Thursday, May 02, 2013 3:23 PM
As marketing to children intensifies, what can society do?
This article is adapted from Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.
A four-year-old arrives at school and starts crying when she realizes her lunch is packed in a generic plastic bag, not the usual Disney Princess lunchbox she so loves. A friend tells her she won’t be able to sit at the princess lunch table—it’s only for girls with princess lunchboxes.
A fourth grader arrives home from school all excited. He has a Book It certificate from Pizza Hut because his mother signed the form showing that he met the reading-at-home goal his teacher set for him. He pleads with his mother to take him to Pizza Hut for dinner that night.
Sixth graders are assigned the task of writing to their principal about something important that they would like to see happen at their school. They decide to ask for school vending machines that sell snack foods and drinks.
Marketing is a more powerful force in the lives of children growing up today than ever before, beginning from a very young age. The stories above provide but a few examples of how it can shape learning and behavior at home and in school. Marketing affects what children want to eat, wear, and play, and with whom they play. It also shapes what they learn, what they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And it primes them to be drawn into, exploited, and influenced by marketing efforts in schools.
What Can We Do?
Many feel that a complete ban on all marketing to children is an impossible dream. But that is exactly what many countries do. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece, and totally banned in Sweden and Norway. Studies have recently shown that children in Sweden want fewer toys, as a result. A study proves what companies already know: advertising to children works. Why advertise if it’s not effective? Similar efforts to restrict advertising were attempted in the United States in the 1970s but, unfortunately, failed to pass.
More restrictions might be on the way in countries like the UK, where a recent investigation into the causes of the 2011 looting found that a culture of consumption, fueled by marketers, played a role in the civil unrest. Early in 2012, the Riots, Communities, and Victims Panel, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, called for action against “aggressive advertising aimed at young people,” citing evidence that “rampant materialism was an underlying cause of last year’s lawlessness.”
The fact that marketing in schools is such an omnipresent and pernicious force in children’s lives makes finding solutions of utmost importance. It is unrealistic to expect that in the current economic times we can make marketing and the influence of marketing in schools go away. But, there is much we can and must do to reduce its harmful impact on children. No one effort can solve the problem; a multifaceted approach is needed. Here is what a comprehensive and meaningful response, directed at children, families, schools, communities, and the wider society, might be:
1. Educate parents, teachers and policymakers about the harm that marketing to children, especially in schools, can cause to children’s development, learning, and behavior. It is only through a change in public understanding of the dangers that we will be able to turn the tide.
2. Protect children as much as possible from exposure to commercial culture. Parents can use strategies at home that reduce children’s exposure to and focus on commercial culture and products, including less dependence on media that has advertising and multiple products associated with it. They can promote their children’s involvement with meaningful real world activities that do not focus on consumption or advertising. One school sent home a letter to parents with ideas for birthday parties that didn’t involve commercial themes like Disney Princesses or fast food chains’ packaged events.
Teachers and school administrators can work to reduce marketing in schools. For instance, they can limit the number of products with logos in school. This might involve setting up rules about what commercial products and logos children bring to school, and coming up with alternative, low-cost strategies to meet the same needs the banned product met. For instance, one early childhood program banned lunch boxes with logos, and sent home suggestions to parents about alternative, inexpensive containers they could use to pack their children’s lunches. One school board created a middle-school dress code that severely limited the size of logos that could appear on students’ clothing because so much bullying and teasing occurred against the children who didn’t have the “right,” clearly visible logos on their clothing.
3. Counteract the harmful lessons children learn from marketing both in and out of school. Teach children about the nature and impact of marketing and commercial culture in age-appropriate ways. Children are unduly influenced by ads and marketing practices directed at them because of how they think and also because of the unrelenting ways marketers capture their attention and loyalty. One teacher designed an activity based on the book Arthur’s TV Troubles by Marc Brown. The teacher asked students whether they had ever been disappointed with something they bought based on an ad. Every child had a story to share. When they wrote these stories down for homework, they produced their best writing of the year! In these days of No Child Left Behind pressures, which have forced educators to focus on the demands of the test rather than on the broad-based learning needs of children, we must convince educational policy makers that children will be more successful learners if they aren’t constantly being lured away from their lessons by marketing.1
Children need to feel safe talking to a trusted adult about what they see marketed at school and beyond and what they think about it, without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished. Only by having such conversations can we learn what children think and, in turn, influence their thinking. This does not mean lecturing about what is right and wrong or good and bad, or criticizing children for what they say and think. It means having give-and-take conversations that show we care about what they think and say, and hope they will care about and listen to what we have to say too. This is the key starting point for influencing the lessons that children are learning from marketing in schools.
4. Enact government regulations and policies that limit marketing in schools. Government and policy makers must play a role in limiting marketing to children, even in these harsh economic times. The best way to make this happen will be by providing adequate funding for schools, so that schools do not need to be so dependent on corporations. Great Britain provides the United States with a powerful example for what we can do: in 2006 it established a ban on junk food in school meals.2
One Organization, Making A Difference
Ten years ago, a Harvard academic, a child advocate, and a puppeteer launched an organization named Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), and it has lead a national effort to police advertising and marketing to children. Based out of Boston, a coalition of educators, health care providers, parents, academics, and advocacy groups take on major corporations that they find are marketing to children, from Pizza Hut and Sunny D to the coal industry and Disney. Started by Susan Linn, a professor, the organization has landed a number of recent victories, including persuading Disney to offer a refund to parents who bought Baby Einstein videos and pressuring Scholastic to stop taking money from the coal industry. Scholastic was forced to drop its curriculum for fourth graders after admitting it was paid for by the National Coal Foundation. The curriculum was, unsurprisingly, one-sided in its endorsement of coal, without any mention of the environmental repercussions or of alternative energies.
CCFC’s current campaign includes a move to pressure PBS to drop its partnership with the fast-food company Chik-fil-A, in which the channel is paid to present commercials for fast food at the beginning and end of its shows. It also wants advertising to be removed from school buses. In an age when it seems even the most well-respected advocacy groups—from Sierra Club to Save the Children—have begun accepting corporate money, CCFC stands alone in refusing to be bought off.
Although there is tremendous work to be done, and the advertising and marketing industry is a financial behemoth to tackle, we believe that children deserve to grow up free of invasive and unrelenting marketing messages that peddle products known to be harmful to the health and well-being of young people. Children deserve the opportunity to explore their creativity without the interference of do-it-for-you toys. They must be able to develop the capacity to make independent decisions, and to enjoy life free from the insecurities and pressures inherent in marketing campaigns. We hope that the United States will follow the lead of other countries and recognize that restricting corporations’ ability to market to children is a healthy and necessary step.
