#98. Go to a themed community festival

IDEA #98. Find a town or community festival with a particular theme; enjoy yourself, and pay close attention to what is being celebrated and how the celebration is organized

The Fourth of July and Canada Day are behind us, but summer is when the inhabitants of communities large and small seek to recognize and reinforce their sense of shared identity and also to attract others to their communities by arranging community celebrations. The result is a coast-to-coast panorama of fairs, fetes, and festivals that honor everything from local agricultural products to local history to particular religious figures or events. Some are in smaller towns and villages, while others take place in big city neighborhoods.

Such festivals often feature foods and crafts that are unique to or at least identified with their place, and often there are parades, musical performances, community meals, and sporting events to attract and engage visitors. Often there are opportunities to participate and not just spectate; the interested child can run in a race, submit a piece of art, or judge  a contest.

I am realizing as I write more of these posts how important is a sense of place in our electronically connected but all too often virtually perceived world. The interested child may be a dynamo of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and technological savvy, but if he or she does not know how to connect to and appreciate where they are–the place they inhabit and the cultural and natural complexities and wonders of that place–they will be missing something essential in their development. Humans need to be together, and we need–I think, anyhow–to feel as though there is a place in which and to which we belong. Celebrating together–even in a place that is not exactly “ours”–reminds us, reassures us even, of the power of connection to place.

#93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

IDEA #93. If there’s a sport you enjoy, consider going to a sports camp this summer to fine-tune skills and make new friends

Sports camps come in all sizes and in all degrees of seriousness, from a couple of hours a day for beginners to invitational residential camps at which college coaches scout scholarship prospects. Some are camps with varied programs built around a particular sport, while some are essentially pre-season training experiences for committed varsity-level athletes. Some are inexpensive, even free, while others cost hundreds of dollars a week.

If a child is really interested in a particular sport and enjoys both the play and the camaraderie, a sports camp can be a way to support the interest while providing a positive personal experience. It’s important to be realistic when selecting a sports camp, however. Is the camp only for the super-talented, or is it intended for athletes of all levels? How committed is the child to the sport? Do you want your child to be pushed by drill-sergeant-like coaches for five days, or do you want the child to build on fundamental skills in order to take more satisfaction from recreational participation? Do you really believe that your child is a scholarship prospect, or would everyone be happier at some place a little less intense? How much is the child’s camp experience about fun and friend-making, and how much is it about developing killer moves in the sport? And then, of course, there’s the financial factor: Is the whole experience going to be worth the cost in dollars and time, including travel?

If the parents’ and child’s goals and assessment of needs and talent agree, then the choice of a camp should be relatively easy. Speak to the director to find out how serious the training regime might be. If you can contact other parents or guardians, get a sense of what the camp culture and atmosphere are like. Also check on health and safety: is there a trainer or a nurse on staff? What is the food like? Is there water always available for the campers?

The best part of a good sports camp is that the staff is able to break skills down so that young athletes actually understand what they are doing and how certain tactics and strategies work. Good athletes, after all, are able to envision and think about a game even as they play it, their mastery of basic skills so complete that their conscious minds are free to create new plays. Any experience that helps the truly interested young athlete approach this level of understanding might be well worth the time and effort.

As summer approaches, it’s probably a good time to start exploring camp options–locations, day-only or residential, overall programs, prices. It’s also good to have a couple of months’ lead time`for the child to look for ways–babysitting, odd jobs–to help defray the cost, thus raising his or her commitment level as stakeholders in their own experience.

#85. Participate in a big local citizen/amateur sporting event; you can participate as an athlete or a volunteer helper

IDEA #85. Find a big local or regional citizen or amateur sporting event you can participate in: a running race, state or local “games,” a tournament in your community. If you don’t want to participate as an athlete, go (take some friends!) and volunteer, or just cheer for the participants—they’d love to have you!

Around the world more and more “citizen” sporting events pop up every year. Runs long and short, indoor and outdoor, bike races, triathlons, canoeing races, and tournaments in sports of all kinds are everywhere; even some of the larger charity “walks” and fundraising bike-athons are as much about sport and exercise as they are about their worthy cause.

Manimagesy events emphatically welcome beginners or others who want to develop some skill and confidence in competing (and many events also have adaptive divisions, so that a physical or mental disability need not prevent someone from participating.) It is important that any prospective athlete in one of these events have trained in preparation, and any sort of training should never be undertaken unless a doctor has certified the athlete’s general health.

Timed events involving movement—running, bicycling, swimming, boating—may intimidate the novice athlete, but the key idea here is “personal best”—to do as well as the individual can possibly do, perhaps setting a personal mark that may be HeadOfTheCharlesbettered the next time out. Other events, in team sports, should be entered into with the idea that the fun is in the participation, not just winning. The athletes will soon have an idea of how competitive they are in the field and what they might need to do to improve their performance, and debriefing on performance is an key piece of the thinking athlete’s preparation.

