#91. Make something really complicated or really large out of pieces from a child’s building toy set

IDEA #91. It’s part art, part engineering: make something really complicated or really large out of a child’s building toy set like Legos, Construx, TinkerToys, or K’nex. Find a younger sibling or a pre-school teacher who can help you amass a truly awesome pile of raw material; choose your objective, make a design, and build away!

Go play with children’s toys!

If this seems like the simplest of all possible suggestions, think again. The lessons of pure design, structural visualization, logical planning and execution, measurement, and improvisation are essential tools for solving a great many of life’s problems, big and little. Here is a chance to be a design thinker, a maker, a true practitioner of STEAM: science, technology, engineering design, art, and mathematics.

In fact, being a professional display builder for Lego is said to be a lucrative career, and at one point the “audition” involved the deceptively simple task of building a sphere out of the random pieces the company supplied. Lego was looking for creative, adaptable brains who could imagine and then build whole new product lines and who could make the toys themselves into hitherto unimaginable constructions. All of the commercial building toys—or even a pile of homemade blocks made of scrap lumber, for that matter—have the potential to transcend their status as elementary toys to become the elemental stuff of wonderful new visions, made real.

Yard and rummage sales are great sources of these toys. They might need a quick bath in soapy water before use, but they last nearly forever, and losses to breakage or misplacement simply add to the challenge of conceptualizing and completing ambitious designs.

Alternatively, the exercise could be to start small: discover the fewest number of pieces that can make a recognizable version of a specific object, for example. Or create hordes of tiny objects or figures, arrayed in patterns.

The possibilities here are truly endless.

#90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories; write these down and share them

IDEA #90. Find your oldest living relative and ask them to tell you stories. Write them down in “nice” form and give copies to other family members.

It is hard to imagine a more pleasant or interesting pastime than this activity. All families have stories, short, long, funny, sad. Too often, these stories are only told as half-remembered anecdotes at wakes and funerals, when the actual participants and original tellers are no longer around to give them context, richness, detail, and meaning.

A number regional and national projects currently exist for the purpose of collecting family narratives, and some, like Storycorps, even go so far as to provide equipment so that the stories can become part of the rich fabric of American oral history. For families who can take part in such projects, the satisfaction of participation must be enormous, and their addition to the national treasury of memory rewarding in all respects.

But such work can begin on a much smaller, more personal scale. A child of almost any literate age can sit at the feet of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle and take down an anecdote or short reminiscence; computers and smartphones can also be used to record video or even just audio for later editing and transcription. Perhaps with the editorial guidance of an older hand, this narrative can be transcribed and improved into a final draft and then bound or even framed accordingly. (We would warrant that there would be some photocopies made and sent around to other family members before that final version went between covers or under glass.)

The child who begins to focus on the nature of his or her family stories will, if nothing else, connect more deeply with those who tell them. In time, perhaps, the child will even take on the responsibility of family archivist or griot. One imagines that more than a few professional authors began in just this way, and the family reminiscence is a structure that has served many novelists well.

And think of the appreciation from other members of the family, including the teller.

#89. Find and read from cover to cover a magazine or newspaper whose content is about a cultural, religious, or gender group that is not your own

IDEA #89. Go to a library or bookstore and find and then read from cover to cover a magazine or newspaper whose content is about a cultural, religious, or gender group that is not your own: The Advocate, Essence, Savoy, Ebony, Latina, aMagazine, or a local or regional paper or magazine devoted to the Jewish or Roman Catholic religious community. If you are a member of a cultural or ethnic minority, you might look at “mainstream” publications like Time or The Atlantic or even Outside or National Geographic. How does the publication that represents or focuses on a culture different your own seem different from and the same as—content, layout, advertisements—magazines or newspapers that you normally encounter?

Like viewing films or television broadcasts from other cultures, looking at magazines with a specific ethnic, cultural, or spiritual focus opens, for many of us, a window into a hitherto little-known world. Along with explorations of the aesthetics at work in these publications—their graphics, their layout, the nature of the images displayed in both editorial and advertising copy—there is also an opportunity for thoughtful content analysis. What issues are being addressed? What editorial stance can be discerned? How are the topics of articles like or unlike articles in publications that one might commonly read that represent that majority culture or that would be readily associated with one’s own culture?

In addition, some analysis of the advertising content would be interesting. What “mainstream” products are being advertised, and how are the ads for these products like or unlike products in mainstream publications? What products seem to be unique to or directly connected with the culture or group at whom the magazine is aimed? How are these products advertised?

