#16. Learn to identify at least three constellations, the North Star, and a couple of planets

IDEA #16. Learn to identify at least three (or five, or ten) constellations. Be able to identify the North Star. Learn to spot a couple of planets.

A knowledge of the heavens has been the sign of a learned person in many cultures, and for an investment of relatively little time in generally pleasant circumstances a young person can gain a surprising degree of knowledge of astronomy. Although the makeup of constellations may seem obscure to some observers, familiarity with the unchanging layout of the stars can eventually bring an understanding of the patterns that our forebears once regarded as common lore. At various times of the year a number of planets are prominent in the night sky during the normal waking hours of most children, and the seasonal procession of constellations gives the knowing looker yet another way of measuring, and pondering, the passage of time.

There are a number of good astronomical maps and sites on the Internet, as are computer programs and apps for mobile devices that simulate in detail and with labels the night sky at any time of day from any location.  There are also any number of excellent guidebooks and online sites dedicated to helping young observers learn about stars and planets, and several magazines—Astronomy and Sky & Telescope, in particular—carry detailed maps of each month’s night sky, including the phases of the moon and the appearance of planets and other non-stellar objects. A great, simple gadget is a planisphere, an adjustable star chart usually made of cardboard and available online or at many science museum gift shops–even educational toy stores.

There are telescopes available that can be programmed to aim themselves at specific astronomical targets, but these, though the prices are coming down, still run into the many hundreds of dollars for the most basic models. Of course, a mere ability to spout the names of a few constellations, and even to spot planets, is only the very beginning of a true knowledge of modern astronomy. Many of the better star guides are also good basic textbooks in the nature of the universe, with discussions of the many types of stars, galaxies, and nebulae and in-depth features on planets, asteroids, and comets. Knowing where the Pleiades are relative to the moon will no longer make one a sage, but being able to understand the patterns, forces, and elements of the universe is still a sign of an essential intellectual engagement with the world around one.

#15. Pick a minor league baseball team and follow its fortunes through the newspaper or on the Internet

IDEA #15.  Pick a minor league baseball team and follow its fortunes through the newspaper or on the Internet. The Toledo Mud Hens might be an entertaining team to start with; they really are called that. You can also listen to streaming netcasts of the minor league games of many teams—check one out. And take this to the next level by learning to keep a baseball scorecard as you listen.

There is perhaps no activity in the American experience of sport more quintessential than following a baseball team. Baseball was the first team sport to be associated with a particular locale, and our home teams continue in some ways to define us—just ask anyone from Boston.

Before there was television, before the major leagues expanded coast to coast, and before the idea of large and small markets developed, Americans were passionate followers of minor league baseball. The minor leagues still thrive, in their way, in many cases showcased by new or refurbished “jewel box” stadiums and their games enhanced by inter-inning shows and promotion nights.

Even if the youngster lives in a major market city or cares nothing at all for baseball, immersing him or herself in the world of a minor league team can be an unrivaled experience in classic Americana. A look through the sports pages or an Internet search will disclose the standings of teams in all kinds of leagues at many levels—single-A and triple-A being the most common—and provide a wealth of small town and small city teams from which to choose one to be followed.

Even the most minor of leagues and teams have websites, and so during the summer season it is an easy matter to follow the fortunes of almost any team. Moreover, local radio stations may carry at least the team’s home games (and stream these over the station’s website), or there may be a live-text play-by-play broadcast over the Internet. (Baseball via radio or text feed, incidentally, recapitulates the fan experience of the Thirties and Forties, the Golden Age when no other sport so captured the American imagination—even though most fans had to depend on radio or newspapers for updates.)

Learning to keep a baseball scorebook is a subtle and complex art requiring attentiveness, knowledge of a number of complicated concepts, and a keen desire to recreate human experience in numbers, letters, and symbols. A knowledgeable fan looking at a thorough scorebook can practically visualize an entire game.

#14. Go to a local cemetery and see if there is volunteer work for you there

IDEA #14. Go to a local cemetery and see if there is work you could do: cleaning up around the stones, picking up litter, or even making records of the people buried there. You may have to consult with local officials to find out what you can do. (Don’t try cleaning up the stones unless you are being supervised by a responsible adult, though; older stones can be irreparably damaged by attempts to clean them.)

