Loose Parts: What You Need To Know

“A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.” ~Lev Vygotsky

You probably know the old cliché about kids playing longer with the box a toy came in then the toy itself? It’s true. Child development experts in the UK asked 2,000 parents to compare their children’s interactions when they used devices, toys, and free play items like cardboard boxes. Almost twice as many parents said their children preferred playing with boxes than gadgets and 46 percent of children enjoyed playing with boxes instead of other toys and games.

Plain cardboard boxes are enticing because they’re free-form playthings. Beyond classic toys like wooden blocks, many best-selling toys don’t spark much open-ended fun. That’s because children play in less creative ways with toys based on popular movies or shows and play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. On the other hand, a wrapping paper tube can become nearly anything — a cane, magic wand, snake, lightsaber, boundary marker, whatever imagination chooses.

The natural world is full of playthings. Sand, sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks have inspired children’s imaginations for ages.

So can pretty much anything kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as curiosity leads them. That is, as long as they have two key elements in their favor:

  • children are given permission
  • children are afforded the time.

Playground designers Vicki Stoecklin and Randy White write,

“The world once offered thousands of delights of free play to children. Children used to have access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, vacant lots and parks of the inner city or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside. Children could play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Research on children’s preferences shows that if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them. Outdoor spaces designed by children would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also would be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. If children could design their outdoor play spaces, they would be rich developmentally appropriate learning environments where children would want to stay all day.”

Back in 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article in Landscape Architect titled “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” He contended that most of us grow up, are educated, and live the rest of our lives in environments that stymie the imagination. He describes them as “static and impossible to play around with.” Instead of taking part in real planning and using real materials, “…children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right.'”

For most of us the problem starts with tight restrictions in childhood.

  • As kids, we’re not allowed to build or make things except within certain tight parameters (following instructions for a craft project is permitted, upending chairs to make an obstacle course is not).
  • We can’t experiment with variables in unexpected ways (“Don’t make a mess!”).
  • And we have limited experiences with exploration and discovery (“Stay on the playground, no climbing the trees.”). This inhibits creativity and inventiveness early on.

Sand belongs in the sandbox?

Mr. Nicholson’s theory of loose parts is this,

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” In other words, kids have nearly infinite ways to play when they have access to materials that can be used beyond a specific purpose.

Young children often use playthings as if they’re loose parts. A child combines a toy dinosaur, plastic teacup, dress-up scarf, and a few blocks into vivid and fully realized play on his own. Rules like keeping the tea cups with the tea set and putting away all the blocks before getting out another toy may keep the room neater but it also cuts down on much wider possibilities for play.

Kids (all of us, really) are more inventive and playful when our environments offer lots of variables. Open-ended materials let us transform simple materials into complex ideas. We play at what we’re most drawn to understand, right at the tantalizing edge of challenge, in ways unique to each of us. Recognizing this, more and more day care centers, museums, and playgrounds are starting to soften restrictions and offer loose parts for play.

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a loose parts playground

At one day care center, children spend a large part of every day in a large fenced outdoor area, even when it’s raining. There’s no play structure with swings and slides, and few toys other than small wagons and plastic figures. There are, however, all sorts of loose parts for kids to use.

Two girl have made a bridge over a muddy area with a row of milk crates. They pound twigs with rocks until the wood crumbles into fibers, mix it with mud they scoop up with spoons, then arrange it on tree branch slices. A group of four-year-olds drag a few planks over some bicycle tires, running and jumping on the tippy boards in a game that seems to be about danger and rescue. Many kids are playing in little enclosures they’ve made from tarps hung over low tree branches or within a circle of logs. These child-made places are nearly empty some days, other days they’re brimming with activity. The most popular spot seems to be a large pile of dirt in a far corner, left there when a utility line had to be dug up and repaired. Some kids pour rivulets of water from the top of the pile, watching it snake down the uneven surface. Others put sticks in the dirt, arrange rocks on it, roll balls down it, and make ramps leading up to it. One little boy ran up and down the pile, but stopped when he saw he’d nearly stepped on another boy’s plastic figure. He crouched down next to him and they both buried, discovered, and reburied the toy a few times before flattening a path in the dirt with a measuring cup and letting the figure drive a measuring cup car on this de-facto road.

Here, children seem to require minimal involvement from their teachers. Instead they’re learning to play cooperatively — disputing and solving disputes, sorting and building, and mostly pretending. They’re also growing more physically adept while teaching themselves hands-on lessons about math and science. There’s no need for adults to keep loose parts organized, no need to step in and instruct, no need for a full day of pre-planned activities.

Similar to the center where Teacher Tom works. Visit his wise and instructive site for more.

