Courage & Vision

“The children almost broken by the world become the adults most likely to change it.”   ~Frank Warren

In this heartbreakingly beautiful and suffering world, I am still full of hope. There are many reasons why. One  of them is the newest generation of teens and young adults. I may be a worn out almost-activist, but I’ve put enough time in meetings, marches, petition drives, and workshops over the years to know I’ve never encountered more informed, passion-fueled people than those who are currently aged 14 to 30-something.  

The pressures on young people over the last few decades have been intense and continue to worsen. Here in the U.S. they have been raised with active shooter drills and horrific mass shootings, crushing student loan debt, rapidly increasing wage disparity, ongoing prejudice, ever-escalating climate catastrophe, and the belligerent ignorance that fuels rapacious capitalism. They are furious and they are doing something about it.

We’re talking a lot of people, well past the number necessary to serve as a tipping point for large-scale social change.

The most sizeable age group in the country right now is made up of adults aged 25 to 29. Add in those 15 to 25, and 29 to late 30s, and we’re talking a substantial portion of the population. A recent Deloitte survey of those in the Gen Z and Millennial age range show the majority hold themselves and others accountable for profound change. This includes a commitment to regenerative environment/climate solutions, recognizing and addressing systemic racism in society and its institutions, dealing with income inequality, and demanding greater access to affordable housing and healthcare. They are taking action in myriad ways:  

  • choosing experiences over products
  • using second-hand and recycled items
  • prioritizing downtime over workaholic schedules
  • demanding inclusive policies in academic, media, and workplace
  • volunteering and/or setting up businesses to realize their goals
  • expecting sustainable policies from source to sales in what they buy
  • pressuring employers to upgrade and act on environmental. social justice policies
  • participating in protests, boycotts, and other ongoing actions
  • voting in record numbers
  • running for office in record numbers      

Maybe that’s why so many who want to stay the (rapidly failing) course would rather marginalize the energy and vision of today’s youth. But if ever a country needed the courage of fresh ideas, it’s now.

We can work forward while looking back to find what history can teach us – without romanticizing mistakes of the past. This is especially true when a well-funded segment of society is dedicated to dragging us back into past mistakes.

Since these particular dinosaurs insist they know precisely what the founding fathers meant when they established a new country, lets consider a few stories of the many young people who were involved in the formation of the United States. How old were they on July 4th, 1776?

15 years old: Deborah Sampson had been bound as an indentured servant when she was 10 years old. By the age of 18, the self-educated young woman was free of her indenture and worked as a teacher as well as a weaver. With the Revolutionary War raging in 1782, she disguised herself as a man and joined the war effort. She took on dangerous assignments which included working as a scout to assess British buildup, leading expeditions, and taking part in raids. To keep her gender hidden, Deborah even dug a pistol ball from her thigh when she was shot. It was only when she fell ill during an epidemic that her identity was outed. She received an honorable discharge.

15 years old: Sybil Ludington was the daughter of a New York militia officer. When a messenger alerted her father that Governor William Tryon’s forces had attacked Danbury, Connecticut she leaped on a horse to ride through the night, during a thunderstorm, nearly 40 miles in all, to sound the alarm. Danbury was the location where munitions and stores for the entire region’s militia were stored. British troops destroyed tons of meat, flour, and grain as well as tents and other supplies. They set fire to homes, businesses, and a church but spared Tory homes. The brutality of their attack led thousands of men to join the Connecticut Army of Reserve. Sybil was unaccompanied on her ride, unlike the more famous Paul Reverse. She also rode twice as far, was half his age, and was not arrested as Revere had been. A grateful General George Washington came to her home to thank Sybil for her heroic ride. 

16 years old: James Armistead Lafayette was an enslaved teenager when he was permitted to enlist in the French Allied unit. The army sent the young man (acting as a runaway slave) to General Cornwallis’ British headquarters. James was welcomed thanks to his extensive knowledge of the terrain. He became a remarkably successful spy for America’s cause. He relayed essential information to Marquis de Lafayette (who was himself only 19 years old in 1776). His intelligence provided information critical to victory in the Battle of Yorktown. Despite his service, James was forced to return to enslavement after the war’s end. For several years he petitioned Congress for his freedom under the Act of 1783 without success. When Lafayette learned of his old comrade’s struggle, he wrote a letter to Congress on his behalf. James Armistead added “Lafayette” to his name in honor of his friendship with General Lafayette.     

