Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Creative Clutter

Are there blocks scattered about your living room? Random pieces of wood and nails on your garage floor?

Before you holler, take a deep breath and read this post. (I know -- the odds of you having your computer in the garage with you at this very moment are slim to none, but bear with me.)

This week, I'm teaching a class called, "Unleash Your Creativity." It's part of a special week of arts programing for adults (I like to call it "summer camp for grown-ups"), and my piece of it emphasizes the creative process. In my class, we don't create masterpieces; we play. Literally. Monday we colored with crayons. Yesterday, we sculpted with playdough and modeling clay. And today, we created cards out of paper, fabric, wallpaper and glue.

The point is to take people back in time to a place where it was safe to create. As children, most of us had no problem whatsoever reeling off a story or drawing a picture. But ask most adults to write a story and they'll say, "Oh. No. I'm not very good at that," because somewhere along the line they've gotten the message that creativity is for talented people only. And that they're not very talented.

In class, we're learning that creativity takes time and space, and that it's occasionally messy. (I spilled gold glitter down the front of my shirt!) Our project today involved mounds of material. The center of each table was heaped with supplies: fabric scraps, sheets of wallpaper, cardstock, glue, scissors, glitter and more. It was colorful, chaotic and oh so creative.

At the end of class, my students asked whether they should help put the supplies away or leave them out for the mini-creativity classes I'm teaching tonight. I told them to leave them out. That's when I learned about creative clutter.

One of my students is a feng shui consultant. Earlier in the class, she agreed with me when I said that clutter can be a barrier to creativity. All of my students are women, and women, particularly, are prone to putting off creation when piles of "shoulds" surround them. But this clutter, she said, gesturing toward the colorful piles, was good clutter. This kind of "mess," she said, invites creative energy.

Think about that.

Now think about the blocks on the living room floor. Or the wood and nails in the garage. Yes, it's possible that your sons' simply forgot to put things away. (Or that they left them there on purpose, hoping that the magic pick-up genie would appear.) But isn't it also possible that they were interrupted in the middle of creation? That their creative energies were used up for the day, but that they're not quite done with whatever burst of creativity they were experiencing?

When my boys are in the "zone" (and I can recognize the zone by their intense concentration and interest in a project), I let the mess linger. Case in point: cardboard boxes. Like many boys, mine are fascinated with large cardboard boxes. They've made clubhouses, snowmobiles, cars and rockets from boxes. Generally, the play takes more than one day. So I walk around boxes, markers and random cardboard shavings for days, 'til the boys' interest moves onto something else.

Yes, it's inconvenient. Yes, my house appears cluttered. No, my house will not be selected for a centerfold appearance in House Beautiful anytime in the near future. But that's OK. I'd much rather have my boys experience the joy of creativity.

And if that doesn't convince you to let the "mess" go, release responsibility to my feng shui consultant. She said it's OK, so please let your boys create.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Importance of Encouragement

You know that supporting your kids -- financially, emotionally, logistically -- is an important part of parenthood. But have you ever pondered the importance of support to parents?

Parenting isn't easy. Life with four active, free-thinking sons is three-quarters chaos and one-quarter conflict, with the occasional cuddle thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong: they're good kids, and I'm a pretty good mom. But as you well know, parenting is continual process. You can't just tell your son, "Please be quiet in church" once and expect that he'll abide by that directive for the rest of his life. You have to say it again and again and again. You have to be willing to go to church on a semi-consistent basis with less-than-willing children. You have to somehow model restraint and proper behavior when what you really want to do is throttle the three-foot high person next to you. And you need to be prepared to issue consequences for unacceptable behavior, even though you know that stating said consequence will result in a brief escalation of an already unpleasant situation.

I get tired just typing it.

Friday night was one of THOSE NIGHTs in our household. We'd gone to a 4H dinner, a casual event attended by many sponsors of 4H -- many of whom just happen to be elderly people. And my boys were, well, boys. They laughed loudly. They got up and down off their chairs. They told fart jokes. They got into squabbles with one another that required re-direction. But in the midst of all that, our county director leaned over to me and said (with a smile on her face!), "I just love your boys' enthusiasm!"

Is it any wonder we love 4H?

Today, in church, a similar incident: Instead of commenting on my younger boys' constant trips to the bathroom or Boy #4's slight meltdown during the second half of church, the pastor complimented ME. "I think it's so great that you come to church with four boys," she said. She knows it's not easy, but recognized my effort, and that made me feel, well, proud.

Parenthood can, at times, seem like a thankless slog. We can spend days (weeks!) without any measurable forward progress. So it means the world -- at least to me -- when another parent compliments my parenting or recognizes my efforts.

