This Made Me Smile

Kids on the island have created these smart ashtrays made of soda cans which people can borrow during their time on the beach, so not to litter the area with their cigarette butts.

Via Taru, who’s anchored in St. Barts at the moment, at Sailing Around the Globe.


Free Range Kids Mom on ABC News

A nice piece on ABC News about the author of one of our favorite blogs here at Free the Commons! Lenore Skenazy of the Free Range Kids blog is offering parents a unique opportunity: she has started an after-school program to allow their children to participate in unsupervised playtime in Central Park, for the low, low cost of $350! Check out the story to see if Lenore’s had any takers.

Where Did Recess Go?

Or better yet, when did it go away? I find this story disturbing. I’ve written here before about the importance of unstructured free/play time to the development of a child’s well-being. I knew schools were doing other asinine things, like cutting music and arts education. But no recess? I mean, what the hell is wrong with our education system? Where are the parents? Does no one give a damn? Talk about the Eaters of Childhood. From Slate:

Every schoolchild who’s ever squirmed in his seat, anxious for recess to arrive, can sympathize with students in Chicago. This year, many public schools in that city are scheduled to have recess for the first time in three decades. Chicago’s long recess drought isn’t unusual. Even before No Child Left Behind, recess was an endangered species. Since NCLB, every minute of the school day has been scrutinized for its instructional value—and recess, a break from instruction, often didn’t survive the scrutiny. It was, by definition, a waste of time.

Am I an ignorant buffoon? I had no idea there were school districts that had ended recess, and thirty years ago. No recess? Really? What are we doing sending our children to these institutions? Here’s the attitude of the people in charge of developing your child’s intellectual character:

The arguments against recess are simple and no-nonsense, especially for these schools: What—you want the kids to play kickball when they’re failing math? When the Atlanta public schools got rid of recess, its superintendent famously said, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

This individual should be kept far away from any child, let alone being in charge of a school. What a failure. How many generations were we able to improve academic performance without ending recess? Want a few stats to make your day? Since 1970, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, the public school workforce has nearly doubled, growing almost 11 times faster than the rate of enrollment. We’re spending twice the amount of money on education, for smaller teacher-to-student ratios, all for lousy test scores, as we all know.

Now, there’s a lot of factors affecting student performance, including the teaching profession and bureaucracy, our communities, and our families that play a role in poor student performance. My only criticism of teachers – my wife is one and she knows my feelings – is that they belong to, and give authority to, an entrenched unionized system that is resistant to change. Except when it comes to ending recess (and music and the arts).

And I’ll tell you, even where the schools are reintroducing recess, they are getting it wrong:

That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears (recess=chaos), recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question.

I just want to grab these people by their collective lapels and shake them and shout “if you want to be an educator in charge of educating, try keeping up with the science on education, including the significance of unstructured play time in cognitive development!” Dear God, do these people not read, or possess common sense?

OK, remember a few days ago, when I wrote my mea culpa about my writing style? This is one of those instances where maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But I’m sorry, I’m right on this. From the Slate article:

The new science of recess says that recess isn’t a waste of time at all. “Having recess is much, much, much better than not having recess,” says Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who’s written extensively on the subject. “That’s unequivocal, I feel. That’s a no-brainer.” That’s good news for children in Chicago squirming in their seats. But what does recess look like when no schoolchild has ever had it before?

Thank goodness someone gets it. And Mr. Pellegrini, I promise to remember you and your research the next time I consider university professors to be wasting time on research rather than teaching classes. And to all of you, trust your child’s development to no one. You know better.


Go Camping and Love Life

My favorite way to really immerse myself in the outdoors is to go camping. These days, I camp with the family, usually at a developed or primitive drive-in campground. Back in the day I’d hike to my camp with no more gear than I could stuff into a backpack. But I have grown to love car camping. Those long days outdoors are so calming, and can be made very comfortable with little expense. Unfortunately, with summer winding down and the kids heading back to school, we may have only a few camping trips left.

We’ve gotten in a good 10-12 nights out though this year. This past weekend we visited another beautiful spot, pictured below, and spent the night freezing in temperatures that reached into the 30’s. When the kids are truly uncomfortable due to the temperatures, we know the camping season is about at an end.

Camping can be made very simple, and here’s a few recommendations I’d offer based on my experience getting my family to love camping.

First, make it easy. Go someplace relatively close to home, and go just for a night to start. When we first got our children camping, we wouldn’t even leave the house until 10 or 11 a.m. on Saturday. We’d spend the afternoon and one night at the campground, and then come home Sunday morning so we still had the whole day ahead of us. Don’t make your first trip a marathon. Make it an extended day outdoors.

Second, take the pressure off yourself and family and make reservations. A lot of campgrounds take reservations, and then you can arrive on site at your own schedule.

Third, go when the temperatures are comfortable. No one wants to sweat all day and freeze all night. We started our kids camping in late spring, when the days are as comfortable as the nights, and the kids could sleep on the tent floor with just heavy blankets and pillows. You don’t need to spend money on sleeping bags right away – grow into that need.

Fourth, eat easy foods. If your family likes hotdogs, you have it made. But it’s also very easy to cook meals like quesadillas, chicken, rice, potatoes, corn; nearly everything you can prepare on a grill can be cooked over an open fire.

Fifth, bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms. For their very first trip, don’t take your loved ones to a campground with a pit toilet. Many state parks and forest service campgrounds have nice facilities, with flush toilets and running water. I really recommend easing the kids – or non-camping significant other – into camping by taking them someplace where they can have as normal a routine as possible, and being able to wash up and brush your teeth in a sink before bedtime is one of those little secrets that make for an easy transition.

