I know many teachers (and parents) who swear that arts and crafts are critical for the developing child's creativity. They stock their shelves with scissors and paper, paints, craft sticks and cotton balls. I wonder at these folks, who seem incapable of creativity if they haven't paid for something. What about the forest? The colors and textures of nature's materials far exceed those of glitter glue and construction paper. They require the kids to locate, smell and feel their materials, and even to create them (like a pile of purple made from hundreds of asters). And when you're done, they simply recede back into the earth. This is the kind of creativity I seek.
In Taos, almost everyone has a fireplace or a wood stove. For most of us, it's our primary heat source. Last Thursday, I took the kids on a field trip to learn about how we source it, cut it and haul it.
We took turns using the bow saw on some manageable branches, then watched as a friend of mine showed us the chainsaw. We were in no rush, so the kids had a chance to see it up close, watch the teeth get sharpened, and see how the gas and oil goes in. With appropriate safety gear (and a safe distance) we watched him pull-start the engine, then cut a few logs.
Sadly, the chain was a little dull, but this gave us the opportunity to watch him take it off and put on a new one. Meanwhile, we talked about which trees could be cut (not living ones - or even standing ponderosas, which make good animal habitat).
It's going to be some years before these kids are going to handle a chainsaw, but soon we're going to start splitting kindling for our homes. Imagine the pride of bringing home a bag of kindling to mom and dad, wood they helped find in the forest, watched being cut, then hauled and split. Forest to fire. How many of us adults really have a handle on how these materials come into our lives? Maybe we should plant trees.
I've spent quite a few years gathering wood, splitting, hauling and stacking it. But it's almost unimaginable to me the kind of strength it took the men (and women?) a century ago who had to cut it with handsaws. Imagine what those folks knew. About trees. About stamina. About hunger, joy and fear. Imagine the appreciation they had for each log they set on the fire. Isn't that the kind of relationship we seek with the earth?
This combo lock is a great tool for teaching three-digit numbers, i.e. 1's, 10's and 100's.
I taught the kids that the first number is the hundreds, the second is 10's and the last one is 1's. I can set the lock to any number, say 1-3-7, then hand it to them and call out "one-hundred and thirty-seven." Sometimes, they get it right away. Other times they work on it together. Occasionally, they get stumped when I trick them, like "four" which is 0-0-4.
I can carry this in my pocket, my pack or just my hand and it takes less than ten seconds to change the code. We can walk in the forest (or anywhere), taking turns opening the lock and mastering our understanding of numbers 0-999. The best part is that satisfying little click when you know you got it right.
No, wait. The best part is that it produces no garbage and we can reuse it over and over. No, the best part will be when I start giving them addition and subtraction problems. No, here's the real best part - the kids love it.
I bought this thing for six bucks. You probably already have one lying around your house.
We were walking to Bone Canyon Tuesday when I heard an unfamiliar noise: purr-rr-rr-rr-t! I stopped instantly. I had heard the same odd noise the night before (sort of a high-pitched purring) as I crept about in the dark to lock up the chickens. I thought it was an uncommon bird in the sagebrush (a quail?), so when the kids and I heard it the next day I looked all over the ground.
"Dad, they're up there!"
Duh - they were in they sky. We watched as a few hundred large birds in two massive flocks swirled in patterns over the mountains. It was absolutely breathtaking. They circled and soared, like hawks or vultures, their wings changing from dark gray to a shimmering white as they caught the sun in each revolution. Eventually, they found their altitude and veered south in the familiar v-pattern. We memorized the distinctive call these birds made, which later allowed us to identify the birds as sandhill cranes.
People sometimes ask me what curriculum I'm following. Sure, I plan some of our activities, but I can't emphasize enough how important these moments are to me and the kids. Part of our curriculum is just being alive and taking the time to notice what's happening around us. I plan on it.
We saw two more flocks that day, maybe as many as a thousand birds (including the ones I had heard flying the night before). I watched all the next day, but nothing. It had been rainy and stormy all week, and that one day had been a reprieve from the commanding clouds. Is it possible an entire population of birds had taken advantage of that one break in the weather? How could they not?
Both snakes were found less than a 1/4 mile from our classroom. The rattlesnake was dead when I found it. I brought it to the kids because we frequently see bull snakes (not venomous). In a still photo, these two are easy to distinguish, but in real life, slithering through brush and rocks, it's not easy to tell who's who.
