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Are we standing between our children and nature? October 21, 2008

Yesterday’s blog centered on ways children can help free themselves from constant electronic stupor and get started doing real things again, with the help of a few good kids’ how-to books like The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.

Almost as soon as I pressed the “publish” button, it occurred to me that many parents these days also come from the home computer generation, and might struggle themselves to “get back to nature.” I know I’m one to have trouble disengaging myself from my laptop — I can find almost any reason to log on.

Yesterday my older son Riley and I researched and quickly came up with a homespun Halloween costume, an old-fashioned white-sheet ghost with some professional finessing thanks to a video series from eHow. So yes, even and sometimes especially where children are concerned, electronics like Ye Olde Internet can be a prime resource.

In fact, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv is mentioned in the bibliography of my book The New Magic Bookshelf, but as my book doesn’t center on this subject, I don’t say much more about it there except that it’s a wonderful tool packed with practical ideas on enriching our children’s lives with nature.

But as Publisher’s Weekly so cannily points out in its review of Louv’s guide: “Indeed, a 2002 British study reported that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name ‘otter, beetle, and oak tree.'” Hear, hear! I can definitely relate to this.

Quite aside from our lip-service about wanting our children to have some appreciation for the “simpler things” is the seldom recognized craving children have for contact with the natural world. I doubt many of us witness true joy when we watch our children engrossed in a video game or TV show. A robotic focus is what I see. Compare this with the too rare, healthy pleasure that radiates from the faces of barefoot children pink-cheeked from chasing fireflies, gathering dandelions, splashing in a stream or even just playing with the dog in the backyard.

The “simpler things” do seem to require more effort from us. It’s hard to push ourselves away from our home offices, and pull the plug on a child clutching a handheld, ever-so-close to “beating the game.” And Louv also acknowledges that sometimes our keeping children securely behind closed doors is a safety measure — children can’t run around at will anymore, as some of us lucky souls were able to do.

However, in Louv’s words: “Although we have plenty of reasons to worry about our children, a case can be made that we endanger our children by separating them too much from nature, and that the reverse is also true — that we make them safer, now and in the future, by exposing them to nature.”

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

Visit www.magicbookshelf.com

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Kids need REAL real-world experience October 20, 2008

My sons’ entries into a library-sponsored Wii tennis tournament on a recent teacher workday off from school only reinforced my decision to continue to limit electronic gaming in our household.

We don’t have a Wii, so I thought getting to play it outside a friend’s house would be novel. Well, competition was stiff. I mean, cutthroat. You could immediately see the lay of the land in that fluorescent-lit library multi-purpose room amid the gray metal folding chairs.

There were the jocks — the winners — those who had their own Wii’s at home and played so much they knew they were good. In typical self-satisfied A-team jock-style, they punched each other’s shoulders and snickered at the frightened little kids dotting the rest of the room. Then there were the in-betweens — those who had some experience, weren’t great, maybe, but comfortable with the game. They were OK.

Then there were the perceived losers, the Wii “have-nots” — excitedly yet nervously warming the little row of chairs in the very back. My boys, ages 9 and 11, fell into this group.

My younger, athletic and competitive son made friends quickly with the middle-level kids, trying to reassure himself. My older one, more sensitive, hung back with the other bench-warmers and, sadly, cried bitterly after two losses in the double-elimination format. (It was the pressure that got to him, I think. He’d actually done pretty well — he was a leftie playing with a right-handed setting, and he won one game in a set.)

I did question myself later if we should have even entered this little exercise, which had seemed harmless and fun the day I signed them up. I did tell them I’d have been more impressed with the hoody-wearing tournament winner if he hadn’t been such a braggart. I told them I’d have been a whole lot more impressed by him if he’d won a real tennis tournament, not a virtual game he obviously invested so much of his free time into to get that good.

But in the real world, the cliche is really true: you win some, you lose some.

Here’s the question: is a Wii tournament the “real world”?

I’m not really knocking Wii. I realize we that have no Wii are kind of rare, and this blog entry really isn’t about Wii anyway — it’s about making sure kids get real-world experience. We have Nintendo DS handhelds and lots of games, the boys’ dad has a Game Cube for them — heck, my mom has a Game Cube. We’re already nervous about the (engineered?) Bokugan “shortage” this close to Christmas.

But I don’t want every minute of my boys’ days wrapped up in electonic, or otherwise faddish, pursuit. I think some of the virtual games are super clever — my older son loves Guitar Hero — but I’m sorry, they’re just not real. So after homework every day and every chance I get on the weekends, I shoo the boys out in the yard or wave them off on their bikes, or insist they walk the dog they begged for several Christmases ago.

Reading books instead? Well, I’ve never seen more so-called “reluctant readers” created so fast as with the advent of the ever-intensifying gaming that takes up increasing amounts of time. But as long as parents insist time is made for reading, I believe they’ll read. The bulk of my book The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever is devoted to helping parents find exciting, challenging, meaningful books their children will devour, whatever their reading level, age, or interest.

For today’s purposes I have some book suggestions for kids who don’t quite know what to do with themselves in this “real” world. Scouting, state park Junior Ranger programs, and other groups devoted to exploring the natural world can be great in this area. Family activities like camping that force an electronic break (which is why I love it) help reel the family back to earth.

Check out these favorites from my own kids’ shelf (and, where desired, alternatives for girls):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden is a gorgeous hardback volume with nostalgic-style illustrations, and just crammed with the ever-elusive Things to Do. This is cool stuff, like building a fort, cracking a code, and, if in a particular pinch, escaping quicksand. Maybe there’s no quicksand in your backyard but boys (just like their adventure-deprived dads) eat this up!

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan, in the same style and vein, contains not only projects and practical applications (how to play hopscotch, tie a sari, build a swing) but also snippets on influential women and literary characters like tomboy Jo from Little Women (Unabridged Classics). And for those who find the suggestions too sterotypical (although I think the average girl would like them — I would have), there’s no reason not to buy the boys’ edition for girls.

Then there’s How To Be The Best At Everything (The Girls’ Book) by Juliana Foster, and How To Be The Best At Everything (The Boys’ Book) by Dominique Enright. Both are self-explanatory and have lots of fun stuff for kids to master, like juggling with one hand, analyzing handwriting, making a boomerang — and maybe challenging an indoor-type bully some day.

If your children’s eyes are becoming a little glazed, or you’re always peppered with the “what can I do?” question, do check these out, and their counterparts in the recommended book titles that pop up (like The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It (Nonpareil Book, 29) and American Girls Handy Book: How to Amuse Yourself and Others (Nonpareil Books)).

Maybe your kids, like mine, get whipped at virtual golf, but they’ll know how to do the important stuff: like fend off a crocodile and spot poison ivy.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever

visit www.magicbookshelfonline.com