21 years old: Nathan Hale was a captain of the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army when General George Washington asked if anyone would volunteer to gather information from the enemy. Nathan stepped forward. He slipped behind British lines disguised as a schoolmaster and gathered information throughout the next few weeks. During this time, the British invaded the island of Manhattan. Nathan was captured carrying documents while crossing back into American-controlled territory and was executed the next morning.

21 years old: Alexander Hamilton was orphaned at age 13 and immigrated to America at age 15. He wrote a series of anonymous pamphlets about Britain’s control of the colony and in 1775 formed a volunteer militia with fellow college students. He worked on General George Washington’s staff until the two had a falling-out. Alexander is known as a framer of the U.S. Constitution, co-author of The Federalist Papers, and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.

24 years old: Betsy Ross, aka Elizabeth Griscom Ross, was raised by a Quaker family and became a skilled seamstress. She defied her family by eloping with John Ross despite being warned her family and Quaker community would shun her for marrying a non-Quaker. She and her husband established an upholstery business. John joined the Pennsylvania militia and was killed in an explosion. A few months after being widowed, Betsy met with a secret committee from the Continental Congress who asked her to create a flag that might unite their various militias. She completed the flag shortly before the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in July 1776.  Betsy’s part in the independence movement was unknown by the British, who a few months later forced her to house occupying British soldiers in her home. When they left she wove cloth pouches to hold gunpowder for Continental soldiers. After the revolution, Betsy made U.S. flags for over 50 years.  

Overall, the average age for Declaration of Independence signers was 44, with more than a dozen 35 or younger.

This isn’t a time to step back, expecting teens and the youngest adults to clean up the mess we’ve made. It’s time to step up our support for their vision of a regenerative, inclusive, wildly beautiful future. Starting now.

Keeping Playfulness Alive Into Teen Years

“When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget…our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.” ~Lenore Terr

Every other Saturday morning a talkative gaggle of 10 to 14-year-olds get together to create, stage, and film stories they’ve written. Today’s session is taking place on a rainy day in Hailey’s basement where the kids have plenty of room. Hailey’s cousins Dylan and Luke are the prop masters. The boys get what they need from a suitcase packed with hats, belts, jewelry, wallets, stick-on tattoos, sunglasses, a police badge, fake nails, and a few masks. A bigger suitcase will probably be necessary because they keep accumulating props.

Hailey’s dad, Jason, says he found the idea a few years ago in my book Free Range Learning and his daughter took off with it, inviting her cousins and friends to give a playwrights’ group a try. (Here’s more info on starting interest-based groups.)

The group didn’t start off all that smoothly. The kids seemed stymied about how to proceed and argued about whose ideas were best. The adults avoided intervening, instead leaving the young playwrights to their own devices. At first the kids decided to keep a list of proposed characters and plots, voting which to use. After a while they dropped the list because fresh ideas kept coming. They still argue sometimes while jockeying to better promote their opinions. (Those verbal tussles are actually an important part of gaining social skills.) Jason says they’ve learned to combine ideas and now more graciously share the glory with each other.

During their first year together the kids would agree on a rough story line, then act it out with improvised lines and actions. They’d climb up the backyard slide to elude kidnappers and perish in dramatically extended death throes, these scenes often mixed into incongruous plots like an underwater fashion show gone wrong. Their audience, mostly parents and grandparents, reliably applauded.

The last two years they’ve developed a more sophisticated process. They write scripts and practice them a few times, work on costumes and staging, set up lighting, then film their performances. They edit the videos to include music and credits. They’re so enthralled by devising and acting out stories that they’re frequently in touch with each other nearly between sessions, eagerly planning and honing their ideas. Recently their parents agreed to let them stay for longer sessions. Now all eight kids in the group arrive with packed lunches so they can work until through the afternoon.

Part of the pain of preteen and adolescent years has to do with a loss of playfulness. Too soon they leave behind the delights of play for a peer culture where being accepted often depends on superficial standards of attractiveness and popularity. Kids feel as if they’re under constant scrutiny by others in their age group; judged by how they look, what they own, what they say and do. When play is stripped away by the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in, something vital is lost.