- Defending the Early Years [online]. www.defendingtheearlyyearsproject.org.
- BBC News. Junk food banned in school meals [online] (May 19, 2006). news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4995268.stm.
Photo by Labpluto123, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, March 05, 2013 11:41 AM
A sustainable future means teaching kids about climate change and living in balance with the earth. Green School's "Greenest Student on Earth" contest will reward three environmentally conscious students with a year-long scholarship.
When it comes to saving the
planet, there’s plenty of urgent action to take
right now. But as we struggle to slow the environmental destruction that’s led to
a changing climate, we must also plant the seeds of permanent and profound sustainability.
It makes sense to start with children, for whom a small shift in direction now can
lead to an entirely different path later. An international school in Bali, Indonesia,
aims to do just that.
Aptly titled Green School,
the organization teaches sustainable thinking and practical skills to students
from pre-kindergarten through high school, including kids in their own
sustainable future. “We have to teach the kids that the world is not indestructible,”
says Green School co-founder John Hardy in a 2010 TED
Talk. No one knows exactly what the future holds, and kids need to be
prepared to live on a planet that could be very different than the one we
inhabit. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still important, Hardy muses, but
the adults of the future are going to need a broader skill set—from building with
bamboo to planting medicinal gardens.
In 2012, Green School
was recognized by the U.S. Building Council as the “Greenest School
on Earth.” The campus itself is solar-powered and self-sustaining, a product of
Hardy’s three-tiered philosophy, “be local, let the environment lead, and think
about how your grandchildren might build.”
This year, Green
School is looking for environmentally
conscious, action-oriented students to attend classes at the Bali
campus. The school’s “Greenest Student on Earth” competition starts March 5 and
ends on April 22, Earth Day. At the close of the competition, three students—one
each from elementary, middle, and high school—will win a one-year scholarship
to Green School.
To enter, the school asks that students submit a 2-3 minute video answering the
question, “Why are you the greenest student on earth?” The video should
highlight environmental achievements, hopes and goals, as well as how the
student would benefit from a year at Green
Winners will be announced June 5, World Environment Day. For more information watch the video below and visit the Green School
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:24 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why
most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie
dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose
population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one
of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t
know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider
how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at
Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll
enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her
senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called Why Do You Have Black Dolls? to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly
that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of
their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special
orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents
made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,”
Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had
mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of
conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to
go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the
author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and
Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,”
Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking
being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to
understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are
force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then
they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Why Do You Have Black Dolls? debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival
in New York City,
where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for
the Martha’s Vineyard African-American
Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film
Festival in Beverly Hills.
In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls,
they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer
to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,”
Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that
beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll
collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia
Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of
1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as
a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton,
Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to
teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts,
Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a
lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black
and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it.
When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls
brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap
dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves
on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to
represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother
kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt
says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Friday, October 12, 2012 10:29 AM
Matchbox mini traffic jam. Photo by Daniel Dionne, licensed under Creative Commons.
This article originally appeared at Solutions Online.
The road construction project around the local
rotary had been going on for over a year. As a result, the whole town was
cranky. One afternoon, my son and I drove the rotary just before 5:00 p.m.,
along with throngs of irritable commuters, anxious to get home. Tempers were
short and the sound of car horns pierced the air. Pointing to the tangle of
traffic in front of us, my then four year-old asked: "Mommy, what happens
when everyone says me first!?"
I was used to his asking questions. Typically,
Jack asked about categories (“Animals aren’t people, are they?”), or how things
work (“Why do bees kiss the flowers?”) or facts (“How hot is the center of the
earth?”). This question was different; this one had to do with causes and
consequences. I considered talking to him about the cost of maximizing
individual gain, but held back and asked instead, "What do you think would
happen if everyone said me first!?”
He pressed his nose against the window, paused,
and said, “Well, there might be a lot of accidents. Or maybe even a huge
"Can you think of other times when everyone
says me first?" I was thinking about overfishing, gas guzzlers, and our
overcrowded community pool.
Jack responded, "You know how you said it's
not good to let the water run when we brush our teeth, ‘cause if everyone did
that the reservoir would go down?’ Well, it's kind of like that."
At the age of four, he was aware enough of the
general notion of systems – two or more parts that interact to form a whole –
to make a complex observation: the rotary and the reservoir were common
resources. Like water, air, and playgrounds, these are resources that many
people use, and for which no individual is solely responsible. Moreover, in
asking the question, “What happens when everyone says me first!?” he
recognized the impact of individual decisions on the larger whole. Without
knowing it, he stepped right into the middle of the greatest dilemma in
commons-related issues: each individual action is defensible on its own, but
they can combine to have a devastating impact on the larger whole.
Many children intuitively grasp the nature of
systems, as Jack did. They can see, for instance, how a common but limited
resource, such as water, air, land, highways, fisheries, energy, or minerals
becomes overloaded or over-used, and how everyone experiences diminishing
benefits. However, these children don’t always have many opportunities to
develop those insights into a systems awareness that will serve them all their
lives. Parents, educators, and other adults can help them learn to “connect the
dots”: to see beyond the surface, to recognize interconnections and dynamics
among people, places, events and nature, and to begin thinking about how to use
those interconnections to improve their world.
Where do our children learn to think this way? How
do you nurture a child’s natural intelligence about systems and help him or her
to become systems literate? How can you confirm for your children what they
already know: that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of related, interacting elements and processes, and as such, is indeed
meaningful? How can this insight become an underlying learning aesthetic with
which they can build their lives?
Why Systems Literacy Matters
Children today are growing up in a world in which
oil spills, global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional
malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are commonly at the top
of the news. For children to make sense of these trends, they must become aware
of the causes and consequences in a slew of interconnected systems, including
families, local economies, the environment, and more. Ideally, we want our
children to take what author Edith Cobb, author of The Ecology of
Imagination in Childhood, calls “a reticulate approach”1
(resembling a net or network) to knowledge and sense-making.
To be literate means to have a well-educated
understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics.
In many fields, the knowledge must be both comprehensive and abundant enough
that you are capable of putting it to use. Systems literacy represents that
level of knowledge about complex interrelationships. It combines conceptual
knowledge (knowledge of system principles and behaviors) and reasoning
skills (for example, the ability to see situations in wider contexts, see
multiple levels of perspective within a system, trace complex
interrelationships, look for endogenous or “within system” influences, have
awareness of changing behavior over time, and recognize recurring patterns that
exist within a wide variety of systems).
