Documenting Passion Roundup

If you’ve been following me the past week, you know that I’ve been observing my daughter’s interests and activities in an attempt to document her passions by asking the question “What does she gravitate toward?” And the point of all that is to unpack some truths about her core interests (as opposed to forming my own assumptions about her interests). It’s been tough, at times, to separate myself completely into the role of observer, but given that I charted this path for a full week, I think I’ve taken a good stab at picking up on some of the qualities that currently define my child’s interests. And I also recognize that as she further develops and is exposed to new ideas, she’ll change and grow over time.

An interesting development this past week are the observations of Aleksandra and Danielle (see their comments on the past few posts), who both spotted behavioral patterns in their children. Aleksandra saw that her son, Max, needs to find quiet moments in his day to give him a little bit of respite from high levels of activity. And Danielle observed an inherent need to spread materials, objects, and toys in her daughter, Simone.  Related to this, I observed that my child is a sorter: she likes to clean, organize, separate, and place objects in small containers; which has led me to give her plenty of like materials (fake apples, water bottles, ice cubes, etc.) to sort  and organize.

This project has also alerted me to activity interests, the most obvious being her desire to play-act. And she seems most interested in play-acting moments and events from her recent experience. For example, after making pancakes with her G-Ma last week, she spontaneously made sand pancakes in the park yesterday. We’ve also spent a lot of time prepping her for the arrival of her baby sister. In reaction to this, just this morning she crawled all over the house, refused to talk (because, you know, babies don’t talk), and then broke character to ask me to mash up her bananas so she could eat them like a baby. To see how she’s handling the influx of baby gear, check out the picture at the top of this post.  If I didn’t already see a pattern of imaginative play as a means of grappling with her daily reality, I may have been concerned about what could otherwise be interpreted as receding behavior. This is rather obvious stuff, I know, but it alerts me to help her capture defining moments from her experience and support them through imaginative play.

And perhaps one of the biggest eye-openers is that I’ve noticed that art-making activities, which are near and dear to me, have been virtually nonexistent over the past week.  While there have been moments of involuntary drawing and mark-making (tire rubbings at the DeCordova was a big hit), my child has been more invested in other activities. At no point did I jot down any notes like “wants to paint” or “excited about drawing with chalk on the sidewalk.” And there could be many reasons for this: the novelty factor may be low because we make art so often or she may be at the developmental stage where art is too passive and she’d rather keep moving. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop the art activities all together…my child is young and as she develops, her skills will catch up with her mind…but I am aware that I shouldn’t expect my child to love every activity I set before her.  All in all, following what N gravitates toward has been a worthwhile pursuit that has raised my awareness of her desires.  And for those of you who were playing along — please share how this all sorted out for you too!

On that note, more art and creative activities coming soon. 🙂

Day 4: Documenting Passion

Today was a heavy travel day, and my attention was pulled in million directions with my husband being under the weather, a lost phone in the airport (I’d like to attribute this to preggo brain, but it’s probably just me – sigh), and saying goodbye to family after a long visit. However, I was able to capture a few moments of observation.

And I’d love to know…What have your kids been drawn to this week?

  • Tossing bottles at the town dump. My in-laws live in a town with an incredible recycling program, and everyone in the town finds themselves, at some point, at the dump. All the local politicians, including Ted Kennedy, have been spotted campaigning there — a far cry from our curbside pick-up. Anyhow, I picked up on my daughter’s ongoing interest in throwing balls, bottles, apples, etc. and thought she’d enjoy throwing all of our empty water bottles into a huge wire bin of them. 40 bottles later…
  • Baking with grandma. Play-baking, that is. They made everything from pancakes to apple-vanilla pie to maple syrup cookies. She really loves play-acting, and cooking has been a huge interest.  There’s also an element of organizing and sorting involved (filling bowls and cupcake holders, measuring, etc.), which is an ongoing theme this week.

