a plea to teachers:: say yes, allow choice, create thinkers!

Schools and the school setting as we know them today began during the Industrial Revolution. They were modeled after a Prussian system of educating the masses. Although not to the public, their stated mission was to create only one thing: factory workers. For the first time in American history, learning was changed. It was taken from the home environment and placed inside four walls. At that time, subjects were broken up into categories, and there was a focus on the three R’s. Additionally, there was a great deal of focus on a structure that would create young people that could follow orders and take direction. It was a structure that created and valued mediocrity. The creative mind was one that caused problems for the system.

Unfortunately, we haven’t evolved from that structure much. It remains difficult for a child with different ideas or a strong spirit to find a place in the classroom. They are labeled disruptive, annoying, or just plain trouble. Often teachers feel they need to break that spirit, get the child to conform and only then, have they reached success. Still, after all these years, we have trouble letting children think outside the box when they are within the box called school.

That box, like any tradition, is a hard one to break out of. We have a structure that not only doesn’t allow for a lot of wiggle room within it, but it is what we know and what we are used to, which makes it especially hard to not buy into it. However, if our goal is to create confident and creative children who grow into adults who have an impact on our world, we must.

Saying yes in the classroom is not always easy to do and having a ‘yes day’ can not look the same as in the home simply because of the structure of having twenty to thirty six kids, all with different needs and desires. Most teachers would say, “Yeah right. If I let them do what they wanted, it would be total chaos!” But there are ways to nurture that spirit.

Of course, moments of yes can’t happen on the first day of school in the same way that they would after you have been learning together for several months. I’ve heard it said many times that a teacher shouldn’t smile for the first six weeks of school. For the sake of child’s spirit, I can’t buy it.

Find yes moments within your school day, within your structure.

Childcare advocate and educator Dawn Fry says, “Giving choices is important, because making choices cultivates individuality and self-reliance. Only while making choices can children exercise their human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity and even moral preference. When you offer choices, you are honoring the child's needs and innocence, which ultimately helps them develop self-confidence and build their self-esteem.”

Many teachers implement classroom management techniques such as marbles in a jar or point systems, which often result in the children earning time to make a free choice. They also rule out those who deserve that time. The question is, don’t all children deserve time to make choices? If we take that away from them, how will they become the change we wish to see?

It all comes down to philosophy. That there are things you ‘need to’ do, points in your curriculum that you need to get to, things they ‘need’ to know by the time you get finished with them. Of course, that curriculum is mandated by the government, but for anyone who has spent any time in the classroom, we know there are many ways of teaching any stated goal within any curriculum. If we can provide children with choice and autonomy in their learning, they will become more confident and actually retain the information more and better.

Simply Loving Living: and the stories that guide the love…

Having children is like a magnifying glass. It is the catalyst for us to slow down, to enjoy the simple things in life. Suddenly, we find ourselves seeing the fluttering butterfly as we never did before. Growing our own gardens becomes a top priority, even if the weeds seem overwhelming. We suddenly become acutely aware of the air we breathe. But we still need stories and guides to reinforce the ideas. Here are some of our favorites from the past that we are once again returning to and a few new titles for a bit of further inspiration.

The Henry Series by D.B. Johnson

With five books in the series, you can’t go wrong introducing your children to the loveable bear Henry, a character based on the naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Here are our three favorites in the series:

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, where Henry takes a long walk instead of a train trip to get to Fitchburg. Along the way he meets friends, eats berries, measures things, and simply connects with his day and the world around him.

Henry Builds a Cabin, where Henry builds the perfect-for-him home, a beautiful simple living tale.

Henry’s Night, in which Henry connects with the simple wonders of the night: fireflies, moonlight, and the North Star.

Favorites By Byrd Baylor:

If there was or is ever a book that brings us back to the savoring of the simple things that give us pleasure, it is the incomparable tale The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor. It is the story of a family and their conversation that takes place over their very worn out family table. The story begins, “If you could see us sitting here at our old, scratched-up, homemade kitchen table, you’d know that we aren’t rich. But my father is trying to tell us we are.” This family meeting is perhaps one of the best! Our young heroine is upset by her worn out shoes, the car her family drives, and she’s convinced that this is not the kind of table where rich people would sit. That is, until the meeting is well under way. While listing out the family’s “wealth”, she comes to understand what her parents are talking about when her mother says, “We don’t just take our pay in cash, you know. We have a special plan so we get paid in sunsets, too, and in having time to hike around the canyons and look for eagle nests.” This is a story about wealth – the wealth of a family; it is one of our family staples. Don’t miss it!

And this isn’t just a one hit wonder for Byrd Baylor. She is a master at weaving a tale that focuses on the simple treasures of the everyday. Our other favorite books of hers are:

Everybody Needs a Rock in which the reader is invited to find a rock, a special rock for just him or herself, and the ‘rules’ needed to find and keep such a stone; and,

I’m in Charge of Celebrations, a delightful story that challenges the reader to make each day special by celebrating the simple things in life.