When people aren’t literate about systems, too many human activities are
like those cars jammed into the roundabout: unaware of the pattern that
connects them and, thus, prone to exploitive and destructive results. Systems
literacy is a prerequisite for realizing the kinds of aspirations that people
increasingly have in an interconnected world, but that seems impossible to
achieve from a fragmented point of view. As the poet, novelist and essayist
Wendell Berry puts it, “We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption
that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself.
But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the
scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back
together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the
pattern of the whole thing to which they belong.”2
When children learn about systems and become more explicitly systems
literate, their worldview shifts. In The Power to Transform, Stephanie
Pace Marshall explains that the value of nurturing systems literacy comes from
“the power of an alternative worldview.” She continues, “When we perceive and
experience wholeness, we are transformed. We no longer see nature, people,
events, problems, or ourselves as separate and unconnected.”3
One natural consequence is greater compassion for others. This is a part of
peoples’ makeup that can get suppressed by the prevailing culture in many
places, but that can be uncovered and drawn out by experience and learning.
When children look for the connection between themselves and other people,
places, events, and species, they no longer feel like outsiders looking in at
others’ worlds. They are now insiders, experiencing the connection to “other”
as the farmer is connected to the soil and the salmon is connected to the
Another consequence is that children start to see themselves as part of,
rather than outside of, nature. Imagine that a 12-year-old, living in a
suburban village, is presented with two pictures of a lawn. The first is filled
with wildflowers and looks somewhat messy and random. The second is lush,
green, neat, orderly, well-groomed, and obviously well-fertilized. Which is
more beautiful? The second image, of course, represents the way that a
beautiful lawn is conventionally expected to look in many communities, and many
12-year-olds would pick it, but a systems-literate student might well prefer
the disorderly lawn. He or she would know that that the lawn worked
with the landscape’s natural processes, encouraging a diverse group of plants
and animals to grow, maintaining its own ecological balance, and adding little
or no waste to the ecosystems around it. On the other hand, the orderly,
straight, groomed lawn could only survive by contradicting natural processes.
It would require ongoing management and its continued success would lead to a
variety of unintended negative consequences: greenhouse gas emissions from the
lawn mower, use of fossil fuels to make chemical fertilizers and treatments,
the death of beneficial insects from pesticides, the added economic costs of
lawn supplies and maintenance, the stress it puts on the family’s budget, the
removal of some plants while allowing others to overrun the ecosystem
(potentially causing the need for more pesticides), and the run-off of
chemicals into local water sources with unknown effects.
As they grow up and learn about the economy, climate, education, energy,
poverty, waste, disease, war, peace, demographics, and sustainability, children
who are systems literate will tend to look at all these issues as interrelated.
From the systems perspective, nothing stands alone: my climate is your climate,
your infectious disease is my infectious disease, your food shortage is my food
shortage. Systems literacy makes people less likely to blame a single cause for
challenges and problems. Instead, it becomes a habit to look for recurring
patterns that exist among a wide variety of systems, to seek out indicators of
interrelated causes (knowing that very complex causes can leave deceptively
simple tracks), and to anticipate how the functioning of a living system will
change if a part or a process is changed. Systems thinkers recognize that big
actions can have small consequences – and vice versa. They seek diversity,
knowing that living systems depend on the variety, complexity, and abundance of
species to be healthy and resilient. They look for closed loops of production
and consumption, where waste from one source can be “food” for another. They
question the assumption that bigger is always better.
Paying attention to living systems also raises awareness of the Earth’s (or
biosphere’s) pace of change, often in stark contrast to the hurried,
mechanistic pace of the technosphere. Systems literacy makes it easier to see
the commons: the shared gifts of nature such as water, air, land, fish, and
also the shared efforts of our communities, upon which we depend, and for which
we are all responsible.
Learning about systems, and about living systems in particular, can help
children come to a deeper, more compassionate, more accurate, and more
sustainable sensibility about what is beautiful, what is peaceful, and what is
Changing the Learning Aesthetic
When we ask students to move beyond simple, linear explanations of causes,
we are asking them to be literate about systems. Yet most adults in the U.S., including
most industry and government leaders, were not explicitly taught skills related
to seeing systems of multiple causes, effects, and unintended impacts. Rather,
people were taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it
or break it up into parts. Research in dynamic decision making shows that when
adults are faced with dynamically complex systems – containing multiple
feedback processes, time delays, nonlinearities and accumulations – performance
is biased and suboptimal.4
Herein lies an intriguing opportunity. When it comes to developing greater
literacy about systems, most adults are learning along with their children.
Rather than an obstacle to children’s learning, this could be a major asset.
For most students, co-learning (with parents, teachers, or peers) offers a
chance to take an active role and develop higher-order skills such as critical
and divergent thinking, analysis, synthesis, and problem solving.
Most classroom structures today do not encourage system literacy. While the
world is becoming increasingly more complex, educators can find themselves
continuing to fragment knowledge and real world problems through
compartmentalized curricula; science is taught in one class, math in another,
English in another. Courses in natural science focus on the material world,
while courses in the social sciences focus on the social world, and neither
class acknowledges the intensive, ongoing ways in which these two worlds
influence each other. When we talk to children about issues, such as climate
change, terrorism, and water use, we can raise their awareness of the material
and social worlds, bringing together insights from history, biology, and
literature, as well as the daily newspaper. Most importantly, we can come to
richer understandings by tapping into the experience and insight that children
already have. Conversations with Fritjof Capra helped me clarify this division
between the natural and social sciences. According to Capra, “this division
will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century – for
social scientists, natural scientists, and everyone else – will be to build
ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their
technologies and social institutions – their material and social structures –
do no interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”5
Everyday Ways To Foster Systems Literacy
Some experts in the field have argued that, because systems operate in
non-linear ways that can be difficult to assimilate, systems thinking requires
access to advanced training in complex systems theory, system dynamics, and
agent-based modeling. Certainly, these fields of study can help people move
beyond natural, intuitive understanding of systems to more expert levels of
systems literacy. At the same time, there is a growing body of research
(including my own research with 10- and 11-year-olds) that shows that many
students intuitively “think about systems,” both natural and social, without
any formal training and long before they’re ready for graduate school. Children
as young as four and five show a capacity for understanding systems behaviors,
which suggests that systems thinking may be part of a child’s innate
intelligence that is “corrected” by adults who have been taught to
R.W. Kates and C. Katz studied three-to-five year olds and their
understanding of the hydrologic water cycle. These researchers found that “some
sense of cycles” (e.g., the domestic water cycle and the cloud-rain cycle)
existed among the four-year-old children, while the five-year-old group
described “a more complex and extensive hydrology.”7
Piaget, who was familiar with Austrian-born biologist Ludwig von
Bertalannfy’s notion of “open systems,” recognized this natural systems
intelligence when he observed: “There is in the child…a spontaneous belief that
everything is connected with everything else and that everything can be
explained by everything else.”8
We see this natural intelligence in young people who partake in role-playing
games such as Dungeons and Dragons and computer games like Zoo
Tycoon and SimCity. In the thick of this “play,” children track
numerous interdependencies, manage large amounts of data, and anticipate
unintended consequences. In play, they flex their systems thinking muscles.
