Burning Gnome

Art, Technology, and Culture firmly planted in the Garden of Education

   Oct 08

New Hacker Scouts Website!

Good news! We have put together a dedicated site for Hacker Scouts to consolidate all the announcements, items of interest, events, and photos in one place. From now on, all Hacker Scouts related posts will go here!

   Sep 19

Hacker Scouts: Judo Bots

Last Sunday we had another amazing Open lab session of Hacker Scouts. With over 50 kids (plus their parents!) it was a full and active hackerspace event! Our featured project was Hydraulic Judo Bots . Other activities offered were: Learn to Solder, various advanced Soldering Kits, Compressed Air Rockets, and an LED Light-Up Bracelet Kit. We were also honored to have a reporter from NPR and from the San Jose Mercury News in attendance, both very interested and excited about what we are doing as a Maker community!

There were a couple observations Chris and I made at this Open lab that were very interesting to us:

At this Open Lab, we noticed there were a lot more girls. This is exciting in two ways: the first is that being a Maker is just as empowering for the girls as it is for the boys. It’s about being human and realizing not only skill, but potential, in oneself. Second, we think it’s extremely valuable for boys and girls to be working side-by-side, eliminating gender stereotypes and developing a healthy respect for each other’s abilities.

Also, we were asked many times about how we choose the activities being offered and how we manage to balance the needs of the kids. Our menu is no happy accident. Chris and I review the possibilities every time and try to balance between beginning and advanced skill building, multiple intelligences (or the different ways kids learn), and how each activity is meeting the developmental needs of this age group. We believe that, while the kids never see or notice this part of Hacker Scouts, it is crucial to building a program that gives them challenges, success, and real work. We believe it is condescending and disrespectful to give them any less. Our goal is to help them identify their interests and strengths within themselves and the confidence and mentoring to push themselves towards their own goals.

Finally, we realize how crowded AMT can get with that many people, and it can be overwhelming for some. While it’s true that AMT as plans to move to a larger space in the near future, we are making what we have work for now. But there are a few benefits to having such a crowd that should not be overlooked. Having that many kids created a sense of excitement in belonging to a community that many kids (and parents!) expressed to me throughout the day. It is very cool for a kid to meet so many others who are into Making  too. There is also idea sharing that happens with a good size crowd. For example, down in the Judo Bot room, many kids shared improvements and modifications they made to make their Judo Bot either stronger or more effective in battle. One kid would make a hammer on the front, and another would take that idea but add forks on either side to grab with, and so on. We were so impressed with the kids’ ingenuity and enthusiasm.  Not to mention their agility in battling their Judo Bots! And finally, we had 10 mentors on hand, plus many parents assisting, in the various activity areas. This was a great number to have on hand. It assured that every kid would have a chance to ask questions and get assistance, but it also allowed parents to contribute in a meaningful way. But the best benefit of having so many kids and just enough mentors is this: when the kids have to wait a few minutes for a mentor’s time, they often find the mental space to solve the problem themselves. There is nothing more empowering. And what I observed is that when they could not figure out their problem on their own, often another kid would step in and try to help. Working together, they were almost always able to work through the issue. That kind of learning, peer to peer and hands-on, is exactly how kids in this age group learn best. And it’s why, when some parents have asked us if the crowd was no big, we emphatically say “No!” because these interactions would not happen as frequently under smaller conditions!

We are grateful and honored that Hacker Scouts is resonating with so many families and hope see everyone on the first Sunday in October for our featured project: Spy Gadgets!






   Sep 13

A Maker Education

The other day I was interviewed by NPR about Hacker Scouts and I was asked an interesting question. The reporter asked me my opinion on the DIY program sites that are cropping up for kids like DIY.org and Maker Camp and a few more that are specifically utilizing an online presence to connect with kids and Maker culture. This is a more complicated question than it seems! On one hand, how can using technology to power this movement, when technology plays such a large role in it be a negative thing? My response might surprise you. Because it can.

