The Texture of Imagination

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I found this old door in Silke's backyard. I love the fact that the paint is peeling, that the door is badly splintered, that beyond the fence the mountains sit quietly. The winds blow and ravens caw. Everything feels a little rotten, a little special, a little like home.

This is the texture of imagination, the heft of the paper on which each of our stories is written. Underneath each of those stories lies the truth. Even a lie speaks plainly.

Each of Us Carries a Story

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Each of us carries an internal story of who we are. We are beautiful, strong, smart, athletic, dumb, bad, a victim and more. How and when do these stories develop, and what can we as parents and educators do to shepherd healthy stories into our children's minds and hearts? That more than anything should be the essence of education.

Rule #3

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I often come upon the children doing something imaginative or unique, and then want it for myself. I want to be a part of it, take a photo or make a comment. But over time I've learned that even positive attention tends to pull the children out of their fantasy and into a reflective self-awareness that reduces their magical world, if only briefly, to sticks and stones. The play stops and pivots on comprehending or responding to me. More often than not they pick it back up, but sometimes my attention, even when positive, is enough to break the spell for good. So I've learned - don't interrupt unless I have a good reason to do it.

The Secret to Life

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Children love doing meaningful things. Give them a real shovel and a hose and you're hard-pressed to stop them. On this day, while we were watering the trees, Silke suggested the kids dig an irrigation ditch down the lilac hedge. They dug with shovels. They dug with hands. They crawled on their knees and bellies to get under branches. They stopped to play, then started again. We even made a little bridge with a piece of flagstone (with a bit of adult help). When all was finished, the kids delighted in watching the water flow down the ditch, cheering it on like a race horse. And we won. But there were no losers, because everyone was in on the project. And it was real - we needed to water those lilacs. Work. Play. Children. Adults. This is the secret to life.

Shared Strength

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I witnessed a touching moment today. The children were playing cops and robbers. Part of the game involves a bit of wrestling, as the cops (usually the girls) arrest and take the robbers (invariably the boys) to jail. Mostly it’s just a game of chase, and the wrestling is more playful than outright physical competition. But today one little boy (he’s six) felt like provoking more than fleeing, and he seemed to relish the fact that he could dominate the girls. “Come on, girls!” he kept taunting, “try to get me!” I watched him lock arms several times with girls considerably smaller and younger than him, wrestle them to the ground and run off.

I watched carefully and I would have stepped in if the play grew unhealthy, but it remained safe. The girls stood up and smiled. They weren’t being hurt and they seemed to enjoy the struggle even if they didn’t come out on top. Rough and tumble games like these are vital for children, and girls so often lack this sort of play because a loving adult like me steps in to protect them. The result is insidious, perpetuating the message that they can’t do it for themselves. So, as long as no one was getting hurt or saying “stop,” I let the game go on.

After several bouts like this, the other children running back and forth and giggling, the same little boy locked arms with yet another girl. She is also six, and I knew that her strength was a better match. She also happens to be my daughter. As the two wrestled, something really precious happened. Not only did my daughter feel her own strength and smile, but the little boy, surprised by the competition, smiled back. “Wow,” he said after the match turned draw, “you’re really strong.” It was as if he recognized for the first time ever that a girl could be as strong as a boy. And it didn’t provoke outrage or shame. It provoked joy.

Some men go their entire lives without experiencing this. It's time to change that.

Dads Need to Sleep with Babies Too

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Like most modern men, I didn't have much of a clue of what to do when I found myself holding my newborn daughter. I was more focused on the mama. But within a few days it was apparent that mama was tired as he**. I invested a lot of time figuring out how to put our little girl to sleep. At first this was to support my wife, but in time it became a treasured source of intimacy with my daughter. Sleep. And what's more - the methods I developed for putting our daughter to sleep (which didn't involve any breasts), later became vital habits that even my wife imitated as she weaned herself from the nighttime feedings that kept her in a near-insomnia state for the first two years of our daughter's life. In fact, during that weaning phase my daughter went to bed with me (because nighttime feeding with mama was too much of a distraction). Only later did mama join us in bed.

The Five S's are a good place for a young father to start soothing and putting your child to sleep: Swaddle, Side, Shush, Swing, Suck. Google it and you'll find tons of info. And remember - every child is different. It will take practice and perseverance. In time, you will develop a unique relationship with your child that not even his or her mother can replicate.

And whenever possible, try to sleep at the same time as your child.

Favor Observation Over Knowledge

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One morning, I noticed that a sapling outside Silke's house had been chewed upon. It was a school day, so when the kids arrived I called them over and pointed it out. I don't think they would have noticed it otherwise. We looked at the bite marks, then talked a little about how the water and minerals flow up the inner bark of the tree, sort of like the blood in our our veins, and that if the bark was entirely chewed off the little tree would die. We talked about the rabbits that have little to eat and are looking for food after a long winter. We built a little protective shell out of an old pot. In this way, a passing observation turned into a rich biology lesson.

I was in my mid-twenties before I learned that rabbits and other rodents will eat bark off trees midwinter. But I could name half the animals in Africa and most of the parts of a human cell.

Knowledge without observation tends to ring hollow. Whereas observation almost always draws us into a deeper curiosity. It's not that rabbits and trees are better than zebras and endoplasm. It's that we can touch them.

Living History

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This photo was taken in Bone Canyon, a small isolated side canyon off the Rio Grande Gorge. So small as to hardly be noticed by the casual hiker, the children know the canyon's most intimate details, much like a band of hunter-gatherers might have known it a few thousand years ago. The petroglyphs which sparsely populate this little canyon bear witness to those ancient wanderers (and others more modern - thank you, R. B. Vigil).