This is only the second rattlesnake I've seen in Taos County, and I'm outside in their territory a lot. So, I don't fear them. But I'm not reckless either. We talk frequently about snakes and the kids know to back away if they see one.
I brought the snake because I wanted the kids to have a chance to identify it with their own eyes (did the same with a black widow once). Note the big head on the rattler. This one is just a baby, so its rattle is hardly noticeable. In a pinch, I'd look for the head. The markings are too similar and you often can't find the tail.
Plus, now the kids get to tell everyone they carried a rattlesnake around (even if it was dead).
We picked apples, then used the opportunity to count by tens (big apples) and ones (little apples). Ten little apples equals one big apple. I call out a number between one and a hundred and the kids have to represent the number (for example, 73 is seven big apples and three little ones). Having done this all week, with beans, coins and even sounds, the kids made quick work of it. Best of all, the learning is tied into their senses.
Instead of fixing it myself, I had my first-graders help take off this old latch and doorknob. We looked at the guts, called out the phillips head and flat screws, then went to the hardware store. A few days later, we put the new one on. The kids took turns driving the screws. Many adults have little sense of exactly how a doorknob works, though we've used them for years. Now these kids (boys and girls) have a basic working knowledge of what happens every time they turn the knob. Cool stuff.
I posted something like this once before, but it was the middle of winter and, the earth being brown and dry, I received several comments along the lines of "reminds of me of the Blair Witch Project." I was disheartened. But I continue to believe that his little project, so simple, so rewarding, is fun, creative and deeply healing for children AND ADULTS. Here's why.
First of all, let me explain that I am a father, not a mother, and that I hate crafts. Popsicle sticks and glitter make me throw up. These figures were all created from materials I found in the forest, or wherever, and they took me five minutes to make. So, whether you're into crafts or not - believe me, this is simple and worth it. I promise.
For the kids, it's simple. My goal is to take children to isolated and beautiful locations with nothing more than our imaginations (and maybe some food, water, etc.). Even the most media-saturated child explodes with creativity in such settings. But it can be your backyard too, or just a quiet corner of your city park. By crafting quick, whimsical figures from sticks, grass and whatever, the girls can build fairy houses, the boys can build castles, and we can generally make merry.
My kids have little in the way of attachment to certain dolls, or characters, but if yours have a special attachment (that sometimes drives you crazy) - try this. It will free the children from the storylines that sometimes dominate their play and give them a chance to engage with the real and natural world. If you have a hard time understanding this for kids, then there's nothing more I can say. But if you get it, then prepare to get down, because this is funk-nasty for realz (look at this guy below and tell me he's not funky - look at that strut!).
Now for the cool part. For adults, that is, the crafter, it is the perfect way to explore your own relationship to nature and the native materials in your own "back yard." Twigs and branches work well, but not just any tree will do. It's nice if the legs are thin, but stiff enough to withstand some dancing, flying, or dragon-slaying as the case may be. Grass works well in summer, but in any good field there are ten different kinds of grass. Some will snap instantly. Some bend and twist like rope you'd pay money for. What works best? And what if you don't have grass? What kind of natural materials are around that work like fibers? Is there a vine?
And that's just the beginning. Flowers make great heads. So do leaves. But how are you going to attach them? Some flowers are beautiful but so floppy your characters are beheaded almost instantly. Agh! Any competent forest has a whole carpet of creepy crawly plants you probably hardly looked at before, never mind their names. But forget names for a minute. That's science stuff. What are they like? How do they feel? Are there enough of them to justify taking a handful for crafts, or are there only one or two and you feel guilty now that you picked the last one, you jerk, probably the last one on earth. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Mushrooms? Probably not. Moss? Maybe. Can you weave a grass skirt? Don't smirk, you know you can. I don't care if you're a lawyer or a dentist. I'm an engineer. You can weave a grass skirt because you're a goddamn human being and your daughter is only six years old for a hot minute. Weave that shit.
(And if you're wondering, there is a very simple 4-step instruction included at the end.)
As your child ages, you can shift from manufacturing to teaching the art itself. Now your child is learning to make her own toys while simultaneously studying the materials of her native ecology. Before, s/he was just looking and feeling. Now they, like you, have to figure out how to tie grass without mashing it into a pulp. So aggravating! Good lessons.