There is no doubt that the more resources we have available to us, the better off this movement is. The ability to go online, get new ideas, see tutorials on how to gain new skills or goals, not have to leave the house in order to do those things. The online presense of the Maker community is enormous and powerful and essential. But it is not without it’s failings, and one of it’s biggest is that it doesn’t actually meet the learning needs of most kids. We can see why by looking at a snapshot of development in this age group.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to the cognitive development occurring between ages 7-11 as the “concrete operations stage”. Children in this stage can not think both abstractly and logically, instead they are limited to thinking concretely. Their knowledge is tangible, definitive, and exact based on real, concrete experiences rather than abstractions. Unlike younger children, they have moved past magical thinking into a thinking process that relies on classification, serial ordering, cause and effect, stable identity, and conservation. This is one of the reasons math and science becomes so attractive in this age period. They are also developing memory strategies for retention of knowledge and skills. Developmental psychologist and theorist Erik Erikson names the stage between the ages of 6 and 12 “Industry vs Inferiority.” In other words, children are recognizing and actively seeking out the ability to gain new knowledge and skills and assessing their personal method and competence, often comparing themselves to peers. This is an essential time for self esteem, the building of relationships, and providing opportunities for success as well as failure. According to Erikson, it is critical children successfully master this stage before moving on the the stage of “Identity vs Role Confusion,” in which adolescents grapple with  devotion and fidelity, purpose and potential. Children in this age range need quite a bit of praise and reinforcement around competence and self-image, mentors to help them recognize and develop their own unique talents and abilities, and guidance with relationships, problem solving, and communication.  So then, in order to truly meet the developmental needs of this age group, we need to recognize the limitations of the internet and come back to what the maker movement is all about: community.

The first problem is that online programs depend on a capacity for abstract thinking and follow through that most children in their target age group (6-14) typically don’t have. Learning, or the forming of synapses in the brain are formed through repeated experiences, and like younger children they are still learning mostly through movement and tasks their body must perform physically. These pathways become more complex when subjected to multiple sensory input, language, and relationships. But the problem is that these pathways are a “use it or lose it” system, so if a function is not repeated to ensure retention, that pathway disappears. The higher cognitive functions that make children such eager and easy learners starts to decline into the slower adaptive adult levels of synapsis by the teenage years and so it becomes essential to create an optimal learning environment during those crucial school age years. Selecting skills from a webpage fills an interest need, but not much beyond as there is no support around follow through. And since there is no process for ensuring retention, it is hard for an organization or the student to measure skill building or progress in this manner.

Another issue is the real and perceived nature of structure. Online programs have no other choice but to have a structure that tend not to meet the needs of most students. The skills and projects are chosen and categorized and tend to all be very similar from website to website.  Most kids in this age group have very specific ideas about what they want to learn and why, and what they really need is someone with experience to back them up. So what you end up with are many kids who are bored and/or uninterested in what is offered for very long, or they feel internal pressure to complete the specified badges. The issue is that if the structure induces this kind of emotional response, the brain automatically goes into “fight or flight” and is unable to process or retain the information. This happens in school quite a bit under high pressure conditions such as test-taking or a student being called upon unwillingly. Kids actually lose their peripheral vision, increase their hearbeat and breathing rates, and lose memory strategy. You could argue that this should not be symptomatic of an online resource as it is meant to cater to the interests of the student when and where they are available. They could take breaks and come back. But my point is that they all have a managed system, in which someone else had laid out the rules, the value of the skills, and the end results. Many kids could easily find this stressful and limiting.

Finally, and probably most importantly, online programs eliminate the beauty of mentorship. There is a reason that most professions throughout history were/are still taught by apprenticeship. Even my husband says he owes his technical abilities to what he learned on the job, as do I. Besides the overwhelming evidence that this age group needs guidance through the exploration of their own competence and identity development, there is a subtle transfer of information that happens from mentor to student. The body language, verbal communication, storytelling/history, and observation between student and expert is irreplaceable. Mentors serve as a role model and a source of safety in both attempt and failure. Without a doubt, it is easy to look up an answer or a tutorial on Google or You Tube, but for the student, these experiences do not mean competency, retention, or the give them the benefit of community. And community is what the Maker culture relies on, was built on. The next generation of Makers deserves that sensitivity and investment.

I am in no way saying that these online programs do not have a place. They do. They are cool and fun and great resources. Starting points, if you like. But in order to create something that helps our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big, we need to listen to science as much as we worship it. Programs need to be built in communities, schools,  and hacker spaces where kids can have the tangible, concrete experiences they need for life long learning.