  • Riding the suitcase. Grabbing on to my suitcase as I pulled it through the airport…just for fun. She’s an adventure-seeker, and will try just about anything.

  • Making up lyrics to familiar songs. For example, “Down by the station, early in the morning…” becomes “Down by the airport, late in the evening….” and the iterations move into “Down by the park…” “Down by the swimming pool…” etc.  I think she has fun inventing songs and pulling her own reality into music. She likes singing, and is otherwise disinterested in music…a future rapper, maybe?
  • Pretending to be a baby. We’re expecting “baby sister” in about six weeks, and for the past couple months N has been saying things to us like, “Mommy, pick up the baby. Feed me milk.”  She also likes to crawl, cry like a baby (in a funny fake “eh, eh” kind of way), and ask us to feed her.  Today she asked me to feed her all of her lunch, and specified that her avocado should be “mashed up” (and this is coming from a kid who can also drink from a regular cup and otherwise wants to do everything by herself!). We picked up a play mat for her baby sister, and she negotiated that she would get to use it until baby sister is born.  Makes me think I should pull out all of the baby stuff ASAP to let her get a good run in before it all becomes someone else’s.

Day 3: Documenting Passion

Our vacation was supposed to end two days ago, thrown off-track when my husband had to pay a surprise visit to the ER. Thankfully, all turned out okay, but our week moved in an unexpected direction. We’re staying with the grandparents near Boston, and the opportunity in disguise was that N got to attend the Barbie-Mermaid birthday party of two of her favorite 4-year old friends yesterday. Yes, you read that right…Barbies AND Mermaids. Woah! And while cupcakes were not involved, a giant Barbie dress-cake (the dress was green with mermaid scales) played center role, captivating the kids more than any cupcakes I’ve ever seen.  In the afternoon we visited the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, a really unique spot to check out if you’re ever in the Boston area.  I worked there a few years back, and wanted to experience it through my daughter’s eyes.  Sooo, day 3’s observations are somewhat based on a sugar-high birthday party and contemporary art, kid-style.

Day 3: Observations

  • Playing with fake apples: Filling baskets with fake apples, selling them to me and her uncle Chris (and then buying them back), shooting the apples into the basket. (Me: “Mmmm….I’m going to have a bite of this apple.” N: “No, that’s not a real apple. It’s pretend.”  Sheesh, she must think I’m losing my brain!). Note: More sorting, selling, and throwing.

  • Throwing water bottles. Hmmm…she knows we only throw balls, but her shot is soooo good, I had to let this one go for a little while. Note: Throwing AGAIN.
  • Setting up a hospital in her friends’ play room. She set up three strollers with dolls in each of them, found a doctor kit, and proceeded to take everyone’s temperature, blood pressure, and listen to their hearts with the stethoscope. Although she occasionally plays doctor at home, could this be connected to dad’s trip to the hospital yesterday?

  • Tire Rubbings. In the DeCordova’s Process Gallery, I showed her how to make a rubbing of tire tread (a thoughtful hands-on project that connected to the work of Chakaia Booker), and once she figured it out, she made seven rubbings. Seven! We tried doing rubbings at home about a month ago, with little success. Maybe the age and the fun materials played a role in today’s high level of interest.

  • Climbing on “logs” (made of recycled magazines and scraps of wood) in a DeCordova installation by Nadya Volicer. Jumping from one log to another, jumping off logs, building a circuit of log-hopping and repeating it least 10 times. Probably not the artist’s intent, but I doubt two-year olds were the audience she was designing the space for. N also loves taking off her shoes — anywhere — and was thrilled that we were required to take our shoes off to enter the space. Note: She’s been testing her body’s capabilities lately, and has been pushing herself to walk on balance beams, climb just about anything, and jump. Loads of fearless climbing, balancing and jumping.