This week, I ask you to remember the importance of encouragement. I want you to reach out to other parents around you -- to your friends, your neighbors, even the woman on the bus next to you -- and offer some kind words. Then come back here and tell me about your experience. I can't wait to hear from you!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Circumcision Ban?

For years, the decision whether or not to circumcise a boy has been a private matter. Sometimes, religion gets involved, but when you come right down to it (ha!), the decision to circumcise or not is made by mom and dad.

Voters in San Francisco may soon take the decision out of parents' hands. According to the L.A. Times, a November referendum will seek to ban the procedure. Proponents of the ban -- self-described "intactivists" -- argue that male circumcision is the equivalent of female genital mutilation, which is outlawed in the United States. They also state that there's no convincing medical reason for circumcision, at least not here in the developed world.

Opponents of the ban, including rabbis and concerned parents, contend that the ban would infringe upon personal and religious freedom. They point to studies that note decreased HIV and HPV infection rates in circumcised men. And --somewhat desperately -- they note that "90% [of nurses surveyed on a geriatric unit ] were strongly in favor of circumcision because it was difficult to bathe uncircumcised men in their 90s."

Ok. My bias is going to show at this point.

I've been a nurse in a geriatric unit. I've bathed men in their 90s. I even assisted on a bedside-circumcision of a man in his 90s. (He needed the circ because his foreskin had adhered to his penis and would not allow the passage of a catheter, which was needed for medical reasons.) But to say we should base a medical decision affecting a baby on what might happen to in his 90s?? That's stretching things.

Circumcision rates have been dropping in this country. According to the CDC, 56% of baby boys were circumcised in 2006. In 2009, that number was only 32.5%. (Note: that statistic does not include circumcisions performed out of hospitals, such as a bris.) If the ban goes through in San Francisco, the number will be even lower.

Personally, I'm pretty clearly anti-circumcision. (Despite the fact that I wrote a blog post called 'Another Reason You Might Circumcise,' I clearly stated that even given the new research, I would refuse to have my sons circumcised.) As a homeschooler, though, I'm also anti-government intervention into families' lives. occurs to me that the circumcision ban isn't a matter of denying parents their rights as much as it is protecting a human who is unable to speak for himself.

What do you think of the proposed circumcision ban?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Camping with Kids

Last weekend, the boys and I went camping at a beautiful state park. It was hotter-than-you-know-what, but we had a great time! We spent the majority of our days down by the lake -- swimming, paddleboating, kayaking, playing in the sand and otherwise enjoying a slower pace of life. We also hiked to a waterfall and traipsed up and down the rocky hillsides along the creek. We caught lightning bugs, listened to a variety of different languages and toured a cave. All in all, it was a perfect, boy-friendly getaway.

That's not to say it was easy. Camping with kids is a lot of work. There's the packing, loading, unpacking, setting up, taking down -- and laundry once you get home. Not to mention the seems-like-constant-bickering of four boys in close proximity.

Still? Totally worth it.

I'm far from an experienced camper -- this was only our third outing -- but I've learned that my boys do better when they're allowed to contribute to the workload. Boy #2 was my master packer. He's always loved playing with block and is an expert at spatial relationships, so he took on the job of loading the van. It was his job to cram everything in -- and he did a great job!

All of my boys gathered wood for the campfire. They love to explore, so while I was setting up the tent, they took off in search of firewood. Soon, they returned with some fallen-down limbs and birch bark. (Did you know that birch bark is great for starting fires?) Thrilled by their finds, I sent them back for more birch bark. They returned with 8- to 10-foot fallen birch branches. So while I continued setting up the campsite, the boys took turns with the hatchet, chopping the birch into more manageable pieces.

Yes, hatchet. Last year, I bought a hatchet for use on our camping trips, and it's proved to be one of our most useful camping tools. It keeps the boys busy for hours! Certainly, I supervise its use, and I teach them the basics of tool safety before they get to use it. But they LOVE to chop wood! Boys like to feel useful, and chopping wood is (in their eyes) a fun way to contribute to the well-being of the family. Plus, they like hacking at and burning things.