   Sep 03

Hacker Scouts: Biospheres

Yesterday marked the inaugural Open Lab for our new adventure: Hacker Scouts. We had an amazing turnout with about 40 enthusiastic kids and their supportive parents! Our featured project was Biospheres (also see here), which half the kids decided to work on, with the other half choosing activities from our menu, including a Learn to Solder Kit, Drawdio! Kit, a Plushy Sewing Project, Using the Laser Cutter to produce original designs, Laser Cut Dino Puzzles, and Kinetic Mobile Art.  There was also a fantastic Hex Bug village built. We had many mentors on hand from AMT and several parents who joined our team to assist the kids in building their skills. The format we designed worked well, with the featured project and kit instruction providing enough structure, but leaving the choice of what to work on, which skills to build, and the possibilities of their imagination firmly in the hands of the kids. There was a beautiful community spirit present, which is the point of this whole program. Making as a part of our everyday life and relationships rather than compartmentalizing it into simply a hobby.

Feedback highlights from yesterday’s open lab:

“Thank you for a fun afternoon. We are totally enjoying the biosphere. We are all so grateful for what you and Chris have put together.”

“I am inspired by your efforts.”

“Awesome day today, thanks again for putting it together.”

“This is exactly what we needed!”

“I don’t know how you managed to keep 20 kids captivated about Biospheres, but you did! Amazing workshop!”

“We can’t wait to come back in two weeks!”

“We get to take this home?!!!”

To see photos from this weeks Open Lab, go to Ace Monster Toy’s photo stream.

   Aug 28

Hacker Scouts!

Back in March I wrote about the idea of a Hacker Scouts program addressing the needs of a progressive maker community and how my husband and I shared an attraction to joining or developing a structured program of helping our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big. Well, we have been working hard all summer to design a Hacker Scouts program at Ace Monster Toys, a hackerspace in Oakland, CA that would fulfill our aspirations. Our program is based on how children learn through various developmental and educational theories as well as a desire we see in the Maker culture for community and family inclusiveness.

The idea is this: Twice a month we will hold open labs where we will have experts/mentors available to help kids with any project they bring in. There will also be a featured project that a whole workshop is built around that specifically targets skill building. In addition, there will be a menu of kits/activities that are available for kids that focus on a variety of interests, skills, and ways of learning. The structure has a method- it creates consistency and the opportunity for mentoring and improvement, the provided activities and featured workshops are designed to teach to multiple learning styles, and the program is inclusive and adaptable. Kids can earn badges or not for their skill building, and they can come every week or once in a while. Here is the info:

Ace Monster Toys presents

Hacker Scouts

Got a Maker kind of kid?

Traditional kind of scouting not a good fit?

Want to Build community with other maker families?

Hacker Scouts is a new program designed to acquire new skills, reinforce knowledge, provide mentoring, and build community.

Join us for Open Lab and bring your own project, or work on one provided by AMT! Earn badges and skill build through specific mentor-led workshops! Workshops planned include:soldering, sewing, circuits, programming, engineering and building, leds, dumpster diving and found art, printmaking, and more!

We know age is just a number, but AMT will be targeting projects in the 8-14 year old range.

This is not a drop-off program. Parents must stay and are welcome to participate. This is a free program, though some workshops require a materials fee, and donations to the space are always welcome. RSVP’s are helpful, though not required.

Hacker Scouts Open Lab

1st and 3rd Sundays of the month


@ Ace Monster Toys

6050 Lowell Street, Suite 214 in Oakland, California

For more information and questions:




This program was designed and will be facilitated by Chris Cook, who has several decades of tech and building experience, and Samantha Matalone Cook, who has an MA in Education as well as two decades of experience in educational programming, outreach, and the arts. A dedicated Maker family, they homeschool their three kids in Oakland, CA. They will be joined by a variety of experts and mentors from the community to ensure a well rounded and high level of attention and skill building.

September 2nd, 2012:

Open lab: Bring your own projects and get help from building, techy and sewing experts!

Featured Project: Biospheres ($8)

Make your own self-sustaining biosphere and learn how this amazing ecosystem works!

