“I can build that!”

Nico's standing on the bridge he helped build, and the loft it accesses is behind him.  Yes, he's quite proud of himself.

Nico’s standing on the bridge he helped build, and the loft it accesses is behind him. Yes, he’s quite proud of himself.

That’s what my son Nico (5) said last Saturday when he saw a wooden table and bench outside a restaurant. “But I’d make it better. I’d use different screws, and I wouldn’t make the benches so wide.”

He really meant this. He can build a bench like that, thanks to a remarkable summer camp he attended the week before called “Tinkering School” in San Francisco.

In one incredible week, he and a few other kids built two ladders and bridges to a loft out of wood. Now, people there can get up to the loft easier than they could before. Nico – yes, 5-year-old Nico – became quite capable at using a drill to drill holes and to drive in wood screws.

More importantly, though, that week transformed how he views the world. Now, much more than before, he sees problems everywhere that he can solve.
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Freedom + No Screens => Physically Fit Kids

In terms of physical activity and fitness, Marco's more like a lower-middle class Kenyan kid than an upper-middle class American kid.

In terms of physical activity and fitness, Marco’s more like a lower-middle class Kenyan kid than an upper-middle class American kid. credit for right photo: Flickr.com user RoseWindowMin

I was stunned when I first saw it. My son Marco, age 8, just won a 5K race at 22:45, averaging less than 7-1/2 minute miles for three miles.  That’s better than most adults I know, including me!

You see, he’s not a runner, per se. He has no running shoes or clothes, and his only real running training was three 1-1/2 to 2 mile runs in the weeks before this race.

What he is is a kid who has lots of physical freedom and zero screen time every day.

In fact, in terms of physical activity, he’s more like a lower-middle class Kenyan kid than the upper-middle class American kid that he is. Every day, Marco powers himself 1-1/2 miles each way to and from school – biking or rollerblading or scootering or running. After school, he has no screens to veg out in front of, so he runs around playing pretty much nonstop until bedtime. Kenyan kids from the Rift Valley are famous for running miles to and from school every day.
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Informal Playspaces, Right Under Our Noses

Here are my two older boys a few years ago at our creek.  It's one of their favorite play places in the world, but according to many grown-ups, it's not a real "playspace" because it's not an official park.

Here are my two older boys a few years ago at our creek. It’s one of their favorite play places in the world, but according to many grown-ups, it’s not a real “playspace” because it’s not an official park.

Last weekend, I took my boys to a creek in my sister’s residential neighborhood in suburban Pittsburgh, and they had an absolutely fabulous time for hours.

And no one else was there. I sense a pattern.

I wrote this article a few years ago about the creek down the street from my house. It’s one of my kids’ favorite playspaces in the world, and yet, despite the fact that thousands of kids live within a few blocks of it, very few kids go there on an average day.

Chances are, most of you reading this live within a half mile of some ignored, informal playspace – a creek, some woods, an abandoned lot, or an alley with a clean wall to bounce a ball on. It doesn’t have to be much in your eyes, because, of course, that’s not the point. Kids love places like these that invite free play. They could care less that they’re not endorsed by adults as official parks or playgrounds.
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Choosing the Familiar Over the Optimal

My son Marco (left) clowns with a very good neighbor friend who lives a couple of blocks from us.

My son Marco (left) clowns with a very good neighbor friend who lives a couple of blocks from us.

Parents? Yawn. Relatives? Double-yawn. Neighbors? Pullllease!!!

I remember very well thinking that way as an adolescent and young adult. I became critical of all the people I had been surrounded by throughout my childhood. That was mostly my parents, but it was also other relatives and neighbors.

Instead, I resolved to choose who I spent time with. I discovered that I had very little in common with my parents, relatives, and neighbors. So, they became a low priority for me, as I discovered friends who I had much more in common with.

Today, I’m back to spending most of my time with those familiar to me, rather than people I have a lot in common with. In fact, I spend an awful lot of time with my wife’s relatives, many of whom can’t communicate with me very well because of a language barrier. (They speak Shanghainese, a Chinese dialect, and I don’t.)

Outside of family time, I chat a lot with neighbors, and I prefer neighbor friends for my kids over kids who they know from activities like sports teams.
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Leaving Your Kids at the Park: A Good Idea for the 1%

Here's an impromptu street hockey game my oldest son and some neighborhood friends organized in the parking lane in front of our street. This is far more likely to happen here than at a faraway park.

Here’s an impromptu street hockey game my oldest son and some neighborhood friends organized in the parking lane in front of our street. This is far more likely to happen here than at a faraway park.

Do your young kids live within one block of a park? My guess is that somewhere around 99% of kids don’t. The best data on this comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which claims that 80% of kids don’t live within a half mile of a park.