Loose parts evoke more inventive play in older children as well. A two-year Australian study of primary school children found that adding objects like crates, buckets, pool noodles, and hay bales to their schoolyard caused sedentary behavior to drop by half while kids played with more enjoyment, imagination, and vigor.

Other studies have found that creativity and problem-solving soar when children use naturally occurring outdoor materials in their play, a contrast to adult-provided props so common in children’s lives. As researcher Dana Miller writes in an education journal article titled “The Seeds of Learning,

“Our research presents compelling evidence that providing children with open-ended natural materials fosters imagination, creativity, and symbolic (abstract) thinking. When they are working with open-ended materials children get to decide what those materials will become, explore interesting ways to manipulate the materials, and how their use of those materials may change during a dramatic play scenario. Children get to search for just the right material or object to represent something in their minds, and through that use and the functions they assign to those materials, children display their brilliance.”

It’s easy to incorporate loose parts into children’s days. There’s no need to buy specialized loose parts and carefully sort them into containers after play. Along with some classic open-ended toys like blocks, construction sets, dress-up, and art supplies we can say yes to all sorts of other free-form materials. Many are probably already at hand.

And pay attention to temporary circumstances that crop up, giving kids in your family and in the neighborhood the opportunity to play around a tree that fell in a storm, a pile of dirt left after construction, or the rainfall that turned your neighborhood park into a puddle-rich haven for imagination.

How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.

Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit (8 Better Options)

There are all sorts of companies selling STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) kits and Maker kits these days, often as pricey subscription services.  They promise adventure! inspiration! empowerment! They claim to “teach” creativity and innovative thinking, as if such things can be prepackaged.

My kids didn’t like to do kits of any kind with a parent or without a parent. They didn’t like to do them alone or with friends, on a rainy day or when they were sick. They’d occasionally fiddle around with a kit I’d bought just to appease me, but a kit never lit the gleam that real investigation and real building does.

Why would it? You open the box, follow a set of instructions using pre-measured supplies and get the predicted outcome. Or, sometimes, don’t get it. Plus, there’s an extra layer of pressure involved because an adult paid for that kit and hopes their kids get the advertised benefits.

It’s entirely different when children seek out an interesting endeavor and, once they have the general concept, riff on the idea in new ways. That’s how my kids, left to their own devices, would build and create, referring to YouTube or books or Instructables or their dad for instruction as needed. Then, if inspired, they’d ramp it up, try something more challenging, until that lovely tantalizing hunger we call curiosity was sated, at least for the moment.

It’s not just my own children. When I led enrichment classes and summer camps for kids I brought in all sorts of supplies and issued open-ended challenges. I’d say, “Here’s some equipment, go ahead and make a movie” or I’d haul in boxes of junk and say, “You’ve got x number of days, go ahead and invent something.” They’d brainstorm, work hard to persuade other kids their own ideas were the best,  compromise, make mistakes, add or subtract ideas, get confused, get clarity, refer to how-to books, and somewhere along the way each project transformed into something greater than anyone had imagined. The kids grew to love what it meant and how it made them feel. They’d beg to continue when our sessions were up and once, when a summer program was ending, no one could agree who’d get to keep the articulated dragon they’d made as part of a larger project. They fashioned a cape out of a tarp and in a solemn ceremony, each child took a turn wearing the cape to hack off part of the dragon. They walked out that last day into the sunshine proudly carrying a snout, a leg, or brightly colored swath of scales.

Adults tend to cast a holy light around the value of following specific instructions. They insist it is important for small things, like every project ever, and for big things, like getting good grades and great test scores as if the future is a board game won by the right moves. (It’s not.) Kids have plenty of opportunities to follow step-by-step instructions, heck, life is full of unavoidably necessary rules everyone has to follow. Mutually agreed upon rules are a cornerstone of civilization.

Too much specific instruction may actually give kids too little experience with uncertain steps and ambiguous outcomes. To consider this further, let’s take a look at the difference between well-defined and ill-defined problems.

  • A jigsaw puzzle, multiplication problem, and Lego kit are well-defined problems. That means they have a goal solved by following exacting procedures to reach that goal, with no real ambiguity involved.
  • Starting a business, maintaining a relationship, and building with random Legos are ill-defined problems. That means there are many possible, equally plausible ways to reach goals that may not be initially clear-cut but tend to clarify as time goes on. Life’s biggest challenges (and satisfactions) tend to be ill-defined problems.

Speaking of Legos, let’s take a closer look at what science says about step-by-step directions as a means of fostering creativity and innovation, as so many kits say they do. There’s been a longstanding debate about whether kids get more out of building with a giant pile of random Lego pieces or building boxed Lego sets using instructions. Obviously there can be a place for building kits and free-building in every child’s life, but what if these two approaches lead to different outcomes?