There are cemeteries that look like a millionaire’s front lawn, and then there are those that receive little to no attention. It is reasonable to assume that a cemetery that is well-kept, mowed and weed-free does not require volunteer assistance, but a graveyard that is overgrown and littered—perhaps because it is used as a kind of free-form park or even trash receptacle by neighbors, needs help.

If a cemetery rescue mission seems in order, the first order of business is to determine who is in charge. Sometimes it is a religious body or a town, but some cemeteries are privately owned and a few—particularly small, isolated rural plots—are even the property of a single family. The more intensive the level of work the young volunteer wants to perform, the more urgent is the need to establish who the controlling authority might be and to obtain permission to conduct a clean-up operation. If the work is a matter of cleaning up litter—and the volunteer should be very wary of picking up even the most weatherworn flags and flower containers, no matter how unsightly they may be; if the litter consists of deposit bottles or cans, the volunteer can even establish a little fund to defray expenses.

Because a cemetery may look unkempt does not mean there are not those who love it and care for it, in their way. Cemeteries with particular historical interest need to be treated almost as archaeological sites, with a minimum of unsupervised work performed—no lawn mowers need to enter a cemetery without the express authorization of the management. It may even be the case that no one seems to know exactly who is in charge, which can turn the project into a research exercise.

It may also be that a small or old cemetery needs just the infusion of interest and energy that a young volunteer can provide. Perhaps a bit of interest will spark the management into organizing—or letting the volunteer organize—a “clean up, fix up” event, a nice way to bring resources to bear on what must be regarded as an important part of a community’s heritage.

And working around graves need not be morbid or scary. Such efforts are acts of respect and continuity, reminders that individuals, and times, pass on, leaving the living to remember and learn.

#12. Write a children’s book. Illustrate it yourself, or ask a friend to help. Field test your book by reading to children of the right age; ask them for feedback, and make changes until you have a book that kids really like. Once you know have written something appealing, find someone to publish your book.

IDEA #12. Write a children’s book. Illustrate it yourself, or ask a friend to help. Field test your book by reading to children of the right age; ask them for feedback, and make changes until you have a book that kids really like. Once you know have written something appealing, find someone to publish your book.

What was your (or your children’s) favorite children’s story? Do you still have a copy around? There is no better place to start imagining writing one’s own children’s book than by carefully examining the form and structure of another.

The secret to most great children’s books is that they combine a great simplicity of form—relatively few words to a page, short sentences, few characters—with a wonderful complexity or open-endedness. The book suggests or evokes rather than spelling out aspects of the character or the story. Goodnight, Moon, for example, provides a prop-filled setting but almost no context; the story could be about, and for, anyone, so every child—and every parent—feels included in the narrative, even if the great green room does not look much like home.

The next Goodnight, Moon might be a bit much to hope for, but creating a storyline and illustrations that might entertain a young neighbor or cousin is simply a great way to harness imaginative power. Which comes first, the pictures or the text, makes little difference, but the story should above all appeal to the writer, and if there are opportunities to introduce whimsy or humor—even irony—by all means take them, as even toddlers know a good joke when they encounter it.

Reassure the young author that the illustrations do not have to look professional—even many published children’s books are a bit rough in the visual department, as evocative is perhaps even more effective than precisely representational. An important physical characteristic for a children’s book is that it can be seen by the listener even as it is being read aloud—larger drawings are better than smaller ones, although some detail is always welcome.

The proof of the pudding, so to speak, will be the first time the story is shared with a young listener. Think of the first audiences as being like focus groups—gather feedback, and make changes as necessary, at least up to the limit of artistic integrity. A final, presentation copy can be made as a gift for a young friend, although the author may want to run off a color photocopy (although this can be expensive) to keep—or to submit to a publisher!

#11. Spend an hour a week creating a painting or sculpture; keep improving it—or create a whole collection. Ask some friends, or maybe your art teacher, to come by for your own personal “gallery opening.”

IDEA #11. Spend an hour a week creating a painting or sculpture; keep improving it—or create a whole collection. Ask some friends, or maybe your art teacher, to come by for your own personal “gallery opening.”