If the whole idea of competing does not appeal, it’s a safe bet that any such event will make use of as much volunteer time and talent as they can recruit. Courses need to be set and monitored, registration and refreshment tables need to be manned, times and scores need to be kept, and hundreds of other chores need to be done. Volunteers who are alert and above all responsible make these events possible, and the young volunteer who takes on a role in one of these events will gain skill, confidence, and respect, even if there is no trophy or ribbon at the end.

But perhaps issues of age or other factors will limit the child’s interest to spectating. That’s just fine, as the athletes will appreciate another cheering, supporting voice. And watching might spark some subsequent interest in playing or doing.

#81. Find a bird guide and start trying to identify the birds you commonly see and hear

IDEA #81. Find a bird guide and start trying to identify the birds you commonly see and hear. Your local Audubon Society can help you develop your skills, and they probably sponsor organized bird-watching events at which you can learn from serious birders. Start your own life list.

No creatures so lend themselves to observation as birds, and the extraordinary profusion of species and the relative ease with which a serious birdwatcher can pile up a long list of species sighted has made birdwatching one of the world’s most popular hobbies. Committed watchers travel the world, often undergoing considerable hardship and vast expense, to build up their life lists, logs of all the types of birds they have ever seen.

Even better, birds are also audible, and many birders are as eager to hear and recognize new species as they are to see them. This auditory birdwatching adds another level of challenge to the activity as a whole.

Field guides to birds of various regions are readily available in print and on line; any library should have several from which to choose. Increasingly publishers are producing guides that use photographs instead of the old, and often lovely, paintings and drawings. There are also audio guides to bird calls, although these may be a bit harder to find.

A sharp-eyed young person armed with a good guide can easily spot several dozen species in most locales over the course of a season, and if there are migratory flyways nearby this number can increase dramatically. Add some binoculars to the watcher’s toolkit and the number will grow even more. As fall turns to winter in the northern hemisphere many bird species are migrating, but the thinner foliage can make those who linger more easily visible.

If the youngster is truly bitten by the birdwatching bug, the next step is to find a local birding group—perhaps through a local Audubon Society chapter—and go out with experienced members. Many birding groups conduct periodic counts of species and individual birds in their area, and participating in one of these events can be exciting and profitable in terms of additions to the list.

Some birders specialize, and so the young watcher may want to work mainly on shorebirds, ducks, birds of prey, owls, or the many species of sparrows. But specialist or not, the youngster who has become adept at sighting birds and looking closely enough to differentiate among similar species will have gained important observing and analytical skills.

#79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night (or more)

IDEA #79. Get some friends or relatives together and camp out for a night—or more. Make sure you get permission and observe good camping practice—leave no trace!

Camping out is about as fun as an activity can be, but successful overnights in the out-of-doors are the result of some careful thought and planning. Much of this planning has to do with the campers’ understanding of their own capacities as well as practical knowledge.

The first order of business in planning a camp-out is to determine who the participants will be. Good campers are old enough to be independent of the need for comforting adults or frequent trips to the bathroom; fear of the dark is also something of a limiting factor, although sometimes an overnight in a tent with trusted friends or family members can be enough to help dispel this phobia.

Destination and equipment are equally important, as the object is to minimize the risk of having inclement weather or other environmental factors intrude on the participants’ good time. Perhaps a back yard or some public space very close to home seems like a good place to begin (and of course, make sure that anywhere you plan to camp allows such activity). Unless there is absolutely no risk of rain or animal visitation, some kind of tent is required, but this need not be an expensive model from an outdoor-equipment store—hundreds of thousands of pioneers and soldiers have made it through the night under the equivalent of a blanket or tarpaulin tented over a rope strung between two trees or other objects, with the corners somehow fastened down. Sleeping bags or blanket rolls (made by pinning a blanket together into an envelope) keep out the chill. Some sort of small flashlight—to be used for serious business only!—completes the absolute basics.

Of course, if the hike is to distant place, there will also be the need for food and other necessities, including perhaps even recommended tools for dealing with human waste. Camping equipment and camping regulations can be quite elaborate in many locations, and prospective campers who are combining their overnight or nights with some hiking on trails or on public land should check with local authorities before setting out. In some parts of the country there are very strong prohibitions on camping or very serious regulations to be followed.

The need for camping safety cannot be overstated. Camping seems to involve knives and fire more than other activities, and the young camper needs to be instructed in proper use of sharp tools and in the basics of campfire safety. On the whole, fire management and cooking are best done under the supervision of someone wise in the ways of Smokey the Bear and of the specific equipment being used, and local regulations must be strictly observed not only to protect the participants but to protect the environment. A campfire, incidentally, can never be put out thoroughly enough.

Perhaps the most important goal of the thinking child’s camp out is to begin to instill a sense of environmental stewardship into the young camper. For many decades the Leave No Trace movement among outdoorspersons has emphasized the idea that a good camper literally leaves behind no evidence of his or her having been present in an environment. Whether the site of the camp out is a family backyard or a designated campsite in a national park, when the group leaves in the morning there should be no sign at all that they have been there.