Researchers compared people building Lego kits to those who free-built with Legos. They found, in several studies, that participants who’d built kits scored lower when asked to do projects immediately afterwards that required creativity, originality, divergent thinking, and abstractness. They also were more likely to avoid free-build Legos to choose well-defined problems. Those who’d been free-building were, in contrast, as adept at well-defined problems as ill-defined problems, and didn’t lean away from future ill-defined problems. Science writer Garth Sundem provides an excellent review of this research, including its limitations, and sums it up this way.

If you take these experiments at face value, the “better understanding” of this research is that the more we are confronted by and complete well-defined problems like Lego kits or word finds or color-in-the-lines pictures, the less we choose to engage in and the worse we are at solving ill-defined problems: create something beautiful, discover something meaningful, find someone to love.

Again, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for step-by-step instructions. Detailed, exacting instructions are vital to all sorts of endeavors from making pastry to launching satellites. And building Lego models certainly is not the route to any child’s ruination. These studies are simply more evidence that filling up a child’s free time with adult-designed instructional endeavors isn’t the best way to foster creativity or innovation, despite what companies selling kits might tell us.

 

Here are some cheap, easy, playful ways to raise Makers.

Emphasize loose parts play. Pretty much any free-form materials kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as they choose inspire wildly creative loose parts play. Outdoors that might be twigs, stones, pails, water, rope, sand, and pine cones. Indoors that might be pillows and blankets to build a fort, dress-up clothes and cardboard to make props, and  the freedom to use disparate items for divergent uses.

Save broken things for kids to take apart.  The more moving parts they can disassemble, the better. For safety: cut off any cords and plugs, avoid items with glass, remove blades and batteries. Insist on safety glasses, then get out pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools and let them get to work.  A glorious mess is likely. One way to contain it is to put the item in a shallow cardboard box. That way all the little bits and pieces won’t roll off on the floor indoors or the grass outdoors. My kids have taken apart old clocks, computers, a typewriter, cassette players, a lawn tractor, weed trimmers, and a number of toys (including a Furby that had been broken for years but spoke a few final creepy words as my sons and their friends reduced it to parts.)

Start inventing. Save cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, straws, corks, plastic utensils, twist ties, and so on.  Kids can use them to build whatever they choose —- like a junk marble run or wall ball drop. We’ve had lots of fun when kids form teams, get equal amounts of this “junk” and try a  specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars, such ainventing sorters that send pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that hold weight, catapults that toss ping-pong balls, or building as inspiration leads.

Create your own board games. Amy from MamaScout suggests getting out cardboard suitable for a game board, paper to make cards, dice, a cast off spinner from an old game, and some tiny toys to serve as game pieces. Then get out of the way. As she says of her kids, “backing off is the important part, because their ideas for this game were so much more open-ended than I could understand. They were playing the game and playing in the world of the game at the same time.” Science documentary-maker Steven Johnson prefers more parent involvement. He advocates creating a board game in partnership with a child in an article titled “The Game Worlds We Make.” He writes,  “It’s one of those magical parent-child activities where the two of you occupy shared ground in terms of both comprehension and engagement. Even simple games present intellectually interesting puzzles for an adult brain in their design phase, and children are incredibly adept at picking up on the nuances of gameplay.”

Honor flow.  When we see kids deeply engaged, lets do our best to let them stay engaged whether they’re off in a make-believe world, building with blocks, drawing, or tinkering. Psychologish Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what they’re doing in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. These are not “passive, receptive, relaxing times,” he writes. Instead they are times when “the body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Avoid interruptions! (Here’s more about fostering the state of flow for kids.)

Say yes. As I write in Getting Science on Everything, “We found keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of ‘yes.’ Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever-widening curiosity.” This starts in infancy, which we learned from the baby who wanted to play in driveway gravel and the baby who was afraid of the vacuum. It’s never to early to experiment!

Weave math explorations into everyday life. Investigate yourself, measure your world, make math toys, devise your own codes, and more. Here’s how.

Be an example. Take an active role in building, fixing, and finding out what you want to know in your own life. As you do, let your kids get involved as far as their interests lead them. Chances are if you’re designing a better closet shelf,  teaching your dog new tricks, rebuilding a carburetor, experimenting with bread making,  or learning to make chainmail, your kids will see firsthand what it takes to pursue a hands-on interest.

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Sidenote: There’s a lot of energy put into getting kids into STEM and STEAM fields. We need to rethink funding priorities so that these fields move ahead. Here’s research scientist Hope Jahren’s perspective, from her recent book Lab Girl.