Opportunities for nurturing systems literacy in children are all around us,
from the classroom and the playground to the car, the library, the dinner
table, a school garden, the bath, and the grocery store. With a thoughtful
guide, the great outdoors offers a fertile classroom for understanding the
interrelationships and dynamics of species. Time in nature is not just healthy
(as Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the
End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, reminds us), it is also important if we
are to learn to live sustainably with our natural environment. Buckminster
Fuller, the American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, and creator
of the geodesic dome, also pointed to the concept of nature-as-teacher: “I am
confident that humanity’s survival depends on our willingness to comprehend
feelingly the way nature works.”9 Why not encourage the
seven-year-old child, enthralled with the life cycle of a butterfly, to explore
other “life cycles?” Or wonder, with the 10-year-old fishing enthusiast, how a
worm in the garden may be useful for his next fishing trip, but also useful as
a soil tiller and a potential food source for a hungry robin. In these ways, we
can give children direct experiences with unadulterated nature so that they, as
Masanobu Fukuoka, farmer, and author of The One-Straw Revolution
urges, “… can instinctively understand what needs to be done and what must not
be done – to work in harmony with (nature’s) processes.”10
Here are some other examples of conversations and activities that can help
young people become more systems literate:
Help children to connect the dots.
Set an example: talk about relationships, not just things. Instead of simply
saying, “That’s a brown chicken,” point out that the chicken lays eggs and eats
the insects in the farmer’s garden. Recognize and encourage the child’s natural
tendency to see a network of possible causes and consequences. Ask the child to
draw the connections he or she sees among cars, air, plants, and people.
Simple cause-and-effect diagrams can help to reveal the patterns underlying
sticky problems. For instance, think of an ongoing household battle. Perhaps
your son hates to clean his room and you really don’t like to ask him to clean
his room. Throughout the week, you remind him about the chore. Your son
resists. By the end of the week, your frustration is boiling over. Finally, you
threaten a week of no TV and your son relents. When he shows his clean room,
you are happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to
his old habits. Mid-way through the week, you feel your frustration build
again, this time with more pressure.
One way out of this dilemma is for you and your son or daughter to sit down
together, and each draw simple diagrams showing the situation as you see it.
By connecting the dots, both sides can see that you’re caught in a closed
causal loop. It is a balancing feedback process, a set of interactions that
return a system – like your body, an ecosystem, market systems—back to a state
of equilibrium. By their very nature, they are goal-seeking, working to bring
things to a desired state and keep them there.
Once you see this pattern, you can look for ways to break it. One strategy
is to revisit and reset the goal. Perhaps your standards as a parent are too
high – you’re looking for the pristine child’s bedroom that one might see in House
and Garden—while your child’s are too low. Can you develop a “maintenance”
goal that both parent and child agree upon? Since that may not be enough to
overcome this ingrained systemic structure, can you also add in a link to the
system, such as planned clean-up time twice a week, to achieve the maintenance
Talk about change over time.
Trace and anticipate changes over days, months, and years. For example, a child
may notice the slow decay of a fallen tree in a park or in the back yard. Or
you may point out less obvious changes, such as the changes in a pasture when
chickens are allowed to roam free.
You can work with your child to draw simple line graphs to track behavior
over weeks or months – anything from the levels of happiness at school to the
money in your savings account to the number of beavers in the pond. Once you
have a graph and you can see some behavior rising, falling, or oscillating,
ask: what set of interrelationships might be causing this pattern?
For a personal demonstration of change over time, encourage children to find
a “sit spot” where they can focus on some outdoor phenomenon, returning on a
regular basis to see how it changes. Examples might include a tree with leaves
that turn color, a pond whose water level rises or falls, or a place with a
barometer and thermometer. Encourage them to leave a small notebook near their
sit spot so they can keep track of the changes they observe over time.11
Look for the patterns that repeat.
When a child observes drivers’ behavior at the traffic rotary being similar to
people letting the water run when they brush their teeth, or that the growing
conflict between two kids at school is similar to the escalating conflict
between two nations, compare those patterns. Give your own nicknames to the
patterns you see. For instance, you might call that escalating conflict
“snowballing,” and then when a fight between siblings begins to escalate at
home, you can ask, “Are you snowballing now yourselves?”
Many Dr. Seuss books, like The Lorax, The Sneetches, and The
Butter Battle Book, have great examples of balancing and reinforcing
When there’s a case of bullying at school, try to talk about the perspectives
of the aggressor, the target, the teachers, and the bystanders. Create a role
play so the students can act out the situation or problem from different
perspectives. What new ideas or insights come from changing some of the
situational factors – such as how close they stand to each other when they tell
Anticipate unintended consequences.
Take a rubber band and stretch it, saying, “Let’s have some fun and see how far
we can stretch how we look at time.” Unstretched, the rubber band may represent
a day; stretched, it may represent five years into the past and five years into
the future. By doing this, we are asking the young person to adopt what
sociologist Elise Boulding called, “the extended present,”13 a view
of time that extends the present to five, 50 or 200 years ahead and behind. For
example, disposable diapers take between 100 and 500 years to decompose. Talk
about the fact that no one knows exactly how long it takes, because no one has
lived long enough to see it happen. The extended sense of the present is
particularly appropriate for living systems, because many living systems, both
natural and social, don’t generate a full cycle of behavior over short time
intervals. You won’t understand the seasonal cycle of your garden, for
instance, if you observe it for only a day or two.
Think like a bathtub.
Make it a game to look for things that build up or accumulate. A bathtub for
instance, accumulates water. System dynamicists call these accumulations
stocks. Trees, fish, people, goods, good will, money, the national debt—these
are all stocks. The rate at which the stock changes is its flow.
Challenge children to think in terms of stocks and flows. For instance, you can
ask: If the water is draining out of the bathtub twice as fast as it is flowing
in, what happens to the level of the water in the tub? (The answer: The level
goes down!) What if the amount of CO2 emissions flowing into the atmosphere is
flowing in at twice the rate that it is being drained out (through, for
example, carbon sinks)? What happens to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?