#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.

#67. Navigate! Next time you take a journey, either by yourself or with friends or family, take over the map-reading and route-selection duties

IDEA #67. Navigate! Next time you take a journey, either by yourself or with friends or family, take over the map-reading and route-selection duties. Find the most detailed maps you can, and learn to read them carefully and accurately.

Map-reading is an essential literacy skill that adults (including, alas, many teachers) assume that children have learned through osmosis. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, and so even map-illiterate-proof resources like Google Maps and in-car GPS navigation systems are not always enough to keep people from becoming lost.erie

In the United Kingdom, home of the superb Ordnance Survey maps that can be found in many households, map-reading is something of a fetish, and excellent school geography curricula ensure that few British people are ever geographically lost, at least for long. Although American USGS topographic maps are of excellent quality, they are generally useless for just “getting around,” and their delicious intricacies are seldom taught in school. Instead, Americans rely on inconsistently drawn and keyed road maps that are seldom of a scale to be truly informative; increasingly, they rely on GPS readouts that concentrate only on the route and the destination, utterly ignoring terrain, settlements, places of interest, and other features that can enrich map-reading and fuel curiosity.

Nonetheless, American children can become excellent readers of maps, and the household that takes the time to preface journeys of any length with a review of the route will be modeling the idea of using maps as a resource as well as instructing children in their use. At some point the child can be instructed to do the route-planning on his or her own, and there will be some pride of accomplishment when the destination is reached without incident. It would be equally fruitful and fun to spend some time looking at an especially detailed, high-quality map—a government topo, perhaps, or a navigational chart—of a place with special meaning to the child. Landmarks and landforms, routes and settlements, all these have been determined by and/or have determined how a place looks and feels to those who go there and live there, and to a skilled map-reader a two-dimensional representation can be as informative and evocative as a photograph or even an actual visit.

For families who share an excitement about places and maps, there is also the potential thrill of taking a “blue highways” trip, in the spirit of William Least Heat-Moon’s extraordinary 1982 narrative of that title recounting his journeys off the interstates on state and local roads often portrayed in blue on old road maps.

#64. Learn to juggle

IDEA #64. Learn to juggle. You’ve always wanted to, anyhow. Now’s the time. Practice until you are good enough to juggle in a public place.

Like the balancing activity suggested in #56, learning to juggle—an art that is just plain fun to watch as well as fun to perform—is another way into a whole host of parts of the brain: juggling requires close observation, timing, balance, and spatial perception, all at once. Even those with limited dexterity can master basic juggling moves, and there are even juggling kits with instructions intended for “klutzes.”

Getting the skills of juggling down requires practice, practice, practice, and along the way the learner must control impatience or a tendency to give up. The motivation must come from within, and perhaps the learner may find that his or her desire to learn is not commensurate with the time and effort required to succeed; a person cannot be forced to learn to juggle (or to do much else).

But the persistent student will suddenly begin to make two-object and then three-object sequences, and then all the hard work and frustration will pay off. An act that at first requires immense concentration will become almost automatic, with the juggler able to “switch on” the juggling brain more or less at will.

While juggling may please the juggler, he or she will soon learn that the sight of cascading balls or other objects is enormously entertaining to others. If the impetus is there, there are infinite ways in which the art of juggling can be expressed, in the number of objects in the air, say, or the kinds of objects. Street jugglers usually have a patter that they can perform while juggling, even interacting with members of the audience, and then there are always the high-risk juggling objects—knives and torches—that always seem to thrill watchers. (We emphatically do NOT recommend the juggling of dangerous or fragile objects; we are just making an observation on one aspect of the art.) If your municipality allows it, the ambitious young juggler can even try at street performing, under supervision of course. What better way to develop some “street smarts”?

Our Cure for Your “Summer Reading” Dilemma

The Interested Child was born as a list of activities put together by a couple of us working at a school in response to a heated discussion about what to assign for summer reading and how to hold students accountable.

Our thought was, Why not ask kids to have other kinds of learning experiences? Even if we’re not going to “check up on” them, we could just create a menu of ideas that might be fun and interesting–and educational in all the ways that we think are important.

So if your school is about to start the annual discussion of summer reading, or if you’re ready for a change, just download The Interested Child‘s list below and adapt it for your needs.

Or if you are the parent or guardian of an interested child, or if you work with interested children and want some ideas to keep them engaged and learning this summer, the The Interested Child‘s list might give you some inspiration.

You have seen some of these ideas in more detail here, and in the future you will see more of them–but this is the short version, suitable for distribution from your school, library, or organization website–or the front desk..

All we ask is that you mention us if you publish or adapt the document–but spread the word, and share the wealth!


#56. Practice an amazing (but safe) feat of balance, like standing on one foot for a long time or carrying something on your head

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.

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