Parents Allow Free Play and Children Excel

How many of you remember growing up in a neighborhood where you were allowed to roam and play with your friends? I have great memories of playing with my friends at their homes and mine unsupervised by our parents for hours at a time. What we didn’t realize was that not only were we having fun but we were also building confidence and gaining experience in decision-making, which would aid us later in life. Recently I read about some parents championing this type of play for their children and I want to share their ideas with you and reaffirm why this lifestyle is important.

Lenore Skenazy has founded a movement named, Free-Range Kids. Her motivation was to counter the ever-present helicopter parenting we often see today, cut down on screen time for children and advocate breathing room for play zones. Ms. Skenazy believes that parents are too caught up in the worst case scenarios of life due to the sensationalized media, lawsuits and businesses pushing child safety products for any eventuality. Children are losing touch with the outdoors due to parents being concerned about germs and the fact that if the child is not studying and honing skills they might fall behind their peers. A proven avenue to success is being able to think and problem solve. When our children are not allowed to start this process at a young age, it doesn’t develop properly and they become more dependent on others.

As a new father Mike Lanza’s primary concern was his child having a happy childhood like he had experienced exploring his neighborhood with friends. To help with this concern Mr. Lanza decided to create a playborhood where blocks of his suburban neighborhood could become a safe fun area where his child could play and develop social skills with friends. This started with play structures in his yard, which can be utilized by all children in the neighborhood. Taking this idea one step further two mothers in a sister neighborhood have developed a one week camp starting as soon as school is out. At this camp the neighborhood children become acquainted with each other and start to develop friendships more than with just the family next door. The camp has fostered a sense of community and parents are now comfortable allowing their children to venture out of their own yards to meet friends down the block or in a neighborhood park.

Why is play free of hovering parents important? Peter Gray, a mental health professional at Boston College, says it goes well beyond developing confidence and decision-making. Children often have a need to play in ways that adults might find uncomfortable. These types of play include wrestling, play fighting, climbing trees and running at break neck speeds down a hill. As they age children like to stretch their imaginations and pretend they are facing dangerous situations or create their own worlds. From these experiences children learn to understand their own abilities and develop a respect for risk taking. All of this can happen in a child’s neighborhood but not without freedom to explore.

Parents in any neighborhood can set up a playborhood or arrange camps or mini camps to increase the sense of community for their children which will allow for confident free play for both parents and children. Think about what you can do to foster this in your community.

Promote Civics in Education for Citizenship Awareness

Retired U. S. Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, has taken up the cause of promoting civics education in our society. From 2010 until last week’s test results the National Assessment of Education has revealed a steady decline in our youth’s understanding of our democratic government and its role in our society. Only 18% of the students tested were proficient in history and less than a quarter in civics. Fewer than one-third knew that it is a widely held belief in our country that we should have a democratic government. Ms. O’Connor is a proponent of the new push to increase the STEM subjects; science, technology, engineering and math;  in our society but not to the extent that history and civics are being excluded. She also believes that citizenship is a skill that must be taught over time with the same devotion now seen to science and english and she is shepherding the idea that the subjects can be taught in an integrated manner.

Ms. O’Connor has worked with John Glenn College and Ohio State University to develop systems to increase civic education in an integrated manner that will reach our children. A push is being made to create games and other digital content that will help children learn to use our legal system and understand the legislative and electoral processes thus enabling them to help solve problems in our society starting on a community level. One digital game  created by the nonprofit founded by Justice O’Connor is “Win the White House”. This game puts children inside a virtual election and shows them how to navigate the process in an engaging manner. Another digital creation is iCivics, which is a digital storehouse of information to promote the teaching of civics in the state of Ohio. The goal of this site is to create databases of information that are state specific and can be adapted to any state’s curriculum.

As a homeschooling family we adopted civics in our curriculum at a young age, by allowing our children to voice their opinions without judgment teaching them to exercise free speech. They learned to create arguments that were well thought out and backed up with solid logic and data. Our family also voted on what projects we chose to take on or where we wished to volunteer our time and funds. Each child no matter their age had a vote and they took this responsibility seriously. As my children grew this process taught them to think, formulate ideas and participate in the success of the world around them. I still feel this is one of the most valuable set of skills they learned.

 

The following are six proven practices to promote civic understanding as stated by The Campaign for the Civic Mission for Schools:

1. Keep civics a part of your course of study.

2.Discuss current events and controversial issues.