Some kids manage to keep enthusiasm-friendly spaces in their lives where they’re free to be playful well into their teens. They may find the right circumstances in summer camps, school clubs, music groups, community theater, choir, volunteer programs, youth groups, and pick-up games. Sometimes they’re able to let themselves be playful when they’ve traveled to a new place. Sometimes they look forward to extended family get-togethers where they can hang out with younger relatives.

When I asked online for stories about play-friendly preteen and teen experiences I got all sorts of responses.

Many people said getting together with a specific intent enabled them to indulge in playfulness.

Jennifer Tejada: “My drama club was very helpful, assignments that required playfulness being the great equalizer among students.”

Malik: “There was nowhere to be myself until I started rapping with a few other guys. We let loose all our frustrations and aggravations, and it was like that freed us up to laugh like we’d never laughed before. I didn’t let it go at school or in the neighborhood but with those guys, rapping, I could be myself.”

Some describe a place that gave them the freedom to be playful and expressive. 

Cait : After school, in my middle school and high school years, I would go with my neighborhood friends (all ages, all different cliques) and walk in the conservation land that bordered our property. We would make forts, and as we got older we called them ‘nooks’ because forts were so passé. We would go on adventures, tell stories, climb trees…

And sometimes, play-safe places meant a break from daily routines.

Denise Bowman: “For me it was when I was away from peers, doing a trip with my mom. On vacation, away from home, with just us, I was much more able to engage in playfulness and not be so concerned on how I was ‘coming across.'”

Darren: “I lived for summer camp. For three summers, starting when I was 13, I went to a math camp at an urban college. I showed up nervous, acting like I didn’t care, wham, into a totally different world. I met kids from different countries, kids who were gay, kids who were aspies, all of us math geeks. We had fun I experienced nowhere else. When I’m down all I have to do is remember staying up all night to make a math tower (don’t ask) as a joke for our favorite instructor.”

Over the phone I can hear conversation and laughter spilling over in Hailey’s basement. The preteens have invited a few of their younger siblings to play roles in a production they’re calling “Clones, Inc.” Hailey’s dad Jason says the kids have coated Hailey’s toddler brother with lotion so he’ll look like a “freshly hatched” baby clone. Jason is surprised how eager the two-year-old is to comply. When he’s with the older kids, this toddler demonstrates far more patience than he normally does, even delivering the one line they’ve given him over and over till it’s just right.

Jason, who retreats upstairs to finish our call, says he can tell when they’re filming. The hubbub of enthusiasm gives way to expectant quiet that, even a floor away, sounds full of promise.

Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

how to raise a gifted child,

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

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

What’s the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of those best practices.

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

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector that will more easily secure borders against nuclear terrorists. He was a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship and is a member of the Helena Group, a think tank of global leaders focused on world-improving projects. Taylor’s personal site is here.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

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

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(image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Say Yes to Your Weirdness

We tend to suppress certain aspects of ourselves in order to fit in. (Although when we display whatever weirdness is ‘in” I think that’s also a sort of conformity too.)

When I was growing up I did everything I could to hide what was odd and different in myself, letting out the funnier aspects in measured doses with my friends but keeping most tucked tightly in some inner compartment of my being. (To some extent I still do. You probably do too.)

I hope my kids have felt freer to express their own weirdness whether an early fascination with vacuum cleaners, a passion for forensic pathology, or unstoppable investigations of science-related oddities but I know for sure they are far more complex beings than their mother imagines.

Looking up the word “weird,” I see that its original meanings have to do with living out our uniqueness.

  • wyrd (fate or personal destiny)
  • wurđízwurd, wurt, urðr, worden (to become)
  •  wert (to turn, rotate)
  • wirþ, weorþan (to come to pass, to become)
  • weorþ (origin, worth)

Mythologist Michael Meade, founder of Mosaic Voices, says has plenty to say about that in an interview,

When I work with youth, I try to assist them in discovering their own unique essence. The sad fact is that everything in this culture is working against that essence. Mass culture is opposed to the uniqueness of individuals. Young people, whose job it is to become themselves, are walking into a culture whose goal is to turn them into everybody else. What I try to do is help young people realize who they already are inside. American culture says that you must make something of yourself, but the mythological understanding is that everybody already is someone. They have a seeded self at birth. As soon as young people are aware of the uniqueness inside them, they can begin to manifest the stories they’re carrying.

