#97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

IDEA #97. Explore a museum or cultural collection at a local college or university

Your local college or university may in fact have the superb art gallery you have already explored, but perhaps it has other collections that are more esoteric or more modest. These collections may pique or inspire new interests, and a visit may hold many surprises.

The first order of business is to determine what is there. A search through the college department listings on line may turn up a “museum” or “collection” of whose existence you had been unaware, or perhaps the college library has information. It is possible that the facility you seek has limited hours or limited access; you may even have to throw yourself on the mercy of a librarian, curator, or docent for permission to view and explore.

In the aggregate, America’s university collections of cultural and natural objects dwarf those of the Smithsonian, and locally you may find yourself gazing at birds’ eggs from the Arctic or ethnographic relics from nineteenth-century journeys to the

Yale's Peabody Museum

Yale’s Peabody Museum

South Seas; maybe you’ll even find dinosaur skeletons

. You may come across surprising and delightful troves of material from your own community’s human or geological past, or the papers and possessions of a well-known graduate of the school. Perhaps there is an arboretum or a special garden or greenhouse.

The actual content and size of the collections do not matter in this activity. The object is to explore the ways in which other minds have worked to order knowledge and experience for the use and edification of others and to let oneself be captivated and inspired in the process.

#96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation

IDEA #96. Master a pre-electronic form of mathematical calculation: learn how to use an abacus, a slide rule, a quipu, a Curta calculator, or some other calculating device or method. Instructions can be found in libraries or the Internet, and slide rules can be found at yard sales, on Internet auction sites, or even in dusty drawers in old mathematics classrooms. There is even chisanbop, a really efficient form of calculating using just the fingers that can be learned on the Internet; it is Korean in origin, and experienced practitioners can perform chisanbop calculations almost as fast as an electronic calculator.

It is hard to believe that just two generations ago most of the electronic technology that we now use to perform mathematical calculations was unavailable to the general public. Even electric adding machines used power only to assist mechanical processes, and only the most expensive and cumbersome machines were capable of simple multiplication.

Even so, human genius in many cultures had observed certain characteristics of numbers and created hand-operated devices that could perform sophisticated and precise operations. The east Asian abacus, for example, can add, subtract, multiply, and divide in skilled hands almost as quickly as an electronic calculator; although its capacities are limited, it is still sufficient for most commercial needs. The slide rule, images-1based on logarithmic principles, enables rapid calculation in a number of modes, depending on the design of the rule (not, incidentally, a ruler, since a slide rule is not made for measurement); during World War II virtually every complex machine short of the atomic bomb was essentially developed by engineers using only slide rules.

The Curta calculator, a rarity these days and rather expensive when one can be found, is a masterpiece of precisioncurta-1-nolegend2 design and manufacture from Liechtenstein that could do virtually anything a slide rule could. But the Curta is entirely digital, taking input and yielding data in precise numbers. We are partial to the Curta if for no other reason than that its mechanical elegance is almost unsurpassed. If the youngster has access to one of these, simply handling it will be a satisfying experience.

Chisanbop (also chisenbop) made its appearance in the U.S. just as cheap electronic calculators were imagesentering classrooms, and so a promising and capable way of teaching students to perform calculations literally by hand never quite had its day in school. Like the mechanical calculators, chisanbop provides its own education in aspects of number theory.

If the youngster is intrigued by this kind of technology, there are still other, less known systems that have been used for numerical recording and calculating, and there are also groups of enthusiasts who are determined to keep alive the skill of using them. While teachers may decry the apparent de-emphasis of “math facts” in contemporary education, the simple fact is the humans have been engaged in developing ways to make calculating “automatic” for hundreds of years.

#95. Keep a journal

IDEA #95. Keep a journal

The number of unopened, unused journals occupying the bedrooms of America’s children must be in the hundreds of thousands; journals seem to be popular gifts from hopeful older relatives who see in the child perhaps a kindred spirit, perhaps just an interesting or provocative voice. Keeping a journal requires both a desire to write and an inclination to keep a record of one’s own life, so it would seem, that few people actually possess. While we are not surprised to find that our favorite novelist has kept a journal since she was nine, we are stunned when we learn that a good friend has done the same—such is the rarity of journal-keeping.

