IDEA #7. Learn to identify five (or ten) different types of trees.

Science, technology, and mathematics are not all about test-tubes and equations. Great scientists and mathematicians are able above all to think scientifically and mathematically; in other words, they are able to perceive patterns and relationships and to pose deep questions about what they see. In the end, being a scientist or a mathematician is simply about observing experience and then thinking about it. To a perceptive young person, quantitative and causal relationships will begin to emerge where least expected, and the youngster who is inclined to apply even more thought to these relationships is on the path to truly thinking like a scientist.

The activities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math section are designed to foster scientific and mathematical approaches to otherwise ordinary day-to-day experience. Some require more rigorous or disciplined action—record-keeping, for example—but all are designed for the simple purpose of helping the young person see common phenomena in new, more insightful ways.

IDEA #7 . Learn to identify five (or ten) different types of trees.

In a world in which the study of biology in schools is largely confined to the molecular and cellular level, the old-fashioned study of nature by observation and classification is something of a lost art. Nonetheless, many students are interested in various kinds of field biology, and the ability to recognize different species and families is an important skill to acquire.

Even if the youngster may not be heading toward graduate study in biology, it is both useful and satisfying to be able to recognize different elements of one’s environment. In most locales the variety of trees is still linked to an older variety of purpose: some trees were planted for shade, others for the timber or firewood they produced, still others for their ornamental qualities. In a few places the tree population is as it was prior to the development of the land by settlers; cottonwoods and willow mark watercourses, or the giants in virgin forest are preserved as relics of natural history. The successive growth of particular species marks the historical sequence by which nature reclaims cleared land.

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Good field guides to the study of trees (dendrology) abound, and any library or bookstore should be able to provide choice. The better ones will provide not just pictures and names but also explanation and history, perhaps explaining the suitability of its wood, seeds, sap, or bark for uses in an earlier time. The guide might also refer to some of the more urgent issues confronting modern tree populations—blights and insects whose spread has been made possible by human agency, or invasive non-native species that thrive opportunistically in ecological niches once occupied by other species that they have in effect driven out. Rather than representing a constant in nature, trees have life cycles and crises, and the more one can learn about this, the more effective a steward the thinking youngster will be.

IDEA #6. Try a new sport in each of these areas: team, individual, land, water

Outdoor recreation and sports have a significant place in the history of American learning and American thought. Pioneers on land and sea were not only engaged in essential work but also in utilizing skills—hiking, hunting, sailing, canoeing, map and compass use—that we now associate with leisure activities. The rise of interest in team and individual sports, per se, coincides with eras of settlement and the growth of working and middle classes with the time, inclination, and disposable income to enjoy rooting for a home team or playing a game of golf.

Sports and games involve the use of many cognitive skills, from the complex geometry of virtually all ball games to the quick thinking and decision-making required to set up an effective play. Listening and negotiation skills are the most important part of developing the rules and stipulations for even the most informal or spontaneous games. Team sports are based on communication, while success in individual sports stems at least in part from knowing one’s own strengths and capabilities.

Inasmuch as sports are also important expressions of culture, the young person who chooses to explore the hinterlands of sport will also make interesting discoveries about the nature of the human experience. In the patterns of popularity of one sport or another may be found the faint traces of human history—cricket in the former British empire, for example—as well as unexpected evidence of socioeconomic differences.

In the woods and on the water the youngster will learn, long with self-reliance, about the interaction of man with nature as well as, perhaps, a bit more about nature itself. And in exploring all these areas he or she will enact old Roman dictum, mens sana in corpore sano—a sound mind in a healthy body—an ideal motto for a balanced life.

IDEA #6. Try a new sport in each of these areas: team, individual, land, water.

Sports and games come in all sizes and degrees of complexity, from those requiring little more than a ball and some play space to those involving thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Whether the new activity is team handball or horseback riding, the point here is not only to acquire a few new skills but also to explore the breadth of this field of human endeavor.

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Along the way, there are lessons to be learned—rules, procedures, stances, commands—that will inspire the thinking child to wonder at their origin as well as to find new areas in which these lessons can be applied. Until one tries archery, for example, one may never know which is one’s sighting eye, but that knowledge may also be useful in other arenas from painting to music. Handling a horse or a sailboat will make Westerns or sea stories all the more real, while the strategies of water polo may be of surprising utility in basketball (and vice versa). Tossing a javelin will involve any number of principles of physics and the mathematics of trajectories.