“You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of ‘falling behind’ … Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Reading Has To Do With Play

games to build reading skills

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.  – Victor Hugo

Reading readiness and reading advancement has little or nothing to do with educational toys, apps, or enrichment programs. It has much more to do with what kids naturally like to do: move their bodies, enjoy stories, take part in conversation, and play freely.

Why?

Movement helps children develop sufficient brain-body maturation so they can successful decode abstract symbols into meaning.  This includes complex neurological pathways as well as sufficient kinesthetic awareness and proprioceptive sense.  (Find out what movements are essential in “Reading Readiness Has To Do With the Body.”)

Reading aloud every day, starting in babyhood, helps children associate reading with closeness and pleasure.  Even a board book builds vocabulary, demonstrates left to right sequencing, and promotes comprehension. We can fold reading time into daily rituals like story time before naps and again after dinner. We can also show how much we value reading by letting kids see us reading our own books and magazines.

As kids get older it’s important to avoid offering rewards for reading or make reading a precondition for privileges. That’s because rewards, even for something kids already enjoy, significantly diminishes their own intrinsic motivation. Telling kids “20 minutes of reading before you can play games on the tablet”casts reading as an obligation, leading kids to devalue reading  while enhancing the appeal of digital entertainment. (No wonder “eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream” makes broccoli the enemy and ice cream even more tempting.)

Stories stretch the mind and imagination. They help us, at any age, develop empathy and give us a larger context for our own lives.  That’s not limited to the page. There’s extraordinary power in telling family stories. When we share tales of our doubts, misdeeds, and triumphs we’re not only building family cohesiveness, we’re also (according to science) helping kids grow up with greater confidence and self-control.

Daily conversations, including all those questions kids ask,  helps them advance in reasoning and social skills while bringing us closer to each other.  Let’s admit, a great deal of parent and child interaction isn’t true conversation so much as directives, complaints, and reminders (because, well, life) so it helps to create openings for conversation. Hold a space for kids to talk about what’s on their minds —- this often seems to happen on a walk, a drive, or at bedtime —- good times to avoid earbuds and screens.  Make a practice of showing you’re listening by using eye contact and avoiding interruption. Talk about big issues and dilemmas in your lives, in your community, and in the news. Big topics have a way of stretching young minds.

Free play is an essential part of childhood. It also helps kids develop the skills necessary for reading well. It may look like fun, but in ways deeper and more vital than we can imagine play is a process of learning. We don’t have to engineer their play. Play is, and always has been, a universal language. Give kids as much time for free play as possible. But when you want to play along, here are a few ideas.

 

Word Play

games to improve reading

  • Tell simple jokes (sorry, this includes Knock Knock jokes), attempt tongue twisters, call each other made-up names, say goodbye in rhymes like “Out of the door dinosaur!” and “See you later excavator!
  • Play Cherries & Pits to get conversations started. Very simply, each person takes turns telling the best things (Cherries) about their day and the worst things (Pits) about their day.
  • Tell round robin stories. One person starts a story with a character and setting (“The elf woke up to find a large bird staring at him.”). The next person adds a few sentences before passing it along to the next person. This works well with as little as two people and nearly always becomes amusingly improbable.
  • Turn socks into puppets for impromptu plays. Puppeteers can hide behind a couch or sheet-covered table to perform, although socks in my house tend to talk on their way to the laundry.
  • Make story stones  (pictures on stones or tiles) and grab a few to prompt a story idea. Other stones can be added as the story goes on.
  • Ask off-the-wall questions. “Would you rather be a monkey or a lion?” “What would it be like if people had wings?” “If we could go on an adventure together what would we do?”
  • Write messages to each other. Scratch a few words in the sand, leave a message in magnetic letters, designate a place (under each other’s bed pillows, perhaps) where secret notes can be left, share a question and answer journal (taking turns asking and answering any and all questions), and leave little love letters for kids to find.
  • Sing songs with familiar tunes and invented lyrics. Those tend to be somewhat scatological in my family, a favorite faux opera here has to do with encouraging dogs to go out and get their elimination duties over with….