The stone bowl in which the children are playing is almost two feet deep and is nearly always full of water. In spring and summer we find tadpoles there. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that some ancient folks carved it out on purpose, but I have no doubt that their children's fingers plumbed its depths just as ours do.

For these children, it is their first history lesson. We don't teach it. We live it.

Front Bike Seat

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Do you know about these front seats for little children? I bought this used for $40. You can too, because lots of people buy them, use them once, and then resell them on ebay. This was one of the best investments of my life. A child behind you is staring at your back, and you have to shout to each other. Plus, it messes with your balance. Riding in front is smooth and easy, and it's like holding your little girl in your arms and whispering in each other's ears. The only thing to remember is that s/he is colder than you, because they're not pedaling. This seat was rated to 35 lbs. I used it for almost three years and pushed it when she was 40 lbs, because I couldn't let go.

Outdoor Board Games

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This game, a variation on shoots and ladders, took about ten minutes to set up. As the kids rambled and played freely, I set the stones in a winding path, adding a few sticks for bridges (ladders) and a coconut shell trap (lose a turn). As I did, the kids variously came up and asked what I was doing, then ran off. "I'm setting up a game," is all I said. "You'll see in a minute." When I called everyone together, they were excited. To minimize competitiveness, I made two teams - one using a small gnome I had carved from wood and another using a bird, also carved. Gnomes versus birds. The children took turns rolling the wooden dice we had made a few days before, counting the numbers and then advancing on the stones. As they neared the end, the anticipation grew excruciating. Both teams advanced to the finish amidst shouts and giggles, then we did it again. Each time, I told the kids they were welcome to play, or not. One child chose to be a snake that harassed, but didn't eat, any of the gnomes or birds that landed between two bones he set up near the end. After two games, which involved a fair amount of counting for four- to six-year-olds, I sensed that the kids had had enough of formal rules and I handed the game over to them, including the dice, the gnome, the bird and all the stones, sticks and coconut shells. A few girls ran off with the bird to make a nest. One made a home for the gnome in the coconut shell. Another rearranged the rocks into a spiral. The earth took back its materials, and we all disappeared.

Free Play

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You can learn a lot by building a rock wall. This six-year-old spent almost the entire day building and refining this wall. He selected stones, hefted and carried them, occasionally asking for help from classmates. He filled the crevices with dirt to make it more steady. Several times he watched much of his work collapse. After shaking his fists and growing frustrated, he got back to work. He refined his methods. And at the end of the day, he took pride in his accomplishment.

This is free play. No one asked him to build that wall. He could have spent those hours twiddling his thumbs. But why would he do that? Children are far superior at engaging themselves in meaningful activity than most adults. And nine times out of ten it is us, the adults, that pull our children away from the education they so eagerly seek on their own.

How a Simple Pair of Dice Can Teach an Incomparable Lesson

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These large wooden dice were handmade by the children and I. First, we sawed them from scrap wood, then sanded them down. Using the heated end of an egg beater, we burned the numbers in place. I was in no rush, so these tasks were tackled higgledy-piggledy over many days as other events came to the fore. In the meantime, the children got to know gnome plus (in red at the bottom right) and gnome minus, and we even rolled plastic dice a few times.

With one die, the children (kindergartners) are asked to match the dots to a vocal number, and they can do this fairly readily. As a teacher, I can also map this vocalization and enumeration to a numeral by writing it in the sand or dirt. The children also learn, subtly, that there are six sides to a cube.

With two dice, the kids are asked to identify and hold two sets in their minds at the same time, say 3 and 5. Two distinct beings. Two distinct identities. Each identity is made up of several pieces, i.e. dots. By searching for the total, we learn to add two identities AND two sets, for a total of 8. Math. Fun. Cool. But there's more.

For most of us, this operation is so mundane that we do not immediately grasp its greater significance. But there is something very rich happening here below the conscious level, something that speaks to a much broader scope of human cognition - the ability to identify something AS ONE THING. As adults, this becomes so commonplace and second-nature that most of us take it for granted - and forget that at one point it was not so obvious. A tree is a tree. Duh. Yet, it's a complex entity of beings within beings (branches, roots, leaves, cells), a holism that even extends beyond time to seeds and trees long since dead, and those not yet present. Meanwhile, the tree itself is also part of another whole, one tree in a single forest.

Not that this is kindergarten material! But it speaks to the depth of learning, often at a subconscious level, in a simple pair of dice. That the children have helped me cut, shape and stain the wood only adds to their familiarity, making them not only beings, but OUR beings.

Teach By Example

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I was floored when this little child showed me the bird he had carved. I had been working on little birds all week, and he, like all the kids, watched me from time to time. But I never expected any of them to imitate me so directly. It was flattering, sure, but what really struck my heart was the depth of observation and emulation required. It's almost overwhelming to think about. If this little boy made this bird after watching me for a handful of minutes here and there, consider what else he's absorbing throughout his days. If we want healthy children, we better get our sh** together.

Plant Your Prayers

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Tobacco is a sacred plant in indigenous traditions. This mapacho was grown by dear friends, farmers with considerably more talent than I. At Taos Earth Children, we don't foist spirituality on the kids, but we don't exclude it either. We bless our food before meals, and give thanks for the earth, but we don't invoke any particular religion. We honor them all. On this particular day, I offered a small pinch to each child and told them they could offer it to the canyon, the earth, the stones, the animals - if they wanted to. Some spoke a word out loud, "this is for the sun", "this is for the snow". Others said nothing. Regardless of what one thinks of religion, spirituality, ghosts and goblins - it's nice to give thanks. It's even a human need. Giving form to that, then easing off, allows the kids to explore this relationship for themselves.