And of course, her stories The Other Way to Listen and The Way to Start a Day are practically mantras of mine.

Simple Living Resources for Adults
If you are looking for some adult reassurance or inspiration about choosing a life that honors the simple, take a peek at these resources:

Walden: or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Living Simply with Children: A Voluntary Simplicity Guide for Moms, Dads, and Kids Who Want to Reclaim the Bliss of Childhood and the Joy of Parenting by Marie Sherlock

The Story of Stuff

Still need a little more inspiration to live simply? Well, check out The Story of Stuff, “a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.”

show your support and win a book!

Dear Readers,
As you may have heard, after some urging, I have created a Facebook Page for The Wonder Collection. Please go to the page and "Become a fan" and show your support.
And, to celebrate, this week I am giving away an autographed copy of Child of Wonder. I hope you'll get in on the drawing!

a valentine wish from our family to yours

The Family as a Think Tank: A Place for Creative Thinking

In the mind or in the heart, on the front porch, in the margins of scratch paper, or even in shadows on the wall just after ‘lights out’. Where does creative thinking happen? All those places and more.

In Byrd Baylor’s book The Table Where Rich People Sit, a family thinks together at the kitchen table. Mountain Girl, as she is called, has requested a meeting, and the subject is money. She asserts they don’t “have enough of it.” Together, they record all their earnings. The list grows, taking its own shape. The family realizes they don’t just get paid in money, but with sunsets, howling of coyotes, and changing color of the shadows on the mountainside. They decide if the leaders of the world could share a plate of cookies around an old beat up table like they do, there’d be more harmony in the world.

Harmony, that special place families strive towards. They seek to work together to achieve common goals, from who takes out trash, to working a puzzle, to bigger questions like how to fit five growing people into three small bedrooms.
Finding that place where ideas culminate begins the journey towards more fulfilled, imaginative lives. As much as we think they just appear, ideas, creativity, and critical thinking don’t happen on their own. A secure foundation of organized freedom must be set for ideas to emerge.

A Family Think Tank
A think tank by definition is an organized group performing interdisciplinary research. Since their inception, thinks tanks have left lasting impressions on public policy. Like The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, varied examples exist of members bringing individual talents to discuss, debate, explore ideas and make change.

Setting the stage for family creativity can look like a think tank, an organization of imagination, problem solving and thinking. With a family think tank, we encourage an environment where ‘lightbulb moments’, when it just seems to click, spark more often.

Think Tank Puzzle Pieces
Original think tanks were unique establishments. Recognizing the value each unique mind brought to the process, the primary goal remained on improving the decision making process.

Thinking of our families as think tanks, we recognize each member as a valuable piece of the think tank puzzle. Together, investigate family dynamics and strengths each person, regardless of age, brings to your creative table. Perhaps you have a discovery specialist, or an expert in asking “why?” How about a movement expert to lead your active break times, or a kitchen connoisseur to tickle taste buds?

As your family grows, experiments and shares together, roles will likely change over time. Encourage exploration within the roles. From this place, confidence to venture outside comfort zones will emerge.

Finding Solutions Together
Members of think tanks are often the technological, social, and scientific problem solvers of the world and need to be able to “think outside the box”. They discover solutions because, as the adage goes, “two heads are better than one.”

So everyone can be heard in a respectful and equal way, perhaps use a “talking feather” or a beanbag to designate the speaker. Arrange predictable times to ‘check in’, discuss ideas, and discover solutions together.

Simply Puzzled
Noam Chomsky says, “Discovery is the ability to be puzzled by simple things.” Common among people described as “creative” is that they all enjoy discovery and being simply puzzled.

Children delight in simple things. Encourage natural sense of wonder by appreciating that enchantment. In family think tanks, being puzzled and enjoying discovery together leads to ideas and solutions. If you can, schedule times to explore and be puzzled together. Make conscious efforts to model wonder about things like the inner workings of the telephone or incorporate a small daily brainteaser. Laugh heartily and appreciate your discovery together.

Ideas Change the World

Ideas change the world. Not just ideas of the major think tanks of the world, but ordinary families thinking extraordinary things, together in extraordinary ways. Viewing our family members as unique thinkers, each with something valuable to offer, we learn from each other and move towards creating solutions that make our families happier and more productive. We’ll count our discoveries and think and play together at the table where happy, creatively rich families sit.

shadow play, part 2

Make a Shadow Puppet Theatre
1. Drape a sheet over a table or use wax paper to cover a hole in a large box.
2. Trace and cut out desired figures using cardboard or heavy stock.
3. Tape a drinking straw or tongue depressor to the back of your puppets. Use a hole punch and brads if you want your puppets to have moveable parts. Add an extra straw to each moveable part.
4. Use a desk lamp or flashlight to shine light from the back of the sheet or wax paper.

Did you know…
• Whenever light is blocked, a shadow is made.
• A shadow starts where the light is blocked so your shadow starts at your feet.
• Light only travels in a straight line. Since it cannot bend around an object, a shadow is made.
• When the sun is directly above you there is little to no shadow because the light from the sun is hitting all the area around you.

shadow play

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see....

from My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson

We just love a good shadow...