As we live in a society in which the dominant, white, European culture makes up a shrinking majority of our population, reading about and understanding the concerns of other groups as these are represented in their own media can be a powerful tool for building cross-cultural understanding. It can also be reassuring to know that the same brands of automobiles one drives or cottage cheese one eats are equally a part of the experience and aspirations of other Americans whose “differences” are often more emphasized in society than the characteristics we all share.

The possibility exists here that the young reader may encounter editorial opinions or content that will surprise or even unsettle. We would hope very much that this activity would be undertaken entirely in the spirit of empathy and open-minded curiosity, but it is true that historically marginalized or oppressed groups may express positions in their publications that may be hard for complacent or untutored readers to digest or appreciate. The reader and his or her adult guides must be ready to discuss what the reader encounters and to work hard to understand and make sense of unfamiliar or unsettling points of view. This, after all, is the point of the exercise: to build the child’s capacity to recognize, understand, and respect other viewpoints, even if they conflict with his or her strongly held beliefs or unexamined positions. But history demonstrates that nothing kills real thought and the prospects of a truly democratic society more effectively than allowing the survival of unquestioning intolerance.

#88. Find the means to start learning a new language

IDEA #88. Find a language-IMG_1228learning website or acquire (at a library, maybe, or a garage sale) a set of teaching CDs (or even cassette tapes) for a language you’d like to start learning—maybe the language of some of your ancestors, or just a language that has been of interest. Learn a at least little bit—even just enough to say “hello,” “my name is,” “please,” “thank you,” and count to five or 10.

There are few things more satisfying than having even a smidgen of another language under one’s belt, and school and public libraries are great places to look for computer- or audio-based language-learning programs. (Other great places to look for these are library sales, garage sales, and flea markets; it seems that a great many people in our world intend to master a new language or two, but few sustain that interest, and so there is a surplus of language-learning programs for sale, cheap.)

The goal here is not necessarily fluency, although that would be a worthy objective. Rather, the point is to explore the language and learn a bit about how languages are taught and learned and above all to enjoy the process,. To have mastered a few conversational gambits (“Where is the pen of my aunt?” “Here is the pen of my aunt.”) or to know how to greet a person in another language is not only modestly empowering but just plain fun. To know how to count a bit is equally so.

Educational psychologists tell us that the younger a child begins to learn a new language, the more easily he or she will learn it, but in general the only way people of any age really master a language is by immersion. So in this case, since even the best systems fall well short of being truly immersive, the child should just delve deeply enough into the activity to keep having fun. A sustained interest may in time lead to interest in study abroad or in a domestic community of users of the language.

And there is no reason to limit this activity to a certain level of mastery of a single language. It is fun to imagine a child’s room with boxes of tapes for learning a number of languages littering the floor.

It’s also worth noting, strange as it seems, that several fictional languages—examples are Elvish, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Ring novels, and Klingon, from the Star Trek television series—actually have well developed user communities that can be discovered on line. Similarly, there are several “universal” languages—Esperanto and Interlingua are the best-known—that have significant user communities. All of these might lead the interested child a step further into the arcane world of “con-langers”: individuals who enjoy constructing their own languages, either based on existing language families or utterly new.

In a week or so we will take up another kind of language learning: computer programming, or coding.

#87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread

IDEA #87. Bake a loaf (or two) of bread. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s a great exercise in food chemistry, cookery, and patience.

They say it’s the “staff of life,” and bread or bread-like foods are part of nearly every culinary tradition on the planet. Basically some sort of ground grain, usually but not always with a leavening agent like yeast or baking powder, breads are excellent sources of bread loavescarbohydrates—regarded by most as a dietary necessary, in reasonable quantities—and their varied textures are an epicure’s delight—and they just tend to taste pretty good.

Bread recipes and video instruction on parts of the job like kneading are all over the internet, and breads can be as exotic or as ho-hum as the baker wishes. The many cultural traditions represented in the bread family—from Middle Eastern pitas to South Asian naans to Native American fry-breads to the multifarious baguettes, limpas, pumpernickels, and “white bread” of Europe and America—could represent a cook’s tour of the planet for an ambitious and curious baker.

We recommend tackling a yeast-raised wheat bread as a first go—the preparation of the ingredients, the proofing or activating of the yeast, the kneading, the waiting for rises, and the smell of the hot loaves as they come out of the oven and are set aside to cool before slicing are a great combination of work and pleasure and a fine exercise in deferred gratification.