Meade’s comments echo a remarkable book, The Soul’s Codeby the late James Hillman. Hillman 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. He also asks each of us, at any age, to listen to our weirdness. It’s integral to who we are on this moment-to-moment path of becoming.

What makes YOU weird?

Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

“Whatever makes you weird, is probably your greatest asset.” Joss Whedon

There’s a whole category of people who miss out by not allowing themselves to be weird enough. ~ Alain de Botton

If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ~Shannon L. Alde

It ‘s weird not to be weird. ~ John Lennon

Blessed are the weird people – poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters & troubadours – for they teach us to see the world through different eyes. ~ Jacob Nordb

 “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision…” ~Cecil Beaton
“There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.” ~Tom Robbins
“It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.” ~ Issac Asimov

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr

All images courtesy of pixabay.com.

Keeping Creativity Alive

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dbz-obsessed.deviantart.com/art/Creation-19299077

“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.

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baleze.deviantart.com/art/Playing-with-Shadows-61984249

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.

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pixabay.com/en/image-painted-colorful-color-247789/

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.

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pixabay.com/en/males-art-drawing-creativity-fig-391346/

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.

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-128976659

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

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waterpolo218.deviantart.com/art/no-creativity-346991145

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.

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pixabay.com/en/users/johnhain-352999/

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.

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raj133.deviantart.com/art/Creativity4-128977034

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

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mrcool256.deviantart.com/art/Basking-in-Creativity-22613894

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

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flora-silve.deviantart.com/art/Terre-104561782

Portions of this post were excerpted from Free Range Learning.

100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens

What do we really want when we offer gifts to our kids? I’m guessing excitement, happiness, hopefully some lasting joy. It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a day or a week later. The antidote? Fewer presents of better quality, as well as an emphasis on experiences. According to science, these are the gifts that result in real pleasure.

Real Tools for Real Work

Young kids beg to help out.  When we let them, they’re learning skills as well as the satisfaction of taking on responsibilities. Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware and home goods stores. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime.

Starting at four years old we got our own kids woodworking tools and gave them access to scrap wood. We also kept a stool handy for little kids to help at the kitchen counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes—-cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement. When our oldest was three and loved to turn machines on and off, we got him a hand vac as a gift. He used it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission. Saying yes when a child offers to help is more important than we might imagine.

Woodworking tools: Rubber mallet, vintage manual hand drill ,work gloves, level, sandpaper, safety glasses, tool belt, battery-powered drill, cordless screwdriver, measuring tape, wood glue, tool box, and low sturdy work bench. Consider books such as Builder Boards: How to Build the Take-Apart Playhouse14 Woodworking Projects For Parents and Kids To Build Togetherand The Kids’ Building Workshop. For teens, more complex project books as well as power tools, adult-sized hand tools, a sturdy workbench, and the freedom to work on their own.

Kitchen-y enticements: Apron, egg slicer, small rolling pin, small pitcher, rotary egg beater, small mixing bowls, tongs, whisk, wooden spoon, cutting board, Doodle by Stitch apron, safe Curious Chef knives, a step stool or adjustable kitchen helper stoolEngaging cookbooks like The Do It Myself Kids’ CookbookTwist It Up, and Kids’ First Cookbook. For teens, a high quality kitchen utensil of their own (a good chef’s knife is a classic gift) along with cookbooks they’ll be eager to test out such as Cooking for GeeksThe Everything College Cookbook, or a cookbook aimed at particular tastes.

Gardening tools: Seeds, small gloves, trowel, bucket, watering can, small rake and shovel, (there are lots of child-sized tools at For Small Hands), containers to start indoor plants (like starting plants from sweet potato pieces and avocado pits), a kit to grow sprouts for salads and stir fries, books such as Gardening Lab for Kids and Gardening Projects for Kids.Teens with horticultural interests will appreciate adult-sized tools, gift certificates for seed companies, and specialty books.

Handwork tools: A lucet ,a medieval era wooden tool to help make braided cords and necklaces, knitting needles and yarn along with My First Knitting Book, or Kids Knitting: Projects for Kids of all Ages
First Knitter is a device to help small hands learn to knit., Embroidery hoop and embroidery thread. Fabric scraps and a sewing box with some essentials like needles, thread, thimble, and scissors. Needle felting kit and wool roving.  Try a small weaving loom, a larger loom, or make one out of cardboard.