Other Available Projects (materials fee):

Learn to Solder Kit ($16): Soldering skills rusty or non-existent? This deluxe version of the Solder Practice kit comes with 30W soldering iron and wire cutters. Builds a flashing European-style-siren. Lead-free solder included.

Drawdio! Kit ($14): Drawdio is an electronic pencil that lets you make music while you draw! It’s great project for beginners: An easy soldering kit with instant gratification. Essentially, its a very simple musical synthesizer that uses the conductive properties of pencil graphite to create different sounds. The result is a fun toy that lets you draw musical instruments on any piece of paper.

Laser Cut Dino Model Kit (Free): With pre-designed CAD plans, use the laser cutter to make the pieces of a model that you can assemble and paint yourself!

Sewing 101:Plushy Kit ($3.50): Use a provided pattern or make your own to create a one-of-a-kind plush monster, blockhead, amoeba, etc on the sewing machine. Excellent way to build sewing skills!

Kinetic Mobile Sculpture Kit (Free): Mobiles are a kind of kinetic sculpture that are based on the principle of equilibrium to produce works of art that showcase the beauty and harmony between design and movement. Many artists, most famously Alexander Calder, have explored the challenge and excitement of kinetic art- create your own mobile out of wire and a variety of objects!

Materials Fee Note: We are providing the Hacker Scouts program free of cost. All materials fees are based on cost for us, and are due at the time of selection. Thanks!

Upcoming: September 16th, 2012:

Featured project: Hydraulic Robot Arm



   May 12

Mom Enough, Technically Speaking.

Attachment parenting, while made a ‘style’ by Dr. Sears more recently, isn’t a new idea. It’s based on the things I love most: science and anthropology. Humans are animals, whether we like to admit it or not, and as such attend to our young in a particular way. In our case, mothers nurse their young and keep them close and both parents take on the responsibility of nourishment, protection, and comfort much longer than any other animal. Breastfeeding is the biological norm for our species. It provides nutrition, comfort, and immunity against disease. Most people don’t even realize that the world wide average for weaning is actually closer to age 6. Perhaps it is this disconnect from the biological norm (which is ironically similar to our disconnect with our own food sources) that makes it necessary to actually pass legislation to protect women so that they may feed their babies in the biologically normal way. Families all over the world sleep together in the same beds and have for thousands of years. It is safe, comforting, and in many cases a way to reconnect after a long day. Human beings have carried their babies for as long as we have been around. It keeps the infant close by, makes it easier to nurse, allows the parents to continue their daily routine, and most importantly provides small children the opportunity to sleep or retreat from an overstimulating environment when they need to.  But I think the most important side of attachment parenting is the concept of modeling. This is something that I feel Sears really fell short on explaining, but perhaps is better illustrated in books like The Continuum Concept , Our Babies Ourselves, and others that put the focus back on the science of biology and culture. People historically have done all of the above things not only because it was biologically normal to do so, but also because by keeping children a part of the daily life, they were socializing them. Through modeling and experience, children grow up within a culture understanding what it means to be a part of that community. They gradually take on responsibility and a role in that community, because from the beginning they were included in it. It is only recently that we have separated children from our “adult lives” and then had to train them to become a part of it. The result is that when you give your kids time to develop who they are and take on their role, they are confident and secure in their ability to do so. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson outlined stages of human development, asserting that if one stage was not met, it would show up later and cause tension and difficulty in later stages. Certainly being taken out of the natural rhythm of human development and community can interfere with the acquisition of said virtues. There is no child that is “too attached”, there are only families who recognize the value of having a close relationship with their child, and providing the experiences and encouragement for that child to grow up and live their own life. The world does not revolve around the child, the child is made a part of the entirety. It is not about holding on, it is about nurturing the ability to let go. And how is it that society can be simultaneoausly crying “too attached!” and “kids are growing up too fast!” at the same time? Once again, it’s because we have become so disconnected from what is developmentally normal, that we cease to understand the needs of humans. But we have to take all of this information and put it into the context of culture. We live in a society that worships technology, and rightfully so in many ways. Technology has moved us into higher level of existence really, but what it hasn’t changed is the human. And perhaps, that is the point of this re-focus on attachment parenting. Just as the idea that real, whole, non-manufactured food can prevent many of the diseases and environmental issues we are faced with, perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to process ourselves either.