For thirty-some years we have been using the basic bread recipe downloadable here, the most flexible we know of. Based on white flour, yeast, sweetener (to feed the yeast), some kind of shortening, and a bit of salt, any sort of whole grain can be added, the sweetener is wide-open to experimentation, and the fat can be a low-flavor oil, butter, margarine, or (we suppose) animal fat or ghee. The process involves first mixing all the ingredients except the flour, yeast, and liquid; then add the yeast to this mixture with the bath of warm (boiled or scalded to sterilize, then cooled to body temperature) liquid; then slowly adding the flour after the yeast has burst into bubbly, fragrant life—some young bakers are intrigued by the idea of yeasts being living organisms, some are horrified.

This is a twice-raised (actually thrice-raised) bread. Mix the dough to achieve a consistency so that when touched the dough doesn’t readily stick to fingers, then begin kneading. When fully kneaded, the dough is shaped into a ball, covered with a damp cloth, and left to rise in a warm (but not hot) place. When doubled in size, punch down, re-form into a ball, then allow to rise again. Divide the dough into equal parts, then shape into loaves, allow to rise, and then bake in a 350-degree oven for 30–35 minutes—perhaps a bit less if being baked as oblong loaves on a flat sheet rather than in loaf pans. Loaves should sound a bit hollow when tapped on the bottom when done.

We suspect you could use gluten-free flour to make this bread, and the recipe’s flexibility also invites experiments with form: we’ve made pizza dough and dinner rolls from the same recipe as well as long baguette-shaped loaves and our usual loaf-pan loaves.

If kneading sounds like a challenge, here’s another, no-knead recipe that substitutes patience for elbow-grease and makes an outstanding large, round loaf of bread.

As always, interested young bakers should be supervised as they work around hot liquids and hot ovens.

Once one recipe has been tried successfully, it’s time to explore the world’s recipe books for new adventures in bread!

#86. Build a precise scale model of something.

IDEA #86. Build a precise scale model of something. Try making an exact model of your room, for example, complete with furniture and belongings, at an exact scale of one inch to one foot (1″:1′). And remember, a scale model can be larger that the original object.

When one considers that a full-scale battleship AND an exact one-foot model of the same vessel can be built from the same set of instructions, the power of the concept of scale becomes apparent.

The art of scale model design begins with the concepts of precise measurement and proportion. A model of an existing object for which plans are not available begins with measurement, and all models require an understanding of the mathematical coIMG_1221ncept that ALL relationships must be set in the same proportion.

Materials for a scale model project are not particularly important, although resources like stiff cardboard, foam-core board, and balsa wood can be exceptionally useful. For the ambitious, many art and craft supply stores sell materials for scale modeling, and some even sell architectural details—roof shingles, door hardware, and the like—set to particular scales. A proper job also includes tools for cutting to precise measurements, and some kind of adhesive for fastening; with sharp cutting tools and aromatic glues, caution should be observed.

In IDEA #60 we suggested the creation, as an art project, of a giant-scale model of a smaller object; such projects can have a certain whimsical charm. We referred there to a giant pencil as well as a giant lipstick, but any small object can be scaled up for the purpose of enjoying this activity.

#84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it

IDEA #84. Find a hardcover book that is about to be thrown away and very carefully disassemble it. Figure out what the physical parts are of a hardcover book; see how the cover is made, and how the pages are held together. Look up “bookbinding” online or in an encyclopedia and learn as much as you can about the process. If you are inspired, try building a blank book of your own, with a beautiful cover, to give to a friend or loved one.

This may seem distinctly sacrilegious to committed bibliophiles, but for a young person with an interest in books this can be a solemn and significant act, like a medical student dissecting a cadaver.

The printed word, they say, is on its way out, and yet physical books persist and multiply. There is something elementally satisfying about handling a book, and for many the feel and smell of a book can be in themselves pleasurable. Young people do not always realize the power of scent, but in later years the smell of an old book that has lain on a dry and dusty limantel booksbrary shelf or that has gently mildewed in a seaside home may bring back rafts of memories. Books as objects are a medium in themselves.

Simple curiosity might motivate the careful deconstruction of a physical text. The act itself might inspire some research as to the parts and terms of the publishing and printing worlds—the meaning of endpapers, half-titles, front and back matter, and signatures. Each book, even a paperback of the meanest sort, has been designed, not only in the cover design, but in the choice of paper, font, illustrations, and textual organization (forewords, acknowledgments, prefaces, bibliographies, notes, afterwords, and so forth). Imagining why the choices were made that resulted in the finished product can also raise questions about the appropriateness of the choices or about the interests and backstories of those who made them.

