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Archive for the Category Society at Large

 
 

Magic Inside and Outside the Classroom: What Harry Potter Teaches Us

If only going to school was as exciting as attending Hogwarts, the mythical castle in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. There, young wizards and witches can’t wait to start learning about all things magical, like deadly curses and advanced potion making. Unfortunately, the experience for non-magical children (Muggles, Rowling calls them) continues to be quite different. Being at school often means sitting long hours, listening to lectures, and facing a pile of standardized tests.

Of course, real kids can’t spend their days practicing spells (rather than spelling lists), or stopping evil forces from overtaking their cherished school of magic. Yet Rowling’s series reminds us that children are natural born learners and nothing can stop them in their quest for knowledge once they’re allowed to experience the mysteries of the world directly.

I recently visited a school where very young Muggles have this experience. There’s a new preschool, Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, at Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The children learn by doing, and their day is spent mostly outside. Even in winter, three to six year olds arrive bundled up. They begin each session outdoors, ready to explore snowy fields, and interact with a dynamic, living ecosystem. The children have purpose, are empowered to participate in chores, and help run a real farm.

Like Hogwarts, there’s magic and mystery that intrigues young developing minds. Consider learning about pollination and bees. Most children are taught to fear bees, but these kids seek out bee-covered plants, observe the busy activity of a hive, and get to see how pollen gets miraculously transformed into gooey sweet honey. They milk cows, collect eggs, churn butter, and then combine ingredients like potions to bake cakes and cookies. They observe tadpoles in a nearby pond and in the aquarium in their classroom, and watch them magically morph into frogs. Snakes and owls, animals that populate the pages of Rowling’s books, are also frequent visitors. In fact, there are a myriad of fascinating creatures from Wildlife visits that are tied in with a natural science curriculum.

The children read poems, write stories, and make art pertaining to all their amazing, but real experiences. Like Hogwarts, there’s also danger around every bend, poisonous plants like oak and ivy that the children identify and warn one other about. There are sad moments when animals die and miraculous moments to affirm life, like welcoming the recent births of lambs, kid goats, and a calf named Tilly.

These preschoolers are learning basic concepts of biology, chemistry, geography, and developing their math and language skills, but without the usual moans and foot dragging that we see in many American classrooms. These kids aren’t stuck indoors, required to sit and keep quiet all day, and they aren’t led through standard study guides or told to complete daily worksheets. During my visit, one boy brandished his collection of sticks at me, told me what trees they came from, and next to him was a girl who opened her hand to reveal seeds she was bringing back to their classroom. She told me she would plant them and they could watch the stages of how they grow. They collect rocks, twigs, feathers, pieces of fur, leafs, insects. One boy dragged an enormous branch from off the path. Wonderful! His teacher shouted. What leaves are those? Not the typical drop that – you might lose an eye.

Back inside their classroom, I see that the children have made a museum and laboratory of all the things they’ve collected from the great habitat around them. Lessons are designed around what these young explorers and scientists have discovered. I also watch them settle into lunch, have some reading time, play quietly, socialize, work on projects, but I’m equally struck with what I’m not seeing. Unlike most classrooms I’ve visited, there’s an absence of strong rules and discipline. A few boys are active and louder than most of the group, but they all seem focused, rested, and in good spirits having been outdoors.

I asked one teacher about this. “Sure,” she explained, “at the start of the year there are always a few challenges. But soon they settle in and really take to all the exciting activities. For whatever reason, we haven’t needed a time-out chair or behavior management charts.” What she told me fits with recent research. Children who get at least fifteen minutes of recess a day show fewer behavior problems. Further, in some cases, regular outdoor time reduces ADHD symptoms at levels similar to stimulant medication.

I drove away envying these young Harry Potters and the adventures in store for them in the days to come. The difference between fictional schools of magic and real-life learning needn’t be so great, I thought. The magic is all around us, right outside our doors and windows. Maybe classrooms need to get back to nature. There, they can recapture some of the enchantment that drives true learning.


Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Our Lives Out of Balance

Researchers at UCLA have accomplished the near impossible. They tracked and caught on video the real, day-to-day lives of an elusive and enigmatic subject: The American Family
(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/science/23family.html) Near impossible because no one has taken the time and energy to record 24 hours per day, regular families doing regular things in such thorough and minute detail.

While not as entertaining as Jersey Wives or The Apprentice, the miles of video elucidate important trends affecting us all, and paint the best picture to date of who we are as Americans and how our lives are imbalanced and stressed. The families studied were middle class, ethnically varied, straight and gay, had both parents working, and had multiple kids – this is a study that gives us a true snapshot of real America.

