IDEA #56. Practice an amazing (but safe) feat of balance, like standing on one foot for a long time or carrying something on your head. Start by practicing keeping a yardstick balanced on your finger, or your chin, or on top of your foot.
There are no easy ways to do this, and the practitioner probably learns more about patience than about balance. The art of balancing requires a Zen-like ability to place yourself, and your body in particular, deep in the moment and shutting off much of the conscious mind. This is indeed a subtle art.
So how does turning off the conscious mind help turn someone into a thinker? From earliest times wisdom has been seen as something arising from a level of consciousness that many people are unable to access easily. In this place of deep concentration and of deep insight there exist possibilities of thought that the normal preoccupations of even the child or adolescent mind tend to obscure. The kind of deep “unconscious” concentration required to balance an object, or to properly aim an arrow or throw a strike for that matter, can be a place of power for the young person. Learning to access this place—athletes who can do this easily call it “The Zone”—and the clear channels of thought within it can be a useful skill in many areas, from taking standardized tests to completing tasks requiring great concentration and patience to performing other physical acts; it is even the place from which artists and poets often draw inspiration and vision.
Balancing a yardstick on a big toe for 30 seconds may not turn a young person into Picasso or William Tell, but it will help him or her explore an important realm of consciousness while having fun—perhaps even amazing others—at the same time. And better yet, balancing wizardry can be performed based on senses other than sight.
Posted by Peter Gow on January 30, 2014
IDEA #55. Take care of an animal—as a volunteer at a zoo, an animal shelter, or a veterinarian’s office. If you can’t find such an opportunity, put up signs offering yourself as a volunteer dog-walker or a pet-sitter for neighbors on vacation. It’s a big responsibility, though, so you must do it consistently and well.
Some children are drawn irresistibly to animals, and vice versa. For such fortunate children, service in animal care can be a natural match. What matters most of all is the ability to regularly assume responsibility for the health and welfare of other living things.
Some zoos, animal shelters, and veterinarian’s offices are happy to have volunteers who can come regularly to look after the basic needs of the animals, although there are often age limits; some clinics are uninterested in amateur help. It would be important for the young volunteer to have all inoculations up to date and of course for him or her to be able to commit to regular hours.
If making a long-term commitment to a zoo, shelter, or veterinarian is not feasible, shorter arrangements can often be made with neighbors who work or who are headed for vacation. An daily dog-walk or a week or two looking after household pets can provide owners with much-needed relief, and youngsters will enjoy building relationships with new animal friends.
Although pet-sitting and dog-walking often become paying jobs, there is no harm in the child undertaking some duties of this sort on a volunteer basis, at least as a first attempt; this might be especially true if the youngster’s reliability is not fully established. If more opportunities for this sort of work present themselves as time goes on, then it would be perfectly fine to go professional.
Posted by Peter Gow on January 27, 2014
IDEA #54. Attend a meeting of a village, town, or city government or committee. They’re free and open, and they happen all the time (check village, town, or city websites or call offices for schedules). Then find an adult with whom to discuss the experience.
Whatever one’s local government might be, a surprising amount of its activity takes place before the public eye. Although most citizens attend local hearings or committee meetings only when they involve some aspect of their own lives, for public officials such events are part and parcel of the way that decisions are made in the public interest. Open Meeting laws require that public agencies at all levels make their decisions where citizens can observe—and sometimes comment upon or even participate in—the process of government.
Municipal websites or local newspapers are often good sources of information on meeting dates, times, and agenda, but a call to the town office could also supply this information. In some communities there is a public bulletin board in the town hall or even the public library listing all meetings and even the members of the various committees, commissions, and boards that keep the municipality functioning. If the student is fortunate enough to live in a community governed by a town meeting structure—these are still very much a part of life in small-town New England and in a few other places—he or she can witness democracy in one of its purest forms during “meeting season,” often late winter.
There is much to see at such events. Seemingly innocuous proposals to build this, repair that, or make a particular purchase can reveal deep rifts in the way the community thinks about particular issues or show who has power in the community and who does not. Such meetings are also wonderful opportunities to develop an understanding of the often complex and seemingly circuitous ways in which adults make major decisions as well as to learn the degree to which speaking and acting in public—skills stressed in schools—are important to average citizens as well as to orators, preachers, and other public figures.