The deeper structure of the physical book will reveal hidden complexities—stitchings and gluings invisible to the reader. The dissector may be inspired to do some research on the bookbinding process—and all the elements of bookmaking, from papermaking to printing to design and binding, are in themselves highly developed crafts practiced by professionals and amateurs alike. The project might inspire a visit to a printing shop or a bindery, or at least to ask the local library how it prepares and repairs the books in its collection.

The reader comfortably familiar with the nature of a book as a made object will carry with him or her a deepened sense of the significance of text—and this reader will always be one more voice raised in defense of the book against the inroads of whatever technology is next ballyhooed as portending the death of the printed word.

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!

#78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about

IDEA #78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about. You could even try a graphic novel or a comic book.

A good many of the books that children in Western society enjoy these days started out in languages other than those that dominate, and in recent decades publishers seem to be falling all over one another presenting collections of folk tales for children from cultures around the world. This kind of introduction to multiculturalism may inspire a larger world-view, but it order to sustain that view it is necessary to continue to feed the mind with even more words and ideas whose place or origin is unfamiliar.

Fortunately publishers and librarians have seen the need, and so there is a broad choice of works in translation for readers of all ages. That said, two trends in contemporary book publishing may have at least in part the effect of negating their own multicultural benefits.

One is a focus on the “exotic” that can have the effect of representing unfamiliar cultures as so “other” or alien as to be unknowable—or worse, somehow less “sophisticated” or even capable. This can be downright dangerous, as it can support stereotypes that drive wedges between cultures (and present some as “less” than others) rather than underscoring the commonality of the human experience. The point of this exercise is to underscore the richness in the varieties of ways that peoples have responded to the natural and political circumstances of their time and place. Translated and published properly, the literature of an unknown culture can be illuminating in multiple ways. Done badly, the opposite is true: a poor version of The Odyssey can make even the ancient Greeks look silly.

A second trend is the focus on the lurid and the violent, particularly in some of the “graphic novels” from Japan that are increasingly prominent in American bookstores. These extended comic books, called manga in their more popular forms, can be playful, amusing, and even instructive (for one thing, many editions are direct translations, and the panels and pages read from right to left, a cross-cultural delight in iteslf). Some series, however, focus on conflict and antisocial behavior that may not only give the wrong impression to younger readers. As in all cases where a youngster is venturing into cultural unknowns, parental guidance would be in order here.

If, however, the reader is simply discovering the joys of literature in translation—many mystery series, for example, have come into English from other languages—let the enjoyment and the pleasurable immersion into other ways take their course.

#77. Shoot a series of photographs with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

IDEA #77. Shoot a series of digital photographs (or a roll of film) with the goal of capturing one wildly beautiful image of something (or someone).

Any camera, from a cellphone digital to a single-use disposable camera (although the combination of initial cost and film-processing fees can run up a significant tab) can be used to take award-winning photographs. If the youngster has little experience in the visual arts, the first step might be for him or her to simply become accustomed to looking at the world through the viewfinder, not snapping pictures but getting used to the idea of the visual world broken into smaller units, framed.SMO Library view

Another first step might be to look at great photographs. Any issue of the National Geographic magazine is a miniature museum of photographic excellence, and many art galleries display photographs. The public library should have photography magazines as well as books of photographic art. Simply looking at beautiful photographs is a wonderful way to begin to understand the potential of the medium to do more than record snapshots of friends and relations.

Landscapes, candid, portraits, close-ups—all kinds of subject matter lends itself to beautiful, even moving photography. The child may want to ration the images he or she creates (especially if a film camera is involved), or perhaps the exercise of taking a series of photographs of a single subject would be worthwhile. A photodocumentary, although not quite fulfilling the notion of a single beautiful image, could also be a great project—a series of photographs or friends at play or of a neighborhood activity, or a family portrait gallery showing relatives at work.

If the child has access to a digital camera, the ability to capture a huge multiplicity of images can be used to help the child develop an “eye” through self-critique. Which images “work,” and which do not? What are the elements of a great photograph?

When in the end the beautiful photograph has been made, the final and perhaps most satisfying project will be to decide where and how it will be displayed, or to whom it might be given. (And do not forget that there are any number of photographic competitions in which to enter the image. Some are even for young photographers only.

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