3. Learn what it means to serve your community.

4. Promote extra-curricular activities that include civics.

5. Create your own school government.

6. Simulate government processes in your environment.

Problems with the Shift to Online Learning Materials

The days of the heavy backpack and a highlighting pen to use while doing required reading for class are disappearing. Schools are shifting to the usage of online lessons, which are downloaded by the student and then used at home and in the classroom. Schools are thrilled because the content of these lessons is often free saving them millions of dollars on textbooks. The fact that online learning seems to come naturally to our youth is listed as a factor in this shift to online learning sources, which is not surprising since many of these young adults are never without some form of technological device be it a phone or tablet. On the surface this all sounds wonderful but I see many challenges and problems with the push to total online learning sources.

1. What happens to the child who cannot afford the latest device to keep up with required download speeds. Will schools shift dollars spent to buying devices versus textbooks at no cost saving and will the student be allowed to use the device at home.?

2. Nonprofits and philanthropists are heading the movement to create much of this online learning content. How do we know they are truly qualified to do so?

3.Reading a teen’s comment that she cannot use a table of contents or index in a book of any type makes me shudder. If the only way youth can find information is through a Google search, who is going to break it to them that not everything on the internet is verified truth? Also, if they are studying a subject for the first time how will these students know they have correctly searched all content and gotten enough information?

4. Many parents are rebelling against the Common Core Curriculum. If this is converted to online material only, how will these parents know or have control over what their children are learning?

5. The comment that teachers like online materials because they can easily alter them and use them as they wish also creates concern. Who will be overseeing what content each teacher is creating and presenting to their students?

I will not label the use of online educational material as being absolutely horrible or unnecessary but I also think parents should be allowed to have knowledge and a say in what is presented to their children in our private, charter and public school systems. It also might be worth educating this generation of youth on how to properly use printed material, as we cannot afford to have life stop if the internet is down. My answer to this many years ago was to homeschool my four children and I still encourage any family to seriously research this option as a viable alternative to the school systems in our society today. There is no better way to build relationships with your children and teach them to be self-reliant and successful adults. Children have a natural thirst to learn and be creative. Let’s help them develop all of their interests and create goals they want to fulfill.

Does Technology Give us More or Less Control of Our Lives?

When you think about a self-driving car or the thermostat that determines the temperature of your home, does this concept excite you or give you feelings of angst? People of all ages are divided when it comes to the adoption of these technologies. Some people see these aids as a boon to the elderly or a way to save time while others see a loss of what makes life exciting. Many experts see these items as creating a conformist society with ever more entities and governments acquiring data about what we think and do. I wonder about putting important decisions in the hands of a machine, which can err or break down like any device can and eventually does. What do you do if the device you are allowing to make decisions for you does something you don’t like and you wish to override it but can’t? Psychologists view these scenarios as adding stress to everyday life and producing the feeling of loss of control over one’s life, which often leads to extreme anxiety. Just think about how agitating a minor computer glitch is and imagine this being magnified in the case of a self-driving car picking the most economical route to your destination but it taking thirty minutes longer to arrive at your destination. A worst case scenario involves hackers taking over a system or systems and holding whole cities or societies for ransom.

Researchers at Stanford University began a study last December to track the impact of these changes, but the rapidity of the adoption of new technological advances and the time it takes to analyze data makes it difficult to understand the lasting impacts and propose corrective action before the next great thing is upon us. The fear of researchers and privacy specialist is that we are losing our desire to experiment and be creative with the advent of “artificial intelligence” making decisions and watching over us. Do we really know when we use these devices what is being done with the data they store about us and who might have access to it? Do we want to stop thinking and making all of our decisions in life? What happens if you have goals and dreams that don’t conform to the societal norms? Who will determine what is abnormal behavior and how will this be policed in society? These are all important questions that individuals need to think about before ceding power over their lives.

In Finland a study was done which included the use of video cameras and artificial intelligence in the participants homes to study the effects of technology on people’s daily lives. Researchers were surprised at how many of the participants became annoyed and enraged by the constant surveillance and attention. They resorted to hiding their activities, covering the cameras, or turning off the devices if they were able to. These individuals felt that the sanctity and solitude of their homes had been invaded. What level of technology is too much and how much privacy do you wish to abdicate? What happens when we forget how to live on our own? Understanding that cultivating the ability to think and problem solve in children now creates caring, motivated and successful adults in the future makes it hard to cede all of our decisions to technology.