By narrowing the notion of “journal,” however, it might be possible to find a model that would entice even the least prolific or literary-minded young person to take a flyer.ADS5245_RL_NM_222 Back at IDEA #20 here we suggested keeping a sketchbook, a kind of visual journal, but here we are more focused on the written word.

This may be a daunting idea, and literature abounds with novels in diary form that are detailed transcriptions of events that run to hundreds of pages. But rather than providing an exhaustive record, perhaps the interested child’s first journal could have a focus on specific activities—matters related to a hobby or a trip, say—or on responding to a particular issue in the world or in the individual’s life. It could even be a record in prose of some ongoing phenomenon, even the weather. A journal may also be finite, lasting only as long as one vacation or one family journey.

By reducing the scope of “journal” to something manageable, the idea of regularly writing something down may not seem quite so burdensome or overwhelming. And though the image of a journal is a leather-covered tome wrapped in ribbon and written in fountain pen, there is no reason that a journal cannot be kept on line or at least on a computer. The idea is to write, to record; the medium is immaterial.

And any journal is traditionally the private property of the keeper, to be shown only when and to whom the writer wishes. If your interested child decides it might be fun to keep a journal of some sort, parents and guardians and other nosy types are politely invited to KEEP OUT!

#94. ‘Tis the Season: Go to the Spring Play at your local high school

IDEA #94. Go to the Spring Play at your local high school (or to whatever the seasonal play might be if you don’t happen to be in the Northern Hemisphere)

If you are already performing in or are part of the stage crew of your school play, you are already attending, but for the rest of the community school plays are an easily accessible cultural event as well as an affirmation of the creative spirit of a poster-web300community.

Whether the school play of the moment is a musical–these tend to be popular in the spring–or a drama or comedy, it is probably based on a script that is familiar, even iconic, in the history and world of theater. What better way to add to one’s stock of cultural knowledge as well as to appreciate the enormous effort of the cast, crew, and faculty who have spent months putting the production together?

Purchasing a ticket and sliding into a seat for an evening’s or afternoon’s entertainment is not just about enjoying the show, which is bound to be impressive even if it’s not Broadway or even the bus-and-truck companies that roam among city theaters large and small across the country. Attending a school play is a way of acknowledging and applauding, literally, the long hours of rehearsals, interesting technical challenges analyzed and resolved, and all the joys and occasional frustrations that go with being part of a collaborative team–an ensemble. The students have worked hard, with late nights even as they begin to finish up the term’s academic work, and the adults overseeing the project have put in their own blood, sweat, and occasional tears.

So, whether they’re for Grease or A Midsummer Night’s Dream or You Can’t Take It With You or Macbeth, watch for the posters for your local high school’s spring play to appear in local shop windows and make a plan to see the show. The interested child may be inspired, and at the very least he or she and any adult companion who happens to go along will be well entertained.

#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.


In a great piece in the New York Times’s “Motherlode” blog Lisa Heffernan writes with, er, passion, on how the quest for Passion, with a capital P, is bad for kids. The essay comes uncomfortably close to what this blog is about, and, feeling a bit defensive, I want to clarify what I see as the difference between the effort to help a child find interests and the all-hands-on-deck crusade to make sure that Johnny or Susie has a developed Passion by the time he or she is ready to apply to college.

In the explanatory material in the column to your right I make no bones about the connection between interests, passion, and success in many things, including college admission. If this seems a little cynical, I guess that it is, but after forty years as a teacher and a college counselor in schools where admission to selective colleges is a goal, I know that there is a connection, and it would be fatuous to deny this.

But I’d like to get back to first principles. Everything we know about learning, and about intelligence for that matter, says that learning is greatly enhanced by some kind of sensory and emotional engagement with the work. Kids learn better, and do better work, when they can find something interesting in the work they are asked to do. Most schools, of course, work to bake the “interest factor” into their curricula, but countervailing trends like an emphasis on standardized testing can impede this effort. Kids’ families need, in my humble opinion, to take up the slack here when they can.