In winter, you might think there's little to do, but if you're willing to put in the time you may discover all sorts of barks and fibers that, while a bit crude, actually make a fairly competent string. What can you do with an acorn? Isn't that vastly more interesting than the names, i.e. the facts, of plants and trees? And don't forget the husks and seeds, some of which are very hardy. The figure below was crafted from yucca fibers in January (we live in the desert), with a yucca seed pod that is, in my opinion, a pretty fabulous dress.
So, there you have it. Nature dolls. Oh, and guess what? They're 100% biodegradable because, duh, they're made out of the forest. You can take them home, but we usually leave them behind. We tell stories about them. We visit a week, a month, or a year later. We have fairies and castles all over the world, sending us magic everyday. That shit is unstoppable.
This is a hard rule to articulate, but one of the most important things I've learned as a father and teacher. I usually call it the Sideways Rule and it has many corollaries.
The essence of this rule can be grasped in the old story of two people arguing in a tug of war. You can fuss and fight and struggle, but nothing drops the tension faster than letting go of the rope. Direct confrontation tends to heighten the conflict and can even impair a positive message.
If you get into a yes/no struggle with a child (or adult) it quickly turns into a battle of wills, such that the subject itself can fall to the side. Instead of a thoughtful approach to the best decision, you now have something entirely different on your hands, which is the enforcement of will. If you watch children (and adults too), you can observe this constantly. What does a three-year-old want? Whatever the four-year-old has. And what does he want once he gets it? Whatever the four-year-old has now.
You can observe this in certain martial arts too, especially Tai Chi, where one's primary effort is in sidestepping and redirecting the opponent's energy, sometimes even using it against him. The idea here is to stay calm and poised, and to conserve your energy while your opponent tires.
But there is much more to this rule than conflict management. There are plenty of “positive” applications too. Tell a child to do something, and there's a good chance she’ll resist it. Start doing it yourself, and she often wants to join in.
Silke once said to me, "The goal of a kindergarten teacher is to be actively engaged in meaningful work, and then allow the kids to come and go, and play, as they please." Silke rarely gives explicit instruction to the kids. She is simply doing and being a living classroom and the kids can't help following her.
I’m narrowing in on the rule, but perhaps part of the reason it's hard to explain is that, like the rule itself states, we can't approach it head on.
Consider storytelling. I've approached children dozens of times with an “important lesson" simply to have it blow up in my face. Most children, at least at the 4-6 age range I'm working with, are not ready for so much direct communication. They need to be told a story (even if it’s a true one), or to have the lesson couched in a joke, a song, a doll or puppet.
Adults are like this too. Walk up to a friend or coworker and tell them directly to their face what they did wrong, or how they could be doing better. Who likes that? Why would a child like that? Try approaching them from the side, with a lightness in your tone, and recount a story or a time when the "wrong" thing is merely a peripheral element to the story. Chances are s/he will recognize their mistake and seek to repair it. What's more, they will be grateful that you graciously gave them room to recognize the error themselves instead of shoving it in their face.
Try it with compliments too. Sure, it's nice to say that someone is beautiful, smart or funny, but recount a story where their beauty or brilliance is simply taken for granted and they will probably shine even brighter.
Consider a child with a hurt finger or cut. Focus, focus, focus on the cut, the blood and the pain and you probably have a bad situation on your hands, even if it's a minor scrape. Whereas, if you approach calmly and address the ouchie without ripping apart the context or game at hand more often than not the child recognizes that the cut or bruise isn't so bad after all, gets up and keeps playing.
That’s not to suggest being callous or insensitive. Deal with life. Look at it head on. Sometimes things are serious. But whenever possible, approach from the periphery. There will be times when one has to shout and direct - Don't run into the road! - but whenever possible, start gently from the side. You will derive much more strength if the children follow you because they want to, and not because you demand it.
There is a great quote from Lao Tzu - "The greatest leaders are those we hardly know exist." The same could be said for teachers, and in a weird, subtle way parents too. In essence, if you shove every lesson down your child's throat, they will come to resent you even when you're right. But if instead you create an environment where the child has the sense that they discovered the rule for themselves then they feel confident, wise and proud. That is the goal.
My three core rules for good parenting/teaching. These are rules for myself, and they arose after many years of observation, stumbling and mistakes. They may not be a fit for everyone. You will have to decide for yourself.