Outdoor exploration tools: magnifying glass, collapsible cup
or collapsible water bottle, sleeping bag, flashlight, spork, or crank flashlight, hand-warmers, Stick-Lets, field guides, vest with lots of pockets for gear, binoculars, telescope, raincoat or rain parka, headlamp, compass,, lantern, multi-tool.

Quality Musical Instruments 

Real instruments, scaled for a child’s size, sound great and inspire interest. Even very young children can pluck along to sheet music tucked under the strings of a lap harp. For impromptu playing at my house we leave out a number of instruments including a wooden flute,  set of panpipes, ukulele, small pentatonic scale harp, and a small accordion. And one of the best gifts we gave one of our sons was a used electric guitar when he turned 13. You might want to start with something affordable, such as a harmonica or ocarina. Here are some sources for child-sized instruments.

HearthSong lap harp.

Schylling accordian or Woodstock accordion

For Small Hands percussion instruments such as shakers and drums

Harps of Lorien child-sized or larger lyre

Erhu (Chinese two-string instrument)

ocarinas and harmonicas

Woodstock chimes and children’s hand bells

steel tongue drum

Hohner acoustic guitars 

Bella Luna pentatonic flute or hand drum

Zither Heaven bowed psaltery or a Roosebeck psaltery

Interest-Based Classes 

One of my kids’ favorite activities was surprisingly affordable bagpiping lessons with a gentleman who’d once been Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. One-time or ongoing classes can expand on nearly every interest or create new ones. For teens, one-on-one mentoring in an area of passionate interest is even better.  Here are some ways you can connect teens to experts in all sorts of fields. Class ideas?

  • coding
  • whittling
  • horseback riding
  • yoga
  • fencing
  • skiing
  • dance
  • pottery
  • rock climbing
  • archery
  • fencing
  • gymnastics
  • parkour
  • glass blowing
  • sailing

Membership or Season Passes

My oldest son was the youngest member of a model railroad club and almost never missed their regular meetings. Give a membership to an organization that fits your child’s quirky passions. You can purchase memberships to the local historical society, rock collector’s group, chess club, amateur archaeology organization, herpetology society, magician’s guild, whatever builds on a young person’s fascination. Be sure to read newsletters, attend classes, and otherwise enjoy member benefits. Other possibilities include:

  • hacker space
  • museum
  • aviary
  • botanical garden
  • wildlife area
  • Maker programs
  • amusement park
  • recreation center
  • aquarium

One Time Passes

Make this an adult-child activity for young children, for older kids buy two or more passes so they can go with friends.

  • ski slopes
  • challenge courses
  • paintball range
  • climbing gym
  • skating rink
  • go-kart track
  • bowling alley

Event Tickets

These are special occasions, ones that’ll stay in their memories. Don’t forget to take pictures when you arrive.

Things to do Together 

These ideas are great coming from a parent, they may be even more thrilling coming from relatives who want to spend some one-on-one time with younger members of the family. Simply give materials, instructions, or brochures for something you’ll be doing together.  When you give the gift, make sure to set a date!

Print out a recipe or an entire dinner you’ve never tried, include ingredients, and set a date to make it together.

Go on a train ride.

Make a fairy garden together. Gift a few supplies for the project, like a tiny watering can fairies might use.

Give a bunch of boxes along with the inspiration of Welcome to Your Awesome Robot or find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Give fabric markers and white or light-colored plain pillowcases (well-worn ones from thrift stores are perfect for this) to decorate one’s dreams with drawings, quotes, or wishes.

Take a road trip, maybe aiming to see oddball attractions in your state.

Give some beanbags and learn to juggle together.

Go on a hike. Give hike-related gear and maybe a book like My Nature Book or any of Jane Kirland’s books in the Take a Walk series

Go on a more challenging hike with teens, maybe take along a book like Wreck This Journal Everywhere.

Enjoy plein air art experiences together. You might want to give the youngest child a special tote bag to bring art supplies to the park, zoo, or local wildlife spot to draw or paint. For older youth, consider gifting a small sketchbook along with a  compact set of watercolorsoil pastels,  sketch pencilsor charcoal.

Try stand up paddle boarding together.

Take kayaking lessons together.

Give a roll of quarters to play at a place that still has arcade games.

