#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.

#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.

#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.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

More on the Interested Child Mindset: On Doing Things Badly and the Cult of Expertise

We live in an age that venerates expertise and success, when children specialize in a single sport by puberty and when family cars accumulate miles transporting kids to and from lessons and tutorials, workshops and competitions. Ten thousand repetitions and probably as many tears are rites of passage for children bred to ambition by ambitious families, and mediocrity is viewed as failure.

We occasionally worry that The Interested Child may in some way contribute to this exhausting program of accomplishing. This regimen frames too many American childhoods and adolescences, starting far too early and ending too often with a hollow emotional thud! barely audible beneath the applause as college acceptances roll in or similar external rewards pile up. I’m not sure what values this promotes in the end, but I have my suspicions.

My grandfather, a reflective educator whose own library was filled with how-to books on subjects that interested him through his life but on which he was no expert, used to cite G. K. Chesterton’s contrarian take on the adulation of expertise: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” (We referred to this adage in a post a few months back.) I have tried to take these words to heart in my own life and parenting, and we are pleased to remind our readers here of their profound wisdom.

My interpretation of Chesterton’s maxim: If someone truly enjoys doing something, then let the pleasure of doing it take precedence over doing it perfectly or even particularly well. Enjoy the doing as an end in itself. It’s okay to let go of the mantra that failure is only a step on the road to success; enjoying something that we don’t do all that well is just fine—contrary to cultural messages that a thing is worth doing only if it yields an impressive line item on a c.v. or a profit.

I can think of only one area where Americans seem to allow themselves wide latitude in performance: golf. Duffers may strive for years to be better, but shooting par remains a distant goal for all but near-professionals. Most golfers are surprisingly philosophical about being average, or a bit worse, but for most golfers (at least the ones I have known) the camaraderie and perhaps the scenery seem to be adequate recompense for “a good walk spoiled” around 18 holes.

Our task is gently to urge our children to try new things and then support them in engaging more deeply with the ones they seem to like. But we must not, in our parental exuberance and our own embrace of the Cult of the Expert, push them where our hearts and hopes, and not theirs, are leading. If they enjoy something, take something away from an experience, then that might be as far as it goes. We can dangle carrots to entice and encourage, but we must not resort to even the most metaphorical of coercive sticks in our quest to help kids learn to identify, follow, and build upon their own interests.

I’ll offer myself as an example here. I have played the guitar for going on fifty years, but I’m not very good and unlikely to get much better. I own a nice instrument and early on I really did practice for the requisite hours to achieve “expertise,” but about thirty years ago I hit a plateau, and now I mostly play when no one else is home. But my limitations as a musician don’t limit the pleasure I take in making music.

We like to think of The Interested Child as a mindset, not a checklist or a roadmap—as a compendium of ideas that might intrigue, not an enumeration of imperatives.

%d bloggers like this: