IDEA #25. Find an opportunity to use a serious telescope at a local observatory, astronomy club, or with a relative or friend who has one. Observe the rings of Saturn for yourself.
A good telescope is a costly object, and a truly great telescope is well out of the reach of most individuals. However, any number of organizations and individuals are deeply committed to offering access to the sights that can be seen through such instruments.
In your community there may be an astronomy club, or perhaps there is such an organization at a local school or college. Some clubs and educational institutions have “open viewing” nights when they make their equipment available to all comers, asking only for the users’ interest or perhaps a modest donation. These sky parties, as they are sometimes known, bring together both amateurs and experts (and astronomy has a long tradition of amateurs who are experts) to share their knowledge and their telescopes, and most groups are especially eager to host young viewers. Sometimes individuals have built their own observatories, often identifiable by the dome-shaped telescope housing that is the highest point on a building; such individuals could be approached for permission to view some night—the worst they can say is no.
Once a young person has viewed a nebula or a planet through a high-quality telescope, he or she will never see the night sky the same way again. The rings of Saturn, for example, are quite familiar from drawings and photographs, but seeing them with one’s own eyes is an amazing experience. Even if this activity does not spur the youngster on to become the next Copernicus or Stephen Hawking, it will alter his or her perspective if only to the extent that it makes more real the descriptions and models of the universe upon which we base our understanding of the cosmos.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 29, 2013
IDEA #24. Acquire a good-quality compass designed to be used in navigation and learn the basics of navigation using the compass and a map; there are online resources as well excellent books available in libraries to teach these skills.
Some outdoor enthusiasts will tell you that map-and-compass land navigation has gone the way of the dodo in the age of GPS, but when the batteries run out, or when the satellites are down (as they were for a period after 9/11/2001) it takes a magnetic compass and a good map to tell you where you are.
The location of north has been part of the human knowledge base for millennia, but understanding the magnetic compass gave medieval Europeans the ability to navigate precisely. Greater sophistication in compass design (and an awareness that magnetic north is not always true north) has made possible not only voyages of discovery but also more mundane activities such as land surveying.
Learning even the most rudimentary skills involving a compass—following a set course, for example—involves logical and mathematical thinking as well as sustained attention; lots of instructional resources can be found on the internet. Land navigation using a compass and a map is even more complex, involving visualization of landform and structure as well as an understanding of angles. Even a short journey accomplished by this method can bring a considerable feeling of accomplishment, and it is not then difficult to imagine how it might even be possible to cross a mountain range or a desert using just simple instruments.
A serviceable compass need not be expensive—adequate models can be had for under fifteen dollars—but it may be possible to find a local hiking or orienteering (a sport involving running as well as compass navigation) group willing to provide both instruction and equipment to an interested novice. Maps suitable for serious navigation can be located through the government—US Geodetic Service topographical maps for land use and NOAA charts for marine use—or though stores specializing in maps or outdoor recreation; marinas and boatyards carry nautical charts.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 27, 2013
IDEA #23. Offer to help out for a few hours a week with an older or infirm neighbor or family member
Sometimes pitching in when a neighbor or family member needs assistance is harder than volunteering “in the field.” When an established friendly or loving relationship becomes a matter of caretaking there needs to be space and a chance for the helper to process the experience; in a world with a graying and increasingly dependent population, this is true for people of all ages.
But often there is no kind of service more valuable than helping out someone close to one. Whether the assistance is direct—cooking, feeding, reading aloud, providing physical assistance with exercising or dressing—or indirect—shopping, running errands, making telephone calls, cleaning and organizing—the performing of essential tasks is critically helpful and can often make the difference between anxiety and security for the person being helped. Other family members or neighbors may also appreciate being spelled so that they can get to essential matters in their own lives.
And of course the person being helped does not have to be old or permanently disabled. A working mother may be looking for child-care or someone to look after a sick child for a few hours while she goes grocery shopping. Sometimes an extra pair of hands can be useful in a busy household trying to pack for vacation or clean up in anticipation of company. While these tasks typically fall in the category of odd jobs, such work does not always require pay; in older times, exchanging labor was part of the fabric of community life, and no one expected to be paid in cash. The young volunteer might just set an example here of a kind of neighborhood “help bank” that could pay off for everyone over time.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 22, 2013
IDEA #22. Pick an important current issue in the news and follow it for a week or a month on two different news outlets (newspapers, news websites, radio, television…)—one of which is not from your native country. Talk about these events with an adult or two.
