40 Ways Kids Can Volunteer, Toddler to Teen

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“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”  Anne Frank

When we make service work a normal part of our lives we don’t simply teach our children strong core values, we demonstrate these values in action.

Often volunteering isn’t “official.” A family does yard work and errands for a housebound neighbor. Or they compile information and pass out fliers to get a safety initiative passed through city council. Or they put on a garage sale and donate all the proceeds to benefit a local shelter. They are making the community a better place through their own efforts. The side effect? They give their children a wonderful dose of can-do attitude.

When families reach out to help others, their children learn that this is a natural response. After all, the word “humane” is a variant of the word “human.” The definition of “humane” includes demonstrating better aspects of the human character such as kindness and compassion and showing respect for other people’s views. The word used to define us also describes the qualities essential to forging a society based on mutual regard.

And science tells us that giving makes us happy, from toddler on up.

There are many creative ways to volunteer based on local needs and your child’s interests.

1. Regularly visit a “grandfriend” at a nursing home, assisted living facility, or in the neighborhood. Play card games, do crafts together, teach each other new skills, make up stories, exchange advice, and build a real connection.

2, Volunteer to deliver Meals on Wheels in your neighborhood, perfect for parent and young children.

3. Raise a service dog, typically a puppy training commitment of two years. There are many organizations. Here’s a partial list:

4. Grow vegetables and offer extra produce to people who don’t have space to garden, to new parents who don’t have time to garden, to a hunger center.

5. Set up a playgroup for babies at your local nursing home or assisted living facility. This is something I did, which started a family tradition of getting kids involved in the community.

6. Have little kids draw special pictures. Use these as wrapping paper, tucking inside them a piece of wrapped candy or silk flower, along with a note like “thanks for being so nice” or “you made my day.” Then keep these in the diaper bag and when you’re out together, stay on the lookout for a nice cashier, helpful librarian, or kind friend to hand out a surprise package. It cues kids to see goodness everywhere.

7. Let little kids offer popsicles to garbage truck workers. For more ways the smallest kids can engage in acts of kindness, check here.

8. Create ways to share with your neighbors, from a toy swaps to co-ops. Consult the Center for a New American Dream guide and any of the great guides offered by Shareable.

9. As a family or with a group of kids, develop a program to present at a nearby library, daycare, or community center. It might be a puppet show, play, or craft project. Or get your dance class, choir, or martial arts school to give a demonstration at a daycare, nursing home, or community center.

10. Form a band or acting troupe with friends and give free performances.

11.  Make some no-sew dog toys for animals in shelters using inexpensive fleece remnants or old torn jeans. Use old blankets, pillows, or fabric remnants to make pet beds for shelters. Ask if you can volunteer to walk dogs. Raise funds to buy food, litter, and other items the shelter needs. And consider adopting a rescue animal. There are rescue organizations for all sorts of companions, from horses to hamsters.

12. Do errands, cook for or otherwise help out a someone dealing with an illness.

13. Pick up litter in your neighborhood or wildlife area. It’s safest to do this wearing gloves and using a pick up tool or a reacher. Put each piece of trash in a box or garbage bag, then recycle or throw away when you’re done.

14. Protect natural, cultural, and historical resources by volunteering for the National Park Service Youth Conservation Corps (age 16 and up).

15. Work on sets, distribute tickets, usher patrons to their seats, or perform for your local community theater.

16. Learn rehabbing skills while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Rules may vary, in our area older kids can volunteer along with a parent.

17. See if your local food shelter will let families work together to set tables, serve beverages, and clean up. If not, you can raise funds to donate food. We know a family that twice-monthly cooks an entrée for 15 people, along with several other families cooking the same entrée, so it can be served that evening at a free dinner offering.

18. Walk dogs, collect mail, shovel snow, or rake leaves for someone in your neighborhood who needs the help.

19. Serve as unofficial welcoming friends for immigrants who could use help navigating unfamiliar streets and who need assistance learning the customs and colloquialisms that aren’t in any handbook.

20. Repair and donate such items as toys, household items, bikes, or computers.

21. Volunteer with Red Cross Youth Services through your local Red Cross branch. And make sure kids and parents take a CPR/first-aid course so everyone is ready to volunteer lifesaving services if necessary.

22. Write letters to deployed service members. For more snail mail ideas, check out 38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail.

23. Produce a neighborhood newspaper or e-letter.

24. Volunteer to help out with Special Olympics.

25. Connect with teens around the world through Unicef-sponsored Voices of Youth.

26. Certify your backyard, even your apartment balcony, as a wildlife garden through the National Wildlife Federation.

27. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies.

28. Network with other young people working on causes and get small grants to fund your project through Do Something.

29. Certify your dog as a therapy dog to volunteer in hospitals and schools.

30. Form a Peace Jam club and work on positive projects together. (pre-teen, teen)

31. Adopt a town monument and keep it clean.

32. Volunteer to help your library run an Edible Book Festival.  For more library-related service ideas, check out Celebrate Hug Your Librarian Day.

33. Make treats and deliver them to your local police or fire station.

34. Volunteer as a family to help at a Ronald McDonald House in your area.

35. Make warm scarves to donate. Collect clothing, blankets, toys, disposable diapers, and personal care items and donate to homeless shelters.

36. Get involved with Youth Volunteer Corps.

37. Plant extra seeds and share the plants. You might set up a seed or a plant exchange in your 4-H club, church, or other organization.

38. Organize to build a playground in your neighborhood.

39. Earn a President’s Volunteer Service Award for your volunteer work. People of all ages can sign up, track their hours, and search for volunteer opportunities through United We Serve.

40. Earn the Congressional Award, which recognizes initiative by American youth in four self-determined goals areas: Volunteer Public Service, Personal Development, Physical Fitness and Expedition/Exploration. The award is earned individually or with friends, at one’s own pace. 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

  

Many More Ideas 

The Giving Book: Open the Door to a Lifetime of Giving

The Busy Family’s Guide to Volunteering: Do Good, Have Fun, Make a Difference as a Family!

The Kid’s Guide to Service Projects: Over 500 Service Ideas for Young People Who Want to Make a Difference

The Teen Guide to Global Action: How to Connect with Others (Near & Far) to Create Social Change

It’s Your World–If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers

A Kids’ Guide to Protecting & Caring for Animals: How to Take Action! (How to Take Action! Series)

77 Creative Ways Kids Can Serve

How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist: 330 Ways to Make a Difference in Your Home, Community, and World – at No Cost!

Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play

The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking

Build Community Using Bookish Goodwill

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You can’t have too much of a good thing, unless you’re averse to bliss. One of life’s Very Good Things, in my book (pun!) is the library. There’s a movement afoot to augment our public libraries with other ways of spreading bookish goodwill. This doesn’t just get books into more hands, it actually builds positive networks between people and strengthens our communities.

Roaming Libraries

One unique venture is BookCrossings.  Started in 2001, it’s a read and release method of sharing books. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, hair salon, playground, or doctor’s office. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently over 8 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Handmade Book Libraries

In the art world, hand crafted books of all kinds have long traveled on round robin circuits allowing artists to collaborate in making and appreciating these unique creations.

Handmade books are also released in limited runs to appreciative readers who share the works through lending programs such as the Underground Library in Brooklyn. Here experimental literature is bound using labor intensive traditional methods, then distributed to members who pass the book along to a dozen other people before it’s returned to the library.

Banned Book Libraries

Surely people have been sharing what authorities don’t want them to know long before information was stored on papyrus scrolls. Remember the parochial school student who stocked her locker with banned books, using a check out system and due dates to keep track? This may be an urban myth but we know full well when reading material is banned it attracts even more dedicated readers.

This is true even when real danger is involved. As Azar Nafisi described in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, after Ayatollah Khomeini banned Western influences she gathered students in her home to read and discuss books, some photocopied page by page, despite the risk.

Micro Libraries

Tiny libraries are appearing in all sorts of places. For example in San Jose four new libraries don’t have funding to hire staff.  Instead, volunteers run a Friends of the Library book lending program out of a small room in a community center.