I think the most interesting criticism I have heard about attachment parenting is that it reverses the advancements made in feminism. Really? because I thought the feminist movement was about choice. And it seems to me that the most empowering thing a person can have is choice, including the choice of how to parent. Attachment Parenting, despite popular opinion it seems, is not about self-sacrifice. It’s about balance. It is attending to the needs of the human. Does that make women who decide not to co-sleep bad parents? Nope. Does that make bottle feeding un-natural? Well, sort of. But only because we are told that formula is just as good nutritionally. And it’s not. But parenting is about making the best of what you’ve got with the information you have, and bottle feeding is necessary for some and a choice for all, one that no mother should be made to feel guilty about. I don’t feel less than a feminist for making the choices I did, including leaving the traditional workplace. Instead, I am on a continuous journey of redefining what it means to be a working mother. I have nursed my babies through planning meetings at the Smithsonian and grant-making sessions at the National Endowment for the Arts. I have prepared a run of prints for an art show with a toddler slung to my back. I have turned down opportunities because they would not fit into our family values. Some days our home school routine includes business meetings and filling holes in the wall at the hackerspace I help found so that creative women could have more choices. Because modeling the possibilities of life to my kids is better to me than telling them how to live it. For me, returning to this view of child-rearing has made me more creative, more adventurous, and more connected to my own identity. And the choice to return to what I believe humans need, something that has been taken away from us in a very patriarchal world for the sake of “progress”,  is what feminism is to me. Perhaps the most feminist act we can make is to stop listening to experts and start trusting ourselves. We are the experts of our families.  Phrases like “good enough” and “mother enough” imply that we don’t have the necessary instinctual tools to raise our kids without guidance. And maybe many of us feel like we don’t. But is that because it is not within us, or because we have not been raised in a community where we would have gained the experience needed to move onto the next stage of our lives with confidence?  As Wendy Priesnitz points out : “Australian academic, author and social commentator Susan Maushart asserts society needs to “acknowledge that bearing and raising children is not some pesky, peripheral activity we engage in, but the whole point.” Warehousing kids in daycare or school so mothers can get on with what they see as their real lives is not part of that vision, but we need to find ways to ensure economic security for women of all classes, and extend the vision to include fathers as well.” This doesn’t mean that working outside the home or sending your children to school/daycare is detrimental. But we have compartmentalized our lives to such a point that any choice seems predetermined, forced, and then judged. Parenting and our career choices are not and should not be seen as mutually exclusive. The solution then, is to stop judging the parenting of mothers and start focusing on attitudes and policies that promote what is best for families as a whole.

Yesterday I was interviewed on Attachment Parenting by the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, and it was no surprise to me that the detailed interview I gave was whittled down to a few sentences.  In this case, the story was gauging the reactions of mothers to Time’s highly inflammatory Cover photo and article entitled“Are You Mom Enough?” It seems to be de rigueur these days: let’s take a story and instead of trying to truly understand it, we’ll make it into more than it is. It is an old story, really, but it comes at a difficult time when the rights of women (particularly mothers) are being attacked by legislation all over the country and the media is desperately trying to keep afloat the flawed idea that mothers battle it out over parenting styles and life choices. I say flawed because most mothers don’t have time to argue about whose right, and in fact we don’t care. We all just want two things: a satisfying daily life and to produce healthy, happy, independent kids by the end of our parenting journey. To clarify what was said in the article I was quoted in, I have actually received very little criticism for our choices. I mentioned while being interviewed that nursing my oldest when he was 2, while still living in Virginia, garnered a few looks here and there. I think that was mostly due to the fact that, like the kid in the Time article, my two year old son looked like a 5 year old. Not that it should matter. The most pointed remarks I have received was from family members, and I responded by emailing articles relating to why we have made the choices we did and they have all since come aboard. But to give them some compassion, it must have been difficult to understand at first a way of parenting and living that had been absent in mainstream culture for so long. I am just doing my best, like they tried to. Like the article said, I nursed all my babies until they self weaned at around 3, with some gentle encouragement on my part. I still co-sleep with my 3 year old and our two older boys sleep in their own room by their own choice, but are welcome to come into our  bed if they need to. Pretty rare at this point, though as a result I still get to enjoy morning cuddles and conversation. And while I was not asked this, I feel compelled to point out (because it is a question I am asked often); Yes I sleep well and no it has not affected the intimacy between my husband and I. I have three kids and we just celebrated our ten year anniversary so we must be doing something right.  But the very last sentence of that article got it exactly right: our king size bed *is* the best investment we ever made.