(The answer: the amount increases, which is actually what is happening today)
Stocks and flows play a key role in generating some of the most perplexing
dynamics we encounter. Studies of the pesticide DDT, for example, have shown
that while DDT evaporates from the surface of plants and buildings over six
months, it remains in the tissue of fish for up to 50 years. The amount of DDT
in fish tissue is a stock with very slow outflow. We need to understand these
accumulations to understand the source of many of the major challenges we face
today—economic, social, and environmental.
When we look at stocks and flows we understand, for instance, that a deficit
(the rate at which a country borrows money) is a flow and the national debt is
a stock. We understand, as well, that taking the national deficit down to zero
doesn’t necessarily mean that we will get rid of the debt. We also understand
that carbon dioxide stocks in our atmosphere will continue to increase if the
rate at which carbon dioxide flows into the atmosphere is greater than the rate
at which it drains out—an important insight in the application of carbon
From Awareness To Action
With the help of adults, children’s intelligence about systems can be
developed further, into models of better problem definition, problem solving,
and design. This enables them to analyze and act in informed ways; aware of
recurring patterns, they will be less likely to react viscerally and
ineffectively and more likely to understand the patterns of behavior. They can
use this understanding to correct their own actions, anticipate unintended
consequences, and help others operate more effectively.
When children are systems literate, they help their parents learn, as well.
For example, they can talk about and make visible "commons dilemmas"—those
conflicts that arise around shared resources for which everyone is mutually
My four-year old at the rotary is now a strapping 13 year-old. Not long ago, he
ended up in a not-so-playful snowball fight with his brother. I took each one
aside to find out what was going on. They both told a similar story: A cutting
comment from one led the other to comment back, which led the first boy to
poke, the second boy to squash, and then prompted both to an out-and-out
battle. This was an example of the common pattern called escalation. Feeling at
my wit’s end, I quickly sat them down and sketched a diagram that looked like
“Look,” Jack said, “it’s a figure eight lying on its side. That’s infinity.
This thing could go on forever.”
“And just keep getting worse,” his brother groaned.
As we talked about it, we realized together that the growing conflict was
driven by each one trying to “out-cool” or “top-dog” the other. The more “cool”
behavior one kid put on, the more the other wanted to squash it. Suddenly, they
saw themselves as part of the “system,” rather than separate from it. They
“got” that blaming each other wasn’t going to solve the problem. When they
could see how their actions were actually fueling the actions of the other, with
the help of a simple picture, they then could talk about how they might break
the cycle. When I asked what they could do differently, the answer came easily.
The poker would lighten up on the poking, and the squasher wouldn’t squash so
The rotary, of course, has long since been fixed; traffic is back to normal.
In our family, we try to do our part to solve the problem of the commons.
Though I still rely on the car to drive to soccer practice, we walk to buy
groceries and we share eggs with neighbors from our own chickens. We try to
talk in ways that make it easier to connect the dots in everyday situations. A
common phrase in our house these days—what if everyone did that?—is
our way of attempting to magnify the consequences of our individual actions so
that we can imagine the broader impact.
Everyone is born with a natural intelligence about living systems. With just
a little effort, you can encourage that natural intelligence in young people
and remind them that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of nature, people, issues, and events, and as such, it is both purposeful
To learn more about fostering systems literacy in a variety of settings,
see: Tina Grotzer’s Learning Causality in a Complex World: Understandings
of Consequence (Lanham, MD: R&L Education, 2012); Daniel Goleman, Lisa
Bennett, & Zenobia Barlow’s Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating
Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2012); and Draper Kauffman’s classic text, Systems 1: An
Introduction to Systems Thinking (Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications,
1980). Invaluable online resources include: The Waters Foundation (www.watersfoundation.org),
The Creative Learning Exchange (www.clexchange.org), and The Center for
systems educator, and award-winning author. She works
with people of all ages to develop an understanding of living systems to
improve learning, decision making, and design. Linda’s work has appeared in
numerous journals and magazines, including "Highlights Magazine for
- Cobb, Edith. The Ecology
of Imagination in Childhood. (New York: Columbia University Press,
- Berry, Wendell. The Way
of Ignorance and Other Essays. (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
- Marshall, Stephanie Pace. The
Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life.
(Danvers, MA: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
- Sterman, J. Learning in and
about complex systems. Reflections: The Journal of the Society for
Organizational Learning. 1: 24-49 (2000).
- Capra, Fritjof. The
Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. (New York:
- Booth Sweeney, L &
Sterman, JD. Thinking About Systems: Student and Teacher Conceptions of
Natural and Social Systems. Systems Dynamics Review 23(2-3)
- Kates, RW & Katz, C The
hydrolic cycle and the wisdom of the child. Geographical Review
- Piaget, J. The Language
and Thoughts of the Child. (New York: Humanities Press, 1959).
- Edmonson, Amy. A Fuller
Explanation: The Synergetic Geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller.
(Pueblo, CO: EmergentWorld Press, 1987).
- Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw
Revolutions: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Trans: Chris Pearce,
Tsune Kurosawa & Larry Korn. (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978).
- Young, J et al. Coyote’s
Guide to Connecting with Nature for Kids of all Ages and their Mentors.
(OWLink Media Corporation, 2008).
- Booth Sweeney, L. When a
Butterfly Sneezes: A guide for helping children explore interconnections
in our world through favorite stories. (Waltham, MA:
Pegasus Communications, 2001)
- Boulding, Elise. Education
for Inventing the Future, in Alternatives to Growth I: A Search for
Sustainable Futures. (Ballinger Publishing, 1977).
Tuesday, July 03, 2012 3:10 PM
The long day wanes: the slow moon
climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek
a newer world.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson
As I’ve said in this column before, I’m
afraid it may be too late to avoid the devastating effects of global
climate change. I think former Greenpeace International Executive
Director Paul Gilding may be right when he says in his book The Great Disruption, that cataclysmic changes are already upon us, and will only worsen in the coming decades.
This makes me rather morose from time to
time. Seeing the chatty moms and bouncy kids gathered at the foot of my
driveway every morning, waiting for the school bus, hits me hard—will
they be able to do this a few years from now? Will anybody? Or will the
cascading effects of climate disruption turn such touching scenes into
Fortunately, just when I get the bleakest, I tend
to remember the Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20
years ago. The second best time is now."
So I ask myself, who’s planting the world
of tomorrow today? Then I start noticing that there are a lot of people
doing very positive things to help us make it through the Great
Disruption, things that could make life on the other side of the coming
troubles better than anything we’ve known on this side.
At the top of my list is Richard Louv, the longtime San Diego newspaperman and author who wrote the best-selling book, The Last Child in the Woods. I recently met Louv while he was on tour promoting his latest and possibly best book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.
