Malleable Landscapes

Many animals are engineers. Beavers build dams, spiders build webs, termites build buildingsmounds, and humans build houses, bridges, log cabins, towers, and monuments. Small humans build snow forts, tree houses, lego castles, and blanket and clothespin hideouts.

I’ve always been fascinated by child-created spaces. I’ve been watching the landscape around my son’s school gradually change over the years and across the seasons and it got me thinking about how important this process is to child development.

 

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In a small forest behind the school, kids constructed a large dirt half-pipe in order to do tricks on their bmx bikes. This was not sanctioned by the city, but the city is aware of it, and (somewhat to my surprise) decided to let it stay.

In the warmer seasons, the sand beneath the play structure in the schoolyard becomes pitted with giant holes dug by the students. Interestingly, (or vexingly, to this laundry-weary mom) my young son is far more drawn to these muddy holes than he is to the play structures.

This winter, as the snow comes and goes, I have been watching the landscape change drastically every day. We’ve seen holes and tunnels, sliding hills, piled up ice bricks and sculpted fortresses. There was a fabulous ice patch going down a hill that the kids loved to slide down, until some grown-up discovered this and put salt down (I get it…. head injuries, lawyers, yadda yadda. Sigh. Grown-ups are no fun.)

Doesn’t a freshly plowed giant pile of snow make for the most spectacular malleable landscape though? New materials arriving at no cost all the time! Unfortunately, as the temperature creeps up to 10 degrees Celsius today, we have little to no snow left. What? It’s February! Come ON!

It isn’t just the joy of creating something though. When given the opportunity, children love to find ways to hide away from disapproving parental eyes (where they are free to lick icicles and make bathroom jokes). Perhaps it stems from our perch-547294_640evolutionary history, when our biggest threat came in the form of human-eating carnivores rather than “mom’s angry face,” but humans instinctively like to have places to hide.

I’ve spoken before about the idea of “adventure playgrounds” which host an abundance of loose materials and tools to build with, experiment and explore. They have caught on in many places around the world. Natural playgrounds that employ naturally occurring land features and materials for playing, climbing and building are also gaining in popularity. In the summer, when it is complete, I’m going to post about a new natural playground in my community that I’m very excited about. Unfortunately these ideas are tricky to balance (and often to gain approval) in our increasingly litigious society, where no one wants to take personal responsibility for safety.

But, if we can create more opportunities for children to build their own challenging environments, they will learn skills that cross so many domains. Think of the possibilities: social skills and cooperation, coordination and balance, engineering and math (just to name a few). They’re also spending time outside, and getting physical activity. If you follow my blog, you may have heard about a few advantages of those two things.

Allowing children to fully engage with environments is so important in their development of self-efficacy, as well as their ability to learn about appropriate risks. Once in a while I still have to remind myself to take a step back, and just watch what my children are capable of creating.

For further reading, check out David Sobel’s book called: “Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood.”

Photo Sources: Me, and Pixabay.com

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The Pinterest Illusion

The internet is teeming with lonely, exhausted mom bloggers (*lifts hand*). At times, it feels like the internet is our only connection to other adults. As such, we turn to it for support, for advice, for inspiration, and for company. We also look to it for validation, and this comes with certain risks.

If you are of a particular generation, and have kids, or friends with kids, you’re inevitably going to see the words “Mommy Wars” and “Sanctimommy” popping up all over the place.  But, I firmly believe that these so-called wars are occurring almost entirely in our own heads as a result of what I like to call the “Pinterest Illusion.”

The fact is, what most people post on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram & Twitter is a highly edited, carefully curated sample of highlights, not the blooper reel.

We look at our own lives: the tantrums, the unidentifiable sticky puddle on the kitchen floor, the piles of mis-matched socks, the KD for dinner (again). Then we open pictures of smiling babies wearing cloth diapers and hand-knitted sweaters and eating organic

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Not wearing cloth diapers

homemade peas in sparkling kitchens. The funny thing is, that picture was taken five minutes before that baby started to scream and splatter peas all over the sparkling kitchen, the homemade sweater, and the tearful mom suffering from post-partum depression.

We look at that perfect picture, and feel it is a judgment. It isn’t. Let me repeat, IT ISN’T. Mom posted that picture in hopes of creating some sort of illusion of sanity and peace in her life. This is the Pinterest Illusion.

The choices we make are not judgments of others.

If I choose to breastfeed my child until he is three or bottle feed from birth, it is not a comment on your choice. If I choose to co-sleep with my child or put him in a crib, it is not a comment on your choice.  If I choose to feed my children McDonald’s or ethically-raised, fair trade, vegan, gluten-free, organic, free-range tofu for dinner, it is not a comment on your choice (though it might be a comment on my understanding of the word “free-range”).