If you're planning a camping trip with kids:

  • Bring snacks. Nothing says camping like smores.
  • Let them get dirty. Because it was so hot, my boys lived in their swim trunks for three days. The little two also refused to wash their faces on the grounds that we were camping. I let them stay dirty.
  • Have the kids pack some diversions. My boys packed scooters and raced up and down the path to the bathroom. They also packed their baseball equipment and played a bit in the open area behind our campground.
  • Be a stickler about safety. Yes, I let my boys use a hatchet. And the oldest two start campfires (under supervision). But when you're in the woods, on the lake or around a campfire, you can't let down your guard. Insist on life jackets while boating, teach your kids about poison ivy and enforce a do-not-enter zone around the campfire.
  • Explore! Every state park or campground is different. We made it a point to see the waterfall that's a highlight of this particular park, but I also let the kids explore the area around our campground on their own.
  • Don't push learning; let it happen. I certainly don't carry lesson plans into the woods. But I am aware of all the natural learning that happens when out in nature. Observe the flora and fauna. Discuss the similarities and differences of the local environment with your home zone. Follow your kids' interests.
  • Allow for some independence. Camping means close quarters, and not all kids do well with that. Older kids, especially, may appreciate some time to pursue their interests independently. My 13-yr-old spent hours out fishing on the lake, alone.
  • Involve the kids in the work. Younger kids can help collect sticks and fetch water. Older kids can plan meals and help with the set-up and take down.
What are some of your best tips for camping with kids?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What Kids Need to Learn

On March 30, in response to a Boston Globe article about kids and learning, I wrote, "What kids need to learn is 1. Time, 2. Space, 3. Access to Materials and 4. Support. They also need Freedom to Explore." I dubbed this the "time-space-access-support-freedom framework for learning."

I wrote that blog post based entirely on my own experiences and observations. I have seen, time and again, how my own children (and others) learn amazing things when left to their own devices in an enriching environment -- especially when there's an adult nearby to build on their interest and enthusiasm.

Flash forward to today. I'm in the midst of researching an article about scientific thinking in young children when these sentences catch my eye:

An environment that fosters scientific thiking is one that gives young children the time, space, and materials to exercise their curiosity. It also gives them the freedom to engage in child-centered explorations, experimentations, and explanations.

Those sentences, authored by Ruth Wilson, PhD, are part of a larger article entitled, "Promoting the Development of Scientific Thinking." They also echo my earlier sentiments exactly.


Let your son splash in the tub. Toss in some old plastic containers as well.

Catch bugs with him. Talk about what they eat and where they live.

Let him play in the dirt. He'll find rocks and worms and bugs and a million other things to ponder.

Tolerate experimentation in the kitchen. My boys have mixed together some pretty nasty concotions, but learned a ton in the process.

Buy balloons. And magnets. Magnifying glasses too. Let your sons play with them.

Stop cringing when your son brings home critters. Let him observe and care for his catches briefly (if possible). Then help him figure out an appropriate habitat for said critters.

Encourage collections. I know -- you probably have too many rocks in the house already. But young boys learn by observing, comparing and classifying.

What are some of your favorite ways to encourage learning?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Keeping Boys Busy

Are your boys driving you crazy yet? (More than the usual crazy, I mean.)

Summer is a challenging time for many parents, especially working parents who are used to sending their kids to school all day. Homeschool parents, in general, are used to having their kids around, but they too face a new set of challenges in the summer. Institutionally-schooled kids, for instance, are around -- which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your neighborhood.

As a homeschooling, single mom, I'm well aware of the challenges on both sides of the spectrum. I completely, 100% get the desire to sign your kid up for every single available activity, just so he'll be out of the house. I need time to work, and it's hard to work with kids underfoot. But I also know that signing the boys up for activities they hate won't help their development one bit. So I refuse to sign the boys up for summer school "just because," even though it's a childcare steal. ($20 for four weeks of five-day a week, 8-12 education/babysitting.)

That said, it's hard to keep the boys busy. I'm not anti-TV or computer, but I don't want to the kids sitting in front of a screen eight hours a day. So what do we do for fun?

I need activites that 1) keep the boys engaged for hours and 2) take up little of my time. With those criteria in mind, I created this Keep Your Kids Occupied in the Summer article for My five top keep-'em-busy ideas are:

  1. Birdwatching. While none of my kids are avid bird watchers, this idea was inspired by Boy #2's previous passion for butterflies. That kid spent two whole summers catching and categorizing butterflies, and the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed his hobby as well.

  2. Gardening. My boys have been gardening with their dad for years. My oldest, age 13, has been selling produce at our local farmers' market for about that long. This year, for the first time, I planted a a garden behind my house with my five-year-old. It's not much, but he sure has fun watching our plants grow!

  3. Building. Some parents are understandably leery about letting their boys work with tools, but few things occupy my boys' hands and minds as well as a building project. Boy #4, age 5, recently built his very own boat! (I'll post a picture later.)

  4. Messy Art Party. This idea -- which involves a fair amount of parental prep -- is great way to get boys interested in the arts. What better way to introduce art and artists than to let your boys get dirty?

  5. Bowling. Have you signed up for Kids Bowl Free yet? If not, do! It's not entirely free (you still need to spring for bowling shoes), but it's a great option for rainy days. We've already gone once this summer.

What about you? What are some your favorite keep-'em-busy activities?