Day 2 – Documenting Passion

It’s only Day 2 of the observation project, and I’m surprised that I’m already beginning to see a few patterns in my daughter’s current interests.  When given a large quantity of similar objects such as sea shells or coins, my child loves sorting them into other containers, dropping them back into their original bowl/basket/container, and then sorting them out again.  I first noticed this interest last week when she was filling glasses with ice cubes for over half an hour — an activity that we iterated on by first filling a sink with ice, and then a couple days later asking for cups of ice to pour and play with on a long flight.

The other thing that’s been illuminating about this project is a realization that I can’t completely remove myself from the picture…especially at my child’s very young age. However, I can introduce my daughter to an activity, and then do my best to step back and see what aspects of it she’s most excited about.

Observations from Day 2

  • Filling bowls with rocks: Moving a pile of rocks from a large bowl, and dividing them into smaller containers
  • Filling cups with coins: She found a stack of 10 plastic cups, separated them, laid them out, and then dropped a coin in each one.
  • Floating in the Kayak: Enjoyed getting splashed, loved the bumpy waves. No complaints about getting cold, wet, etc. This follows a long-observed love of water in all forms: swimming pools, jumping in the ocean, etc.
  • Walking on a balance beam. This has been a long favorite, and when she spots any elevated curb, it suddenly becomes a balance beam.
  • Playing with the dollhouse with G-Ma: Play acting bedtime, cooking, climbing up ladders, etc.
  • Throwing things into a basket (diapers, balls, etc.), followed by the exclamation, “I am the best shooter!”

Day One: Documenting Passion

I’m spending the week documenting my child’s interests. Check out yesterday’s post for more information.

Day one

  • Going on stroller rides. My otherwise stroller-hating child has been interested in this since we arrived at the Grandparents’ house.  Here, she’s not only patient with the activity, but she will actually climb into the stroller on her own accord and ASK for a ride. What’s going on with this?
  • Imaginative play with a mini dollhouse. Putting the animals and fairies to bed, feeding them, having them climb ladders, etc.  A great sign, since I recently purchased a dollhouse for her that’s waiting for a remodel and fresh paint in my garage.  It looks like this could be a hit when we reveal it in a few weeks.
  • Reading books: She chooses Going on an airplane and Peg Leg Peke. We’ve been traveling for the past 2 weeks, and I think the first book plays to her fascination with airplane travel and all that’s involved with it.  Up until 2 days ago we’ve also been reading Big Girls Use the Potty, which I think was a hit for similar reasons, but she seems to have tired of it and is enjoying a fresh story. Peg Leg Peke is pretty hilarious.
  • Play-Baking with grandma (cracking eggs is really fun!), playing with egg timers, mixing, setting up meals for teddy and bunny
  • Cupcakes — eating them and pretending to bake them
  • Selling things. Finding objects (i.e. napkin rings) and selling them to family members for “two dollars.” She appears to enjoy the game of exchanging objects for money, and vice versa.
  • Organizing things — putting objects in their places, sorting
  • Cleaning — an ongoing joy of hers. She’s a tidy kid, and likes everything in its place.
  • Throwing a sticky velcro ball to Grandma who was holding a reverse velcro Kadima-like paddle. She loved how the ball would get away from them and roll into the bushes and “brambles.” This activity lasted a good 45 minutes, and could have kept going were it not for lunch.  She actually cried when we tried to pry her away.

Documenting Passion

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

— Samuel Johnson

When I was nine I wanted to learn how to ice-skate — probably not the first thing my parents would have guessed I’d show interest in given my warm-winter Southern California roots — but once I got going, my focus zeroed in on mastering how to reverse directions, skate backwards, and spin. So, I worked hard one summer and practiced my turns over and over again until spinning forward to back became as easy as walking down the street.  And while I’m no elite figure skater, I still adore hitting the rink every winter.

In contrast, I come from a waterlogged family and was a great swimmer as a child.  My good-natured and very generous scuba-loving father saw my talent and signed me up for scuba lessons at the ripe ol’ age of 11 — not my idea — and although I gave it a half-hearted shot, I hated wearing the gear, was bogged down by lessons that lacked spontaneity, and feared the deep-water drills to lift weights from the bottom of the pool.  I still squirm at the claustrophobic thought of donning a wetsuit, weights, BC, and tank.   Lucky for my dad — who still dives every weekend — my little brother and sister followed very closely in his underwater footsteps.