These are simply the best answers I could come up with out of the ridiculous amount of information and advice out there, combined with my particular set of life circumstances and stressors. They’re going to be different than your answers, and that’s ok.

But, we see moms make different choices on the internet, and they make us question our own. The differences make us defensive. But, different is ok. We all have different information and different circumstances that will lead to different choices. My choice is not an attack on yours!

I’m not denying the fact that “sanctimommies” are out there. I’m sure they are. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but, the vast majority of moms I see on the internet are perfectly nice, normal humans just trying to make sense of all of the information out there, doing the best they can, and most importantly…supporting each other! The only evidence I can find of the existence of “sanctimommies” is blog post after blog post lashing back against these judgmental mothers who take it upon themselves to correct everyone else.  Where are these judgmental mothers? Maybe you’ve met one, but you can’t pretend that’s the norm.

Does posting the highlights of one’s life rather than bloopers make a person a “sanctimommy?”

I threw my son a stupidly elaborate Harry Potter party. When I posted pictures on Facebook, I put up pictures of the homemade wands, the Honeydukes goody bags, the platform 9 ¾ door hanging, my son in his costume, the potions, and all the decorations.

What I did not post was a picture of the kid crying when he lost his wand. I didn’t post the fact that we had exhausted all activities after 15 minutes and that some of the kids ran screaming around the house while some were trying to watch the movie.  I didn’t post the beautiful dinner that was barely touched by any of the children and I didn’t post the mess we had to clean up afterwards. I didn’t post the eye-rolls of the kid who thought the activities were lame, and I didn’t post about the anxiety I experienced from having to throw two birthday celebrations in two days. But these things happened.IMG_20150730_152900056

I regularly blog about outdoor activities, and show my smiling kids playing outside, but I don’t post pictures of me fighting to get them out the door, or the laundry I had to do after one of them intentionally sat in a mud puddle. Why would I? Would you?

We can turn to the internet for advice and for inspiration, but we can’t use it to evaluate our own lives. We all have our talents, and we all have our shortcomings. There are good days and there are bad days.

We are all in this together, so let’s stop pretending there’s a war.

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Battling Ephibiphobia

A number of my friends are teachers, and most of them work in elementary schools. However, when it comes to those who work in high schools, I’ve always looked at them with a mixture of reverence and pity. I thought I was afraid of teenagers (that’s called ephibiphobia… there’s a fun piece of trivia). As it turns out, I simply hadn’t spoken to any since I was one! Sporting glasses, braces and suede vests, my nerdy teen years were somewhat less than socially optimal. But, things change. Oh, I’m still nerdy. I dropped the braces and the suede vests, but I still love learning and I own a star trek uniform. But, I like to think my skin is a little thicker now.

A big part of my research revolved around advocating for child and youth participation in community decision-making. While I fervently pushed this agenda, and firmly believed in it, I always felt like a bit of a hypocrite. I worked for six years at a summer camp with grades 3 and 4. I happily consulted with my target age group (grade 5) for my thesis. And, as I have two young children of my own, I felt justified in speaking about children’s rights and responsibilities as members of community.

But I never quite knew what to do with the youth piece.

So, I became a volunteer tutor for high school students in a low income neighbourhood.

I absolutely love it. Many of the teens are funny, creative, and interesting, and I really enjoy working with them. Even more, I enjoy just talking to them. I have learned so much in a short amount of time.

It seems to me that many adults are battling this same ridiculous unfounded fear or discomfort, and not just when it comes to teens. Many adults simply refuse to engage with children or youth at all.

This becomes very evident by contrast.

For example, on the second day of grade 3, I was dropping off my oldest son, while accompanied by my 3-year-old. Before class, the grade 3

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Having coffee (OK, hot chocolate) with one of my best friends.

teacher came up to us, got down on her knees and had an in-depth conversation with little brother. He was smitten. He kept pointing her out to me and trying to get more attention. How many strange adults make the effort to do that sort of thing? Aunts and uncles, grandparents and close friends will, of course! But when it comes to strangers, people seem to always speak through parents.

Have you ever taken your child to a store to spend their own money, and the cashier speaks with you instead, or even tries to hand you the change? Have you ever witnessed impatient wait staff at a restaurant, who clearly don’t want to wait the extra 20 seconds for a child to give their order? I notice these things. I also notice when people make a concerted effort to speak directly and respectfully to my children. It makes a huge difference. It builds their confidence and self-efficacy. This is something I can’t give them myself.

And then, in the teen years, even though they are gaining more independence, teens still experience this distance in public interaction. They are avoided like the plague. But, it is at this influential in-between stage where teens MUST be granted respect in order for them to become respectful members of society.

I have seen signs limiting the number of students allowed in a store at one time. I have seen a device called the “Mosquito” that is designed to specifically target the hearing range of teen ears by making an irritating noise to keep them away from certain areas.  What sort of messages do these things send? “We don’t want you here.”