In San Francisco, a few shelves in the Viracocha antique store have become a tiny library called Ourshelves which is “curated by local authors and readers eager to share their favorite works with fellow book lovers.”

Free-standing libraries, called Corner Libraries are popping up in NYC. These tiny buildings evade zoning requirements by remaining on hand trucks, usually chained to a stationery object. One is a four foot tall clapboard structure offering books, maps, even a CD featuring baby photos of world dictators. Another Corner Library, named the East Harlem Seed & Recipe Library, looks like a planter but has a drawer with seed packets and recipe cards.

Stranger Exchange boxes are also appearing, asking people to take or leave items of interest. In Boston the first such library, a repurposed newspaper box, has featured such items as CD mixes, hand drawn maps, batteries, party invitations, and artwork.

These free-standing libraries have a precedent in the UK, where a phone booth was turned into a 24 hour library,recently followed by a phone booth library in New York.

And a non-profit called Little Free Library aims to establish thousands of new libraries (no bigger than large bird feeders) all over the world.  It has inspired people everywhere, like 82-year-old Bob Cheshier, whose goal was to get little libraries outside of all 71 elementary schools in the Cleveland district. Teachers and kids loved him. He died recently, only partway to that goal, but the community is carrying on his vision.

The process is simple.

  • Figure out where you’d like to place a Little Free Library. A community garden, bike path, civic center, or your front yard?
  • Determine who will be the steward of the Little Free Library.
  • Decide if you’ll build it or order it pre-made to decorate as you choose. You may choose to endow it for someone else (tax deductible) or set it up to honor a certain person, place, or organization.
  • Build support. You may want to find business or civic sponsorship, host a design contest, and in other ways spread the word about your Little Free Library.
  • Contact Little Free Library to register your library on the map, get updates, and more
  • Enjoy. Encourage people to visit, keep it stocked, and watch how sharing affects your neighborhood.

I hope traditional libraries as we know and love them will always exist. They are vital, vibrant institutions ready to be an important part of every person’s life.

But these smaller exchanges actually enlarge our potential. They foster connections between us each time we share, lend, and collaborate. They’re another way of making our communities work.

More Community-Building Inspiration

Engage the Window Box Effect

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Front Porch Forum

i-Neighbors

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

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It Really Does Take A Village

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You’ve heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You’ve probably also noticed slap backs like, “I’ve seen the village and it’s not raising my kids.”

If we actually consider the proverb we see the wisdom it contains. Throughout nearly all eras of human history, parents weren’t isolated from a supportive network of other people. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends not only nurtured children, they made good parenting much easier. When a baby cried there were other arms to carry it or carry on the mother’s tasks as she nursed. When a toddler played there were other eyes keeping watch. When a child was ready to learn there were people available to show him how to fashion reeds into a basket, to fish in the river, to tan hides, to choose the right plants to make medicines. When a teen sought role models there were many to emulate, people who had been guiding forces her whole life. Children grew up with an invaluable sense of connection to kinfolk and community.

Today we don’t benefit from the educational richness of traditional village life where children can see and take part in the real work necessary to sustain life. Few of us live near extended family members. But we can foster the development of our own “villages” in at least three ways. Here’s how it worked for me.

1. Establish a supportive network.

When my first child arrived I didn’t know another soul mothering a newborn. Although my parenting and life choices were far different than my mother’s, I found myself calling her nearly every day. It was comforting to talk to someone who cared that I’d been up all night, even if I had to filter out suggestions like feeding rice cereal to a newborn. I also started attending a nearby Le Leche League group to be around other mothers with small babies. There I found women who shared ideas, laughter, and lightly used baby clothes.

When we began homeschooling, once again I felt isolated. All my friends’ children were school bound. So I linked up with several homeschooling groups. Online is great but in-person is better in dozens of ways. My new homeschooling buddies and I had approaches to learning that spanned the spectrum from unschooling to school-at-home, but our lively conversations veered away from judgment. We cared about each other, looking forward to field trips and park days as much as our kids. We particularly enjoyed the way our kids’ unique curiosities blended, creating the kind of quirky fun so typical of homeschooled kids.