This exercise in comparative political science and news analysis is intended to help youngsters understand such complex concepts as point of view and self-interest as well as to uproot the participant from the single point of view with which one’s “home country” media may portray an issue.
The first challenge is to identify an ongoing issue that is receiving at least a moderate amount of play in the media. This may include any field, from politics to science to sports to the arts, although a sports issue probably ought to involve a sport that is truly international in its popularity base, as interesting as it might be to read what a Spanish newspaper thinks about a trade in the NBA.
The second challenge will be to find a news source from another country; most major newspapers and news magazines have websites, and many large city or university libraries subscribe to at least a couple of English-language newspapers from other countries. English-language news sources from other nations include the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, and the British Broadcasting Corporation (United Kingdom); The Japan Times and Asahi Shimbun (Japan); the Globe and Mail (Canada); The Hindu (India); The Star (South Africa); French News (France); Gulf Times (Kuwait); Al Jazeera English (Qatar); China Daily (China); and the International Herald Tribune. There are many more, and a thoughtful Internet search (try “English-language news [country name]”) should find them; most national broadcast media also maintain written-word sites.
One thing for the young news hunter to be on the lookout for are syndicated news stories from press agencies like the Associated Press and Reuters. These are often purchased and published in identical form by news outlets around the world and will not show appreciable difference from one outlet to another–although when they are different, it’s worth figuring out why.
In the end, the youngster should consider the differences and similarities he or she has observed, and any interested adult should be delighted to hear about the project and the result.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 20, 2013
IDEA #21. Assemble your own personal book of quotations. As sources you can of course use favorite books as well as library and Internet resources, but don’t forget the favorite sayings and wisdom of those closest to you. If you have a friend or relative who has a special quotation, try making a beautiful copy of it and giving it to them, framed; you can even make the frame yourself.
The Internet is full of great quotation sites, and any library will have at least one exhaustive collection of great quotations. For some young people, finding the words of famous men and women that resonate with their own ideas about life is an extremely important affirmation—especially when the child might not feel as though his or her own point of view is quite like other people’s.
School yearbooks often seem to trade on quotations, and student pages are filled with the words of rock stars, television characters, and other popular figures. Many of the lines chosen by students for inclusion on their yearbook pages are more than familiar—they are clichés and catchphrases as much as significant commentaries on the human condition. While there is nothing wrong with this—indeed, cultures thrive on shared knowledge of just this ephemeral sort—it is worth the trouble for the student to dig more deeply into history’s store of apt observations and pointed witticisms.
Some young people find that this exercise itself resonates with their own need to find validation in the words of Churchill, Thoreau, Lao Tzu, or Dorothy Parker. They become quotation or aphorism collectors, digging into volumes of familiar quotations and roaming the Internet for just the “zinger” to take as a personal motto or e-mail signature line. There are ways to search quotations by individuals with whom one shares an important interest or characteristic, or ways track and sort all quotations on a particular topic. The point is for the young person to explore the ways in which people can use and have used language to precisely frame a viewpoint or a judgment.
It is also important for the quotation-seeker to look close to home. There will no doubt be a family member, a friend, or even a teacher who is locally famous—or notorious—for a particular turn of phrase, and what better way to celebrate that individual’s take on life than by crafting a “suitable for framing” version of that phrase.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 15, 2013
IDEA #20. Keep a sketchbook in which you record and illustrate your observations, thoughts, feelings, and experiences
The sketchbook has been around since at least the European Middle Ages, and much of what we know of the feelings and thought processes of our forebears comes from the combination of their words and their visual ideas their sketchbooks demonstrate.
Any blank paper—a diary, a purpose-made sketch journal, or even a pad of lined notebook paper—will do. The young person can be encouraged to jot down a few ideas each day or to make a commitment simply to drawing something—and technical proficiency is beside the point. The subject could be a piece of toast or an idea for a new spaceship; it does not matter. The point here is for the journalist to work at interpreting his or her own ideas or experiences visually, to keep a record over time not only of how once sees the world but of how one thinks about it. The individual who is comfortable representing sensation or thought, no matter how poor the product might be from an artistic standpoint, will in time become adept at making explicit connections between disparate realms of ideas and at seeing the world ever more clearly and independently.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 13, 2013
IDEA #19. Attend a service or rite of a faith tradition that is not your own
Religious traditions are one of the most powerful forces affecting human behavior and values, and the last decade has amply demonstrated the degree to which the failure to comprehend and respect the beliefs of others can trigger disaster. Few nations of the world are home to as much religious diversity as the United States, and few peoples should have as much incentive as Americans to explore and come to terms with different faith traditions. The author remembers very well being taught in school that “polytheism” describes the religion of the ancient Romans and Greeks—but never being informed that it also describes the belief, for example, of hundreds of thousands of American Hindus, some of whom have been near neighbors.