 

Games

reading games

  • Play impromptu memory games. For example, take turns tapping out a beat, seeing if the next person can repeat it. Or try imitating movements in sequence (first person jumps, the other person jumps and adds clapping, first person jumps and claps and adds a turkey gobble, and so on).  Or take turns memorizing a sequence of unrelated words to repeat back in two minutes or ten minutes or the next day. Be prepared to lose to your kids!
  • Play hand-motion games like Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Cee Cee My Playmate.  Show kids jump rope rhymes. (You might check out Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes by Joanna Cole.) And don’t forget  hopscotch rhymes.  Research shows these simple games help kids become  better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills.
  • Encourage classic games like checkers, mancala, and chess. Games of all kinds typically help kids understand sequencing, grouping, and memory. No need to choose specifically educational games.
  • Make your own board games along with your child.
  • Set aside one evening a week as a family board game night or set up a kids’ game club with friends. (There are even great games for kids three and under like Roll & Play, First Orchard, and Feed the Woozle.)
  • Waiting in line with kids? Find objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet together, from avocados to zeros. Or play the classic Going on a Picnic game. Start by saying, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark (or any “A” word). The next person continues with “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark and a basketball (or any word starting with a B) and so on. The last person to remember and repeat the list is the winner.
  • Encourage active games. Consult Great Games! 175 Games & Activities for Families, Groups, & Children! by Matthew Toone and Mom´s Handy Book of Backyard Games by Pete Cava.
  • Use the dictionary (print copy!) to play surprisingly addictive word games like Blackbird.

Map Play

games to help readers

  • Encourage kids to draw maps of places they know well (your kitchen, your house, your street) and maps of imaginary places (alien planets, mythic kingdoms, ninja training camps).  Draw a map of where you’ve hidden packed lunches for them to discover or the bedtime chapter book you’ll read.
  • Encourage children to set up obstacle courses. Indoors this may include three somersaults through the hall, chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, and a bunk bed ladder to climb. Outdoors the course can be more ambitious.
  • Enjoy regular treasure hunts. First hide a prize or two. Then place clues through the house or yard. These can be simple words or sentences, symbols, or pictures. Each clue leads to the next. The prize doesn’t have to be a toy or candy (it could be a note saying “we’re going to the park!”) the fun is in the hunting. Encourage children to set up their up treasure hunts too.
  • Letterboxing combines walking, navigation, and solving riddles. Clues help seekers find “letterboxes” hidden outdoors. Seekers mark their logbooks with a rubber stamp found in this box, mark a logbook in the box with their own personal stamp, then leave the box for the next seeker. For more information and links to regional clues, check with organizations such as Letterboxing North America  or Atlas Quest. Or use the guidebook, It’s a Treasure Hunt! Geocaching & Letterboxing.
  • Try orienteering. This sport combines navigation, map reading, and decision-making. Participants walk, run, bike, or ski using a map and compass to choose the best route on or off the trail. Consult Orienteering Made Simple And Gps Technology: An Instructional Handbook by Nancy Kelly.
  • Take turns playing Line Zombie. Draw a line on paper with a pencil or on the ground with chalk, using arrows to indicate direction. The other person must follow the line either by tracing on the paper with marker or walking on the chalk line. Zombie noises optional.

 

Portions of this post adapted from Free Range Learning.

Are You A Jackhammer or a Hummingbird?

Hummingbird or Jackhammer: styles of full spectrum learning

What lures you to full spectrum learning?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~John Muir

Ten-year-old Matias is enthusiastic about all things automotive. He calls out model and year of cars passing the street in front of his apartment in an impressive display of mental acuity. He learned every detail of how engines work by quizzing everyone he could who knew anything about cars, then turned to YouTube for more in-depth information. That led to inquiries about types of fuels and manufacturing processes, which led to questions about the history of the assembly line and the formation of unions. Books and documentaries have made him familiar with figures such as Nikolaus Otto and Karl Benz as well as Elon Musk. Matias loves going to auto museums, car shows, and races. Although he says a visit to a demolition derby didn’t upset him, he’s been talking ever since about ways to save cars from junkyards. He’s excited about the potential for energy-efficient vehicles and he really hopes self-driving cars don’t become a thing before he gets to drive.

Notice how this fascination leads him eagerly through all sorts of fields?

Natural learning takes place across a spectrum. History, math, music, science, art, literature, business, philosophy, and athletics don’t neatly divide into “subjects.” They’re interrelated. A child notices one bare sliver of a topic, and intrigued, follows it. That pursuit lights up a totally new subject until a dazzling array of possibilities opens, each refracting new angles. The thrill of exploring is inseparable from a love of learning.

Some children, like Matias, become so absorbed in a single subject that it seems their personalities are inseparable from that passion. Their bemused families can’t help but stoke the fire of that interest. Activities and discussions with the child take on a distinct tone. Indeed, family members are changed by close association with someone who loves the world in such a focused manner.

Most of the time children learn in far more unobtrusive manner. It may seem they go through their days unaffected by the influences that pour in all around them. Yet gradually their comprehension deepens. This is a mysterious process, an ongoing improvisation that weaves together previous experiences with new comprehension and insight. But then, our children are changed by what they’ve come to understand in ways none of us can measure or assess.