This is as broadly open-ended as any suggestion we will offer The Interested Child, and the intent here is to encourage the young person to take an intellectual and creative risk—to try something new, and perhaps to attempt to produce something in a medium or genre that is completely unfamiliar.

The work could be a simple papier-mâché figure or object, perhaps built around a frame of bent coat-hangers. It might be a watercolor painting or even a “mixed-media” piece in crayon, marker, and paint. The medium does not matter, nor does—and this must be emphasized—technical prowess.

What does matter is the idea of continuous improvement, that taking the time to reflect on a work in progress and then re-do, re-touch, or even re-conceptualize is an important, even essential, part of the creative process. A work begun, set aside, and then returned to at a later time, with a fresher mind and spirit, will naturally evolve in ways that the creator could not have imagined when the work was begun. For the child to see and experience this—and then to explain the process to viewers when the work is “unveiled”—is an important exercise in creative self-discovery, metacognition, and self-expression.

And make the “gallery opening”—or unveiling, or simply the viewing—an event to honor both the effort of the creator and the learning that has been occurring.

#10. Go to a concert or performance of music from a tradition you’ve never listened to before

IDEA #10. Go to a concert or performance of music from a tradition you’ve never listened to before

It should not be terribly hard to find music from unfamiliar traditions, if only because even Western “Classical” is so little heard and appreciated by young Americans in the age of American Idol; in many of the cities and suburbs of “blue states” country-and-western music is equally rare. But while even an afternoon or evening of Mozart or Hank Williams might fit the bill here, I’d urge readers to push the envelope further still. In many communities with either significant immigrant populations or universities with many international students musical performances from many cultures are very easy to find. Even in the absence of these resources, world music concerts abound; some religious institutions regularly welcome musicians from around the world, sometimes but not always playing tunes relating to their faith.

What should the listener be alert for? New instruments, new voices, new languages, and some times even music whose entire structure and tonal properties are significantly different from the familiar. What activities or concerns generated this music? Are the familiar themes and anxieties of the listener’s culture present in the “new” music?

If live performance is just too hard to find, a trip to the recorded music section of the public library might turn up a few surprises. It’s also been my experience that many restaurants play culturally appropriate music; perhaps a friendly restaurateur would be willing to lend a tape(!) or a disc or two. Some specialized food stores actually rent music to members of their community.

And if the internationally exotic is just not accessible, consider the multitude of musical traditions that have arisen and thrive in our own culture but few of us fully know or appreciate: gospel, Delta blues, Big Band, traditional folk, Old Timey, bluegrass, Gullah, and dozens of distinct Native American musical forms. All of these are available in recorded form, and some can be streamed from the Internet or even found on the radio.

#9. Imagine renting an RV and driving across the country

Although we pledged at the outset to provide suggestions that could be taken up by those with limited means, there are some ideas so compelling that it might be well worth the effort and sacrifice of even two or three years’ saving and planning to implement. Many of these involve travel, sometimes overseas, and some might best involve multiple family members to be truly successful as they are presented; many of these also involve considerable time that could mean stretching vacation allotments to the maximum or sacrificing work income.

Thus, some of the suggestions in this section will appear to be for the affluent alone. We would strongly suggest, however, that community resources and even financial aid might well be found that could reduce the burden. In addition, a thoughtful student and an energetic family might be able to develop some specific fundraising schemes focused on making one or more of these suggestions feasible. This will not be easy, but the payoff in terms of a powerful, life-changing thinking and learning experience could be enormous.

Perhaps some of the suggestions among the Big Ideas Requiring Serious Planning and Resources will inspire a child to begin dreaming and, more importantly, to begin developing a plan to realize a dream. Not every suggestion will appeal to that degree, but a couple of them should at least pique some curiosity and generate some thought.

IDEA #9. Imagine getting hold of an RV and driving across the country. Send each of your teachers a postcard from someplace interesting. Keep a journal. If the RV is too much, take a car and a tent. If cross-country is too much, visit a state or two that you’ve never been to. Don’t forget the postcards

Not for the faint of heart or the short on resources, this was once the ne plus ultra of educational vacation ideas. Cross-country travel has been the iconic American experience since the days of the Forty-Niners, but in recent years the ease of air travel has induced more and more vacationers to eschew the highway and turn much of our nation into “fly-over” territory.