My sister: Now a master diver who’s also working toward her ship captain license

Are you jotting mental notes of your own set of contrasting experiences that circle around following your passions vs. being coaxed into something you demonstrated talent in? While we have the capacity to help children enjoy adult-generated ideas and experiences such as hiking, reading, opera, scuba, or monster trucks, we should also be aware of overcommitting children to activities that aren’t of intrinsic interest.

According to Mitch Resnick, director of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten (a learning research lab for children), a child’s future success lies in focussing on personal interests and then working hard at getting better at them. It’s important to keep in mind that just because a child is GOOD at something, it does not mean that he or she ENJOYS doing it (think about those piano lessons you took as a kid…or is it just me?).  I was actually a pretty great high school calculus student, but once I got to college the only thing that motivated me to attend my 8 am math requirement was a scooter ride with a cute boy.  Once the pre-rec was out of the way, the boy disappeared and the remainder of my education was 100% social science.  And then, surprise, surprise, as I focused exclusively on my passions: art and design, I connected with my future husband in the Film and Theater department.  It’s funny how these things can happen.

But, this is a story about passion, not romance.  Getting back on track…

In order to learn something new, both children and adults need to be excited about what they’re doing.  Think about how much more information you absorb if you’re invested in a topic or experience.  In an iVillage parenting article on creativity,Resnick says,

“We want people to grow up with a love of learning, where they’re excited about trying new things. If you’re pushing them to work in a regimented way on things they don’t really care about, that’s going to steal that away to the point where they come to see learning as a chore.”

So the question I have is this: How do we determine what our kids are really excited about? They may show an interest in something, but interests can shift as quickly as the weather.

Here’s a thought…

As a graduate student, I was introduced to the idea of documentation in learning environments. While observing children participate in their everyday activities, I would make notes of their behavior, discoveries, interests, questions, and interactions in order to better understand what learning looks like. Following the observation stage, notes would be transcribed and then synthesized for emerging themes and threads of continuity.  Documentation is great because it removes you from making assumptions based on prior understandings and asks you to look objectively at what’s in front of you.

And here’s the plan…

Each day over the course of one week I plan to document my daughter’s passions, asking one simple question:  What does she gravitate toward? After documenting her interests for the week, I’ll synthesize the “data” and follow up with activities that support her interests.

And I’d like to invite you to join me! For one week, pay attention to what your child or children are truly interested in and make some notes.  And then the following week, do at least one thing to support those passions that emerge.  And if you can, keep me posted in the comment section (below) on how it goes.

Finding Nature with Kids

Outdoor Abacus. Tot Spot, Children’s Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Although I grew up in the culturally-rich and naturally-poor concrete jungle of Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of having a wild backyard at my imaginative disposal. On the hillside of our rough-and-tumble yard, my parents thoughtfully installed a playhouse filled with nooks and crannies for storing treasures and a magical trap door, hidden beneath a rug, where we could escape into a dirt patch next to an apple tree. We built forts in the overgrown bushes, picked apricots, pears, and plums from our trees, and generally invented our own little universe in the world behind our house.

In contrast, 100 yards beyond our front door lay a busy intersection, replete with a fire station, liquor store, abandoned hospital, and a bar that opened at 6 am and advertised “live girls and pool.” Until I was about eight, I actually thought they had a swimming pool in there, and imagined girls floating around on rafts just beyond the saloon doors. Sigh. Despite our less than pastoral location, having access to a backyard wonderland filled me with a love of nature that one wouldn’t expect in a city child.

Similarly, you may live in a less-than-ideal spot with few options to take your kids on nature walks or let them roam the neighboring creek, and it could be helpful to peek at an idealized utopia of nature-play to seek some inspiration for fostering creativity in the great outdoors.

