Beating the Post-Holiday Blahs: Finding sources of interest during what can be a tough few days

Whatever your tradition, the past couple of weeks have probably involved at least some gift-giving to children, and with all the consumerist hype around holidays, the aftermath inevitably feels like a letdown to many adults and children.

Your interested child may be one of the happy few curled up with a new book or rapturously engaged with a new game, toy, or piece of sporting equipment. Odds are, however, that a certain restlessness is making itself apparent. Vacation days are suddenly devoid of exciting events or surprises and stretch into idle hours to fill with—what?

It’s a challenge for families around the world. How do you engage kids who are in a post-holiday stupor?

If ever there were a time to hop in the car or onto public transportation to visit a museum, a historic site, a gallery, or attend a musical or theatrical event—even a sporting event—this is it. Many such things are low-cost or free; a concert can be at a local church or concert hall, a game can involve college or high school teams; this is tournament time in many places. The idea is to get out of the house and engage.

When taking a child to an event or a cultural or historical destination, make the journey a time of conversation; make attendance interactive. Come up with questions or observations that stimulate the mind and the heart, whether they’re about impressions of what is being viewed, statistical queries, or speculation about other perspectives. Post-event reflection is also a great thing.

At a time when intellectual curiosity needs a bit of an external spark, there are no better questions than

  • What do you think of that?
  • Why do you think they did it that way?
  • What does this remind you of?
  • What do you think your great-grandfather or grandmother would think of this?
  • What would you differently if you were running this?
  • Do you like this?
  • or even: What don’t you enjoy or like about that? How would you fix it to make it more appealing?

The trick, as every parent or guardian knows, is how and when to pose questions without pestering or annoying. The point is not to demand answers but to get the child’s mind in gear; conversation and cogitation are the ultimate objectives, not a running interrogation.

If getting out and going is not in the cards, try finding sources of stimulation around the home: a thought-provoking film (and it doesn’t have to be an un-entertaining movie—but something set in an unfamiliar era or place can get extra synapses firing) or even a show on television, some time with a good radio show. (We’re fans of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, Car Talk, and A Prairie Home Companion. This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour can also be great, but sometimes their subject matter may not be appropriate, as they say, for all ages. All of these are available as podcasts, so you can listen on demand if you have internet access.)

Remember, the interested child doesn’t need to be kept away from popular media or force-fed only educational programming. Our kids were turned on, for example, by the Star Trek: The Next Generation series and the old comedy film The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming; good stories offer perspective as well as entertainment.

Soon enough even kids claiming to be “bored” will find ways to pick themselves up as the holiday break goes on, but it won’t hurt to jump start the process.

And of course, the interested child’s adult caregivers should make sure that they find things to keep themselves active and engaged, too.

Happy holidays! The fun is far from over.

#49. Find a sports league for younger children in your community and offer to help officiate or coach

IDEA #49. Find a sports league for younger children in your community and offer to help officiate or coach.

If a child has any interest in sports or athletics, one way of “giving back” to a community is through participation in youth sport programs–not as an athlete but as an official or coach. Little League baseball and town soccer in many places could scarcely exist but for the participation of teenage umpires and referees, and the experience of applying rules and making those difficult judgment calls can help prepare the young official for more difficult challenges in other fields.

Officiating presupposes a solid knowledge of both the sport and its rules, and moreover most programs that use non-adult officials offer some form of training; this no doubt includes advice on how to handle the occasional obstreperous player or parent. Even so, these young officials are usually dealt with quite decently by players and onlookers, as after all their presence makes play possible. Well-run leagues will continue to provide guidance for their younger officials throughout the season.

While adult coaching is the norm in most youth sport programs, a younger and skilled “assistant coach” can be a valuable asset to a team’s training regime, running drills or working one-on-one with players on particular skills. While the student-coach does not have to be a nonpareil athlete in the sport, a good skill base and, most importantly, an understanding of how skills can be broken down for teaching are essential.

The young official or coach gains unparalleled experience in exercising judgment and leadership; the fourteen-year-old who can manage a field full of scrumming eight-year-old soccer players is probably ready for most anything. And if that fourteen-year-old can confidently call balls, strikes, and outs, he or she may be set to take on the world.

#48. Imagine something that you would like to be different at your school and write a thoughtful, respectful letter to the superintendent, principal, or head explaining your idea and why you think that it should be considered.