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Any library will have reference material relating to sports and games, and it is likely that the youngster already has some ideas about things he or she would like to try. Finding ways to play a new team sport may be a bit more difficult, but perhaps a few friends could be enlisted to play a scaled-down version—think of the various ways in which baseball can become a two-person sport (Three Flies, Running Bases) and use the imagination.

Some sports or activities—especially those that might involve animals, the water, heights, projectiles, or vehicles—will need some thought given to matters of safety and even supervision. Enlisting an expert as mentor or coach would be a very good idea.

IDEA #5. There are thousands of agencies and organizations seeking volunteers—find some

Volunteer service is all the rage in certain educational circles these days, for good reason. Few activities combine the doing absolute good in the world with the chance to make genuine human, cultural, and even political connections. The difficulty is often in finding a particular service activity that suits the inclinations and personality of the person doing the service, and there always exists in many kinds of service activities the possibility that the doer may so represent the service as to seem condescending or even insulting to the recipient. Gone are the days of noblesse oblige, when it was acceptable for the affluent of the world to find it in their heart and their schedule to take pity on others and perform some sort of charitable service. While the world’s needs have not diminished, our understanding of the dignity of all people requires that service in our time involve real sophistication.

The suggestions in the SERVICE AND HELPING OTHERS category certainly encompass traditional “soup kitchen” service opportunities, but it is our hope that such activities would be seen as a starting point from which young people can explore their own interests to discover the places where their strengths and proclivities can truly contribute to fulfilling the needs of others—including the planet itself.

It must be pointed out that many service venues have strict age limits or other restrictions on who can perform what sorts of service. These activities may require an extra measure of adult guidance in helping to find appropriate and rewarding service work.

IDEA #5. There are thousands of agencies and organizations seeking volunteers—find some by 

–Going to a local town or city hall or community center or library; ask someone, read the posters on the bulletin boards

Checking out volunteer needs at a place of worship

Asking friends and family members

Go on line and search under “volunteer opportunities [yourtown]”

Of all the suggested activities in this book, this may require the least explanation. The world is full of need, and most often this need is well advertised, if one knows where to look.

It is likely that there is a community or neighborhood organization that serves if not as a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities, as a bulletin board. Try the town hall, a library, a post office notice board, a public school guidance office. Expect minimum age limits and particular needs—a driver’s license, for example—but be persistent.

If political institutions yield nothing useful, try other community organizations, in particular churches, temples, or mosques. Many of these maintain their own service programs that might be looking for more help, and if not, someone at such a place may have other leads.

When all else fails, look close to home: Are there specific needs that can be seen in the neighborhood that a young person could begin to meet on his or her own initiative?

And if the technology is available, try an Internet search for “volunteers needed” situations, focusing on  your area. The search may need some refining, but stay with it.

If the idea of service does indeed make the youngster smile, keep looking. Something is sure to turn up.

IDEA #4. Get a volunteer gig working for a town or city agency or a political or community action organization

No responsibility sits more firmly on the shoulders of any citizen than the obligation to be an active member of civil society. From the smallest functions of local government to the most profoundly significant questions of national policy, it behooves all people to engage positively and productively with the society in which they live. The rewards of civic engagement are many and palpable, and active citizens and community members gain a sense that their voices and values matter; as stakeholders in society, we should all understand at first hand the value of protecting and expanding that stake for the benefit of all.

 The suggestions for CIVIC AND COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT are aimed at helping the young citizen find those areas in which his or her own interest can be converted into satisfying activism and advocacy. Along the way, he or she may have a chance to define and articulate certain social and political values that may serve them in good stead and carry them forward toward a life of principle and purpose. While not all are suitable for every age group, most can be adapted to fit the inclinations of anyone with a serious interest in making a difference in their community.

IDEA #4. Get a volunteer gig working for a town or city agency or a political or community action organization

Many community organizations and not a few local and state governments have volunteer programs aimed at high-school-age citizens and focused on using the energy and enthusiasm of students to build community support around specific issues or programs. Many communities also have various sorts of “youth advisory boards” or the like that provide a thoughtful voice in policy making on behalf of citizens too young to vote.

The first step here would be to contact your local government. If there is an executive officer—a mayor, a governor, a county administrator—that office may be the best source of information on opportunities for young citizens to become involved. Work your way through the system until you find the program you seek.

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Outside of government in many communities and locales there are politically active organizations focused on a single issue or set of issues. Such organizations can be identified by tracking the names of bodies to which speakers at local hearings belong or simply by attending carefully to the news or searching the internet. Some such groups are faith-based and might be found be inquiring through church, temple, or mosque groups or, again, by watching the news.