Here are a couple of small, but interesting findings that really impact families:

  • Moms spend more than a quarter of their day doing housework.
  • Dads and co-parents do about half that much, spending 18% of their day on housework.
  • Kids do virtually nothing to help around the house, spending only 3% of their day on chores and related household tasks.

The results of this study play out everyday in my office. Moms tell me they’re seriously exhausted. Dads and partners try to co-parent on the fly, and help with housework as needed, but they tend to fall short of doing the heavy lifting because they are also exhausted from working outside the home. Parents – once lovers – eye each other with strained glances, while children fight over coming to the dinner table, avoid their homework, and refuse to chip in with chores.

What to do? Solutions to our most complex problems are sometimes strikingly simple. The trick is to first dig deep and uncover the beliefs and assumptions we hold as truths that trap us. Then, and only then, we can shift our viewpoints and expectations a bit, to live life less frenetically. What are some of our beliefs that get us all tied up in knots and make our home life so stressed?

  • If we don’t stay in the game, we’ll fall behind. We’ve got to keep up with everyone else.
  • Good parenting is about providing more and doing more. We have to do more to succeed.
  • More is better. New and improved is better. The latest is greatest… and we must have it!

It may come as a surprise to many that we most often chose to live the way we do. We’re knee-deep in stress and overwhelmed because we think we have little choice. Certainly, no one wants to face economic hardship, lose opportunities to help their kids succeed, not avail themselves of everything the world has to offer… but that’s different from pushing the limits of what families can tolerate stress-wise.

Here’s what I recommend for American parents under stress, who are doing too much, juggling too many demands, while their kids sit idly by and refuse to help out.

First, shut down all the media. American kids spend upwards of 8 hours a day in front of “screens”, none of which adds to their intelligence. Worse, it can lower school performance, cause social problems, and contribute to medical diseases like obesity. Think of computers, television, cell phones, DVD’s, Ipods, and gaming devices as a pile of sugar sitting in the living room (or worse on your child’s bedroom floor). Ask yourself, is it OK to shovel it in all day? Such media should only be doled out like dessert, in small amounts, provided kids have earned it. School work and helping around the house must come first.

Second, create a clear hierarchy at home. All organizations have leaders. Sports teams, companies, book clubs, classrooms, religious organizations, stores, and restaurants have a boss that sets the tone, the expectations, and everyday delegates what has to get done. Our homes are no different. If your kids are sitting on the couch while you are shoveling the driveway, you aren’t an effective boss. Parents are bosses, not kids. I’m not advocating overly strict and uncompromising parents with unrealistic expectations who drive kids into hyper-achieve mode. I’m advocating clear power at the top, clear expectations, and follow-through. If your children are paid no matter what (that is they get all the goodies – such as TV, computer, cell phones, sports, concerts, money for the mall, etc.), even when they don’t follow through with reasonable expectations and behavior, they’re ripping you off. Expect reasonable efforts and follow through before you hand over rewards.

Third, if you have a spouse, reclaim the relationship that predated kids. Kids are wonderful, but have a way of taking over everything… the house’s resources, living space, your private time… and they also have a way of inserting themselves into the relationship you have with your loving adult mate. Balance the power out in your home. Adults should have more power. Parents should also have personal space and time, and not have to mediate every scratch or minor disappointment, or help on every homework assignment. Kids tend to over-rely on their parents and aren’t above faking incompetence (it gets them out of chores and gets them lots of extra attention). This unnecessary dependence creates an overly kid-centered universe, and one that doesn’t let you nurture your adult needs.

Related to this, stop referring to your spouse only as “mom” or “dad” in front of your kids. Your partner is not your parent. Remind kids that you love one another as adults, and need to spend time alone with each other.

Always check in with each other to resolve parenting issues without your kids watching. This strengthens your parenting when you need to set limits and require follow through. If there are two bosses, they must deliver the same message.

Stop over-using threats and reminders. Your voice is a commodity. Don’t over use it, or it loses its impact. The more you talk and plead and ask, the more likely kids ignore you and won’t follow through. Stay calm and deliver your requests in a controlled boss-like manner, then follow through with consequences, not lectures or anger. If you lose your temper too often, you don’t look powerful. The best leaders stay in control and use actions to back up their words.

Get outdoors. Get some exercise. We weren’t designed to be inside or sit as often as we do in our modern, technology driven society. Sitting for long hours, in fact, has been shown to be medically unadvisable (http://lifestyle.ca.msn.com/health-fitness/news/canadianpress-article.aspx?cp-documentid=23293703). Also, the more we’re stuck inside, with kid’s energies mounting, frustration and conflict increase. Finally, researchers are pointing to the value of daily vigorous movement to balance our emotions through better neurochemistry (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-02-18-brain-spark_N.htm).