IDEA #48. Imagine something that you would like to be different at your school and write a thoughtful, respectful letter to the superintendent, principal, or head explaining your idea and why you think that it should be considered. Pat yourself on the back if you receive an answer, and be ready to follow up on your suggestion if your are invited to discuss it in person.

How appropriate to consider using the First Amendment right to “petition for redress of grievances” on the public official closest to the student: a school administrator. If the school is private, the right should be considered the same.

Students always have ideas about how schools should be run and how their programs should be organized, and here is a respectful, even formal, way to carry a suggestion forward from the conversational stage to the serious one. The first order of business is to come up with a positive suggestion that would make a difference in the quality of school life and that could also be accomplished without some sort of miracle occurring—a doubling of the budget, for example, or the abduction of an unpopular teacher by aliens.

Once an idea has been decided on and at least a suggested plan of action put together, the idea should be put into the form of a formal business letter presenting the proposal and some of the arguments in its favor. Organization should follow the form of a letter to an editor or public official: main point, supporting evidence, likely benefits, and respectful conclusion. This letter should above all things be carefully edited and proofread; it is, after all, about school.

If the idea is seen as sound by the recipients, there may be opportunities to further advance the argument and perhaps even to become involved in some sort of implementation process. A little-considered aspect of being a suggestion-maker is that the role often entails becoming a leader as well. The ability to enlist others in one’s own ideas is a practical skill that underlies many versions of active leadership, and of course there are rewards of accomplishment and pride for a successful endeavor.

#47. Find and read the book that is the basis for a film that you have liked

IDEA #47. Find and read the book that is the basis for a film that you have liked. Find someone else who has read the book and engage them in a serious discussion about the differences between the book and the film; it’s not just about which is “better.”

It is no secret that many popular films are based on books, but in a surprising number of cases the books tend not to have been best-sellers, even if the movies become blockbusters. Or the books may be “classics” that have attracted the creative imagination of a director.

In all events, if you saw and enjoyed a film based on a book, why not pick up and read the book on which it is based? Several recent film series have been based on the fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, for example, and anyone who has not ventured into the Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter stories will be well rewarded. In these cases book sales have benefited from the films’ popularity, so the reader will be able to find plenty of fellow-readers with whom to discuss the books; happily, this sales synergy between film and book often occurs.

The differences in story-telling technique between book and film are of course a subject in themselves. Not only do length, scope, and number of characters play a role, but sometimes a filmmaker will choose to take a point of view in the telling that may differ from that of the author of the book. (Such differences sometimes create real friction between writer and director, but for audiences these differences can be a source of interest.) There are examples of short stories expanded to full-length films and lengthy novels compressed to a couple of hours, often with vast amounts of plot stripped out for brevity’s sake. Both art forms, film and writing, impose certain disciplines on artists, and it is in reflecting on these disciplines and how they manifest themselves when a book is adapted for film that the young viewer can sharpen analytical and critical skill.

#46. Find someone in your community who makes art or high-quality craft objects, and ask if you can just hang out for a while and observe

IDEA #46. Find someone in your community who makes art or high-quality craft objects, and ask if you can just hang out for a while and observe. Ask if there is anything you might do to help out.

Every town or neighborhood has its artist or craftsperson. Even if the person is not “public” with his or her creative enterprise, chances are someone knows about it, and it may be that he or she would welcome a suitably quiet and respectful audience or even, depending on age and other factors, a helper.

]Long gone, for the most part, are the days when apprenticeship was the path to expertise in the arts, just as it was in most other fields. School arts programs—or what are left of them in the age of No Child Left Behind—provide students with few opportunities to watch someone else’s creative processes at work. While good arts educators emphasize that creation is largely a process of problem-solving and decisions, our culture’s obsession with product (and often with genius, as if Picasso or the Beatles had somehow been exempt from the “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” rule, which they were not) often obscures this. For a young person to observe at close hand the act of creation—of false starts and re-tries, of reflection, of consciously altered perspective—is to learn that craft and polish proceed from effort and deliberation.

The artist or craftsperson who is willing to model this for a young observer is performing a service that is an age-old part of the human condition as well as a sophisticated educational act. Where else can a young person see the extent to which technique—even of the most subtle and expert sort—is above all the servant of thought and imagination?