Note: This article was also featured on the national news & analysis website Lawsonry!

   Mar 12

Hacker Scouts FTW!

Recently Phillip Torrone wrote an excellent post on the history of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, pondering whether it wasn’t time for a new version of these programs that spoke to the technologically changing world. I think he hit the nail on the head. We have never participated in Scouts, or 4-H for that matter, for many reasons- the values of the Boy Scout organization conflict with ours, the activities of all of them seem outdated or they offered things we do already, the method of testing for badges seemed archaic, really just a sense of lackluster for our family. I’m sure others will argue the benefits of these groups, but they are not for us. My husband has great memories, however, of the Boy Scouts merit badges. He enthusiastically describes having manuals that taught him a very specific skill that he could then master and the sense of excitement in realizing the power in that manual was the knowledge it contained (though the badge was nice too). And while he has no desire to put our boys in any of the organizations mentioned above either, he shared in my attraction to joining or developing a structured program of helping our children develop skills in the areas they are truly interested in, abilities that would allow them to dream big and create big.

Now, Adafruit Industries has started offering skill badges for the Maker crowd, which suits our family fine. As homeschoolers, we tend to view life as one big Beta test anyway, so the idea Torrone has suggested of a new kind of Scout piqued our interest. As Makers and artist, we delighted in the possibilities. So much so, that my husband and I are now designing a Hacker Scout program for our local Hackerspace. Skill building, family time, relevant subject matter- it’s the best of the future based on time-tested traditions of the past. We are very excited about this new project, and more importantly, so are our kids- who technically have already earned a few of Adafruit’s badges and want to make sure we remember that in our next order.

   Jan 22

Homeschooling the Spirited Child

From his birth almost seven years ago, my middle child has always been more sensitive, more sensory seeking, more- well- everything. He exemplifies Mary Sheedy Kurcinka‘s definition of a Spirited Child as being “normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, energetic, and uncomfortable with change than other children.” He experiences life in a series of highs and lows that can change swiftly and leave me both delighted and exhausted, and I remind myself almost daily that if I feel this way, how it must feel for him to be in his body and experience the range of emotion- frustration and joy- that he does every day.  He is constantly moving, constantly making noise, and constantly thinking of new ideas or stories or …. ! He is happiest and most calm outside in nature, where he can climb trees and hunt for bugs. He doesn’t need to be professionally tested, but he does need to be parented in a different way and we have learned to work with him so that he can recognize in himself what his triggers are and when he needs to self-regulate. It is a journey we are still on.

Putting him in school was never really a consideration, though to be fair I was already homeschooling his older brother and building a community around that choice. I remember towards the end of his two years at a play-based cooperative preschool, one of his teachers said to me, “You aren’t going to send him to public school, are you? It will be hard for him, and honestly it might squash his creativity and love of learning. If you are going to put him in school, it needs to be a small class size with lots of freedom, movement, and creativity. Probably a private school. But I hope you homeschool him like your older kid.”  Frankly, just because I had already made the decision to homeschool him didn’t mean that I wasn’t thrilled to hear that someone else saw it too. That there was a good chance for failure in the way public school is designed. Now, I would argue that the public school system doesn’t meet the developmental needs of most students, but that is another post. My point is that that rather than take the chance, we decided to go with who he is and create an environment that set him up for success. And that has been the key.