I’ll also tell you that these nicer campgrounds, with reservations and running water and a campground host, generally make for a more peaceful environment: you’re not likely to encounter a group of late-night partiers at these type of campgrounds.

Finally, be flexible, especially with kids. Don’t plan their day with long hikes or campfire talks or whatever. Let them run around and discover with you what they like to do in the outdoors. Bring a Frisbee and coloring books and games to play so that the campground does not feel too different than your own backyard.  Make sure camping feels like a free weekend day and not a chore.

You’ll soon grow into camping in more remote and primitive settings, and you’ll be hiking and catching dinner from the lake. But you and your family need time to grow into those things, just like your budget needs time to stretch into those expensive sleeping bags and cook stoves that can extend your camping trips into the spring and fall shoulder seasons.

These are some really simple suggestions that I hope will help those of you who want to start camping, or want to get your family involved in camping. Of all the things we do together as a family – movies, concerts, school and scouting events, family BBQs – nothing beats a camping trip for spending time together.

Henry David Thoreau Is Not Amused

Via the Not So Subtle blog comes word that the whackamoles at National Endowment for the Arts are spending $40,000 to support a video game based on Thoreau’s book Walden. As you may recall from middle school reading assignments, Walden is Thoreau’s recollections of his experiences at Walden Pond, where he built a cabin and sought to immerse himself in nature to become more independent and self-sufficient. Building cabins and immersing oneself in nature being generally frowned upon these days, the NEA has decided that a video game is the best path to reconnecting our children with nature.

Reports that the video game will be constructed from twigs and leaves and operated by solar power are apparently unfounded. When asked for comment, a spokesman for the NEA said they do not suggest playing the Walden game outdoors, nor near an actual pond, as the game is not waterproof.

Thoreau was unavailable for comment.

Free Range Kids

Have you seen this WordPress blog, Free Range Kids? I’ve just started to follow it as part of my series on children in nature, which I’ve tentatively titled “The Eaters of Childhood.” My wife tells me my title doesn’t work, but since we’ve been successfully married for 14 years, I feel the urge to disagree with her. Hey, if you don’t disagree over meaningless things once in a while, just to keep the force in balance, you end up disagreeing about important things, with lots of pent up “disagreement rage.” That’s my only theory about marriage. Anyway, check out Free Range Kids. To get you started, here’s a post I really appreciated. Some interesting stuff going on over there.

The Eaters of Childhood

“The Eaters of Childhood” is the working title of a body of work I’m developing about the institutions, individuals, and influences that seek to deny our children their childhood, as many of us understand the term and experienced it in our own youth. The majority themes focus on the lack of unstructured play time, the lack of time spent in nature, the push to eliminate all risk in play, and the forces that seek to turn our children into adults at the age of 6. This is a set of themes that fit well with the Free the Commons philosophy; as I’ll illustrate during my writing on this topic, we are raising children today in a manner totally disconnected from nature: the result will be a future voting populace even less concerned about environmental issues than today’s voters.

With that introduction, I want to offer as the first installment of this body of work an editorial in today’s Bloomberg online written by Peter Orszag, a one-time Obama administration official and presently a vice chairman at Citigroup, Inc. Mr. Orszag writes today to inform us that summer break is making our children “dumber and fatter.” These our his words, based on a few studies that show kids lose some degree of the education and skills that they gained over the school year during their summer break, and also tend to return to school somewhat heavier than when they left. Mr. Orszag’s response is to extend the school year.

Mr. Orszag’s response is typical of the self-titled intellectual leaders and pundit class that guide American policy today: their first response, always, is more government. There is no problem too large or small that more government cannot solve.

Now, I’m not on an anti-government rant here. I’m on an anti-government-needs-to-save-our-children rant. What ails our children isn’t a lack of government in their lives – government schools, government sports leagues, government after school activities, government summer programs. No, what ails our children is a lack of free time, and the ability and permission to make their own unhindered use of that free time.

Study upon study has demonstrated the need to provide children with unstructured play time: and by unstructured I mean no rules, no umpires,  no coaches, no hovering parents, nothing but space and imagination and friends. This kind of play, written so eloquently about by Richard Louv in his work “The Last Child in the Woods” is critical to the development of healthy, balanced, intelligent, and confident children. Unstructured play time is the key to fostering innovative behavior, creative and abstract thinking, self-learning and self-awareness, sound judgment, and a healthy body.

But we seem not to be aware of the importance of play today. Here’s a report that discusses what we’ve done to our children’s free time and play time: Since the late 1970’s, children have lost around 12 hours per week of free time, we’re forcing them into more and more structured sports, and we’re loading them up with homework and extending school hours while cutting physical education and recess. It’s not surprising children are growing more stressed and showing signs of burn-out typical of mid-life adults who’ve been stuck behind the desk for too long.

The last thing we need, all due respect to Mr. Orszag, is more hours in school, where we turn our children into good little foot-soldiers for corporate or bureaucratic life: follow the rules, listen to authority, respect and understand your place in the hierarchy.

No Mr. Orszag. Children do not need more school, more hours sitting behind a desk listening to authority. Children need open fields, rocks and trees, fluffy clouds and earthworms, dirt and streams, sticks and tree forts, and hours upon hours without parents and authority hovering about in which they can make up rules to games, invent worlds, meet friends, run around unhindered, and scrape up their precious little knees.