#74. Find the closest piece of Native American territory to where you live and pay a visit

IDEA #74. Find the closest piece of Native American territory to where you live and pay a visit. Perhaps it’s a large reservation, or just a casino. Stepping onto what is legally Indian territory is a good reminder that half a millennium ago the whole continent had that status, and that American Indian people today represent a vibrant and important part of our population.

This might well be a family activity, especially if the nearest Native American destination is a either far away or a standalone gaming casino. But it is more than a little healthy as well as humbling to be reminded that American Indians are still very much a part of the American landscape and that they maintain sovereign control over at least some territory in about forty states. As inadequate and even pernicious as the reservation system may be, it is a part of the national experience. A trip that includes travel on reservation land is essential for giving children an understanding that the Native Americans who seem to disappear from history books some time around 1890 are still very much present in our society.

It is critically important that travel to Indian land be undertaken in a spirit of healthy interest and respect. It may be possible to support Native American enterprise by making purchases at Indian-owned stores or gas stations (in some areas state taxes are not applied to purchases on reservation land), and there may be cultural events or institutions with an educational or entertainment mission. The bane of American Indian tourism is that so many Americans seem unable to move past the stereotypes of Indian customs that have long been prevalent in our entertainment media and even in our schools. Sadly, some Native Americans who rely on tourism have found it expedient to play into those stereotypes out of sheer inability to overcome the apparently inexhaustible ignorance of visitors; we hope that no readers of this blog would be party to such a travesty.

There is also the matter of what social scientists call “appropriation of culture”: the utilization of Indian-made objects with cultural or spiritual significance by members of the dominant culture as entertainment or decoration—e.g., Indian devotional objects used as ornaments in homes and automobiles. How or even whether a white person can respectfully own and display an Indian-made “dream catcher,” for example, would be a great adult–child conversation in conjunction with this activity, and this might even be a question that could be broached to a Native American seller of such objects.

White America has a long and unfortunate record of dismissing—and much worse—Native American cultures and people. The interested child of any age or race who is willing to make an effort to correct, or at least repudiate, this history, will be deepening his or her own understanding of an important issue as well as helping our society make progress toward a better place.

#73. Build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape or other cheap and easy-to-find materials

IDEA #73. Think of some sillyor important, eventask that you have to do and then build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape (or other cheap and easy-to-find materials) that performs the task. You can decide to make the machine beautiful and well-crafted, or you can decide to make it utterly ridiculous—the more duct tape, the better!

The cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for designing “machines” of absurd complexity that accomplished everyday tasks, and today there is a rich tradition in both engineering and design in using unlikely materials and over-engineering to create simple machines—usually in fact a combination of the classical simple machines (inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge, screw, and lever)—to do things that are either necessary and useful or in fact totally useless.

No material has lent itself more to the uses of amateur inventors and engineers than duct tape, the ubiquitous silver-gray fabric-based tape that seems to stick to everything, especially itself, and that has famously been reported to have been used to perform emergency repairs on everything from shoes to airplanes. A pair of good scissors, some sacrificial cardboard boxes and a few sticks of wood are all the raw materials a young engineer might need to create almost anything; if other materials are also at hand, even Rube Goldberg’s creations might only be a starting point.

This is the unlikely time to introduce to the youngster the concept of scientific elegance. Some engineers are naturally tidy in their work and have an inborn sense to design that makes everything they produce look somehow elegant—simple, clean-lined, neatly made. Elegant solutions in science, engineering, and mathematics combine simplicity and grace, without extraneous elements, and the quest for elegance in an activity like this reduces the Rube Goldberg aspects to a bare minimum.

duct-tapeOn the other hand, there is an exuberance in recognizing that anything made primarily of scrap and duct tape is in itself likely to be a assemblage of casually combined and inelegantly put together pieces, and that therefore a certain amount of extraneity is to be welcomed and even sought. Why not make the thing as baroque as possible, with added elements that have nothing to do with function but add whimsy to the form? If the object reminds one a bit of a rabbit, why not add long ears, whiskers, and a cotton tail?

This activity is about invention, but above all it is about allowing imagination and inclination to run a little wild. Elegant or not, the duct tape invention is part of great way to explore how things work and how they go together—learning a bit of physics and industrial design along the way.








