New Year’s Resolutions and the Interested Child Mindset

It’s the time of year when earnest folk around the world solemnly resolve to do something special in the new year: read more books, lose more weight, spend more time with friends and family. Bonne année

We are all in favor of earnest resolutions to accomplish particular goals, but we keep reading articles about why it is so hard for people to keep New Year’s resolutions beyond a few days or weeks. Life, as they say, tends to intervene. The poet laureate of New Year’s Eve, Robert Burns (who wrote “Auld Lang Syne”) put it best in his otherwise pretty much forgotten poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

While we might be pleased if the Interested Child wanted to spend some time with Burns’s 18th-century Scots dialect, we’d rather take a moment to reflect on resolutions, Big Plans, and themes related to the intent behind this blog.

We set out on the adventure that is The Interested Child based on our passionate belief that exposing kids to new ideas and experiences is by definition a good thing. We also believe firmly that nurturing any sparks of interest shown by young people–in just about anything that isn’t downright criminal or antisocial–is a way to coax such sparks into flame. We don’t, however, believe that there is any single magic formula for sparking interest or that an interest that burns bright in the moment flame need be or can be fanned into lifelong passion. We further don’t believe that the reason to help kids find their interests is first and foremost about building a portfolio or résumé for purposes of personal advancement; there is a relationship here, to be sure, (as a long-time college counselor I’m well aware of this) but sincere interest must be its own reward.

Thus, rather than “Try ten new Interested Child ideas” or “Read twenty more works of ‘classic’ literature,” we hope that parents, guardians, and friends will spare children (and themselves) prescriptive “resolutions” and focus instead on creating lives marked by open-mindedness, curiosity, and above all a willingness to try new experiences and ponder life’s questions from multiple points of view.

We number the “Ideas” put forth on The Interested Child largely for our own account-keeping and as points of reference; we don’t mean them to be seen as items on a checklist, any more than we keep lists of “New Year’s Resolutions.” We like to think of the ethos behind this blog as a set of broad principles and mindsets, to be drawn on as Interested Children and those around them take life and its challenges and opportunities as they come, with open minds and open hearts.

And in the meantime, we wish everyone a joyous and exciting (in good ways!) 2015!

Holiday Gift Ideas from the Professoriate

In a year-end fraught with anxieties about issues of justice, equity, and peace, The Interested Child believes that the greatest gifts that one can give anyone in 2014 are 1) a humble, considered, and empathetic perspective–the old advice about not judging a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes is an aphorism worth repeating to the young–and 2), above all, a sense of optimism and agency in the world. But these aren’t gifts that are easily wrapped to be opened at a holiday table or under a tree, and holidays for the young tend to include at least some more material and festal gift-giving.

Normally I don’t reblog other people’s content or extol the virtues of things as gifts, but the other day The Chronicle of Higher Educations “Profhacker” blog ran its compilation of gift ideas. Most of the suggestions were for grown-up items, but several contributors included ideas for gifts to engage the Interested Child (often in a family or collaborative context). Here are excerpts containing the suggestions that we liked best. (The complete post can be found here.)

From Jason B. Jones (follow him on Twitter), Director of Educational Technology at Trinity College (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Groovy Lab in a Box. Groovy Lab in a Box offers you everything you need to do a whole slew of science experiments on a given topic each month. There’s also online support for further experiments and research. I will say I tried this with the 11yo, a 7th-grader who loves science, and he thought he was about 3 years too old for it. Good for incipiently nerdy elementary school kids.
  • Makey Makey. Dubbed “an invention kit for anyone,” Makey Makey turns anything that conducts electricity into an interface for a computer. (Canonical examples include using fruit to play instruments, drawing interfaces with pencils, and so forth.) Makey Makey is great for all ages, but probably most ideal for elementary and middle school students. (That said, you can hook it up with a Pi or an Arduino and do super-cool stuff, too.)
  • Kano. Speaking of a Raspberry Pi, the Kano is an awesome implementation: it’s a snap-together computer, more or less, that even a kid can build. (The aforementioned 11yo was running programs on it in about 7 minutes, and he had to wait for a firmware update.) It includes everything but a monitor. I backed this on Kickstarter, and although it was s-l-o-w to finish, has turned out a real treat.
  • If your gift recipient is patient and likes robots, they might be interested in the Edison. Edison is a LEGO-compatible robot that can sense aspects of its environment. It seems like it will be fun. They are taking pre-orders now, and assert that they’ll ship in mid-December, but I backed this as a Kickstarter, and it shipped yesterday … and the estimated delivery is December 31! (Fortunately, the 11yo has gotten used to waiting for things after the Kano … I’m a terrible dad.)
  • For people who come at making and creative projects via crafts, one of the Sew Electric kits is just the ticket. You can either get the book or kits that include needles, batteries, LEDs, and even an Arduino. It’s awesome.