Music a Key to Higher Learning Skills

Many of us either learned to play a musical instrument in private lessons or in the school band but the odds are we never knew it was also increasing our cognitive abilities. It turns out that not only were we boosting our math skills, our linguistic abilities and enhancing our coordination but we were also acquiring social skills. A 2014 study at the University of Graz in Austria found that studying music is beneficial to the brain’s plasticity. What does this mean? It turns out that children who study music have significantly thicker gray matter in the areas of the brain linked to attention and concentration.  As they age this leads to higher scores on attentional, linguistic and literacy tests. This is not just listening to music but requires learning to play an instrument, read music and even perform.

Learning to read music and think about how it should sound is a brain exercise in problem solving. When children think on a higher level about synchronization, they can take fragments of information and use them to make connections to create a finished work and this spills over into other subjects including math. It is believed that this occurs because learning music creates synapses in the brain not used before to fire up and translate to other areas of learning and life. Improved social skills are a huge benefit of training in music. Students know they won’t get the piece they play right the first time, so they learn to practice and develop their attention span and work ethic. Nothing boosts a child’s self-esteem like performing alone or in a group and feeling a sense of pride at their accomplishment. The children often see themselves as improved people and this shows in their carriage and interaction with adults and peers.

In response to these findings schools and nonprofits are working to promote musical education for children of all ages. Amazing results have been seen with graduation rates going from 50% to 93% for at risk high school students, who became involved in music lessons. All of these schools showed improved attendance, language skills and attention spans. Introducing musical training in young children often helps them learn other subject matter such as fractions because they can make the connection to music via half-notes and quarter-notes. There is no substitute for helping a child apply what they are learning to real life items of interest.

While homeschooling our family was lucky to have a piano in the house, so I could teach all of my children to read music and play to some degree. Out of the four children only one of them pursued the piano and then later added drums to her skill set. The other three children took up the guitar and taught themselves to play by practicing day after day. My youngest son still plays to relax and get inspiration for his writing. Music is not only a great addition to any school setting but a necessary one for the development and enhancement of creative thinking and cognitive abilities.

Family Time;Quality Over Quantity

The time we spend with our children is valuable and to be cherished as they grow to adulthood and start their own households. Busy parents often feel guilty that they are not spending enough time with their children. So what do all of the researchers and psychologists say about the subject? First, a fact that surprised me was that since the mid-1970s parents have been spending more time with their children. The time fathers spend has tripled and mother’s are now on average spending 57% more time with their children. Has this increased academic success and emotional well-being? The answer found by Melissa Milkie the lead researcher at the University of Toronto was no. Ms. Milkie was quick to say that this is not to be construed to mean time with children is not valuable but what she determined is that quality matters more than quantity. What the University’s research discovered while monitoring 1,605 children was that positive outcomes in children’s success were more often linked to the mother’s level of education, household income and family structure. Another point this research highlighted is that parents today are driven to raise high-achieving children and this overlooks the importance of one on one interaction with your child. Quality time and not busy time lets a child know they matter and it gives them confidence to make better life choices and develops self-esteem.

Here are some suggestions by child psychologists for quality time with children:

Listen to Music – Listening to music as a family and even just talking about music or a particular song creates bonds especially in the teen years, when communication can be strained.

Talk and Drive – Riding in the car creates captive audiences, so parents are encouraged to take advantage of this time. One good conversation starter suggested is to talk about a bad and good event in your day. This promotes the sharing of feelings and when parents participate they model how to cope with problems as they occur.

Homework – Helping your child with their homework but not in excess is a good way to let your child know you are interested in what they are reading and learning about. Do avoid arguments and stay positive. Encourage your child to talk about school and their classmates, as this helps you gauge how your child is feeling about the overall environment there.

Family Vacations – This is a great way to build bonds and memories that last a lifetime. Being in a new setting creates camaraderie because everyone is experiencing something new together. If possible give your child the chance to mentor and help you learn a new skill whether it is body boarding or a language.

Social Media – The journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking actually found that adolescents who connect with their parents via social media felt closer to their parents. This connection ranged from just simple “likes” to more frequent interactions.

Success Linked to Early Childhood Chores

How many of you remember having chores to do as a child? I remember being tasked with mowing the yard, being the sole person responsible for the family pets and setting the table for meals. Today parents are cheating their children out of this great learning and social tool in lieu of more time on homework and activities. Braun Research found that of 82% of the adults they surveyed, who grew up doing chores, only 28% of them require the same of their children. The goal of parents today is to have their children focus on things they believe will bring them success. However, it is proven that doing chores as a child leads to happier and more successful lives. Why is this true? Giving a child household chores to do at an early age builds a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance. A University of Minnesota study started in 2002, which followed children across four periods of childhood beginning at age 3 and ending at age 20, found that young adults beginning chores at age three to four were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, achieve academic and early career success and be self-sufficient compared to children not starting chores until they were teens.