Few of us are absorbed by the sort of overwhelming fascination Matias shows for all things automotive. Instead we’re open to many directions, staying with our interests as long as inspiration calls us before moving on.  We have what polymath Emilie Wapnick calls “multipotentiality.”  As she writes,

The only constant in my life is shape-shifting, exploration and evolution… There’s something that draws me to each of my interests and it’s not “excellence.” I have no interest in committing to one thing forever. Once I no longer feel inspired in a field, I simply move on. Some people call this “quitting,” I call it growth.

You’ll notice, however, that “find your passion” is the recommended approach.  The pressure starts in childhood, with well-meaning people doing their very best to get kids on a fast track to success in sports or music or STEM.  The push to find, pursue, and excel in a particular field doesn’t stop after graduation. Throughout adulthood we’re told “find your passion” in our careers, our creative lives, even our spiritual development.

I think writer Elizabeth Gilbert shares an apt metaphor in her recent talk. She says some people are like her, driven to focus on one pursuit. She calls such people jackhammers. Other people flit from curiosity to curiosity. This, she says, is the “flight of the natural born hummingbird.” She admits that for years she exhorted people to act like jackhammers in order to reach their goals. Then she had an epiphany — the world needs more than jackhammers. When people allow themselves the freedom to be hummingbirds, she says,

Two things happen. One, they create incredibly rich complex lives for themselves. and they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That’s the service you do. You bring an idea from here and you weave in and take up the next thing, because your entire being brings a different perspective. It ends up aerating the culture.

Chances are, most of us can’t be fully described by terms like jackhammer or a hummingbird.  The larger lesson here is the wisdom of freeing ourselves (and our children) to explore what intrigues us. Then we understand on our own terms that full spectrum learning is inseparable from life.

 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

Educate for Conformity or Educate for Innovation?

Do we educate for innovation or conformity?

Image: CC by 2.0 Laurence Simon

David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers is a captivating look at Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers were considered peculiar, aloof, single-minded,  solemn, and obsessively drawn to their own pursuits. Neither of these self-taught engineers possessed a high school diploma. In pursuit of their ambitions, the Dayton, Ohio men spent weeks at a time camping on the sand of steamy, mosquito-infested Kitty Hawk, N.C. in order to study flight as directly as possible. There they watched seabirds for hours, sometimes flapping their wrists and elbows to better understand the motion of bird wings.  Local residents assumed these two awkward, unsociable men were “nuts.”

As I read this book I’m reminded of kids I know. Kids lit from within by their own enthusiasms. Kids with labels and kids without.  Kids like mine, kids like yours.

One of those kids is named Aiden.  He attends a regular third grade classroom and, because he’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, he also has an aide for part of the day. Her job is to reinforce, over and over, the exacting demands of his assignments along with other classroom requirements.  (We now know too much help can be counterproductive.) His aide says Aiden quickly comprehends the material but sees little purpose in doing assignments to prove it. His resistance is growing. He reminds me a little of another boy labeled “underachiever.”

Aiden spends hours each week with various therapists working on his speech and coordination.  His progress is tracked in excruciating detail and he’s made aware, sometimes minute to minute, where his deficits lie. It’s exhausting for him. He’s bored. He’s frustrated. He wants to do what he’s interested in and that means anything that has to do with bicycles.

Aiden reads adult-level books about bike repair, bike trips, and bike history. He’s memorized the offerings in bike catalogs from different manufacturers down to individual parts. He draws plans of bikes and will talk at length about them. His dream is to build a self-designed bicycle. Experts assure Aiden’s parents that their son must not be allowed to indulge in his love of bike-related learning except as a reward for meeting incremental goals in school and therapy. Aiden’s mother says when she follows their advice Aiden becomes withdrawn, often barely speaking at all. “He’s himself when it has anything to do with bikes,” she says.  “He just comes alive.”

His mother never expected Aiden to have problems in school since he’s so obviously intelligent. She saw signs of this early on.  As a toddler Aiden was skilled at putting together increasingly difficult puzzles. He was mesmerized by anything with wheels, especially his toy cars but also the wheels on bikes and strollers. He’d lie with his head on the ground slowly moving any object with wheels back and forth to observe the movement. He was also able to draw perfect circles, interlocking them in complicated patterns. When he was about 18 months old his eager engagement with people had noticeably declined. So had his early verbal skills. He became a quiet little boy wrapped in his own fascinations.