For the thoughtful young observer, the number of public bodies holding public meetings is also a good indication of the complexity of the systems by which even smaller communities are managed. Anything that helps make visible the unseen machinery of local government is likely to make the young person more alert to both issues and processes.
The young person should have an interesting experience, and talking it over with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult could help clarify areas of confusion or even spark further interest.
Posted by Peter Gow on January 20, 2014
IDEA #53. Watch a silent feature film from start to finish without stopping it, and discuss or write down your thoughts on the experience.
The idea of watching a two-hour film without spoken dialogue is shocking to many young people. Accustomed as they are to having the plot carried forward by word, young audiences of today are actually often resistant to the concept of the “silent” film—and of course the fact that virtually every minute of surviving silents is in black and white robs them of even more prospective appeal. All young people can imagine are scratchy figures jerking across a screen to the remorselessly insipid accompaniment of a tinny piano.
But yet, there are any number of powerful films made before the age of talkies that can still compel a room full of twenty-first-century adolescent viewers. Chaplin’s features, especially Modern Times, can win over an audience today every bit as effectively as they did nearly 80 years ago, and such archetypal “horror flicks” as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu still chill the spine. Other classics—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or D. W. Griffith’s epics like Intolerance or Birth of a Nation—remain compelling and even controversial—especially Birth, which is still best viewed with some strong caveats and much historical context supplied. Other genres, including even the better of the Griffith weepers—Orphans of the Storm or Broken Blossoms—can hold their own, as well. In 2011 there was even a successful attempt, The Artist, to create a “modern” silent; it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
What often comes as a surprise to contemporary viewers is that the silent film actually has a very clear narrative structure, helped along by title cards, exaggerated facial expressions—the “over-acting” that can look so dated in out-of-context clips of these old films—and musical sound tracks that, if played by a master and not just dubbed in with no attempt to match the story, effectively cue the audience as to the mood and tempo of the action. If the young viewer should see one of these films at one of the many revivals or festivals that feature serious artists performing the musical accompaniment, the effect is every bit as powerful as a modern film. The black-and-white issue soon fades; it might even be suggested that “cultural literacy” in our society includes a familiarity with some of the classic sound films of the pre-color era as well as silents.
By all means, encourage the young viewer to figure out the narrative techniques militated by the medium and find ways for him or her to share observations—perhaps in a school newspaper review. And why not encourage a language arts or social studies teacher to screen a silent film as part of a class or as an out-of-class treat—to spread the gospel?
Posted by Peter Gow on January 14, 2014
IDEA #52. Turn off the television for a week (or a month); consider that a billion people on this planet have no access to television at all. Do it right—no computer streaming, no videos, video games, or DVDs, either. Try reading aloud as a family or playing some of those board games stashed in the closet. You may find there are plenty of ways to keep yourself and your household entertained without what some people used to call The Idiot Box.
Advocates of this activity, which even has a “National TV-Turnoff Week” (May 5-11 this year, if you choose to wait) cite benefits ranging from nutritional to mental health, but a more profound reason to shun television is simply that the thinking, curious child should be able to make the transition to TV-free life without much fuss or bother. Rather than presenting the absence of television as a sacrifice that is somehow “good for” kids, like castor oil or standardized tests, it might be better to plan television-free time as part of a broader program of alternative experience—a hiking trip, a visit to a relative, or something closer to home like a family chess or Monopoly tournament or a communal read-aloud of the latest Harry Potter or other series book. In other words, plan on doing something so that the absence of television is not the focus but rather a natural byproduct.
Admittedly, this may be easier said than done, especially for children who are dependent on television or other video-based entertainment as their primary form of recreation. If it has to be a battle, going television-free is probably not worth it, although a moderate level of reward for compliance is not an admission of bad parenting.
We would go out on a limb here so far as to suggest that families who make access to video entertainment too easy or too ubiquitous a part of their children’s lives (in-car television and movies come to mind here) give up a tremendous amount of ground in the struggle to turn their children into observant, thinking beings; we always wonder what a child engrossed in a video in the back seat misses by way of watching the world or of actual conversation, even on the most uninspiring of commutes. While there is nothing wrong with watching television, movies, or playing video games, too much of these activities unmediated by either more active forms of entertainment or critical reflection engenders, we believe, a cognitive sacrifice from which it may be very difficult to recover.
