Of Crows and Kids

“Children are beautifully adapted to learn about many possible worlds.”
from The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational – ScienceNOW.

A psychologist at the University of Cambridge who studies bird cognition has looked at how crows solve problems, the latest in research showing they are rather intelligent. Two of her graduate students, Lucy Cheke and Elsa Loissel, have replicated three of these experiments with children. Yes, the crows and the children are comparable on two of the puzzles. Children and crows are tied.

On the final puzzle, the crows met their match. The puzzle was designed to mimic a physically impossible task. Children weren’t stymied; crows were. Children 1, Crows 0 on this one.

Imagination is the leavening. Too bad so many adult humans meet a roadblock when it comes to understanding children’s imaginations, populating them with airbrushed princesses, frontier-cowboy heroes, and cartoon versions of birds and all the rest of the natural world.

Postscript: I’ll be getting myself to the Museum of Modern Art’s montage of how we’ve viewed childhood from afar. You?

perpendicular sand

“All the extra sand here is called perpendicular.”

“The sand clumps are called parallels.”

“All that water is called deception.”

Children not only make meaning, but at a certain age they play with meaning.

And by the way, “what would happen if you froze sand and water?”

What I have here are land and water forms, whose evolution is narrated with giggling and earnestness on the original sensory playground.



Will you be having dental floss with your garlic mustard today, sir?

Kids really don’t want lectures. They don’t want to learn stuff.

Garlic Mustard Ball at Fresh Pond Day. Fighting invasives was never this fun.

They do learn stuff, though, because it is in the nature of their being to suck up information like a marsh.

Back in the fall of 2012, when I was muddling through the particular big muddy of what to do with a gaggle of second graders in a splendid semi-wild urban habitat right smack next door to their school, I went to an outdoor fungi hike led by mycologist Lawrence Millman. I got a little bit bit by the mushroom bug, and under all that pinestraw I found —in addition to some striking specimens—myself in an aha! moment.

The role of fungi in ecosystems isn’t rocket science but it’s pretty complex, with way more detail than I’m currently capable of synthesizing.

Cambridge School Committee Member Patty Nolan, at right, joins the Tree Team in Garlic Mustard Ball.

Well, as I get older I get more comfortable with beginner’s mind. I applied my rudimentary knowledge of Montessori pedagogy to what I did know, and many yards of dental floss later, a handful of kids not only know about mycorrhizal relationships but can demonstrate it to other kids.

I took a simple ball game my ten-year-old told me she’d played at gym and made it into a metaphor for how fungi and trees interact. Before showing a new group of kids the game itself, I do another kind of demonstration. One child gets to be a tree, another is the fungus. I give the “fungus” a big tangle of dental floss and explain that fungal mycelia are everywhere underneath the ground, impossible (nearly always) to see, running many miles in length. Some fungi interact with tree roots (the Fungus Kid moves the dental floss over to the shoes of the Tree Kid), providing better ability to absorb minerals and moisture. The tree also provides carbohydrates to the fungus (Tree Kid hands a piece of bread or cookie to the Fungus Kid), which as a non-photosynthesizing organism can’t otherwise make its own food.

The final step in the pre-ball-game demonstration is to get out a jar of mustard and a garlic clove and put it on the mess of dental floss, remove the dental floss, and tell the kids that the garlic mustard plant interferes with that process and the benefits the tree earns from the mycorrhizal relationship. End of high drama. I guess I should have the Fungus Kid keel over at the end. I’ll remember that when our next round of the club that starts in the fall and the fungi are in visible abundance.

Our club kids demonstrated garlic mustard ball at Fresh Pond Day, with a random assortment of unfortunate adults, gleeful younger siblings, and passersby of all ages.

Club member (second-grader) explaining to the throngs the symbolic nature of the game. Yes, that’s dental floss in his left hand.