The Wonder of Shadow Play

Legend has it that if on February 2nd, the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, the groundhog appears from his burrow and sees his shadow, we are in for another six weeks of wintry weather.

Shadows have long been weather forecasters, storytellers, weaved into folklore, and a source of good old-fashioned fun. They are at the same time simple, exciting, and ever changing playthings. They require no clean up at all. Best of all, they help us to recognize patterns, think creatively and use imagination.

Playing with Shadows
A creative climate, one that has a true relationship with creative behavior and imagination, is one in which humor, play, and discovery are active and evident. Luckily, shadow play is an easy way to help all of those things bubble to the surface while imploring some true critical thinking.

Tell Shadow Stories
With origins in Indonesia and China, shadow puppetry has long been a means of passing down religious and cultural stories and simply having fun. Whether you use a flashlight and your hands, or set up a more elaborate shadow theatre, have fun telling stories with shadows. How many different animals can you make? Can they stick out their tongues? Wag their tails? In what ways can you make them leap, fly, or waddle? Add music for ambience or puppet dancing.

Shadow Time
Before we had Timex, we had shadows. With even small amounts of sun, you too can chart the progress of a day, and even make an accurate timepiece. Begin exploring time with shadows by tracing your shadows with chalk. Come back to the same spot every hour or later in the day to see if your shadow has moved, grown or shrunk, and then discuss why. For the truly scientific, use a Pole-to-Dial converter calculator (available widely on the Internet), which will allow you to customize your sundial to your location for added accuracy. Check out www.sundials.co.uk for instructions on how to build a sundial of your own.

Chase a Shadow
A safe, non-contact and fun game to play: the chase is on when it comes to shadows. Can your shadows jump over each other? Tag one another? How small can your shadow be? See if you can get your shadow to climb on the shoulders of your friend. Can your shadows play leap frog?

Whether or not we are looking at six more weeks of cold and stormy weather, embrace your shadow and give it a big warm mid-winter hug. After all, even though it likes to move around a bit, your shadow is a friend who will never leave your side.

Discovering Our Souls in a Messy Kitchen

I uncovered this piece in the dusty files as I was cleaning off my hard drive, and realized I'd never posted it here. So, in one sense, this is a walk down memory lane for me, but in another it could have very easily been written yesterday. I've also posted this to my Thinking Outside the Recipe blog, for obvious reasons, but I wanted to make sure it went here too because I often get questions about mess making with children. Hopefully this will answer some of those questions. Enjoy! and Happy Wondering, and Mess Making!

Flour Experiments

“I’m gonna n eed my chef’s hat for this, Mama!” my son excitedly claims as he sees me pile our ingredients on the counter. Our mission: to make twenty individual sized pizza crusts and an equal amount of balls of playdough, enough for all our party guests

We indeed did start out preparing for the pizza party we were going to have the next evening. Yet, standing on his stool, now waist high to the counter, my son became entranced by the yeast popping and dancing. I could see the wheels turning and he got ‘that look’ in his eyes when he asked, “Can you please get down a big bowl for me? I have some work to do.” So down came another large mixing bowl and the mission took a turn.

He stood on that stool for another four straight hours. From that very spot he mixed, and poured, and measured, and stirred, and truly explored. He went through an entire extra bag of flour and a fair amount of water as I allowed myself to take a deep breath, step back and just … watch! Smiling at that took an extra bit of courage from me, who normally takes very seriously the need not to waste our resources and has succumbed to the pressures of needing to keep a clean house.

With the way our lives go, it isn’t always that we have an extra four hours for this kind of exploration to happen.

Inquiry comes natural to babies; at that time in their lives, they are true scientists. Not so typical of older children. As children get older they begin to stop mimicking what scientists do. Their testing out of ideas begins to fade as they discover that many adults believe there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’, and As Dr. Mark Hertle, senior Program Officer for the Science Education Program at Howard Hughes Medical Institute says, “Inquiry can keep curiosity alive!”

Watered down flour spilled on the floor, dripped down the sides of the bowl and sputtered along the counter. Still, I held back the need to guide the mess or sponge it up and instead we broke out our air trombones and sang loud vibratos of “Sammy the Dog has learned to play trombone!” This was very serious work, you know.

As I scrubbed the counter, the nooks and crannies, the grout lines, the cupboard doors and the smirking drawer faces, my thoughts wandered. I thought of the day my neighbor stopped in unexpectedly and I apologized for the less than spotless house. She let me off the hook with, “Honey, if you have a clean house, you’re not spending enough time with your kids.” I reveled in the memory of her kind voice, but couldn’t really get the voice of my father out of my head.

Surely months from now I will come across bits of dried flour-water-love mixture, perhaps even with an extra bit of mold growing on them.

I’ve finally finished the counters and take a look at the floors. Grabbing the mop and then setting it aside, I decide to save that for tomorrow, because that is another party in and of itself and I know he will want to be invited! Besides our floor needs a good mopping. It is, after all that time of year.