enjoy hearing true tales, especially about themselves.

~Tell them their birth or adoption story including the months of anticipation, reactions of family members, the weather that day.

~Tell them stories of their earliest years––the way he used to cry at the sight of dogs until he finally worked up the courage to pet one and fell in love with all things canine; the time she made friends with another three-year-old at the airport and the fathers got to talking only to discover they had grown up in the same town.

~Tell them stories about their relative’s younger days. It stretches their imaginations to hear about Aunt Essie’s girlhood on the farm, Great-grandpa’s bout with polio, their own father’s youthful antics..

~Talk about family members who have passed away, as far back as you can. Help children imagine these people clearly— talk about what they loved to do, their favorite foods, and acts that were courageous, foolhardy, eccentric, or otherwise out of the ordinary.

Children also enjoy tales made up on the spot.

~Tell an ongoing adventure that features heroic young people who live in a make-believe world, perhaps on a quest to reach a goal. Plot twists and new characters can stretch the tale into months of bedtime stories.

~Tell stories together. One person starts a story (perhaps by putting unlikely characters into an improbable situation), then passes it along to the next person who adds more to the story, and so on. This is great to do on a long drive or while stuck in a waiting room.

~Ask kids to tell you a story. Our children can start seeing what goes on around them as story material — bringing the long tradition of storytelling into the next generation.

Beyond the content of any story is the ritual itself––that of telling, listening and enjoying together. This is something no commercial product can duplicate.

Gathering together to tell our tales is a tradition nearly as old as clustering around a fire for warmth.  As Ursula K. LeGuin says, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

telling family stories, how to tell family stories,

image: CC by 2.0 Jerry Kirkhart

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Flee To An Inner Playground

staying sane with baby won't stop crying

Image: CC by 2.0 Ben_Kerckx

I cannot bear to hear a baby cry. I feel it right to my core. But in the first year of my daughter’s life she suffered from a chronic illness that caused a lot of crying. And I mean a lot. Her wails were heartrending, made all the worse by how little I could do to ease her misery. We got through the days with kangaroo parenting and lots of nursing, but, because it was so hard for her to sleep, our nights were unspeakably long.

For hours each evening she could stay asleep only if I walked while holding her against my shoulder. I’d circle the dining room table, looking out the dark windows hoping for the momentary distraction of a passing car. The minutes went by in slow motion. My arms were cramped and my body beyond weary. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, she usually calmed enough that I could slump into bed against a pile of pillows where she slept on my chest and I slept too.

During those hours of walking I couldn’t watch TV, even dim light kept her awake much longer. (Science now tells us that as little as a light shining on the back of our knees is enough to change our circadian clocks.) So I resorted to the only distractions available: the ones I could play inside my head.

Now that my daughter is grown (and healthy!) I’d nearly forgotten those mental games until I listened to my friend Bernie DeKoven’s marvelous new recording,  Recess for the Soul, which is packed with ideas for playing on what Bernie calls the Inner Playground.

Bernie describes undergoing a procedure at the dentist, saying,

Under certifiably physical duress, my mighty mind can take me away from the all too personal now. I can, instead, should I so choose, talk to myself, joke with myself, fool myself into some semblance of squirmlessness, even when the world wherein I found myself proves so profoundly squirmworthy.

I wish I’d heard of Bernie’s tactics back then…

I’ll share a few of the games I played on my own inner playground. These weren’t clever by any means, simply last-resort mechanisms to keep a desperately tired and worried parent going. If you’re at the end of your rope for whatever reason, head on in to your inner playground.  (For a much wider range of mental games, refer to Bernie’s recording.)

Betting On Myself

I’d tell myself that I could make it another 15 minutes without looking at the clock. Then I’d try to gauge how long that time period might be before checking the time. If I gave in and looked too soon, losing the bet, I’d lengthen the next time period, not letting myself look for another 20 minutes. And so on.


As I walked back and forth in my dark home in the wee hours, I’d challenge myself to reconstruct something in detail. One night it might be a book plot. Another night a childhood memory and another night a good time I’d had with friends. It wasn’t easy, but good mental exercise. It also, I’m sure, was a relief to so fully visit another realm in my mind.

Absurd Movie Screenplays

I’d mentally write screenplays, the more absurd the better. If I found myself with anything resembling a normal plot line I’d joggle it up by adding a talking giraffe, a time travel bathtub, or something equally implausible. The exhausted mind is actually pretty creative, maybe because logic is for people who get enough sleep.

Hidden Camera

When I was totally at the end of my rope and could find no way to ease my baby’s misery, I got to the point where I longed to set her down gently and fling myself out the window. So I’d pretend there was some omnipresent camera watching me. Somehow that made it easier to keep going, as if I were acting in a play about a very patient mother. When I was really tired, I pretended the film being made that moment was the only evidence that God might see of my life. I know, dire.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to be fully present with my daughter, I did. But there’s only so much mindfulness one can bear after hours of walking a sick child. Don’t wait until you’re ready to toss yourself out the window. Play as wildly as you’d like on your own inner playground.