2. Create a “chosen” extended family.

Sure, I felt closer to my parents once I became a mother, but I also needed to expand my tribe. The first woman I met with a newborn became like a sister to me. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but it didn’t matter. As more children came into both our families we watched each other’s kids, exchanged household items, went on day trips, and supported each other through crises.

My group of parent-friends expanded. This made it easy to take turns carpooling and babysitting. It also made for wonderfully boisterous get-togethers. My extended family also included a group of women who called themselves “crones,” new farming friends, and an elderly Scottish bagpipe instructor. These people cast all sorts of light in our lives.

3. Develop rich connections in the community.

When I moved it took a year to meet the people across the street. It was not an overtly friendly place. I was determined to make it into a real neighborhood. I invited people over for potlucks, Halloween parties, and all sorts of kid-centric fun. When new families moved in, I greeted them with homemade goods and an invite to my next event. It became a place where my kids felt known and accepted. One son learned small engine repair from a retired man who liked to tinker, another son liked to visit the guy a few doors down who sculpted in stone, my daughter sang impromptu operas in the front yard without a moment’s self-consciousness.

We stretched to make community connections as well. We struck up conversations that turned into remarkable learning experiences, giving us access to experts in all sorts of fields. My kids have spent years volunteering in Red Cross, recreation programs, wildlife rescue, and more. We make our home part of a larger village, for example hosting people from overseas, running a food co-op, and holding social action meetings. Like our home, the community became a place where my children’s interests were nourished. We have a village now. Whatever direction we extend a hand, we find a friendly hand waiting

Village building resources.

*Get in touch with family members, near or far. Reach out for support even if it doesn’t come in the exact flavor you’d prefer.

*Connect with other parents at the park, playgroups, and nature preserve. Build mutually supportive networks by exchanging your time and talents.

*Join groups that sustain your interests in a positive way. Ask for information about homeschooling groups and programs at your public library. If you are nursing a child, try your local Le Leche League chapter.  Consider joining the Holistic Moms Network. Find or start any sort of group on Meetup.com, from a stroller-pushing-dog-walking get-together to a kids’ chess club. 

*Enjoy the sense of belonging found in active membership in a church, charity, outdoor group, or any organization where families are welcome.

*Establish connections by becoming “regulars.” You may choose to go out for breakfast each Saturday at the same locally owned place where the staff knows your kids. You may help out at a CSA farm as a family. You’ll also feel more at home in your community through regular visits to your library, recreation center, and park.

*Be the neighbor you’d like to have. Extend kindness and warmth as you get to know people. Perform acts of service along with your kids, whether shoveling the driveway of an elderly neighbor or volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Even the smallest children can perform acts of kindness.

*Develop a tradition of community service. There are plenty of ways for kids, toddler to teen, can volunteer.  And help them get involved in civic affairs, clubs, and community organizations. They’re creating their own place in the village too.

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We Don’t Need No Age Segregation

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My teenaged son just spent the day with middle-aged guys he met online.

Let me explain. Before he could drive, my son earned enough money shoveling out horse stalls to buy a 1973 Opel GT. Or what was left of one.

The car sits out back in a dark barn, its classic little outline like a rough sketch waiting for functional automotive details to be filled in again. He is restoring it himself, but not alone. He’s in touch with an online community of automotive enthusiasts from around the world. They eagerly share experiences and resources on forums. They also boast, complain, and talk about their interests just as any friends do.

My son and his father have met some of these folks at auto meets and car shows. When my son discovered an Opel club not far from our family farm he was invited to join. Today he and his older brother drove out for a day-long gathering. Although my boys were the youngest by decades they enjoyed an open-hearted welcome.

Yes, I realize there are significant concerns about teens talking online with adults, let alone meeting them. I try to keep those concerns in perspective. Studies of online behavior by youth indicate the biggest risk they face is peer harassment, not sexual predation. Today’s young people are much more overprotected than previous generations even though violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. Overly cautious, restrictive parenting practices actually inhibit a teen’s growth toward maturity and responsibility. So I watch, ask questions, and recognize that my son benefits from online friends and mentors.