Is Your Kid Bored? vs. Chipmunks in Winter

“Is Your Kid Bored” is a little bit of bait and switch. I apologize. As a parent who deals with my own kids’ “boredom” crankily, I am so sorry to hear you have this problem too. But somehow, despite my best intentions, I have poked at the problem sideways, by cooking up some after-school clubs for other people’s children (not mine, alas), some of which have flown and others of which didn’t even hatch.

As a latecomer to the world of out-of-school time (OST), I’m amazed at the array of acronyms, the replication of school after school,  and the byzantine territorialism in this field, but also at the nuggets of good works going on, some in the strangest places. I admit my eyes have glazed over more than once at the administrative and legislative truck that comes with the OST field.

Lately I’ve been following (including on Twitter, too, where you can also follow me, @inthebigmuddy)  a national organization called The Coalition for Science After School as well as the Afterschool Alliance. To quote the Afterschool Alliance’s recent advocacy content,

“Even if you are thousands of miles away from Washington DC, you can still add your voice and advocate for after school!”

It seems everything must end with an exclamation point. I don’t particularly feel energized by punctuation, in fact, it can have the opposite effect. But they ARE barking up the right tree, so I repeat some of the Afterschool Alliance’s menu of things you can do below. Bark with us up this tree (sign the petition), and maybe the exclamation points will be made obsolete.

– Sign the Afterschool Alliance’s online petition

– Send a personal leter to Congress to support Federal 21st CCLC Funding for Afterschool & Summer programs

I leave you with an image from my outdoor, after-school club which gives kids two full hours a week in an urban habitat—punctuation of a different sort.

Checking for holes that could be entrances to chipmunk dens.

Drink This Pearl

No, this is no Alice in Wonderland admonition.

Among doctors, “pearl” is shorthand for “pearl of wisdom.” The ones that are the most commonsensical are the most valuable. This is Drinking Water Week—we’re in the middle of it right now—something to “celebrate” as its sponsor, American Water Works Association, suggests? The availability of potable water is disastrously inadequate in so many places. I’m not keen on doing much celebrating. I do, however, feel grateful to the people who manage my local watershed; to my Cambridge, Mass. neighbors who don’t pour awful things into the storm drains, and to everyone who stays off the roads and walks or bikes or takes the T and thereby makes non-point-source pollution of the water a little bit better.

My tap water.

Drink this pearl—a beautiful rant by Dr. Bernard Lown. Enjoy with a chaser of tap water.

Make Confections and Diversions, Not War, for Screen-Free Week.

April 30–May 6, 2012 is Screen-Free Week, an ancient event once you realize its maiden name is “TV Turn-Off Week.”

Take it from me, raised from a pup on B&W reruns of Batman, Captain Kangaroo, and My Three Sons. Television and its offspring haven’t done me any good except to expand my lexicon of Christian names for males to include “Hoss” and “Beave.”

The Campaign for Commercial-Childhood and its sister organization for teachers, TRUCE, are the go-to guys for suggestions, hand-holding, and incredibly even-handed research and commentary on the effects of media on kids. Even if you are idly curious about why anyone would want to voluntarily go on a screen-free diet and have no intention of coming on board this particular wagon, why not check them out. C’mon.

I’m not planning to go overboard here. My kids already complain that we’re “hippies” because our TV isn’t plugged into the cable signal. We’re going to be on our phones and laptop screens doing our usual reading and posting and follow-up and staying über-in-touch with everyone but ourselves in those whee! hours at the crack of dawn before the little darlings wake up. And of course, at work.

I, for one, plan to sugarcoat everything with a nice dose of….audio. Yup, that’s right. I’m going straight for a pure sugar high of Audiobooks, Music, and Spoken Word heaven. Like a bit o’Firesign Theatre—that is, ancient podcasts of Firesign Theatre.

Happy Birthday

Here’s a riddle…who is a well-known friend to Cambridge flora and fauna (two-legged, four legged, annelid and all the rest) but not a Cambridge resident? Hint: No one has quite got a hat like hers for miles around.  I’ll be posting a picture after I give you a little while to guess. If you see her tomorrow on Sunday April 29th (or any time in the next month), wish her a happy birthday.