Chores teach empathy and how to be responsive to the needs of others. How is this related to success later in life? Dr. Richard Weissourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has an explanation. He led a study which asked 10,000 middle and high school students what they valued more achievement, happiness or caring for others. Roughly 80% said achievement or happiness over caring for others. What Dr. Weissourd points out is that personal happiness comes most reliably not from high achievement but from strong lasting relationships. What this tells us is we are creating generations of people who will be out of balance with priorities that will not bring them personal happiness. So the next time your child wants to ditch chores to do school work be strong and say no. This will start sending a message that caring for others is just as important as work and achievement.

The following are some ideas to motivate your child properly to do his or her chores:

1. Language matters – Letting your child know they are being “a helper” versus just “helping” increases their desire to pitch in and it creates positive  self-esteem.

2. Schedule chore time – Enter chores on the calendar right along with sporting events and extra curricular lessons.

3.Make it a game – Start chores off small and as your child gains in proficiency bump them up to the next level of responsibility.

4.Keep allowances and chores separate – Research has proven that paying for chores lowers motivation and performance. The goal is to increase altruistic behavior and not make chores a business transaction.

5.Types of tasks matter – Chores that focus on helping the family or others will build prosocial behavior and empathy. Self-focused chores like cleaning your own room do not have this effect.

Talk about chores differently – When chores need to be performed do not say “do your chores” but say “let’s do our chores”, and this will underscore that everyone helps to pitch in for the family.

Be a good example – We all know as adults we are our children’s mentors, so talk positively about the tasks you do around the home and never make a child’s chores part of a punishment.

 

STEAM versus STEM; Arts Education

The public is bombarded daily with a call to increase our children’s proficiency in the STEM subjects; science, technology, engineering and math. This is done in an effort to close the knowledge gap between our country and the balance of the world. I agree these subjects are an important part of any education but I believe they should be balanced with a dose of the letter A thus forming the word STEAM. A, as you can imagine stands for the arts ranging from music and art appreciation to literature. Who has not been moved by hearing a great piece of music for the first time, seeing a work of art that stirred the imagination, heard a speaker that inspired you to envision a better future or read a book encouraging dreams. These are all forms of art and they add balance to lives, make us more observant and develop a sense of graceful creativity. After all cavemen definitely used their STEM skills to survive and improve their lives, but they also took time to play music with rudimentary instruments and draw pictures on cave walls.

Earlier this week I attended a women’s conference and was inspired by two women under the age of 25. The first, an engineering graduate of Stanford University, knew how important encouraging education in the STEM subjects was to her life but she knew she wanted to inject these subjects with fun and balance. To this end she has created a multi million dollar toy company called GoldiBlox. Her toys created with girls in mind but also loved by young boys take the art of a story coupled with simple tools to foster creativity and kinetic skills. The toys are aimed at ages 5-10 and they take the child on a journey in the story with the main character, Goldie Blox ,to solve a riddle or problem while building an object they can use. This system not only makes the STEM subjects fun but couples them with the art of storytelling to foster creativity. The second young woman attending medical school after graduating from Yale University started a nonprofit at the age of 15 while recovering from an illness. At that time she met an ill writer, who inspired her to envision what she wanted out of life and then believe she could obtain it. Today her organization, girltank.org, sponsors women around the world to educate themselves, improve the communities they live in and inspire others to think creatively to envision a future of freedom and prosperity. Hearing both of these young women speak had me on the verge of tears because it reminded me of the goals and desires that inspire me daily.

I will leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King attesting to the value of the arts in education to create a whole person,”The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

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Your Brain: Use It or Lose It

Continuing to learn as we age has just gotten another endorsement. The benefits of learning new skills at any age has always been a cause I have championed because it sets good examples for the people in our lives, benefits society as we use our expertise and it keeps us invigorated. Now scientists have discovered that continued learning also repairs damage and creates new neural connections that stave off dementia. How is this possible? The answer is that our brains are not machines that wear out with time but are actually neuroplastic with circuits that constantly change and grow as we increase our mental and physical activity.