One never knows whether one’s volunteer time will be spent stuffing envelopes, making coffee, or sitting in on important policy discussions—only experience can tell which kinds of activities are going to hold real interest or seem “worth the time.” Even a young volunteer should not be afraid to offer to do more or to remind supervisors that they may have more expertise (if they really do, in fact) than may be apparent. The point of engaging in civic volunteership is to be able to have an influence—even the tiniest—on community matters that do indeed matter. On the other hand, envelopes need stuffing and tired activists need their caffeine, and so the young volunteer should also recognize that the least glamorous parts of service are sometimes also among the most necessary and most valuable in the long run.

IDEA #3. Listen to an entire episode of This American Life on National Public Radio and then e-mail your thoughts on the experience to someone.

In an idea-driven society words are the coin of the realm. What the College Board used to refer to a “verbal aptitude” and what educator and originator of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences Howard Gardner calls “Linguistic Intelligence” is all about fluency with words, language, and the way these convey complex ideas.

It’s a given that truly great students are usually also great and voracious readers, kids who inhale words and the ideas that go with them. They also tend to be kids who can listen eagerly and carefully to complex conversations and presentations. Many are also fluid writers for who turning their own ideas into words, sentences, and stories is as much a part of life as breathing.

Most educators will tell you that the best preparation for almost anything in the academic sphere–and for life in the Information Age–is read, read, read!

To which we’d add: Listen, listen, listen! and Write, write, write! 

IDEA #3. Listen to an entire episode of This American Life on National Public Radio and then e-mail your thoughts on the experience to someone.

Listening well is not quite a lost art, but ever since the Golden Age of Radio was done in by the television, good radio documentaries have been hard to find—except on public radio. This American Life has been a fixture on National Public Radio’s weekend schedule for years, and each week the show features three or four longish—10–30 minute—segments and often a few shorter ones on a particular theme. The themes and the segments can be sad, provocative, poignant, nostalgic, annoying, and frequently very funny, and the writing is intelligent and witty.

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Sometimes the theme will not hold much interest for younger listeners, and occasionally the content requires a certain maturity, but more often than not the show’s appeal (part of which is the low-key narrative by creator Ira Glass) is considerable to anyone willing to give an attentive listen.

Since imitation is the highest form of flattery, perhaps the young listener could even imagine and create his or her own segment of an imagined This American Life show. It is even possible to submit segments to the show; guidelines can be found on the show’s website, <www.thislife.org>. All it takes is a voice recorder and a great story idea!

IDEA #2. Buy (or go to a library) and read a magazine about the arts from cover to cover.

The purveyors of popular culture have done a spectacular job creating a version of American youth deeply connected with “the arts”; children and teenagers spend billions of dollars each year on films and music. 

Mostly, however, this connection with things “artistic” is purely an economic construct. Rather than an imaginative exploration of a created universe, most of the consumption of cultural products by young people in the industrialized world is the result of exhaustive market research and targeted content packaging. The mechanism is a brilliantly conceived convergence of a relatively affluent demographic (kids) with an ever-evolving cornucopia of designer products—boy bands, rap stars, action films, gadgets to play the songs, feature-rich smart phones, and even clothing and personal-care items—that are essentially fungible commodities whose purpose is to separate customers from their cash. Rather than a free market, this convergence can be seen as a rigorous development of data-driven merchandising that can entrap less-than-independent-minded young people in a consumer niche from which there is no escape—nor even a felt need to do so. The niche becomes a comfort zone in which a never-ending cascade of what an earlier generation called “mental pabulum” ensures that the consumer is never discomfited by intellectual challenge or even by much in the way of variety—the latest hit or must-have product is simply a pricey reiteration of the last.

While this trend may drive a thriving economy, it also provides a wall of cultural static that effectively obscures both a whole other world of non-consumer-driven arts production and also the creative potential of each individual. Where there is non-stop hip hop there is little need for the average child to sing tunes of her own devising, and young people in the United States make up a tiny proportion of fine-arts consumers or even aficionados.

The suggestions in THE ARTS AND CREATIVE EXPRESSION category are designed to develop the child’s understanding of and appreciation for artistic expression, both as something that might do on one’s own but also as a broadening context that includes media and forms beyond the familiar. 

IDEA #2. Buy (or go to a library) and read from cover to cover a magazine about the arts. Try Downbeat, Art in America, Dance, American Theatre, Aperture—there are many, many more. Find an artist or performer whose work interests you, and then look for more of her or his work in a gallery, in performance, or on the Internet.