The problem is, kids hardly roam anymore. Again, I don’t have precise data, but my anecdotal research indicates that the vast majority of kids in preschool aren’t allowed to roam on their own outside their yards, and the vast majority of elementary school kids aren’t allowed to roam more than one block.

Think about it. If you’re reading this article, you’re likely to be more open to your children roaming than the average parent, but do you let your children roam all the way to the nearest park?

Even if you do, how likely is it that your children will find other kids there that they’re familiar with and want to play with?
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Precocious Talents

Here's my son Marco and his bike right after his 80K bike ride last year.  He spent the rest of the day jumping on our trampoline and climbing our playhouse.

Here’s my son Marco and his bike right after his 80K bike ride last year. He spent the rest of the day jumping on our trampoline and climbing our playhouse.

What do you do when parents show off their children’s precocious talents?

Just this past weekend, I sat with my three kids and a few dozen other parents and kids to watch a five-year-old boy play two classical pieces on piano, then a girl around the same age play two violin tunes.

I squirmed. I thought about how I really don’t have anything comparable to show off about my kids. They do have some interesting talents, which I’ll mention later, but those aren’t the sorts of talents that could be shown off to others so impressively.

You see, my wife and I don’t force our kids to practice anything, and, trust me, no five-year-old learns to play classical piano without being forced to practice a lot by his or her parents. We don’t force our kids to do homework, either.

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Play Skills and Siblings

Nico and Leo are working on some construction project here.  This sort of scene greets me every day when I come home for dinner.

Nico and Leo are working on some construction project here. This sort of scene greets me every day when I come home for dinner.

My wife and I walked our three boys over to a big fallen tree this morning to sit and grab a drink of water during a hike. “I’ll do the brakes,” my son Nico (5) said as he ran toward one end of the tree. “OK, I’ll be the engineer,” replied Leo (3-1/2), and he ran to the opposite end of the tree.

Nico and Leo waste no time. They play every chance they get. They’re superstar “players.” Really…

We always hear that all kids, left alone, will play. However, as they grow up beyond infancy, kids’ abilities to play can be greatly enhanced or stunted by their environment. It’s foolish to believe that any human behavior is primarily determined in by genes.
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Kids Are Constantly Distracted at Home and at School

The book Quiet is about how introverts need more quiet time. With all the distractions they have in their lives, I think all kids need more quiet time.

The book Quiet is about how introverts need more quiet time. With all the distractions they have in their lives, I think all kids, not just introverted ones, need more quiet time.

At home, children are bombarding themselves with digital media – eight hours a day, according to a prominent study. Most older kids do their homework while “multitasking” with Facebook or texting on a nearby screen and music blaring in their ears.

“In terms of sheer quantity of time, I’m not sure that kids spend any more time on homework than we did,” says Janis Whitlock, Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adults. “But they do feel more burned out and stressed, and that’s because their attention is more scattered.”

When they’re not consuming digital media, parents have their kids busy in lots of scheduled, adult-led activities.

Unfortunately, I’ve recently come to realize that school these days is no oasis from distraction, either. Kids don’t (usually) consume digital media at school, but they’re distracted there by the latest overdone educational fad, “collaboration” for every subject, from solving math problems to writing to reading.
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Vacations Versus Everyday Home Life

Do your kids absolutely crave vacations away from home? Are they sad to come home?

If that’s true, there are two possible explanations. One is that you plan absolutely off-the-charts, world-class vacations. The other is that your kids’ home life is drab and boring.

For your sake, let’s hope it’s the former.

Our family just took a vacation to Hawaii for spring break, and although we had some amazing moments, at other moments, our kids said they wanted to go home.

That’s fine with me. You see, I put a lot of time and energy into making my kids’ everyday lives fun. Our yard is a neighborhood hangout, so that kids play there every day, weather permitting. They laugh and yell and experience real joy there practically every day.
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Doing is the Path to Both Inner Fulfillment and Worldly Success

Craig Newmark created a list and kept making it better.  In other words, he just "did it" and gained success through his tenacity to process feedback and refine his list, not by following the orders of some boss (like me...).

Craig Newmark created a list and kept making it better. In other words, he just “did it” and gained success through his tenacity to process feedback and refine his list, not by following the orders of some boss (like me…). ; )

Doing has always been an important way to reach inner fulfillment. Now, it’s also the most important path to worldly success.

It’s good for the inside and for the outside. It’s a win-win.

I’m talking about taking action, but I’m not talking about doing as you’re told. I’m talking about looking inside yourself and doing things that you think will make the world a better place. And repeat. Over and over.
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