Children are taught not to speak to strangers. What a ridiculous idea. How does that teach them to be active and engaged members of society? It teaches them the world is a scary place and people are not to be trusted. That’s a topic I already covered in another post. At the same time, adults now fear BEING the stranger. Any unauthorized adult communications with children can be scrutinized and sometimes reported. How did we get this far? Thanks to media hype, relatively rare incidents have led to fear in parents and children that ultimately does more harm than good.

Instead, why don’t we teach children and youth how to safely speak to strangers, and how to interact comfortably, politely and respectfully with people of all ages?

Or, even better, why don’t we teach ADULTS how to speak to children and youth, comfortably, politely and respectfully. Now THAT would make a difference.

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Passionate Curiosity

A few weeks ago, one of the teachers at our preschool asked me to answer the following question:

What do you know of and/or recognize in your child today that you hope will always remain or be true?

The answers were written on the back of our child’s photo and hung inside clear ornaments.

What a great question!

Sometimes, through all the runny noses and temper tantrums, it is hard to pause and recognize that our littlest people have intrinsic positive qualities. Taking the time to observe these qualities can provide important lessons for adults about life and happiness.  (It’s also probably good for your parent-child relationship).IMG_20140904_092332

My answer came to me very quickly. More than anything, I want my child to continue to be passionately curious and always find joy in discovering new things about the world.  (Yes, I know, a little predictable coming from me.)

Humans are born curious. Small children thrive on new information. As a species, our natural curiosity has led us to do incredible things (granted, some of this was destructive, but we have certainly learned a great deal about the world). But, somewhere along the way, many adults forget about the happiness that naturally comes from engaging with the world with curiosity.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” ― Albert Einstein

Do you remember how fascinating it was to watch a snail inching up DPP_0049.JPGthe side of a plant? Do you remember the pure joy in the feeling of jumping in a pile of leaves or finding the absolutely perfect seashell on the beach? Do you remember wondering why the sky is blue, or peeling the bark from a birch tree? At some point, did you stop asking questions? Did you stop engaging with the world? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe more than you’d like to admit?

Sometimes, my son’s two tiny little hands will grab my face and point it in the direction of something I should be watching. I have to admit, IMG_20151015_113917577.jpghe is usually right. If you can deal with the runny noses and temper tantrums, a little time with 3 year olds is a wonderful lesson in mindful living.

Thank you little one, for reminding me what is important. Thank you for helping me to step away from my electronic devices, and my obsessions with the past and the future. Thank you for encouraging me to engage in the present with happy curiosity. Thank you for being my inspiration.

Please don’t lose this quality.

 

 

 

Here is one of my favourite book passages of all time:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” 
                              ― T.H. WhiteThe Once and Future King

 

 

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I Can See Clearly Now, The Rain is Gone

leaves(Or…. Unlocking the Gate goes to Ottawa)

(Disclaimer: If you’re sick to death of Canadian politics, you might want to skip this one. We watch elections like sports in my house, so I’m afraid this was inevitable.)

On Tuesday morning, the weather may have been damp, but we all woke up to a slightly sunnier Canada.

We have endured 10 years with a Prime Minister who (among countless other things) thumbed his nose at the environment (on a national and international scale), was the first PM to be found in contempt of parliament, implemented an economic plan to benefit the rich, killed countless necessary research programs, gagged government scientists, introduced a bill that allows the government to revoke Canadian citizenship, eliminated the long-form census, and ran an election campaign rife with juvenile tactics and racism (If I listed everything, we’d be here all day.)

For my international friends, our First-Past-The-Post system, paired with the spoiler effect has resulted in 10 years with a federal government that made the majority of Canadians unhappy.

Check out these fantastic videos that explain some different electoral systems, and why ours is broken:

FPTP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7tWHJfhiyo

Alternative Vote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y3jE3B8HsE

Mixed-Member Proportional Voting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT0I-sdoSXU

But on Monday, Canadians finally figured out how to force the broken electoral system into change, in a big way. With a tidal wave of support, and buoyed by fear of another four years of the Conservative “Harper Government,” Justin Trudeau and his Liberal team swept the country to a very solid, very surprising, majority.

It’s a tentative, cautious sort of optimism that many of us feel this week. Many of us voted strategically, meaning we made a decision based on who we wanted to lose. So, we have put a lot of faith in the Liberal party, to follow up on their many campaign promises, and fix the current mess. Many people voted while holding their noses, for candidates they didn’t actually support. The NDP and Green party lost too many seats they should have won.

And yes, the Liberal party has made some questionable decisions, most recently and notably supporting Bill C-51 and throwing our basic rights and freedoms into question. They’ve also made a lot of promises, including electoral reform. With such a massive show of support for Trudeau, it would be easy for the Liberals to get cocky, and conveniently forget about this promise (which would significantly weaken support for their own party).