Playing with Mud and Water

To get us started, in their article, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature (1), playground designer and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining their ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slides…a surprising observation in light of what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (2) and promote competition rather than co­operation (3).” (Play Outside. Public Schools of North Carolina.). Slides and swings are no doubt fun, but children will bore more quickly of these closed-ended activities than they will of open-ended play spaces like sandboxes, forts, ponds, and climbing trees that allow for plentiful interpretations.

Playground designer, Randy White shares a comprehensive and workable list of things that children prefer in outdoor environments. I’ve found that some of these ideas can be implemented on a small-scale, and that inspiration can be found for even the most lacking of outdoor spaces.  These are also great things to look for when searching for playgrounds or preschools that foster creative growth through outdoor play.

Basic Components of Naturalized Play Environments (4):

  • Water
  • Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with
  • Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs
  • Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water
  • Diversity of color, textures and materials
  • Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather
  • Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade
  • Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views
  • Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts

References:

(1) White, Randy and Vicki Stoecklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature. Early Childhood News magazine, March/April 1998.

(2) Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 23­29.

(3) Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75­98.

(4) White, Randy. Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future. Taproot, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 16, No. 2. The Coalition for Education in the Outdoors, Cortland, NY.

Resources

Play Outside: Recommended Resources for Outdoor Learning Environments. Inspiring quotes, articles, and research for parents and early childhood educators.

Outdoor Learning Environments. National Clearninghouse for Educational Facilities. A long, detailed list of articles, videos and research on outdoor learning spaces.

Wonderful Whiteboarding

If you’ve been following me, you probably know that I love introducing my daughter to a variety of media.  When I went on maternity leave a couple years ago, this little dry erase board came home from the office with me, and it’s now a spot where N can freely draw while we brew our morning coffee and heat up oatmeal. We also have the Ikea easel, which has a dry erase board on one side, and this moves freely between N’s bedroom and the living room.

Creative Connection

Dry erase drawing is great because it’s temporary, easily wipes up when a drawing is complete, and the pen moves across the smooth whiteboard surface in a fashion so different from markers.  Watching my daughter draw in this medium, I see that her ideas flow freely, one idea emerges into another, and when she’s done, a simple swipe of the eraser allows her to begin all over again.  It’s like brainstorming at the toddler level!  Plus, on a large scale, drawing on a white board is a lot like drawing on a wall — without the cleaning nightmare associated with all of that.

(Photo: Fast Company)

Related to this, my husband, Scott, happens to co-direct the Environments Collaborative (i.e. he designs the interior spaces) in the incredibly creative Stanford Institute of Design, where dry-erase boards hang freely in place of walls (see photo above). They even have an entire room (called the White Room — surprise, surprise!) dedicated to whiteboard-style brainstorming.  My daughter BEGS me to visit her dad at work, and while I know it’s because she has a huge heart for her dad’s affection, I assume that part of this longing must also have something to do with the endless supply of post-its and sea of whiteboards that stretch from one end of the building to the other.

Drawing at the d. School

Cleaning up our mess. so we’ll get invited back!

Making it happen

Drawing with dry-erase markers was introduced in our house when my daughter was about 18 months, but it didn’t really become a favorite activity until she was almost two and could easily open and close the markers and erase her markings without assistance.  While whiteboarding on a big canvas can be tons of fun, you don’t need wall-to-wall dry erase boards to make this happen.  In fact, just the other day I picked up a $2 board that’s about 12″ x 16″ in the school supply section of Target that will be perfect for dry-erasing on-the-go.  For the more ambitious-minded, there’s a company called IdeaPaint that sells a paint product that can turn virtually any surface into a whiteboard. Here’s a little inspiration from their website:

And finally, it will take a bit of hunting, but you can also find nontoxic dry-erase markers, such as these from Expo. Have fun drawing on this glassy surface, and please share your whiteboard drawing/brainstorming/creating/exploring tales!