Dating back to the 19th century the prevailing thought was that a brain once damaged was unrepairable. As this analogy evolved the brain was seen more like computer hardware, which would become obsolete and wear out over time. This also meant that doctors viewed efforts to “exercise” the brain as a waste of time. These views have changed dramatically over the past few years and now clinical research substantiates the idea of use it or lose it. Why and how does mental and physical exercise help the health of our brains?

Learning new skills, forming memories and thinking create new neural connections that can form and reform as our usage progresses. Scientists have also discovered that damage to the brain can be healed as new neurons take over old tasks and form new connections. By the same token your brain can stop creating new connections and cease to repair damage when learned nonuse occurs. This most often happens in cases of stroke victims or serious illnesses that limit physical activity. Dr. Taub of Birmingham, Alabama is using this information in therapeutic settings. What he has done is limit the use of a healthy limb, which has caused neurons adjacent to the damaged ones to take over functions and create new connections, thus sparking healing in the affected body part.

The brain of an individual with dementia is losing overall plasticity and this causes it to shrink and lose connections. What scientists have discovered is that physical exercise is as important as continued mental exercise to lower the risk of dementia. While the advantages of increased mental exercise to this end seem apparent, what is the connection found to physical exercise? Regular vigorous physical exercise especially in middle age creates significant hippocampal enlargement. This is the region of the brain which turns short-term memories into long-term memories. Physical exercise also increases the gray and white matter in the frontal lobes; the areas responsible for planning and goal-directed activity. In short exercise acts as fertilizer for the brain encouraging the growth of new neural connections. Interestingly, one of the reasons associated with this is our sense of survival. Scientists surmise that long walks trigger the brain to think of our ancestral past where hunting and gathering played large roles in survival and learning new skills helped to insure future life.

Luckily, research is proving how resilient our brains are and that we have the capacity to grow them at any point in our lives. What is also encouraging to know is the strides scientific research has made in learning how to use the power of our brains to heal. These benefits have increased from stroke victims to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, traumatic brain injuries and learning disabilities. Hats off to our body’s command center; use it or lose it.

Students Learn Life lessons from Marketing Teacher

Steve Kish marketing teacher in Antioch, California deserves praise as a teacher who thinks out of the box and creates a spirit of self-accomplishment in his high school students. Mr. Kish teaches in a school that is not known for excellence and often makes the news due to outbreaks of violence. In spite of this and probably because of it Mr. Kish created a student-run store on the high school campus last spring. His idea was to provide his marketing students with real-world lessons that cannot be found in textbooks and to also reinforce the concepts from the book with hands on experience.

The students spend the first part of their class year with book learning and acquiring skills such as effective salesmanship, how to identify a target market, cash flow tracking, and product assessment which includes determining those items ready to be sold at clearance.  New product launches happen after the item has been vetted through the class marketing process. This includes surveying potential buyers, deciding on a marketing campaign and then monitoring the product’s success via the cash register. Students, mainly juniors and seniors, periodically attend marketing sessions where they self-analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the store, consider opportunities for expansion and what possible threats exist for the store’s success. Mr. Kish notes the biggest lesson novice entrepreneurs have to learn is that they cannot choose a product solely based on their personal preferences. Understanding what your customer thinks is of paramount importance. In the spring after deciding on the product mix for the store, the class visits a well-known flea market to stock up on products at wholesale prices. This allows the school store to markup the product prices by 10% but stay very competitive.

Running the store is serious business and is treated as a job not just part of the class. Students are referred to as employees and instead of grades they get “paystubs” Tardiness is terms for dismissal and Mr. Kish says of the five classes he teaches this is the only one where student tardiness is not a problem. One student, who was a natural salesman, became lax and was habitually tardy at one point in time. This cost him his chance to work in the store and taught a valuable life lesson about being responsible. The young man corrected his tardiness, rejoined the store staff and used his talents to recruit business for the store. Teamwork is evident in the store staff and students take their responsibilities to meet ordering deadlines for products and marketing assignments seriously. The self-assurance these students are learning in class enables them to succeed in other classes and life situations that are often challenging. Mr. Kish is thrilled to pass on that many of the students return to tell him of successes in jobs outside of school. The pride and confidence these students are expressing is priceless.

Homeschooling families are uniquely situated to turn everyday life into lessons training for the future whether the child wishes to be an entrepreneur or work for a business. Helping your child take being prompt seriously, following through on their promises and considering what others are thinking will all play a major role in their future success. From this your child may wish to start a small business or just become more involved in their church or an organization they belong to. Know that the child you help to form now can grow to be a caring and responsible adult.