Pare it down and back off. Cut out activities that overload your week. Resist trends that push kids to start building resumes by middle school. Stop believing you must compete with everyone around you. Recognize that young children need free and unstructured playtime, outdoors preferably, and that less adult-supervised hovering allows them a better chance to build their own social skills, confidence, and self-regulation.

Some final thoughts: Am I blaming the victim here? No – all of us, me included, need to be reminded to make healthy choices and good decisions not to let ourselves get caught up in the frenetic pace of American life. The UCLA study I mentioned earlier also tracked cortisol levels (stress hormones). It showed that the stress we experience at home is real, and has serious potential medical effects.

The good news is that we don’t have to be victims. We can control much of what makes us happy or unhappy. Stop and take a minute to think about your life. Acknowledge that the beliefs and expectations that are currently running your life might be running you ragged – and try making a change.


Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Wait Your Turn!

I recently met with an 11 year-old who received an in-school suspension for shoving another boy to the ground. The reason? The other boy cut in front of him while waiting to go to a social studies class. The irony was impossible to ignore. I asked him, “Sam, what gives? You’re waiting in line to get to social studies… to learn about why its important that civilized people group together, understand themselves better, and then you slam your classmate onto the ground…?”

Sam laughed, and so did I. His parents might have been horrified that we had conspired, just us two guys, to celebrate the way of boys, or worse, how he treated a fellow student.

“He deserved it. You don’t cut!” Sam announced, like it was a law of the jungle.

He’s got a point. The other boy was taking a huge risk in stealing Sam’s place in line, breaking the social order of things, and challenging Sam’s status. Maybe Sam could have done something more measured, thoughtful, asked politely for the student to give him back his rightful spot, or better yet, ask a teacher to intervene. But in a boy’s world, telling a teacher, and not relying on oneself to fight off another guy’s intimidation, is tantamount to wearing a pink tutu in gym.

We may not like hearing that. We would like to believe that boys can learn to navigate the rules of society better, seek out an authority figure to help manage disagreements, and in time they do, but for years to come, this is the way guys like Sam, and his alpha-leaning foes think. We’d like to believe we adults are above many of these primitive ways. Turns out, we aren’t that far removed from the same childhood impulses and uncivilized tendencies that these boys struggle with. We’re just better at suppressing them.

Case in point. While I no longer have to wait in line before social studies class, I do find myself in similar situations to that of Sam. Yesterday at Starbucks, I wanted to yell at the woman standing in line ahead of me. She retrieved her change purse slowly, only after the amount rang up, and counted out coins like they were rare museum relics. She was no rookie. This wasn’t her first time buying coffee. I know, because I get often stuck behind her when I go for my afternoon coffee break. She’s slow and methodical. That’s just the way she is.

All day long we encounter situations like this, but we don’t push or shove. Instead, we hit our personal pause buttons. We wait, delay our needs or gratification, and let others have equal share of resources. We’d prefer it was different, that we could always maximize our pleasure and avoid pain, but we’ve come to understand that that can’t be the default setting. It’s taken us a lifetime to push back these natural instincts and we’re always working at it. We can’t be lone wolfs or behave like alpha dogs when it suits us. It’s harder for boys to suppress these urges. They are naturally grabby, in your face, powerful, and physically active.

I told Sam that I understood his anger. I point to my Starbucks cup and share my story of frustration, of having to wait my turn and having to tolerate others. I explain that the law of the jungle can’t be every man for himself. Rather, its act civil, hold off, wait your turn, share, or you’ll be pushed out of the group and left alone. Sam asks why. Why be nice if someone is driving you crazy, other than to avoid getting into trouble. Why is it so important to be in a group?

I explain that being alone isn’t just boring and sad, its downright life threatening when we need to pool resources and survive in a constantly changing world. Its how people survived and adapted through thousands of years. Sam’s question forces me to think more deeply about my experience in line and the value of others. Maybe that methodical woman who slowly counts her change at Starbucks has talents and skills that could save someone’s life. Maybe she’s a meticulous surgeon who won’t be rushed, or a fair-minded judge that carefully weighs all the evidence. Maybe she’s a great teacher who doesn’t rush through lesson plans but finds the lesson in all things and takes the time to explore.

I tell Sam I’ll make an effort to think of all this the next time I’m frustrated waiting in line, at the DMV, at the movies, when boarding an airplane, or tomorrow, when waiting for that lady to count her change. He makes a promise to try and do the same at school, and not shove someone the next time they cut in line and won’t wait their turn.


Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.