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If one is not fortunate enough to live in a community with a “vibrant arts scene,” it might be difficult to imagine the extraordinary quantity and variety of output from the global creative community. The many arts magazines currently published not only offer a taste of what is available but also serious inspiration to young people who might have imaginative yens of their own. Whether the art form be music, painting, dance, or theater, magazines can give the reader a sense of who is creating what, how the critics feel about it, and how the complex marketplace for the fine and imaginative arts works. Many magazines also carry regular “how-to” features that illuminate particular techniques, and interviews and biographical articles offer insight into the minds of a range of artists.

In itself, a magazine probably will not inspire the next David Hockney, Richard Avedon, or Twyla Tharp, but it will at least serve as an introduction to the nature of the creative life and contemporary art. A hard reality in our society is that new audiences for art (and this includes non-blockbuster cinema and music that doesn’t make the Top 40) are not being well trained except by happenstance; relatively few young people are even aware that there is an arts scene, and fewer still have even the faintest idea of how to access it in search of interesting things to look at and experience. Publications make a great entrée into the world of the arts, and furthermore they are themselves often beautiful things to look upon.

IDEA #1. Go to a restaurant featuring a kind of national or ethnic cuisine you’ve never tried. Whatever you do, don’t order a Coke.

It’s a big world, and the future will belong to those who not only understand this but who are comfortable with cultural differences. From world population shifts to changes in the demographics of our communities to the globalization of production and distribution, Americans young and old need to develop the personal tools to live in a world whose boundaries are fading fast.

Many of the ideas in the section are explicitly directed at cultural exploration, sometimes in a virtual mode, while others challenge the readers to dig more deeply into aspects of their own lives, even to the extent of stepping out of comfort zones. The point is to enter each experience with an eager, open mind, ready to take in what is novel and exciting and then to reflect on how it relates to their own lives and aspirations.

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Poutine and a Hot Hamburger–and yes, Coke–can’t win ’em all!

IDEA #1. Go to a restaurant featuring a kind of national or ethnic cuisine you’ve never tried. Whatever you do, don’t order a Coke.

Eating what some grocery stores still call “ethnic” food is an experience as old as our nation itself—European settlers were trying pumpkin and corn as part of the same cultural exchange that gave native American Indian peoples a taste for breads and cakes. Within living memory Italian cuisine, once considered exotic has become a staple of mainstream American cooking, and today tacos, Chinese take-out, and pad thai can be had in nearly every American community.

The stipulation about beverages—no familiar cola drinks—challenges the child to step away from the ubiquitous and try out the particular. Lassi, tchai, or guaraná soda are emblematic of the cultures that have produced them and deserve a taste; the finicky eater can always order water to wash down the distasteful, although the open-minded eater may be pleasantly surprised. It might be harder to resist the fried potato, which eked its way into global cuisine a hundred years ago in various shapes and degrees of spiciness, but remember that macaroni was once a delicacy to be found only in eastern Asia. Perhaps this ought to be a reminder that, like so many other aspects of human experience, taste itself seems to be subject to globalization, and that restaurants serving the cuisine of a diverse planet are standing firm against the goal once stated by McDonald’s executive, to serve every meal to every person on the planet every day.

Vive le différence! we say.

ABOUT THESE POSTS

Each post here will detail one idea for sparking a child’s interest. Posts will be loosely categorized into one of nine themes:

  • The World and its Cultures
  • The Arts and Creative Expression
  • Language and Literature
  • Civic and Community Engagement
  • Service and Helping Others
  • Sports and the Great Outdoors
  • The Sciences
  • Business and Entrepreneurship
  • Big Ideas Requiring Planning and Serious Resources

I’ll try to keep up something like a rotation. I’ve tried to make all of these ideas low-cost or even free. Where I can, I’m recommending public libraries or the internet as sources. A few of the Big Ideas items are expensive, and I’ll try to offer thoughts for sharing the cost or finding funding.

I’m also pre-supposing that the parents or guardians of The Interested Child are inclined to help the child become independent–to go to a library alone, say, or use public transportation. These determinations are in the hands of the parents and guardians, but it’s been our experience that independence and curiosity often go hand in hand.

Finally, there should be no expectation that any one child will be excited by all or even most of these ideas. They are a menu, from which any child may only find a few things that look exciting. But the point is to offer that menu, to understand that sometimes there needs to be a little encouragement toward finding interesting things to do.

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