When I ask her to talk about Aiden’s best times she describes what many of us consider our own best times —-when we’re deeply absorbed in a state of flow or struck by awe at the world around us. One of those times was when Aiden was four years old. His grandfather, who has since passed away, came for a visit with three bicycles he’d picked up on trash collection day. He and Aiden spent an entire day fixing those bikes together. His mother said he still talks about that day. Another time his family drove to Ohio to visit the Bicycle Museum of America.  Aiden was wonder struck, spending hours looking carefully at each display. This is a memory he cherishes. (Each to his own, his sister describes that place as the most boring ever).

Many children develop unevenly.  Asynchronous development is particularly common in gifted children. A child may show artistic promise and read as well as students many years older, yet be well below grade level in math. All sorts of attention is focused on getting that math score up rather than letting the child’s best abilities afford her a strong sense of self, a sense that she’s capable of learning whatever she’s ready to learn, to let her discover all sorts of ways to love math as it reinforces her artistic and literary inclinations. Our strengths have a way of helping us learn more while pulling our abilities up in all areas, a concept often called  by snappy terms like customized education and personalized learning.  (A concept homeschoolers already know inside and out.)

Aiden’s fascination with bicycles is teaching him history, geometry, physics, technical drawing, and much more  —- a self-education far more in-depth than the curriculum he’s expected to follow. Yet the very thing he loves is taken away until he meets the next demand, and the next, and the next.

We work hard to fit young people into the world of today, forgetting they are here to create the future through ideas, innovations, and solutions. A future that relies more on eccentricity than conformity.  A future where the most gifted rarely fit the norm. That doesn’t mean we must push our children toward what society considers greatness, but to recognize that living with meaning, joy, and purpose is also a form of greatness. Perhaps a far more necessary greatness.

We need to nurture our children in ways that brings forth who they are, what James Hillman calls the “acorn” that’s exhibited in a child’s particular fascinations. Let’s not blunt the (sometimes exasperating, often inexplicable) uniqueness every child brings to life by tossing a blanket over light that doesn’t shine as we expect it to. Let’s remember history is full of “peculiar” people whose unconventional ideas still send us aloft.

Modeling Education on the Natural World

Skeeze, pixabay.com

Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

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 is 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 is now 21 years old and a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

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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Talent, steered toward accomplishment. (image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Learning. It’s Not About Education

free range learning, holistic education, natural learning,

Learning is a whole experience of mind, body, and self in relation to the world

When you pick up an orange you feel its texture and weight in your hand. You breathe in scent emitted by the brightly colored rind. If you’re hungry, you peel and section it to savor piece by piece. A fresh orange has phytonutrients, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that promote health. And it tastes wonderful.

It’s possible to purchase the separate nutritional components of an orange. You simply buy vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, B-complex vitamins, fiber, potassium, and calcium in pill form. Of course replacing an orange with supplements is ridiculously expensive compared to the cost of consuming the fruit itself. And isolated compounds don’t work as effectively in the body as the whole fruit. Besides, where is the sensation of biting into an orange bursting with juice? Lost. Divided into a fraction of the experience.

Imagine being told in your earliest years that pills were superior to food and should replace it as often as possible. Even if handfuls of supplements were deemed more valuable than food by every adult in your life you’d still clamor to eat what you found appetizing. If meal-substitution pills became mandatory for children once they turned five years old, you’d never relate to food (or its replacement) the same way again. The body, mind, and spirit reject what diminishes wholeness.

natural learning, education as a pill,

Don’t argue. Just take it.

Yet that’s an apt analogy for heavily structured education, where learning is set apart from the threads that connect it to what has meaning and purpose for the learner. Conventional education separates learning into thousands of measurable objectives. It has very little to do with a child’s hunger to master a particular skill or thirst to pursue an area of interest, in fact such appetites tend to interfere with institutional requirements. It’s not designed for the whole child but aimed at one hemisphere of the brain, doled out in pre-determined doses and repeatedly evaluated. The most gifted, caring teachers are stuck within systems that don’t acknowledge or understand natural learning. In fact, most of us believe, however grudgingly, that schooling is necessary for learning without recognizing that damage is done.

For the very youngest children, learning is constant. Their wondrous progress from helpless newborn to sophisticated five-year-old happens without explicit teaching. They explore, challenge themselves, make mistakes, and try again with an insatiable eagerness to learn. Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skills and understanding in a way that’s useful to them at the time.

Although we have the idea that learning flows from instruction, when we interfere with natural learning children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that it has nothing to do with coercion. Children often ignore what they aren’t ready to learn only to return to the same concept later, comprehending it with ease and pleasure.  What they do is intrinsically tied to why they do it, because they know learning is purposeful. They are curious, motivated, and always pushing in the direction of mastery.