But, as Canadians have pointed out very clearly, it was time for change, and we were determined to make it happen. No party is perfect, but any alternative was better.

However, there is another VERY good reason to be optimistic. A record number of people voted – 68.5%. That’s quite a leap from 61% in 2011 (CBC News, October 21, 2015). Also, a record 46 visible minority MPs were elected (Globe and Mail, October 20, 2015). This means that a record number of people cared, really and truly cared what happens to our beautiful and diverse country, and we will have a Prime Minister that believes, along with most Canadians, that Canada is strong not DESPITE our differences, but BECAUSE of them.

Tuesday I woke up happy. I woke up knowing that at least for the next four years, I won’t have to be embarrassed for Canada as I introduce the concept of government to my children. And, if all goes as promised, I will be able to tell them that every single vote actually means something.

Mr. Trudeau, I’m counting on you.

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Why I don’t like “Nature Walks”

IMG_20130717_103818Looking for something to do this weekend? Hundreds of online lists will suggest possible activities for your family:

  • The museum
  • The playground
  • A particular festival with expensive food, long lines and a bouncy castle.
  • The library
  • The zoo

Or perhaps…..

  • A nature walk

Hmmm…..what to do?

My family spends a lot of time hiking. So, the title may have been a bit misleading.

The term “Nature Walk” just doesn’t work for me.

Why?

To begin with, “Nature Walk” implies that nature is something separate from us.

IMG_20131016_161628As in: “Let us go for a drive to find nature. When we get there, we will leave our car, and experience nature for an hour on our “Nature Walk.” Then, we will leave nature and go home. We will have lovely memories of nature. One day, we will visit nature again.”

No! We are part of nature. It is not something you seek on occasion. Every walk involves “nature” in some way. Even dense urban areas have elements of (even non-human) nature all over if you look hard enough, be they pigeons or tough little sidewalk weeds.

Secondly, “Nature Walk” sounds completely contrived, forced and artificial: “Go take a nature walk and call me in the morning.” Walking is such a normal human activity, and the concept of doing it somewhere wild shouldn’t sound so uncomfortable. If you say, “Time for our Nature Walk” to a child, it becomes a chore. Why not “Let’s go exploring!” instead?

Finally, the term highlights how unusual this activity has become. “Remember that year we went on a nature walk, Dad, and you got all the bug bites, and swore we’d never go into nature again? Remember?” Nature is no longer considered home or a child’s play space, but rather somewhere to be visited on occasion, and listed alongside museums and zoos. When do we start calling them “Tree Museums” like Joni Mitchell?

This is funny: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/03/how-to-take-a-nature-walk-part-one

I will accept “hiking,” or “walk in the woods,” “exploring the great outdoors,” “excursion to the wilderness,” or “walkabout in a natural area.” I would be delighted to join you geocaching, camping, or cross country skiing but please, do not invite me for a “Nature Walk.”

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“Let Nature be Your Teacher”

“Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher.”

– William Wordsworth (from The Tables Turned)

It’s no secret that the “connecting children to nature” movement is strong and growing quickly. There are wonderful examples of schools and preschools that are embracing it fully. Forest Schools have actually been around a long time, starting in the mid 1900s in Sweden and Denmark. (And frankly, wasn’t the forest our first school, as a species? But I digress…)

While this is a more recent development here (the first opened in 2008), we do have them now in Canada.

Forest School Canada

These schools aren’t everywhere, but educators are increasingly recognizing the value of IMG_20150917_113925749nature-based, hands-on learning experiences for children.  If you need convincing of the benefits of nature, check out the rest of my blog.

As a completely immersive forest school isn’t always possible, practical, or even desirable in some cases, many schools are starting to incorporate natural play spaces and elements into their existing grounds.

For example, at one Early Childhood Education Centre, the staff just introduced a whole series of natural elements into their playground, including logs and stumps to balance and climb on, a “fire pit,” plenty of mulch, sticks to build with, and pine cones, stones, and other loose materials to manipulate. Staff asked for donations of hostas and phlox to plant around the edges.

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Not only do the children get hands-on contact with natural elements, but the design also employs the theory of “Loose Parts” which proposes that creative play is greatly enhanced when children have a variety of materials to manipulate.

Here is a post that explains the theory of Loose Parts (first introduced by architect Simon Nicholson) and their importance in creative play.

Loose Parts

As the play area IMG_20150917_114125230_HDRat this particular preschool was already in a location with beautiful tall trees and plenty of shade, this was a natural transition. While there is a new industry that revolves around designing and building sophisticated and expensive “natural playgrounds,” many smaller changes take relatively little time and money (when compared to traditional equipment). Professional consultations or installations are not always necessary and many of the materials can be donated or collected for free.

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.”

                                     -Plato

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