In the book Louv argues that, “the time has come for us all to
re-envision a future that puts aside scenarios of environmental and
social apocalypse and instead taps into the restorative powers of the
natural world.” In the new, trade paperback edition (it’s not in the
hardcover edition that came out last year), Louv offers his vision of
what he calls a “new nature movement.” He writes:
Imagine a world in which all children
grow up with a deep understanding of the life around them, where all of
us know the animals and plants in our own backyards ... where we feel
more alive. We seek a newer world where we not only conserve nature but
create it where we live, work, learn, and play. Where yards and open
spaces are alive with native species. Where bird migration routes are
healed by human care ... where not only public land but private
property, voluntarily, garden to garden to garden, is transformed, by
us, into butterfly zones and then, across the country, into a homegrown,
(coast to coast) national park ... where cities become incubators of
bio-diversity ... where pediatricians prescribe nature ... where
hospitals and prisons offer gardens that heal ... where cities produce
their own energy and much of their own food. Where empty lots become
community gardens ... where developers [transform] aging shopping malls
into ecovillages ... where streams in cities and countryside are
restored—unearthed to the daylight—their natural curves and life
restored. A newer world where the point of education is not rote and
drill, but wonder and awe ... where teachers take their students on
field trips to nearby woods and canyons and streams and shores ... where
natural history becomes as important as human history to who we are ...
where children experience the joy of being in nature before they learn
of its loss ... where, as a species, we no longer feel so all alone.
Imagine a world in which our days are lived in the arms of mother
nature, of the land and sky, water and soil, wind and sea; a newer world
we seek and to which we return.
Sign me up.
Louv has just launched the New Nature Movement,
which is intended to include but go beyond traditional environmentalism
and sustainability. Louv says, “the hunger for this [movement] is
intergenerational, but probably most keenly felt by younger people.” If
you’re a boomer, find a young person and get involved. If you’re young,
find anyone from another generation and lead the way.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader.
Image by Anuradha Sengupta, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, September 23, 2011 3:03 PM
“Barbie was hushed contraband—I didn’t say much about it, but she wasn’t welcome in the house,” writes Betsy Ball in WNC Woman. “She had been a topic of serious discussion within the circle of my women friends who also had daughters.” So it goes within many households containing mindful parents and a little girl. Barbie is the ultimate no-no doll, the epitome of the unattainably small-waisted, big-breasted, blonde ideal that is presumably so damaging to little girls’ self-image as they’re moving her from room to room in their Barbie 3-story Dream Townhouse or shooting her down basement stairs in her pink Barbie Corvette. Barbie angst—along with Bratz angst and Monster High angst—elicits well-meaning conversations among likeminded adults about how those dolls will be quietly disappearing if they find their way into the child’s hands from enemy sources.
When her 5-year-old daughter inevitably received a Barbie gift from a relative, Ball wondered, “Should I confiscate The Doll with a discussion on Loving Our Bodies? Pretend that the Malibu gal got mauled by the dog?” In the end, though, Ball magnanimously let Barbie stick around and reminded herself that her own body image will have a far greater effect on her daughter than a doll’s figure:
I tried to remember how many times my daughter had wandered into my room while I was getting dressed, and I started harping on about my jelly thighs or hips the size of Texas. How many times had she heard me complain about the size of my tummy?... To think that a girl’s self-image is going to get twisted by a doll is ridiculous.
It’s true, Barbie is a silently happy doll who never complains about her weight (except for one little slip-up from Slumber Party Barbie in the 1960s), whereas a mom’s fat fits and constant diet talk can lead to the same in her daughter. Dolls and stuffed animals are pretend, and children know it. Moms, sisters, and friends, however, are real-life—and children know that, too. “I’m thinking that I’ll have to look past my own baggage regarding the iconic doll’s ludicrous, lifelong-body-issue-neuroses-inducing physical proportions and let my daughter explore her innocent desire to play with one,” concludes Jenn McKee, another mom wrestling with her daughter’s first request for a Barbie, on her An Adequate Mom Blog: “Mommy’s the one bringing all this paranoia to the situation.”
Sources: WNC Woman, Jenn McKee’s An Adequate Mom Blog
Images by tienvijftien, bugeaters, and Max-B,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011 2:21 PM
“Be Prepared.” That’s the motto of one of America’s longest running youth organizations, The Boy Scouts of America. The outdoor adventure and leadership club for boys turned 100 years old last year, and its longevity has piqued the interest of academics and statisticians. Miller-McCune compiled a collection of studies of the boy scouts’ first century, and some of the results may “offer guidance to program leaders for the organization’s next 100 years.”
The first obstacle the scouts face is declining membership. According to Miller-McCune’s Tom Jacobs, “[p]articipation peaked in 1973 with 4.8 million scouts and has since plunged 42 percent, to 2.8 million.” In the same timeframe, the population of America has risen by about 100 million. A number of causes have been attributed to declining membership, including scout masters’ struggle to properly teach outdoors skills to children with less and less exposure to nature and exclusionary, spirituality-based recruitment criteria (the organization bars atheists, agnostics, gays, and girls). Although the Boy Scouts are behind the times culturally, the organization is ahead of the game in regard to America’s number one preoccupation: makin’ moola.
A long established maxim is that boy scouts go on to be more successful than their Honor Badge-less peers. Jacobs points to a 2010 Gallup poll that confirms that:
Twenty-two percent of men who have been Boy Scouts graduate from college compared to 16 percent of non-Scouts; 19 percent of men who have been Boy Scouts achieve a postgraduate education, compared with 13 percent of non-Scouts. Men who have been Boy Scouts also report higher annual incomes.
You’d think that with demographics like these—coupled with our sluggish economy—the ranks of boy scouts would be swelling.
Although many of these studies show interesting trends, the results don’t offer many non-statistical takeaways. “The rap on all this research about Scouts is that little of it has been published in peer-reviewed journals and thus lacks empirical answers to the most important questions,” writes Jacobs. “Does Scouting matter? Do Eagle Scouts achieve greater success than other Scouts? Does the impact of Scouting vary from different eras?”
Image by KOMUnews, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 06, 2011 5:27 PM
Children growing up today are bombarded by a host of chemical compounds, and we’re only beginning to understand how this is affecting their health and development. Sandra Steingraber writes eloquently in Orion about the “mind games” the worst neurotoxic chemicals are playing with our children’s developing brains, and the ways in which our policy is failing them:
Current laws do not require the systematic screening of chemicals for their ability to cause brain damage or alter the pathways of brain growth, and only about 20 percent of the 3,000 chemicals produced in high volume in the United States have been tested for developmental toxicity of any kind.