Board games recommended by Brian Croxall (follow him on Twitter), Digital Humanities Strategist at Emory University’s Digital Scholarship Commons  and Lecturer of English (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • The one that we have played more than any else in my house is Terror in Meeple City, which was called Rampage until recently. In this game you construct a cityscape with buildings supported by meeples and use your big, blocky wooden monster to jump on or blow down buildings. You’ll be flicking ice cream trucks at the other monsters trying to knock them down. It’s tremendous fun and laugh-out-loud silly, and my kids can’t get enough of it.
  • Our other favorite this year is Mascarade. Everyone at the table is given a role card (king, queen, judge, inquisitor, and so on). The game starts when the cards are flipped over and the first person takes someone else’s card, puts it under the table and switches it—or doesn’t—with their own card. When people try to take the power of their card, they might find out that they’re not who they thought they were. It plays 2—13 players, although it shines at 6 or more, and it’s hilarious.

And a couple more games, from Ryan Cordell (follow him on Twitter), Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University (bulleted items are quoted directly from The Chronicle):

  • Do you remember the first time you saw someone playing Minecraft and thought: it’s like an endless Lego set… Well Lego has brought Minecraft into the physical world this year, and the sets are sure to blow the minds of any 6-to-12-year-olds in your life (and, let’s face it, you too). The sets are The Farm, The First Night, The Cave, The Ender Dragon, The Mine, and the one I’m perhaps most excited to dig into with my kids, The Crafting Box.
  • We’ve probably listed it here before, but The Settlers of Catan is the board game for those who like board games, assuming that any gamers on your list somehow missed this one. If you’re buying for someone already addicted to the game (like my family), perhaps a board frame to keep those pesky hexes in place while playing. For younger kids, No Stress Chess is a great way to learn the moves of a chess game without, as the title promises, getting stressed about all the different options. Our twin 6-year-olds love this game.

I’ll add that “Settlers of Catan” has been a big hit among the game-players in our household for some years, along with an odd little mindbender called “Kill Dr. Lucky.”

Happy Holidays!

#83. Trace your family history back as far as you can

IDEA #83. Trace your family history back as far as you can. Ask relatives for help; go on line; try a library.

For some children this will be much harder than for others, but all the basic resources needed are a family member or two and perhaps access to a good public library or Internet database. This activity is a wonderful way for children to understand the nature of their own lineage as well as the influence of real historical forces on their own forebears.

For a fortunate few, primarily of English or Northern European heritage, there exists a body of written documentation that may even includes published family histories. Beyond that, however, lies a wealth of genealogical resources and, more important, individuals with genealogical obsessions. A local library or historical society might be able to point the child (or the family) in the direction of people who will happily undertake specific research and whose interest in these matters is deep and whose knowledge is broad. Their guidance or assistance may help the child to locate marriage, birth, immigration, property, and death records, but it may suffice for the child to rely on the oral testimony of family members to construct a limited family tree that at least explains the child’s place in the cosmos.

For some children—adoptees, unaccompanied refugee minors, or others whose family records are hidden or have been obliterated by history—this activity could be much more challenging, and even potentially painful. Much adult guidance is called for in these cases, where it is even possible to run afoul of the law (with regard to statutes covering access to adoption records, for example). And as Alex Haley’s Roots project demonstrated many years ago, discovering the details of the heritage of those who came to America not by choice but by force can be extremely difficult, although resources to assist research in this area are more extensive now than they were thirty years ago.

One sees advertisements frequently these days for internet genealogical resources, which sometimes come with high subscription prices and that therefore should not be accessed without adult permission and supervision. These can be helpful for an investigating child or adult with an abiding interest and sufficient resources to cover the cost.

But at some point most children will express a desire to learn more about their lineage and family history, and this is not infrequently the subject of school projects. Whatever the amount of information to be found, the object of the exercise is to help the child in the development of a positive personal heritage and identity.

It can be very interesting to a child to establish that this heritage shows the influences of history—most people’s forebears have been part of one or another of history’s large-scale migrations—and of the cultures from, through, and into which they have passed. Even if specific information or evidence is scarce, sometimes family lore can also be a powerful thing in a child’s life.

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