There’s almost nothing sadder than encountering a ten or twelve or fifteen year-old who claims not really to be interested in anything much. No, they don’t read about any one thing, or watch particular programs, or seek out particular activities. Among the overscheduled offspring of the college-aspiring bourgeoisie, this phenomenon is not rare; the kids are so busy being dragged around that they haven’t had a chance to just sit and smell the flowers and imagine themselves doing….

It’s also the case that some of these children do in fact have a deep interest about which they are afraid to talk. It might be the Red Sox, or a particular video game, or heavy metal music, or Michael Kors, or college basketball. And it’s true that school folk—pointing a finger here at myself—tend not always to acknowledge that such interests are “worthy,” and so kids keep their encyclopedic knowledge of National Hockey League scoring statistics, celebrity fashion, or their Level 80 achievements in World of Warcraft to themselves. Such interests may indeed become true passions, and as a counselor I learned years ago not to be surprised when kids expressed an interest in college programs in sports management, music production, fashion, or game design.

The “Passions” that dismay Lisa Heffernan and myself are those constructed out of whole cloth by someone other than the actual kids or based on a momentary interest that a parent or guardian—or possibly sometimes a counselor or even a teacher—then force feeds, like a Strasbourg goose, to plump a vague interest into a demonstrable, comes-with-credentials Passion. If there is anything that more likely to lead a kid to burn-out or even resistance to new ideas, it is having someone else falsify or force-feed an interest so that it looks like a passion.

So far there have been over ninety suggestions offered on this blog, and I want to emphasize that I hope these are more or less what Heffernan is calling for: things a kid might try or that a family member or teacher might suggest—not a “to-do list.” I’ve said this before.

Bill Rice, a school colleague from forty years ago, proposed, in the middle of a discussion about youth concerts for school groups put on by the local symphony, what I call the Candle Wax Theory of Learning. Another colleague had expressed frustration with these musical field trips—kids fidget, talk, fall asleep—but Bill had a more philosophical approach: “It’s like making candles. Every time you dip them in a new experience, a little bit of it sticks.”

I’m not sure the analogy is perfect, but every time a child is exposed to something new, whether an idea or an activity or a book or game or movie, some little thing may stick. My goal at The Interested Child is to help families and help kids figure out what it means to be interested in something and how to think about the world in a way that stimulates intellectual curiosity.

Passion will come, if and when it comes, all in good time.

#92. Find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science

IDEA #92. Go to a library or a bookstore (or maybe ask a science teacher at your school) to find and read from cover to cover a magazine about science or some branch of science. Scientific American would be a natural choice, but there are magazines about astronomy, environmental science, and technology that are pretty easy to find.

In the world of science—any science—periodicals serve a paramount purpose as the vehicle through which the results of virtually all scholarly research are made public. Even Scientific American, which has been published for more than a century as the most prominent magazine for laymen as well as scientists, occasionally presents new findings, and it remains important as a monthly summary of the most significant issues and compelling ideas in the field.

But along with Scientific American there are a host of magazines, some highly technical and others written for non-scientists, whose aims are to introduce their readership to the excitement and challenge of science in the twenty-first century. Science and Nature are probably the most prestigious general publications for scientists and medical researchers, while popular magazines like Science News and BBC Focus cover many issues.

Specific sciences also have their own magazines. Astronomy and Sky & Telescope are leading astronomy magazines, but there are other very readable periodicals in fields from archaeology to zoology. There are also many, many magazines with a technical focus, some general and others relating specifically to a single aspect of computer science, say, or alternative energy.

The youngster who can spend some time leafing through one of these magazines is likely to find a few articles of interest, a few things that are intellectually challenging, and very likely an entertaining but partially baffling array of advertisements and non-editorial content that serve, if nothing else, to provide a sense of the complexity and richness of the world of science.

#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.

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