So turn the television off for a week, or a month, or a couple of days not as a punishment or a cold-water cure but because the child, and preferably the whole household, might have better and more interesting things to do.
Posted by Peter Gow on January 9, 2014
IDEA #51. Invent something or come up with an original idea for your own business, and then find someone who can help you write a business plan for putting your invention or idea on the market. When your plan is done, figure out how to put into practice.
Of course this suggestion presupposes a certain inventive strain in the young person, as coming up with an idea for a successful business is a major challenge even for the most original of entrepreneurial minds. But let the imagination run free, even if the idea is flawed, because the point here is for the child to consider all the steps required in establishing a business and bringing a product or service to market.
The internet or a public library can provide reference materials including actual templates for business plans. The exercise is to apply specific, intentional thought to the business idea and to imagine each segment of the actualization plan. There are opportunities here to consider such matters as mission—the larger intent of a business—and the ways in which businesses find and pull together the resources necessary for production. Marketing is the final aspect to be considered, and perhaps the student can analyze some of his or her own experience as a consumer to come up with ideas as to how a product can be made appealing to a particular group of people.
One aspect of this project is to imagine what people want and need—to make the consideration a business idea an exercise in empathy. Another part is to consider the kinds of companies and products that truly and consistently deliver in terms of quality and service. What makes Coca-Cola a successful company, or Microsoft, or Old Navy? How do such companies become so successful—is it luck, or planning? What companies has the child seen fail—what fads and “must-have” items have completely disappeared within his or her lifetime? What is the secret of business success, in other words?
If the plan seems sound and exciting, there is no reason that the young person cannot try to connect with some adult resources who might help turn the dream into a reality. How old was Bill Gates when he started Microsoft or Mark Zuckerberg when Facebook took off?
Posted by Peter Gow on January 5, 2014
IDEA #50. Acquire some kind of magnifying glass or pocket microscope and look at snowflakes, sand, dirt, or anything else that you think might be kind of interesting. Your food might be kind of an interesting place to start.
When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek “discovered” the miracle of optical magnification in the 17th century, he opened up an unseen world. Even relatively low degrees of magnification—ten to twenty times normal size, referred to as “power” and abbreviated as 10x to 20x—can reveal extraordinary and wholly unexpected details in the most common objects. Almost any piece of food, for instance, takes on a whole new appearance under magnification (and perhaps should not be the first subject of a squeamish eater’s attentions in this activity), and the surface of one’s own skin or even a hair has amazing facets and features. Even a dollar bill has secrets that unfold only to the viewer whose vision is aided by a strong lens.
A simple magnifying glass should be easy to find; a sewing supply store or a department store should offer a choice. For a few dollars more many hobby stores have specialized magnifiers, some with battery illumination, and specialty electronics and scientific supply stores have a variety of small scopes of 30 power or more that can be used to obtain stunning close-up views of grains of salt (whose cubical crystalline structure is clearly visible) or sand—or the anatomical details of a dead insect.
The next level of interest and investment in this activity involves the acquisition of a microscope. As with most optical technology, quality is proportional to cost, but it may be possible to obtain the use of a school microscope or a ‘scope belonging to an individual. The quality of the lenses, the strength of the lenses, and the source of illumination can vary dramatically, and it might be well for the novice microscope user to start by using prepared slides (of blood cells, fungal spores, dust, plant cells, to give some common examples) under the direction of a knowledgeable elder. Too much magnification can actually be a distraction, as the level of detail is so great that a sense of what is being viewed is utterly lost.
Wanting to see the tiny “essence” of things can become something of a compulsion, once the discovery is made that even smooth objects are in fact creviced and canyoned or that a drop of pond water can contain a myriad of life-forms. All such activity serves to train the observer in a kind of critical thought, to look beyond surfaces and to regard apparent clarity with some skepticism. What Leeuwenhoek gave the world his device can still provide intellectual sustenance for a curious youngster.
Posted by Peter Gow on January 1, 2014