Cultivating curiosity, Geography, Parenting

The Olympics: Studies in Geography and Perseverance

My children are obsessed with the U.S. Women’s Volleyball team and their quest for gold. The boys cheered on Destinee Hooker, Jordan Larson and the others during their first two matches against South Korea and Brazil. Now we are waiting for the Wednesday match against China. My oldest son also has asked to watch swimming and archery (inspired by the Marvel Superhero Hawkeye, I’m guessing). Though we don’t watch a lot of daytime TV, I’m indulging him, because the Olympics can be a valuable learning experience for curious kids.

The most obvious Olympics lessons include geography and map skills. With each volleyball match we look up the competing countries on the globe and read about them in our atlas. The Web site Living Montessori Now has some wonderful Olympic geography activities including DIY globes and a whole Montessori-inspired unit for those who are interested.

Still, I think the real value in the Olympics is teaching children the value of perseverance and mastery. The kids and I talk about what it takes to win gold and to be the best in the world. It requires some natural talent, luck and timing but also practice, practice, practice. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that one reason greats like Bill Gates or the Beatles are so successful is they’ve accumulated 10,000 hours of experience and practice in their disciplines, essentially 20 hours a week for 10 years.

So let’s look at 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who just earned gold in the 100m backstroke. (Go Missy!) She’s extremely young, but she swims 2 to 4 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week, essentially 20ish hours a week. She started swimming 12 years ago at age 5, so she’s probably pretty close to the 10,000-hour mark despite her young age.

Now, before you go all “Tiger Mother” on your kids and force them to practice the piano for four hours a day, bear in mind that your child’s passion and desire has to underlie all this practice. Psychology Professor Todd Kashdan, author of Curious, had this to say on Huffington Post: “Try to ensure that the bulk of activities in their lives map onto their interests and give them challenges that push their skills to the limit,” he wrote. “Children need to feel a sense of ownership over their own actions instead of feeling controlled like ‘pawns’ by pressure, guilt, and the rules and regulations of adults.” With young children, it’s great to try out lots of things — not all at the same time — and see what sticks. They might try gymnastics today and cooking club next month. But once they really enjoy something, encourage them to master it.

Are you watching the Olympics with your children? What’s your favorite part of watching the games with your kids?

Cultivating curiosity, Nature, Science/Math, Writing

Nonfiction Writing: Wielding the Microscope

I’ve been hard at work on my first-ever fiction manuscript. While the piece is a made-up story, I am trying to make my lead character — a groundhog — as realistic as possible. My first task was to brush up on hibernation facts by checking out a few nonfiction children’s books from the library.

I started by skimming Pamela Hickman’s Animals HibernatingLet’s face it. I know the basic groundhog story: go to sleep and wake up in time for Groundhog Day, see shadow (or not) etc. But reading Hickman’s book, I became so fascinated by the topic of hibernation that I slowed down and started reading more slowly. She captures perfectly the principle of wielding the microscope: choosing a very narrow topic, becoming an expert and finding something interesting in the familiar.

Clifford Stoll talks about this process in his article, “How to Build a Curious Child.” As he says, “if you are bored or think you know, narrow your focus.” This is exactly what Ph.D. students and college professors do. They don’t write a thesis about the entire Civil War or the whole subject of astronomy. Instead, they pick a smaller piece: a little-known battle or Civil War-era family or the genesis of Mars’s moons and spend years researching and writing the topic.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan talks about this principle of making the familiar unfamiliar in his book, Curious? One technique he suggests is to pick a totally unappealing task or topic.  As you do, try to find three novel or different things about it. Then talk about it with someone else, sharing your new-found thoughts and expertise. Kashdan’s research in a laboratory environment showed that people completely changed their view of the distasteful activity when they approached it in this way. And they were more likely to practice this technique in the future when faced with familiar or unappealing tasks and topics.

So, are you ready for some fun facts about hibernation courtesy of Hickman? You’ll never find hibernation boring again.:

  • Actually few animals are true hibernators — groundhogs are one — but several animals are “deep sleepers” including black bears, skunks and raccoons. The difference has to do with body temperature. Deep sleepers’ body temperatures lower only slightly, while hibernators’ temperatures can dip below freezing.
  • Remember all those sci-fi movies where people are cryogenically frozen and then return to life? Welcome to the world of hibernating reptiles. A number of frogs, turtles, fish and insects literally freeze in the winter. Their hearts can stop and their blood can stop flowing. But then when the air warms up, they literally come back to life.
  • Many hibernators don’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom during hibernation. But others, like certain mice and chipmunks, like to nosh throughout the winter. They wake up from their hibernation from time to time and have a little snack. I guess they don’t worry about getting crumbs in their beds.

Wielding the microscope is what makes some nonfiction writers truly great, and I’ll talk about one such writer during my Perfect Picture Book Friday book review.  Stay tuned!

Cultivating curiosity, Parenting

How do you cultivate curious kids?

This blog encapsulates my efforts, for better or for worse, to spark my kids’ curiosity and to keep that fire burning, especially if/when they meet the traditional public school environment. Recently, I’ve become very interested in how my efforts correlate with what the experts say are important ingredients for fostering curiosity.

In his Huffington Post article, George Mason University Professor Todd Kashdan identifies six things parents can do to encourage curiosity. Here are some of my takeaways from his article.

  • Teach flexible thinking. There’s never one right way or wrong way to do anything, whether it’s baking a quiche or reading a book. Teach your kids to think in shades of gray rather than black and white. Help them approach questions and problems from multiple angles without fear of failure.
  • Let the kids take the lead. Make sure their activities correlate with their interests most of the time rather than pushing activities onto them. If kids have to participate in an activity they don’t want to, make sure you have a good justification, and explain it to them. For example, you may want your nonathletic child to engage in some physical activity because it’s good for his body.
  • Kids need a lot of opportunities to build self confidence. Provide positive feedback and constructive criticism on their efforts, and make sure they have time for unstructured play where they are the masters of their own kingdom.
  • Children need new experiences and challenges. If your kids love dinosaurs and frequent the natural science museum, make sure you head to an art gallery every once in a while to mix things up. (Note yesterday’s post.) If your child is a pro at building LEGOS following the directions, challenge them to go off-script from time to time and build something from scratch.

I’m interested to hear from you as parents, educators and former children yourselves. What do you think about Kashdan’s theories? How do you foster curiosity in your children? How did your parents help you become the curious adult you’ve become? Please feel free to post your comments below.