Steingraber adapted the essay from her new book Raising Elijah, which neatly blends her observations as a biologist, an environmentalist, and a mother. She’s doing all that an eco- and health-conscious mom can do to avoid exposing her kids to nasty neurotoxins, but knows that ultimately that she can’t do it all alone:
Don’t give me any more shopping tips or lists of products to avoid. Don’t put neurotoxicants in my furniture and my food and then instruct me to keep my children from breathing or eating them. Instead, give me federal regulations that assess chemicals for their ability to alter brain development and function before they are allowed access to the marketplace. Give me a functioning developmental neurotoxicant screening program, with validated protocols. Give me chemical reform based on precautionary principles. Give me an agricultural system that doesn’t impair our children’s learning abilities or their futures. Give me an energy policy based on wind and sun.
A new federally funded study may provide some of the data that’s so badly needed to move in this direction. The National Children’s Study is a large-scale, long-term study that will track 100,000 people over the next 21 years, measuring many of the environmental factors that affect their health and well-being. In places like Ramsey County, Minnesota, where the local arms of the National Children’s Study was launched last week, researchers are enrolling women who are pregnant or likely to be pregnant, then conducting detailed studies that include extensive interviews, blood and urine samples, even dust samples from household vacuum bags.
On the one hand, 21 years is a long time to wait for answers. On the other hand, it’s time we got started. We’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do.
Sources: Orion, Raising Elijah, National Children’s Study, Star Tribune
, licensed under
Thursday, December 30, 2010 12:33 PM
With Christmas morning mercifully in the rearview mirror, you might think America’s marketing and advertising industries are ready to start acting like adults—at least until Valentine’s Day. But over the last decade, turning impressionable youngsters into full-time consumers has become a corporate obsession, reports Z Magazine: “In the United States alone, expenditures on marketing to children skyrocketed from $2 billion in 1999 to $15 billion in 2005.”
And even though the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission acknowledge that young children are uniquely vulnerable to commercial messages, the U.S. government hasn’t passed significant legislation on the issue since 1990—giving companies carte blanche to “surround children with messages at school, on the school bus, on the Internet, on cellphones and videogames, at doctors’ offices, zoos, museums, with viral marketing (i.e., fake word of mouth), grass-roots marketing, guerilla marketing, immersive marketing, and so on.”
Yosef Brody, who penned the Z piece and is a clinical psychologist in Paris, references recent studies establishing that young children are prone to pay particular attention to TV commercials, but they can’t discriminate its form or intent from other programming. A majority of these ads are for junk food, which is directly related to childhood obesity, considered a health epidemic and correlated with diabetes and hypertension (conditions that have tripled in teenagers since 1980).
Gender stereotyping and violence are also rampant.
“Recent research shows that a high level of exposure to commercial messages is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints, including headaches and stomachaches,” Brody writes. “Sociologist Juliet Schor found robust evidence that the more that psychologically healthy children become involved in commercial culture, the worse their mental health becomes, and that the more that emotionally disturbed children disengage from commercial culture, the healthier they get.”
Source: Z Magazine
Image by giovanni_giusti, licensed by Creative Commons
Monday, March 15, 2010 2:50 PM
Saying Pluto is not a planet is a sure-fire way to make children angry. When the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan excluded Pluto from its list of planets, children protested. Loudly. And sometimes to planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson himself. The PBS show NOVA compiled a few samples of the hate mail, including this gem from Madeline Trost of Plantation, Florida:
Why can’t Pluto be a planet? If it’s small doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to be a planet anymore. Some people like Pluto. If it doen’t [sic] exist then they don’t have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can’t read in cursive.
Friday, January 08, 2010 5:52 PM
“In reading, we perform the nearly oxymoronic feat of seeking surprise,” Chris Bachelder writes for The Believer. Meditating on the pleasure of the unexpected, Bachelder connects the “vivid surprises” of good literature with those of childrearing, fusing the two kinds of wonder into a delightful short essay. Behold:
Life with young children is full of such unusual associations and combinations, both joyful and disquieting. (I once clipped a tiny sharp crescent of my daughter’s toenail directly into my eye; my daughter once called a tampon a cheese stick; my wife once unknowingly spilled some olive tapenade on our daughter’s infant head and then thought, for a horrifying instant, that the child’s brains were leaking.) It may sound paradoxical, but these peculiar moments with my daughter often feel familiar. The reason, I’ve come to suspect, is that the vivid surprises of child-rearing seem so similar to the vivid surprises of good literature.
Donald Barthelme wrote that “the combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.” Is there a better one-sentence defense and explanation and manifesto of art? It is combinatorial agility—not just of words, but of sentences, paragraphs, images, objects, events, concepts, and characters—that generates, startles, and reveals.
Source: The Believer
Friday, July 24, 2009 3:23 PM
Children could be getting the wrong messages from television programming designed with the best of intentions, according to research highlighted in On Wisconsin. An associate professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marie-Louise Mares has been studying children’s comprehension of “prosocial” programming, shows that are intended to teach good behavior, morals, and ethics. She is especially interested in storylines intended to foster inclusiveness.
“Children’s interpretations of what a show is about are very different from what an adult thinks,” Mares tells the Wisconsin alumni association publication. In one episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog that Mares uses in her research, Clifford and other dogs meet a dog with three legs. The four-legged dogs initially react poorly, one of them even expressing fear of “catching” three legs. In the end, the dogs overcome their anxiety, and learn an important lesson about accepting peers with disabilities.
Young human viewers, however, do not. “Many of them interpreted the lesson of the episode along the lines of this child’s comment: ‘You should be careful . . . not to get sick, not to get germs,’ ” On Wisconsin reports. Since a lot of prosocial programming relies on showing bad behavior and then learning a lesson about it, Mares’ research has the potential to dramatically transform the plotlines of children’s programming. One solution she’s investigating is “scaffolding,” the practice of characters interrupting the storyline to lay out the plot’s intended message.
Source: On Wisconsin
Image by Aaron Escobar, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 10, 2009 3:26 PM
Singapore-based ad agency Ogilvy & Mather has completed a series of ads for Matchbox called Young Warriors. It’s a rather frightful experiment with illusion. Young, white boys no older than 5 years old pose with some of the most lethal killing machines now in play in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is militarism at its worst: children piloting machines that kill children and their families (oh yes, and terrorists). Sure, kids play soldier all the time, but they are engaging in imaginative play, not warrior fetishes.
The campaign is crass enough on its own, but a tour of Ogilvy & Mather’s website adds a new layer of revulsion, namely their advice on advertising in a wrecked economy:
The key to success will be understanding the new shopper, brand and retailer. Find out how to create ‘win-win’ shopper marketing solutions and how to turn shoppers into buyers in this recession.