If there truly are no opportunities of this sort close by, an alternative is to find a museum or some other site that specializes in historical reenactment; even a large craft fair could suffice. Look for the people weaving, or making brooms, or blacksmithing, and have the child make a point of watching for a long time, and of asking questions. Observe the motions needed to produce the object, yes, but take account of the pauses, the minute examinations, the deep breaths as well. Even the act of turning a bar of iron into a coat hook, while the smith may have done this a hundred times, requires attention, judgment, and reflection—habits of mind that will serve in every circumstance.

#45. Take a ride on public transportation

IDEA #45. Take a ride on any form of public transportation. Watch where you go, and keep a good mental record of what life looks like through the window of the bus, ferry, train, or trolley; if you have a camera, take some pictures of what you see. (Of course, if you’re on a subway, you may need to just take photographs of stations or their entrances.)

While in some parts of the country this may be a near-impossible challenge, in others it should be a piece of cake. Most communities have at least some form of public transportation, either connecting them with other places or, in larger towns, to help residents get around. 

One interesting way to try this idea might be to ride the full length of a bus, trolley, or subway route, stopping along the way to check out the neighborhoods through which the line passes. How does the scenery change, and how do the demographic patterns of the community change? What factors seem to be behind any changes that are observable? To what degree do communities along the route seem to be dependent on public transportation?

In most urban areas the settlement patterns are fairly clear; in suburban, exurban, or rural areas they may be less so. A century ago public transport systems threaded through many areas that are no longer served by buses or trains, and riding a trolley or an interurban car was a part of the common experience of growing up in America. A part of the challenge in this activity is to develop an eye for holdovers from those days, even when one is traveling by automobile, bicycle, or foot: station-stops converted to other use, the outline of tracks showing through the asphalt pavement, divided boulevards whose center spaces were once rail or trolley right-of-ways.

It is an unfortunate fact that parents and guardians may be concerned about the safety of public transportation in general or of specific routes or the neighborhoods through which they pass. This might be a good family activity, especially if there is a destination (a park, an ice-cream stand) at the far reaches of the route being explored. Cost, too, may be a factor; while city routes may be relatively inexpensive (and many offer reduced rates for students), bus, train, or commuter rail might make this activity better suited for a truly special excursion.

#44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly; research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced

IDEA #44. Choose some object that you use or some food that you eat regularly. Research and then write the story of how that object or food was produced—everything from raw materials to processing to transportation to marketing. How many countries or states are involved in your story? Who makes the most money in the process—the people at the raw-material end or the marketing end, or someone in between?

We take for granted almost everything we eat and consume, with few products or services attracting even a small amount of our thought as to their origins or the process by which they were made or brought to us. This activity aims to help the young person explore the complexity of the modern consumer economy.

A powerful fact of economic life is that we are becoming more and more distant, physically and psychically, from means of production. Our lives as consumers are mediated less by an understanding of how things come to be than by the engines of marketing and advertising, which would have us believe that most of what we consume has been created, sui generis, at the stores from which we buy. Famously, many of our consumer goods are produced “offshore,” and diners in most parts of the country sit down to eat food that has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles from where it was grown or even processed.

Because many companies are loath to have us know how highly processed our food is or the conditions under which our clothing or electronic goods are made, this activity will actually require some fairly serious sleuthing. A can of green beans, for example, involves 1) the beans, which were grown somewhere; 2) a can, which was made somewhere from steel processed somewhere; 3) the canning process, which takes place somewhere; 4) the label, made of paper from somewhere and printed somewhere; 5) transportation to a warehouse somewhere, and then a market; and 6) all the mechanisms involved in advertising and marketing the product. Along the way there are government inspectors, fertilizers and pesticides used on the bean fields, energy consumed by tractors, factories, and trucks, and some master hand directing the entire process from “corporate headquarters.” The challenge is to find the details of each step; imagine the challenge in doing the same for a laptop computer, an automobile, or even the DVD of a favorite film.

Library and Internet research will only accomplish so much in this activity, especially if the youngster starts with a very specific product in mind. But persistence will pay off, even though there will be blank spots in research and even the possibility of experiencing some corporate stonewalling; after all, there are business secrets involved in any process, as well.

The truly ambitious student might want to do a comparative study involving the same product today and fifty years ago. The results might be revelatory as to the degree to which globalization has affected every aspect of our lives.

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