In “Raising your Spirited Child,”  Kurcinka very succinctly sums up a four step process to working with Spirited children, and it’s worked well for us:

1. Predict the Reactions

2. Organize the setting

3. Work Together

4. Enjoy the Rewards

In homeschooling, we had already applied some of these concepts successfully, but I think we were lacking in follow-through for a while. It turns out that for our spirited child, predictability and routine was more important than we realized. One of the best things we ever did was keep a journal for the week and document everything: every food, every activity, every interaction, and every reaction or mood. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it gave us such great insight to what his triggers were and where we could help him be more successful and confident, rather than the constant focus on making him behave that is the trap parents of spirited children often fall into. I say it’s a trap because 1. constantly disciplining children who are spirited doesn’t really work because they don’t often understand why they are in trouble because 2. they often can’t help it and 3. it sets up a dynamic of anger, resentment, and distrust when 4. parents need to focus their attention on what the triggers are and help the child learn to cope. Once we figured out the situations that were difficult for him or the food that hurt his body more than it helped, we could approach everyday with a plan rather than be in constant triage mode. Based on this information, we needed to make some changes in the way we homeschooled.

In early childhood (ages 0-7), I put a lot of ideas and experiences in my children’s path, play a lot of games, and trust that their basic skill needs were being met through daily life. And it works. Developmentally, this is exactly how young children learn best and studies have shown over and over that formal academics before the age of 7 is at best unnecessary and at worst detrimental. As an educator, I wholeheartedly agree with this science. As my oldest got older, I imagined on continuing down this same path, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner with a more formal method guiding our madness. The thing is, you never know what is going to work for your family, or for a particular child. And that’s fine. What we learned was that our middle child craved a routine and accountability he could rely on, and I required the same to make sure every member of our family was getting their needs met and maintain a measure of success for my middle son. Other spirited children need different things. I would say that we are still on the relaxed/unschooling side of the homeschooling spectrum, but I now include very consistent daily lessons 3-4 days a week which I list every day on a whiteboard along with any other activities we are doing so he knows what our plan is. If something changes, I let him know as soon as I can. We start every day with some kind of physical activity. I try to keep as much of his work using movement or hands-on activities based on his interests as much as possible because that is how he learns best and it touches on his sensory-seeking needs- which I also address by signing him up for as many classes as we can afford that use heavy body work. Right now, he is taking hip-hop, pottery, and flying trapeze for example. We have learned that he is not ready for classes that require a lot of sitting and listening. He can, however, listen and process well if there is movement in the class. We are very careful with our language to not associate anything we do as “because your brother needs this” or the like, especially in front of my oldest son (my youngest is too little to be affected) as to not contribute to a blame dynamic. We simply have family rules and responsibilities. We make sure this doesn’t limit my oldest, however, by taking him individually to events, letting him spend time at a friend’s house, or working on a project with him alone. I limit the amount of media he gets because there is a certain point (yes, we have figured that out too!) where he gets overstimulated and can not easily recover physically and emotionally. I try not to make promises I can’t keep or frame anything as set in stone, because spirited children like mine usually deal in absolutes. I give him reminders and touch his arm or head at the same time because he often is so focused on a task that he literally can’t hear me. We eat healthy and organic at home, use frequent snacks to keep his energy level steady, and he does not get any high fructose corn syrup (a serious trigger!). Socially, I try to have more playdates one-on-one or smaller groups and I monitor him at large parkdays to make sure he is not getting overwhelmed and reminding him of coping skills when he is. I also make sure he has quieter moments, time to recharge his batteries, away from stimulation and people.