Try geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt is made possible with a GPS.  Learn more at geocaching.com or navicache.com

Participate in a mud run scheduled in your area.

Construct an insect hotel together. You might give a related book like Insectigations. Teens may enjoy creating larger-scale insect habitat.

Build a clay oven together. Test it out by baking homemade pizza.

Give a bird feeder or binoculars, and sign up together to log bird sightings at eBird or participate together in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Give rubber stamps and a logbook to go letterboxing together.  Learn more at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com

Go cloud watching. Consult The Cloud Collector’s Handbook as you “collect” different cloud types. Post photos to the online gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Make treats for  birds and animals including pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, popcorn strings, and cranberry garlands. Then go outside to hang them on a tree together.

Mark cardboard squares with Scrabble letters for a giant game to be played outside.

Set aside open-ended project time together. Get inspiration from books such as RoboticsTinkerlab, and Unbored.

Subscriptions

Magazines are often the only things kids receive in the mail. (Although you can change this with strange and interesting ways to send snail mail.)

For babies there’s Babybug, toddler to preschool ages consider Ladybug, National Geographic Little Kids, Click, and Ranger Rick Jr..

For elementary-age kids, New Moon Girls, MuseFaces, and OWL.

Boomerang subscriptions are one of the best things ever and a favorite with my kids. We saved every one we got. It’s like a radio show wrapped up in an audio magazine, covered with a delicious layer of smart. Perfect to save for a long trip, great to pass along to younger siblings.

For teens, find a publication that meets their interests, whether hip hop or high fashion. Look for indie magazines if you can’t find something that’s just right.

Come up with your own version of a subscription box. Send a themed box every month or every season with projects, snacks, or other small surprises. Or send a letter every week or two with another installment of an ongoing story you make up as you go along. Or try some other strange and interesting snail mail surprises.

 

Parent-Made Gifts

There’s something special about gifts you make. A snuggly fleece blanket, a second-hand riding toy with a custom paint job, a refinished child-sized rocking chair. You can find plenty of ideas online, but don’t forget these old standbys.

Homemade coupons they can “spend.”

  • Get-out-of-one chore.
  • Stay up an hour past bedtime.
  • Solo time with mom or dad all Saturday, kid’s choice of activities.
  • Sleep-over party.
  • After dark walk.
  • Scary storytelling around a fire.
  • A “yes” to any one project on Instructibles.com.

A dress-up trunk with lengths of fabric for capes, interesting hats, strange shirts and skirts, badges, belts, purses, jewelry, masks, and more.

A recording. Perhaps great-grandma telling stories of her childhood, mom reading aloud from a favorite book, or a song composed by dad for his child.

Make a “Who Loves Me” board book with pictures of family and friends (and pets) for the newest baby. For an older child write an adventure story featuring them, or stage and then photograph Dinovember scenes when they’re asleep. For a teen, maybe a silly book with pictures of relatives back when they were teens. Such books are easily created on Snapfish.com and other sites.

Memorabilia to celebrate a teen’s birthday. Find a newspaper issued on the day of his or her birth. You can add a magazine from the month of his or her birth, music popular that year, a political button, a piece of vintage clothing, etc.

A collection of family-favorite recipes. This is particularly useful for older teens and young adults. Just scan them and print out, or use one of the many services that prints hardbound books with your content.

A legacy present. If you’re lucky enough to have things from earlier generations, pass them on. Give grandpa’s fountain pen to your daughter, explaining that he loved to write as much as she does. Give a great uncle’s watch to a teen who shares his wanderlust. Give the funky afghan your aunt made to the kid who is as offbeat as she was. Write down or tell some stories about these relatives when you give such gifts!

Design Revealed

 

 

Design Revealed

 

Heart leaping faster

than my limbs

I answered each cry,

rocking tiny ones

till lashes closed

into worlds past me.

 

I nodded at mantras chanted

by women my mother’s age

enjoy them while they’re young

this time goes too fast

though so weary

my skeleton ached for rest.

 

Motherhood’s origami

folded and creased me

in unfathomable patterns,

as together we composed songs

for the Milky Way

on late night walks,

blessed insects we set free

from window-bound prisons,

danced through days

far from time’s imagination.

 

Mantras come true.

Those little ones now

lean over me,

pausing gently

before hurrying

toward worlds beyond.