#72. Climb a mountain (or a hill) or hike a trail

IDEA #72. Climb a mountain (or a hill) or hike a trail. You may be able to find a nearby trail by consulting a local hiking or mountain club. If you can get to the Rockies, or the Alps, so much the better. Whenever you’re hiking, be sure to take a map and whatever else you need to stay safe and on-track—and don’t go hiking alone!

Hiking is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the experience of completing a trail or summiting a significant peak—significance being relative; for beginners even a good-sized hill is a notable accomplishment—is hard to beat. Along with the physical elements of the hike, there is also the matter of navigation that may require good observation skills and perhaps some map-reading. In addition, there are things to see: plants, landscape, rocks, or even elements of the built (man-made) environment if the trail is in a developed area.IMG_1071

Hiking trails are everywhere, and if you haven’t been aware of those in your general area, a few inquiries should bring you to a trailhead. Local jurisdictions, local hiking clubs, and even the federal government maintain tens of thousands of miles of trails, including the Appalachian Trail that extends from North Carolina to Maine and the Pacific Crest Trail that covers the length of California, Oregon, and Washington State; there is even a coast-to-coast trail being developed.

Trail safety is sometimes more than common sense. Many hiking clubs or outdoor-gear retailers have tips on their websites regarding basic equipment (maps, good shoes, a light, water bottle, a first-aid kit) for hiking.

The hiking experience can be enriched in any number of ways. Go with friends, for one, and take along a good (and current) trail guide; the best of these not only explain routes but also remark on notable natural and historical sights to be seen along the way. A field guide to plants, trees, or birds can be useful, as can a pair of binoculars or a lightweight telescope. The literature of the outdoor life is extensive, with almost anything by Henry David Thoreau being good trail reading; Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums may be the classic hiking novel for high school-age readers, familiar to anyone with a commitment to mountain climbing in particular.

Ever since European literati and painters began poking around in the wilderness for fun in the nineteenth century, hiking has been something of an intellectual endeavor. Whether the trail is in the Alps or an urban industrial corridor, the act and the reflection will provide plenty of food for thought.

In case the youngster or a member of the hiking party has limited mobility, there are an increasing number of adaptive trails in various parts of the country that accommodate hikers in wheelchairs or who have severe sensory impairments.

#71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology

IDEA #71. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a magazine about history (past or current) or archaeology. Old copies of the now-defunct American Heritage would be a natural choice, but there are plenty of current magazines about specific aspects of history—wars, ancient civilizations—that are pretty easy to find.

To whatever degree the past creates the present, a knowledge of the subtleties of history (as opposed to the collection of facts that often passes for history instruction in school) can be helpful in understanding how governments and societies make decisions, or at least how they can arrive at various predicaments. In history the persistence of certain issues and problems is known as continuity, and anyone who pushes their own study of history past the superficial level soon discovers that the problems of socioeconomics, ethnicity, foreign policy, religious conflict, and taxation that vex the world today also vexed the world a century or a millennium (or three) ago.

Magazines of history (as well as documentary programming on television, it must be added, although these are not the focus here for reasons that will appear below) provide multiple windows into small and specific aspects of history—a single person, place, or event, or a specific historical issue or trend. As these magazines are intended to entertain as well as to inform, the writing tends to be a good deal livelier than textbook prose and the overall coverage richer in terms of the inclusion of quotations and, above all, visual material. The best of the history magazines—and the classic American Heritage is the grand-daddy of the genre—solicit articles from the best writers of history and biography, and careful attention to design means that everything about the magazines is attractive and of high quality—so high as to make one wonder whether textbooks need be a dull as they usually are. Smithsonian is a fine example of such a publication.

The argument for going through an entire issue is that the activity will provide first and foremost an idea of the rich menu of material that such periodicals offer and secondly an increased probability of the young reader finding something of real interest; in addition, even the advertisements in such magazines can be fun, offering books, objects, and experiences that may be a bit out of the ordinary.

A couple of hours in front of The History Channel might have some of the same effect as reading a whole magazine, but to be blunt the quality can be uneven and sometimes younger viewers can find themselves watching an infomercial or a program that is distinctly pseudoscientific (aliens and UFOs make regular appearances on several “history” channels) without knowing it. We approve of the concept of the channel but believe it should be watched in at least loosely supervised doses.

Another point in favor of history magazines is that they last in physical form nearly forever, and, along with back issues of those being currently published, there are a number of bygone periodicals with a historical focus—Horizon chief among these—that are worthy of attention even forty years after their first appearance. Horizon, like American Heritage, first appeared in hardbound editions with superlative production values and excellent writing.

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