That brings me to the social challenges of having a spirited child. Some spirited children leap in and some pull back. My son is very social, likes to make friends, goes for it. When he was younger we worked on watching a group or another child before he jumped in to assess what they were doing and what role he could play (either supporting their game in progress or asking them to begin a new game). Now our issues mainly revolve around reaction. He does best one on one with friends, and is loyal and kind. The problems arise when he is overwhelmed, either because- in the classic middle child way- he tends to be attracted to his older brother’s friends and is overcompensating to get their attention, or because he has been hurt emotionally or physically. In either case, there is no obvious gradual buildup with spirited children. If you don’t learn to recognize and watch for the signs, the reactions can seem explosive and extreme. In the worst case, this can be alienating when other children (or parents) are hurt or confused by the spirited child’s reactions. Luckily for us, this has been minimal, mostly due to having a community of friends who see the whole child and are willing to work on relationships and strategies for making everyone comfortable and to our commitment towards setting our child up for success. I mention it because it can happen to any family, but especially those with a spirited child, and it’s hard to not feel judged or frustrated. Communication with other families you trust and consistency seem to be the key. That and trusting it will get easier as you find what works. And it does!  We have been teaching our son to read his own feelings and recognize the physical signs of when he is starting to become angry or overwhelmed or even excited.  If you connect each of those feelings with a positive and appropriate action, it’s like an emergency plan in their head. You can even make a picture diagram for visual reinforcement. We talk to him about how he feels, or might feel in certain situations and different ways he could handle his emotions or the actions of others. When things don’t go well, we pretend we have a do-over and consider what other options he had and how to remember to use those ideas should that situation happen again. We make note and celebrate when we have a really good time, or if he handled something really well.  We have also started limiting the situations that are harder on him, when he might be expected to handle more than a 6 year old can and there are no other options or activities to redirect him to or conditions in which he might be bored. Then every once in a while, we try something that didn’t used to work, and see if anything has changed. This idea goes back to setting your child up for success, because the more success he/she has, the more likely to grow and cope in a positive way. That does not mean there are no consequences, but focusing on what the spirited child needs means less likelyhood you need them. And when you do, they are often natural and more meaningful to the spirited child. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it is a lot less work than the alternative, which would be ignoring who he is and has the potential to impede his development and create a negative self-image. If he is constantly “in trouble”, that is how he will begin to see himself- as a trouble maker. It is self-fulfilling.

Having a spirited child has taught me new ways of seeing the world. Whenever we have to stop for the 1000th time along a trail because he saw some tiny insect or plant and has to study it, I marvel in his perception and focus. When he is constantly making noise or singing, I stop and think about what a great entertainer he is and how that might be an excellent future for him. And even in our most challenging moments where he has exploded with anger, I honor the intensity of emotion he must be feeling. It is very real and raw. He has taught me to embrace my passions and express myself more honestly and completely. When I need inspiration, I think of Thomas Edison, who was deemed “unteachable,” and “addled,” and  a “dreamer” by his teacher. His mother pulled him out to teach him at home and gave him a basement workshop to experiment in. The rest is history. My son has that same imaginative curiosity. There isn’t a better place for him to learn and grow into himself than home.


   Dec 07

Mothership Hackermoms

When I became a mother, I don’t think I realized how much the journey would change me, how much it would make me a better person, how my art would suffer. I adore my kids but it has been hard at times putting my creative energy on hold because there are only so many hours in the day and only so much energy to get through it. At the same time, motherhood has tapped into a whole new realm of creativity that I want- nay, need- to explore. Luckily for me, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

For the last several months, I have been working with a group of mothers to form our own Hackerspace. We are writers and welders, painters and printmakers, fiber artists and techies. There is a diverse range of interests and talents, but what binds us together is motherhood and our combined desire to have  a space to make.  So this is my latest project:

  • Mothership HackerMoms: Projects. Friends. Inspiration. With Childcare.
    We are the first women’s hackerspace, located in Oakland, CA. It’s dedicated to giving mothers the time and space to explore DIY craft and design, hacker/maker culture, entrepreneurship, and all manner of creative expression. Because our kids learn by watching us, we provide on-site childcare every time we meet.

This Saturday, join us for  our “Leave it to Beaver!” holiday art and artifact benefit from 12-5 in South Berkeley to fund a space of our own and some larger scale group projects. Come by and snag some great art, stuff our donation bra, and hang out with the Hackermoms! Pearls and heels guaranteed.

   Jul 24

East Bay Mini Maker Faire 2011- Call for entries!

The East Bay Mini Maker Faire has announced it’s call for entries for this coming Fall, due September 5th, 2011.

Because the Maker Faire is full of, well, our kind of people- we hightailed it to the first Mini Maker Faire last year and despite the pouring rain, the dedicated crowd and enjoyable entries were fantastic. Of course. We may just have to sign up for our own booth this year. In fact, each one of us may need our own booth.

From their website, a good summary:

Maker Faire features a huge range of things:  robots and electronics projects, homesteading arts, animal husbandry, kooky inventions, poetry writing, screen printing, music making, crafts and hacks of all kind…  Anything Do-It-Yourself, and especially anything Do-It-Together.

This year’s Mini Maker Faire will be on Sunday, October 16, 2011 on the Park Day School Campus in the Temescal District of Oakland.