Here’s more of that “win-win” vision made manifest:
(Thanks, Creative Review)
Tuesday, June 16, 2009 4:29 PM
Chronogram is a luscious magazine, its 10-by-13 inch pages filled with articles that “nourish and support the creative, cultural, and economic life of the Hudson Valley.” One of its latest efforts in that vein—which non-Hudson Valley residents will have no problem enjoying—is a delightful 2009 Summer Reading Roundup for kids (from picture books to young-adult readers). Compiled by Susan Krawitz, Anne Pyburn, and Nina Shengold, the reading list is a smorgasbord of intriguing suggestions for children. Enjoy.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009 5:38 PM
Homes bedecked with jewels and painted flowers. Whimsical garages with yawning mouths, and lampposts adorned with cast-metal birds. A road cobbled to look like a snake. This is a magical neighborhood, but it’s also a real place. This is the amazing, child-and-adult-designed community of Coriandoline.
Coriandoline was conceptually born in 1990, when a construction co-op in the northern Italian town of Correggio made an amazing decision to become “for inhabitants,” rather than “for habitations,” reports Landscape Architecture. Fulfilling the new ethos meant getting input about housing development design from all members of the community—including children. In 1995, two psychologists started collecting ideas from 700 local children, and fanciful, functional, playful Coriandoline began to take shape. Turning inspiration into brick-and-mortar doesn’t happen overnight: The first residents moved into their new homes, of which there are 20, in 2006.
So, here’s the deal: The article in Landscape Architecture originally was an episode of the Radio Netherlands program The State We’re In. The article isn’t online yet at LA’s website, but you can read a transcript of the broadcast over at Twin Cities Streets for People. What you should absolutely, do, however, is explore Coriandoline’s beautiful, whimsical website. This is one case where a photo truly is worth 1,000 words.
Sources: Landscape Architecture, Twin Cities Streets for People
Image by gurms, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, May 18, 2009 3:22 PM
What is the point of babies? They’re almost entirely dependent on other people for survival, so much so that they appear to be an evolutionary hindrance, rather than a benefit. Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, thinks she may have found the answer. In an interview with Seed magazine, Gopnik explains that “children are like the R&D department of the human species.”
There may be a tradeoff in the human mind between learning something and applying it, according to Gopnik. Adults are better able to apply knowledge, but babies are better suited for learning and imaging.
Watching children play in imaginary worlds, many scientists have assumed that babies are not as intelligent as adults. In fact, “Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities,” according to Gopnik. “It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.”
Image by Mia Mae, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 8:57 AM
Is it strange for boys to play with dolls? Even for parents who generally shun gender stereotypes, the idea of a boy playing with his dolly seems slightly off. But why?
In a humorous essay for Mothering (subscription required), Joel Troxell struggles with his wife’s insistence on buying a doll for their one-year-old son Nathan. Though the doll is gender-neutral in shape and dress, Troxell feels the need to compensate for this “affront to his masculinity” by telling Nathan that the doll is actually an operative for the US military, and his neutral facial expression means he’s impervious to fear or pain.
Nathan quickly grows tired of the doll, much to his dad’s secret delight. A few months later, however, Nathan’s mom is back at it, looking for bigger and better dolls. Troxell’s “daydreams of Nathan going first round in the NFL draft [are] replaced by disturbing images of him walking across the stage at graduation, sucking his thumb and carrying his doll.”
The author finds that doll play is still associated with outdated gender roles in his mind. He thinks of playing with dolls as childcare practice for girls (a.k.a. future moms and wives), and toy weapons as encouraging boys to develop the hunting skills they’d need to provide for their families.
Eventually, Troxell learns the benefits of boys with dolls: They teach compassion, sensitivity, and responsibility, as well as a practical knowledge of things like holding and feeding a baby. So in reality, Troxell’s wife points out, giving a boy a doll is giving him practice as a good father and a good person who is ready to care for others.
To the kid, his dolly may later be a source of future embarrassment, much like those ubiquitous naked-in-the-tub pictures. But if the values imbued through playing with a “girl’s toy” hold up, he’ll likely have grown to be well-adjusted enough not to care.
Mothering’s archives include another great essay (free) on a mom’s quest for a doll for her son.
Image courtesy of Savannah Grandfather, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008 4:00 PM
Scheduling playtime in 45-minute increments seems strict, but the New York Hall of Science playground for preschoolers, featured in Landscape Architecture (article not available online), demands it. So families and school groups dutifully follow the rules and sign up. The playground was originally designed for teenagers, but the recently added preschool portion of the 10-year-old recreation area lets four-year-olds learn through play about fluid mechanics, acoustics, hydrology, and color theory. The preschool area is a garden-like environment of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses that transitions gently into the park beyond. A wavy line of benches provides a permeable barrier and parental vantage point between the areas for younger and older children. Unlike most play spaces, the Science Playground aims to inspire children, not pacify them with pre-made parts that minimize litigation fears. But freedom comes at a cost, as the park comes with an entrance fee, on top of the fee that families must pay to enter the museum.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008 4:48 PM
As a young tyke I would spend listless hours drooling over the wares in the Archie McPhee catalog before settling down to my desk and letting my fevered brain run wild. The product of these fantasies was page after page of delirious marker drawings detailing made-up toys such as flying skates, a talking plastic parrot that would fight with other talking plastic parrots using its razor-sharp teeth and Lightning Wings™, and a putty that would change colors and taste like watermelon. I’d take these drawings to my dad and say, “Hey, pops, let’s buy these.” He’d rest his glasses on his nose, examine my art, and then tell me I did a great job. Never did we ever get to buy one of my inventions—which made sense because they didn’t exist. Well, if I were 8 again I would submit my drawings to Wham-O’s Kid Inventor Contest, which gives kids a shot at creating the next toy made by Wham-O—best known for its Superball and Slip ’N Slide. The contest ends March 31, so you have plenty of time to find your markers.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007 4:08 PM
In “Design Solutions” in the September-October issue of Good, Tucker Viemeister praises the progressive City and Country School of New York City for having a playground designed to hurt children.
Well, not quite, but the schoolyard, which features a railless jungle gym and slide among its playground equipment, is meant to teach kids that life is full of hard knocks, and if you’re not careful you’ll get a scraped knee. Viemeister writes, “To grow, we need to take chances. Progress is littered with mistakes and accidents.”
The school’s founder, Caroline Pratt, organized the school in 1914 under the belief that kids learn by engaging in open-ended problem-solving in which they have a real investment in the outcome. Now, me, I always thought it was the kiss that made the boo-boo worth it. —Jason Ericson
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