An interesting math lesson has arisen. The chicks have become almost impossible to catch, or even count. It's a comedy routine watching the kids (or better yet an adult), try to round them up. They mingle in the bushes, they're scattered all over the yard, they even drift in and out of gaps in the fence. Scoot, scoot, scoot - those little chicks are hard to catch.
We started with eleven, but one died and now we're down to ten. On top of that, we've finally moved them from the greenhouse to the coop, and they sometimes get lost along the way to the yard in the morning (the big hens are no help). Point is, we have to count them often to make sure none are lost, but it's hard to count ten skittering chicks, especially when children are running helter-skelter through them.
But as you'll notice, we have four black chicks, four golden and two "hawk-eyes." The kids know this, and it's much easier to count four black, four golden and two hawk-eyes than ten scurrying chicks. Four plus four plus two. We don't even make a big point of it. Instead, the children are simply living the subtle lesson of grouping and counting.
At this stage (kindergarten) it's not so much about exact numbers and getting it right as it is about the ability to see a group of objects as a subdivided set. Human beings naturally distinguish 1, 2 and 3 objects (like birds in the sky). Four and five take a bit of effort, but once you get to 6, 7 and beyond even the most intelligent adults in the world have to count. Try it. But reducing a large set to bite-size chunks and then combining them is the stuff of genius. These children get to do that without even knowing that's what they're doing. It's just a part of our days. That's education at a level we have a hard time teaching in schools.
Farmer Ron grew the rye. A friend lent the mill. The children ground the grain, and I baked the bread. The little red hen would be proud.
Do you know where your food comes from?
"Not I," said the cat.
"Not I, "said the dog.
"I do," said the Earth Children.
Few things inspire teamwork better than a heavy weight. The sense of accomplishment that comes from completing such a task far outweighs the convenience of having an adult do it.
Fencing the chickens out of the garden beds. Nothing can replace real tools and real work. The dexterity of holding a nail and hitting it squarely on the head is a great hand skill (something many adults can't do). The chicken wire was just thick enough to require some real squeezing with the wire cutters, but not hard enough to be impossible. Great project all around. And now we have a handsome fence.
Is anything NOT amazing?
Pema and I had wandered into an isolated arroyo, one of those unremarkable places that is neither here nor there and is rarely visited by anyone except lizards. The floor was pure sand, and though evening was setting in we took off our shoes and felt the still-warm earth.
We walked a little ways, climbing over rocks and pools of red-brown clay. The walls grew steep, closing us in, so that every felled tree or twist in the wash felt like the entrance to another room. At last, we found an enticing spot - no better than where we had begun - and sat down. Pema gathered a few stones and began telling their story - this one the mother, this one the father, this the baby, etc. I listened, burying my toes in the sand, then plucking them out. The sun was low.
We had been there just long enough to evaporate, to be nowhere and nothing in particular, when suddenly I heard a rumbling sound. No, I felt it. Looking over my shoulder, three elk crested over the wall of the canyon and stampeded down. They were right on top of us, but not close enough to trample us. The elk, all females, landed with powerful hoof-beats in the arroyo, then bolted up the other side, followed by half a dozen more. They must have been as surprised as we were.
Once they disappeared, Pema turned to me with trembling lips. “Were…were those…elk, Dada?”
“Yep,” I answered stiffly, “elk. No question.” She was three years old.
We stared at each other for a few seconds, then fell to laughing as the sound of their hoofs faded into the evening.
What if school was less about acquiring skills to succeed and more about how to find joy within oneself and one's immediate surroundings? Isn't that what we want - happy people? Or do we want successful people? Are successful people happy?
Instead of giving your attention to what people think about the earth today, or what might be wrong with it, consider touching in directly with the earth itself. Put your hand in the dirt. Listen to the wind. Feel the coarseness of tree bark.
It's true that we need clean-ups and organizations, more whales and less plastic waste. But more than anything else, we need people who know how to enjoy the earth, right here right now.
If we could do this authentically as a nation, as a species, the ecological problems that currently seem so intransigent might end up resolving themselves rather easily.
In other words, don't focus on the problems of the earth. Focus on what you yourself, as a body and a brain, can feel is right - then give your energy to that.
Silke and the girls returning from Bone Canyon at the end of a school day.