 

Last night

I dreamed of fallen fruit

ripe unto bursting.

I offered this bounty to children

but in house after house

they had been fed.

 

Waking,

I see design revealed.

I feel the beauty

of greater unfolding.

 

Laura Grace Weldon, from Tending

So much good is happening in the lives of my beloved children, each one out of my lap and into the world. This poem is for them.

Why Learning Must Be Hands-On

 

hands-on learning, hands-on education, hand and brain connection, direct learning,

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.

direct learning, hands-on learning, hand and brain connection,

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.”

(Here are some ways to naturally incorporate family stories into your children’s lives.)

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.

family stories, tell children family stories, share family history, family history stories,

image: Navanna

The Dread Experience

dreadlocks, old people reactions,

image: pixabay

Kirby, who is now 15, is probably the most serene of my four kids. Completely without guile, he’s not even vain about his beautiful hair. It is dark blonde and wavy, coarse enough to fluff up into a temporary Afro, and so thick that balding men comment on it jealously.

Mostly it is an irritation to him because it grows so quickly. When he was 10 years old he decided he wouldn’t comb it again. He still doesn’t, yet it looks charmingly tousled with nary a tangle.

At his birthday party last year he got rid of his hair. It was quite an event — Kirby in the bathroom, his tall buddies crowding around the mirror, shaver cutting down to the scalp. He left a wide swath of hair all along the top. While this is popularly called a Mohawk, he informed us that members of the Mohawk tribe traditionally did not go about sporting that hairstyle. They actually used a kind of toupee. Only Kirby would bother to learn these details.

He kept the mistakenly-named Mohawk hairstyle only a few days before quickly realizing it wasn’t worth the trouble of shaving and putting on goop to keep the central path of hair standing. He didn’t get much of a reaction. Our liberal friends just gave him a thumbs up or asked if he was into punk music. Our more conservative friends just chuckled with a glad-it’s-not-my-kid look. The only extreme comment came from his grandmother, who asked, “Why do you want to change your personality?” (The assumption that appearance dictates character explains the strictures of my own upbringing.)

This year our musician son has grown taller and his hair, longer and longer.  At some stages his hair looked like yearbook pictures from the 70s, then like a movie poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. Finally it got to the length he deemed right for developing some dreadlocks. Yes, white-boy dreads. Not being blessed with the right hair for them to form naturally, he had to print out 20 pages of instructions he’d researched (some contradictory) and order $36 worth of specialty products including pure bar soap and chunks of beeswax with tea tree oil. He cleans out horse stalls for spending money so this is no minor expenditure.

When the dreading day arrived, Kirby’s girlfriend and I set up for the procedure in a festive mood. He looked pretty serious. We sectioned off his hair using an array of clips and held it back with a tortoise shell headband we called his tiara. I think we teased it enough. His hair that is. His tiara kept slipping and based on the number of times he said ‘ouch’ it was apparent we were hurting his scalp with all the tugging and fussing.  I’m pretty sure we used too much beeswax. By the time we were done he looked the way our dog’s belly does when he’s been outside after the rain, a dangling chandelier of mud.

Kirby was convinced the hair would eventually ‘dread’ around the beeswax spikes. He washed it with his pricey soap and smiled sweetly from under all those hair candles. He laughed when his dad danced around singing reggae tunes with made up lyrics. He adhered to the theory behind his hair research for at least a month.

Still, his hair looked more dreadful than dreadlocked.

We all missed his formerly beautiful hair. The faux dreads looked particularly out of place when, as a bagpiper, he dressed in his kilt to march with his highland band — a serious band made of mostly of formal older gentlemen. Kirby finally got the idea his rebel coiffure wasn’t appreciated when the band’s Scottish Pipe Master warned, in his thick brogue, “We dress as one man, we look as one man.”

So, Kirby decided the dread experiment was over. Being a person who doesn’t go halfway, he didn’t just cut his hair. He shaved it off completely.

His grandmother doesn’t adjust quickly to surprises. She was alarmed when he entered her door at our next visit sporting his new Mr. Clean look. She blurted out what should never be said to a teenaged male, especially by a grandmother, “Kirby, what a boner!”

I couldn’t explain to him right then that the term meant blunder to her generation.

No matter. He smiled at her calmly. His bald head shone.

Throwback post, first published by Errant Parent