It’s a pivotal coming of age experience to be accepted by elders one admires. Until that time it’s hard to feel like an adult. These experiences are frequently depicted in movies, but children and teens in our culture are almost entirely segregated from meaningful and regular involvement with adults.

These days kids spend their formative years with age mates in day care, school, sports, and other activities. So their adult role models are largely those whose main function is to manage children. This subverts the way youth have learned and matured throughout human history. Children are drawn to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They want to see how people they admire handle a crisis, build a business, compose music, repair a car, and fall in love. Separate kids from purposeful, interesting interaction with adults and they have little to guide them other than their peers and the entertainment industry. That’s because our species learns by example. Ask any child development expert, neuroscientist, or great grandparent.

There are plenty of educational initiatives to bridge this gap, particularly for teens. These programs connect students with mentors or bring community members into schools to talk about their careers. While these efforts are admirable, such stopgap measures aren’t the way young people learn best. They need to spend appreciable time with people of all ages—observing, conversing, and taking on responsibility. Real responsibilities, real relationships.

Because my kids are homeschooled they’ve have more opportunities (and a lot more time) to hang out with interesting adults. My daughter volunteers for hours each week alongside a woman who rehabilitates birds of prey. Another of my sons has played bagpipes for years with an 80-something gent who once served as a Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. The age range of my kids’ friends spans decades. Natural mentors such as these are a rich source of authentic experience. And they’re in every community. It’s not hard to find them.

Along with other homeschooling families, my kids have also taken a close look at the workaday adult world. The owner of a steel drum company explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. An engineer took us through his testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. We’ve spent days with potters, woodworkers, architects, chemists, archeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics and others.

People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. Age segregation goes both ways–adults are also separated from most youth in our society. After an afternoon together we’ve gotten the same feedback again and again. These adults say they had no idea the work they do would be so interesting to kids. They marvel at the questions asked, observations made, and ideas proffered by youth that the media portrays as disaffected or worse. They shake hands with young people who a few hours ago were strangers and say, “Come back in a few years, I’d like to have you intern here,” or “We could use an engineer who thinks the way you do. Think about going into the field,” or “Thanks for coming. I’ve never had this much fun at work.”

So today my teenaged son hung out with fellow Opel aficionados. They trust he will drive his car out of the dark barn and into the sunlight soon. It will be a shared accomplishment, the kind of thing that happens all the time when young people aren’t separated from the wider community.

unschooling teens, homeschooling teens, teens free to learn,

I wrote this piece nearly two years ago for Shareable.com. Since then this son of mine has become a mechanical engineering student at a private college. His fellow classmates brought with them years of advanced placement math and science classes. The advantage he brought? Lots of hands-on experience, an active approach to learning, and insatiable curiosity. He’s at the top of his class.   

Engage The Window Box Effect

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When I was in college my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.

Soon after that class I read about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.

The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.

Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.

This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.

That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.

There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community.  Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.

Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.

There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.

Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.

Who We Are In A Crisis

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Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

We Choose Our Own Role Models

role models, mentors, how role models shape, impact of role models,

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There’s no predicting who we choose as our role models. Teachers, coaches, and religious leaders are held out as exemplary choices and for good reason, since mentors are linked to greater success in adulthood. Despite adults’ well-meaning efforts to foster or even assign mentors, each one of us is drawn to people we find inspiring. It’s only in looking back that we can see more clearly how our childhood role models play a part in shaping who we become.

This is obvious looking at my husband’s growing up years. He wanted to understand how the world around him worked, and like most children, he wanted to find out by getting right in the midst of what fascinated him rather than play with plastic hammers and screwdrivers. So he sought out neighbors who let him fix cars alongside them and who welcomed his help running their small businesses. What he gained from these experiences still benefit him.

It’s not as obvious in my life so I have to strain to make those connections. I had plenty of freedom to ride my bike and play without too much parental supervision, but seeking out other grown-ups never occurred to me. In fact I can only think of a single adult outside my family who made a lasting impression. Her name was Mrs. Dosey.

I met her during a criminal investigation. Well, sort of.