Learning is a hunger too.

Learning is a hunger too.

But schooling irrevocably alters the natural process of learning for every single child.

  • The very structure of school makes children passive recipients of education designed by others. They cannot charge ahead fueled by curiosity, pursuing interests wherever they lead.  Although interest-driven learning results in high level mastery, the top priority in school is completing assignments correctly and scoring well on tests. Despite what individual children want to learn, value is given to what can be evaluated.
  • Segregated by age, children are limited to examples of behavior, reasoning, and ability from those at a similar level of maturity. They have little exposure to essential adult role models and minimal engagement in community life.  They’re also deprived of the opportunity to practice the sort of nurturance and self-education that happens when children interact in multi-age settings.  Even collaboration is defined as cheating.
  • A child’s natural inclination to discover and experiment is steered instead toward meeting curricular requirements. Gradually the child’s naturally exploratory approach is supplanted by less meaningful ways of gathering and retaining information.
  • The mind and body are exquisitely cued to work together. Sensory input floods the brain, locking learning into memory. Movement is essential for learning. The emphasis in school, however, is almost entirely static, and almost entirely focused on left-brain analytical thinking. Many children ache for more active involvement, but their attempts to enliven the day are labeled behavior problems. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood behavior has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Coming up with the correct answer leaves little room for trial and error. Thinking too carefully or deeply may result in the wrong answer. The right answer from a child’s personal perspective may actually be the opposite of the correct answer, but to get a good mark the child cannot be true to his or her experience. The grade becomes more important than reality.
  • Emphasis on the correct answer squeezes out unconventional thinking. The fear of making mistakes squelches creativity and innovation. After years of being taught to avoid making mistakes, the child has also learned to steer clear of originality.
  • Readiness is pivotal for learning, particularly in reading. In school, reading is used to instruct in every other subject, so the child who doesn’t read at grade level quickly falls behind. The subject matter in school, even when taught well, isn’t necessarily what the child is ready to learn. The way it is presented tends to be indirect, inactive, and irrelevant to the child. Schoolwork repeatedly emphasizes skill areas that are lacking rather than building on strengths, or goes over skills already mastered with stultifying repetition. Neither approach builds real learning
  • The desire to produce meaningful work, the urge to make contributions of value, the need to be recognized for oneself, and other developmental necessities are undercut by the overriding obligation to complete assignments.
  • Conventional education takes the same approach to a six-year-old and an 18-year-old: assignments, grades, tests. Self-reliance and independence doesn’t easily flourish in such a closed container.
  • Children must hurry to do the required work, then change subjects. The information is stuffed into their short-term memories in order to get good grades and pass tests, even though such tests tend to measure superficial thinking. In fact, higher test scores are unrelated to future accomplishments in such career advancement, positive relationships, or leadership. Students aren’t learning to apply information to real life activities nor are they generating wisdom from it. The very essence of learning is ignored.
  • Schoolwork clearly separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. This indicates to children that learning is confined to specific areas of life. A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Absorption and play are on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability. Often this transforms into cynicism.
  • When young people are insufficiently challenged or pushed too hard, they do learn but not necessarily what they’re being taught. What they learn is that the educational process is boring or makes them feel bad about themselves or doesn’t acknowledge their deeper gifts. They see that what they achieve is relentlessly judged. They learn to quell enthusiasm and suppress the value-laden questions that normally bubble up as they seek to grow more wholly into themselves. Gradually, their natural moment-to-moment curiosity is distorted until they resist learning anything but what they have to learn. This is how the life force is drained from education.

We’re so committed to structured, top-down instruction that we impose it on kids beyond the school day. Young people are relentlessly shuttled from the classroom to enrichment activities to organized sports and back home to play with educational toys or apps when there’s very little evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value.

Many of us think that education has always been this way—stuffing information into young people who must regurgitate it back on demand. Based on dropout numbers alone, this approach doesn’t work for at least a quarter of U.S. students. So we advocate copying Finland or Singapore, using the newest electronics, taking away testing, increasing testing, adding uniforms or yoga or chess or prayer. We’ve been reforming schools for a long time without recognizing, as Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

free range learning,

Figuring something out is itself a delight.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. That’s because most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. This time span comprises approximately 98% of human history. Although our culture and lifestyle have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need in our earliest years highly responsive nurturing that gradually fosters our abilities.

Studies of isolated groups who continue to live in hunter-gatherer ways have shown us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.

Their children play freely in multi-age groups without overt supervision or direction by adults. Such free play promotes self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical for maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

free range learning

It’s about curiosity and awe.

We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities.

free range learning, holistic learning, effect of school, school mindset,

This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!