(And if you’ve got techniques to help any of us through miseries like sitting on a plane with take-off delayed, waiting for the jury to come to a verdict, or pacing the floor of a surgical ward please share them with us!)

Are You Eccentric?

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

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

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

are you eccentric?

What gorilla suit? (image:Greyerbaby)

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,

Even in the space of a few syllables.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath,

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

acrostic poem, Amy Heath,

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

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem,

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem,

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,

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

acrostic poem, Amy Heath,

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,

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?


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

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!

Keeping Creativity Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

“It is good to love many things” ~Vincent Van Gogh

Sunflowers, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.”

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

L’Arlésienne, L’Arlésienne, by Vincent van Gogh

“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”

child 2

Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), by Vincent van Gogh

“Even as a boy I would often look up with infinite sympathy, indeed with respect, at a woman’s face past its prime, inscribed as it were with the words: here life and reality have left their mark.”

Self-portrait in front of easel, by Vincent van Gogh

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

child 2

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet by Vincent van Gogh

“That God of the clergymen, He is for me as dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me as such — be it so; but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live, and if others did not live, and then, if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call that God, or human nature, or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically though it is very much alive and very real, and see, that is God, or as good as God. To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward aimer encore; that is my opinion.”

“I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more.”

Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh

“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”

“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”

Portrait of Père Tanguy, by Vincent van Gogh

“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”

“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and also will probably commit great faults and do wrong things, but it certainly is true, that it is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent.”

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), by Vincent van Gogh

“Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all! “

Prisoners’ Round, by Vincent van Gogh

“People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls.

Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity? 

Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.” 

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

“One must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.”

Starry night over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

“When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

First Steps, by Vincent van Gogh

“Love is eternal — the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light too, and that is its real function.”

The Man is at Sea (after Demont-Breton), by Vincent van Gogh

“The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait with straw hat, by Vincent van Gogh

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

We Need Hidden Worlds

When I was very small I liked to climb what I called a tree. It was actually a sturdy shrub. I sat between branches less than a foot off the ground, sure I was hidden, feeling mysterious as creatures that speak without words. I also used to retreat to the coat closet with my younger brother. We sat companionably in the dark under heavy coat hems, talking or just enjoying the quiet together. And we made pillow forts, draped sheets over furniture, and played under the folded leaves of the dining room table.

My favorite hidden place was in the woods behind our house. There was a small rise no bigger around than two desk tops. Tall trees grew at either side and a creek bed, dry most of the year, ran along one side. The whole area was covered with leaves. I tried to walk there soundlessly, as I fancied Native Americans walked, not cracking a twig or rustling the underbrush. I tried to identify plants I could eat or use if I lived in the woods, as the boy did in My Side of the Mountain . I’d sit alone in completely silence, hoping if I did so long enough the woodland creatures might forgot about me, might even come near. I snuck food out of the house to make that place a haven, as I’d read about in Rabbit Hill but I always came back to find the iceberg lettuce and generic white bread I left remained

Once I became a preteen I found a hidden world right outside my bedroom window. I climbed on a chair and hoisted myself up on the gently sloping roof that faced the back yard. When I started college at a large urban university I’d just turned 17. My hermit soul craved time to be alone and still. The only place I found was in a bathroom on the upper floor of the oldest building on campus. I’d retreat behind a heavy wooden stall door, close the antique latch, and meditate on the wood grain of that door until I felt restored. A necessary refuge, although hardly ideal.

Most children seek out small places to make their own. They find secret realms in couch blanket forts, behind furniture, and in outdoor hideaways. There they do more than play. They command their own worlds of imagination away from adult view, often listening to silence by choice.

Perhaps retreating somewhere cozy harkens back to our earliest sense memories, first in the sheltering confines of the womb and then in the security of loving arms. Yet at the same time, hidden worlds are also a way of establishing our independence. Children have surely always slipped out of sight in the cool shadows of tall cornstalks, the flapping shapes of sheets hung on clotheslines, the small spaces under back steps, behind furniture, and inside closets.

There are all sorts of tiny retreats that can be purchased for kids. Plastic structures made to look like ships or cabins, tiny tents, pre-made playhouses. These things lose their allure. Children want to discover hidden places on their own or long to create them out of materials they scavenge like fabric, cardboard, scrap wood, whatever is handy. (The benefits of this play is described in the “theory of loose parts.”) These places tend to be transitory, lasting for a short time or changing into something else. They’re special because they’re unique to the child. These places contain the real magic of secret places.

Hidden worlds are made with blankets, indoors

or outdoors.

They’re found in cardboard boxes



natural play place, loose parts play,


and under trees.

They’re made out of old logs

old plywood

or branches.


The hidden worlds I cherish these days have more to do with a quiet sense of peace found in moments of solitude. What’s paradoxical, these are also times when I most often feel the oneness that connects everything.

Maybe growing up with the freedom to retreat within hidden worlds, no matter what was going on, helped me to access this in myself. Hurray for blanket tents, for treehouses and spaces under tables, for all hidden worlds that let us gather up what is fragmented in ourselves and feel whole again.

How do you make time, and space, for hidden worlds in your child’s life and in your life?

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.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

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

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.