When I was around eight, my older sister developed a brief infatuation with espionage. She deemed herself a private investigator and permitted me to be her sidekick. We practiced sidling around without being seen, took notes on people’s behavior, and looked for a mystery to solve. My sister hit the jackpot when she discovered bones in a field across the street. Bones! This could be dangerous. My sister identified the house in closest proximity to the bones. It seemed like a strange place. The yard had almost no grass. Instead the front was crowded with strangely cropped trees and the back sported a clothesline (unheard of in our suburban neighborhood) and a jumble of fenced-in areas—sinister indeed. We practically trembled with fearful anticipation.  My sister instructed me to remain completely silent, she’d question the suspect.

When she rang the doorbell it was promptly opened by a sturdy middle-aged woman wearing an apron and orthopedic shoes, her hair mashed down by a hairnet. When she invited us in I noticed she had a trace of an accent. Against all parental advice about strangers, we walked meekly inside.

Mrs. Dosey was busy in the kitchen but gladly welcomed two girl detectives. She didn’t raise an eyebrow when questioned about bones. She explained that she raised ducks, which she slaughtered for meals on special occasions. Although it wasn’t the murder we anticipated, it was death nonetheless. My sister and I shivered.

Mrs. Dosey talked to us as she went back to her culinary project. We learned that the cropped trees in her front yard were an apple orchard and the back yard was crowded with vegetable gardens, berry bushes, and poultry pens. She served us milk and homemade cookies. We stayed quite a while, curiously watching her work.

Mrs. Dosey was assembling a wedding cake she’d made from scratch. She showed us how she was separating the layers using tiny soda bottles between them, to be covered by flowers from her yard. Finally she said we could come back another time, she had a few more things to finish before her daughter’s wedding that was taking place the next day. My sister and I weren’t even disappointed that our murder case had collapsed. We’d met someone who seemed like a different creature than the frosted hair moms of our generation.

It didn’t occur to me till years later that Mrs. Dosey was completely matter-of-fact about two little girls sitting at her kitchen table, inches from this towering confection. She was entirely unruffled on a day most mothers of the bride are harried, even though she’d made the dress, the cake, and if memory serves, was making the reception food as well.

I never knocked on Mrs. Dosey’s door again. My sister and I dropped the private eye business to become girl scientists. We waded into the pond in sight of Mrs. Dosey’s house observing duck behavior and slogged home covered with what we optimistically called “duck muck.” My mother, who began buying apples from Mrs. Dosey every fall, seemed to regard the woman as an oppressed version of her gender. She pointed out Mrs. Dosey’s heavy labor around the house and yard, noting that this woman rode a bike with a basket to the store every few days for groceries. The emphasis seemed to rest on evidence that Mr. Dosey didn’t share those burdens. To me, Mrs. Dosey seemed remarkably happy. And savvy as well. She waved when my sister and I were out but was wise enough to spare us that social indignity if we were waiting with friends at the school crossing near her house. I saw her on that bike for years after I left home. She never looked any older or any less cheerful.

I credit my husband’s role models for helping him grow up to be capable, positive, and wonderfully open-hearted. But not for a single moment have I ever linked my own life choices to Mrs. Dosey’s example. After all, I planned to change the world by elevating peace, ecological harmony, and justice. If I had time I hoped to fit in writing novels. And parenting. Okay, I also wanted thick hair and thin thighs.

None of that happened. I’m not a UN peace negotiator, my activism is local and my writing is gentle. I’m not blocking whaling ships with my fellow Greenpeace buddies, instead I tend to vegetable gardens and haul buckets of kitchen scraps to our livestock. My choices look more like Mrs. Dosey’s, although I can’t pretend for a moment that I’ll ever have her patience. I was raised to believe I could be accomplish anything if I worked hard enough but I’m learning that we can save the world right where we are. In part, that means opening the door on our busiest day ever to welcome the questions of little girls.

Who in your growing years made an impression on you and how do you see their impact in your life today?

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low-cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototypes on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

Originally published at Wired.com

The Boy With No Toys

why toys are bad for kids, overstimulated kids,

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Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

natural play best for kids, free play, no toys,

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When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

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Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

play develops intelligence, benefits of free play, deprive your kids of toys, handmade toys,

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Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011