But the recreational vehicle (RV—those bus- and trailer-like vehicles with brand names like Winnebago that provide many of the comforts of home for families on the move) has also grown, and more and more families are electing to pile aboard to explore the highways and sights of America. Not only are there things to be seen along the open road—especially if the travelers avoid the interstates—but there are also big lessons to be learned about living in close quarters when underway for a few weeks at a time. (By contrast, the squeamish or claustrophobic might consider the journey of the Mayflower, into which a hundred travelers were packed for weeks without access to laundry or any but the most crude bathroom facilities. And the Mayflower was just a bit larger than a really big RV.)

If the notion of RVing from sea to shining sea is too much—and those who would have to drive need a stout heart and a strong commitment to the enterprise—it is also possible to travel around a single region. Car camping with tents and sleeping bags from campground to campground is also a time-honored way for Americans to get around, removing the need for a driver to be comfortable manhandling thirty or more feet of vehicle but also compressing the travelers into an interior only slightly larger than that of a Wells Fargo stagecoach; the enforced intimacy is not to everyone’s liking, but a pile of books on CD or, in the worst case, personal music players with headphones, can make the hours pass smoothly.

How you travel is a great deal less important than where you go, what you see, and above all how you look at and talk about what is observed. It is possible for a car full of people to travel many miles with its occupants contained within a cultural bubble impervious to outside influence, but a truly valuable journey must be made with eyes turned outward and minds wide open. Begin by carefully and practically planning the journey, which should be a relatively democratic process, and make sure that dialogue continues as the trip takes place; journal-keeping is also encouraged. Rather than merely sightseeing, a trip of this sort should truly be an odyssey of the mind.

IDEA #8. Earn a sum of money with a simple business you think up and run all by yourself.

Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences encompass most kinds of intellectual function, but if we were to add another it might be the intelligence of The Dealmaker. Some individuals seem to have a gift for making good decisions around material objects, a knack for trading and leveraging that plays itself out in schoolroom transactions well before it pays off in success in the business community later on.

Conducting transactions around material objects seems to be hardwired into the human spirit, and even in non-materialistic cultures there is still the need to make decisions about allocation and accountability. Where elders are in charge of these matters, it is because their longer experience has given them a certain perspective and wisdom, a perspective and wisdom that we believe can be gained even at a young age when children are given the opportunity to participate in a culture’s economic activities.

A part of some of the suggestions in the Business and Entrepreneurship section involves “giving back” to the community by contributing a percentage of any profits made to come worthy charitable cause of the child’s choice. If the object here is to strengthen the youngster’s capabilities as a businessperson, it is also about building a sense of social responsibility.

IDEA #8. Earn a sum of money with a simple business you think up and run all by yourself. Then find a charity you believe in and contribute a tenth of what you earned.

The one-person street corner lemonade stand is the classic first business, and the young entrepreneur can learn a great deal from even something so simple—material costs, price-setting, inventory control, even labor costs. Whatever the nature of the business, the essentials remain the same: to keep income ahead of expenses and to find ways to keep customers satisfied.

The major decision to be made, of course, is the nature of the business itself. Perhaps it plays to the strengths of the child, either as something that can be made and sold or a service based on a particular interest or ability. Is there an interest in the product, a probable customer base? Can the product be created and sold at a price point that ensures profit? What are the possible pitfalls and problems that could arise?

Once the business has been decided on, the next steps are to determine details such as the nature of advertising, location, quality and quantity of materials needed, and when the business will actually be in operation. Once these  things are decided on, the business can open.

NOTE: Certain kinds of businesses, and children of a certain age, will require a certain amount of adult monitoring. Unforeseen issues may arise with customers, local regulations, and losses—to name a few—and the youngster may need some adult back-up to assist with troubleshooting. If the business seems to be headed for a total loss, some adult wisdom will be necessary to determine when to pull the plug and to reflect on what went wrong. In business as in so many areas, failure is one of the very best teachers.

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