Worship services are commonly listed in local newspapers and on the Internet, but the smallest and most esoteric of religious bodies may schedule and communicate the times of their services or ceremonies by word of mouth only. In some areas public Native American Indian gatherings include aspects of worship, and indigenous religious festivals also take place in many immigrant communities.
It should go without saying that attendance at a religious observance ought to involve a mindset of respect and openness. While it may be that the observance itself includes language that sounds exclusionary, it is the obligation of those in attendance to listen and watch with an open mind and an open heart, following as much as possible whatever members of the faith may be doing.
It should also be mentioned that the nature of some religious traditions is to seek new adherents. While many religious bodies welcome newcomers openhandedly and without expectation, the young person (and any adult chaperone, for that matter) attending a religious observance needs to be cautioned as to signs that he or she is being targeted for conversion. It might be well to have a practiced exit line to use if the situation becomes in any way uncomfortable. While it is unlikely that such a thing will occur, it is important that young cultural explorers, whether they are participating in a religious exercise or a noshing in a restaurant, know when it is all right to curtail the exploration and return to more a secure setting. But is more important for this young explorer to develop the capacity to experience cultural difference with positive equanimity and not apprehension.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 8, 2013
IDEA #18. Take a course on a college campus
While this could indeed involve finding a suitable course and setting off for a far-off destination, this suggestion could also involve something as modest—and as relatively affordable—as enrolling in a course in a nearby community college. This is probably a suggestion suitable to high school students, but some colleges have ongoing programs or even special events–MIT’s SPLASH program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, draws kids from all over the country–specifically aimed at students as young as upper elementary
This should not be done for any other reason than that the student is interested in or curious about the subject matter. If indeed the course is part of a summer residential program, then it requires a serious commitment of time, energy, and intellectual curiosity—as well as money. He student needs to be ready to work hard to make the most of the opportunity.
This is the time for a strong, even stentorian, caveat: The world is full of ambitious high schoolers busily padding and polishing their c.v.’s by amassing college courses and summer programs set on college campuses. While such activities may have educational value for participants along with whatever luster they might add to a college application (and college admission offices are quite good at distinguishing expensive résumé-building from authentic learning), they are generally regarded by participants only as mildly—or more—distasteful rites of passage, a summer or nights spent fulfilling an obligation.
The kind of college course that the provocative parent offers to a child will be one in which the child is genuinely interested without its having any particular instrumental value in making the student look good; if a record of the course makes the curious student look curious, that is all right. Let the student really look for something that he or she regards as intellectually fun, even if it bears no relation to any category needing fulfillment in a list of graduation requirements. And let the student work hard because the material is engaging and not to earn yet another accolade. The thinking child will acquire plenty of those in time, and they will be accolades with real significance.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 6, 2013
IDEA #17. Earn a sum of money with a business that you organize and run with friends. Then find a charity you believe in and contribute a tenth of what you earned.
This activity builds on the previous suggestion in the Business and Entrepreneurship category, with the added complexity of partnership. Here is a valuable opportunity to learn interpersonal skills around management and compromise, with the new wrinkle that the joint participants are friends.
One of the best ways to forestall problems among the partners–even with an elementary schooler’s lemonade stand–is to make a simple chart that defines and allots tasks and responsibilities, doing what’s possible to draw on strengths and interests. With the chart completed and literally signed off on by all participants, the next step is to build a timeline of jobs to be completed. Careful, open, and clear pre-planning of the work to be done is essential in making the operation, and the relationships of the partners, run smoothly.
NOTE FOR INTERESTED PARENTS/GUARDIANS: Incidentally, this same system—an established business model—can be used to help kids organize and complete collaborative academic projects, where workload inequity and individual shirking often lead to disaster among even close friends. Even if the teacher does not help students by assigning such a system, urge or even guide your child to set things up in this way—a clear list of tasks, a clear allocation of responsibility, a clear timeline—whenever a group project is starting. The plan should impress (and perhaps inspire) the teacher, and the work will go much more smoothly.
Posted by Peter Gow on August 1, 2013