Posts Tagged Julia Steiny

The Most Educational Toys are Completely Free, Or Mostly

Published by — The best, most educational toys don’t always need to plug in, have a micro-processor or cost a fortune.


Ah, the quiet week, the post-holiday pause. The gifts have been purchased, wrapped and unwrapped. The house is returning to normal. Most of the nation’s children are busy with new goodies from under the tree. Most will spend their vacation downtime hunched in front of some sort of screen. Some might actually be physically active, using a Wii to simulate an outdoor activity in a messy bedroom.

Consumer Christmas jumped to light speed with TV, of course. Before then Christmas was a time to spoil the children A LITTLE BIT with a doll or a toy car, chocolates, and a sweet collection of myths and magic. Solstice, Hanukkah and the Nativity are all celebrations of the waxing of the light as we face the dark of the season. But who notices that anymore? The season’s holy days are now fully transformed into a toy orgasm, in a triumph of mass advertising over cultural tradition.

So let’s head over to the Geek Dads column in Wired Magazine to see if your kids got the hottest must-have item. The columnists home-test toys with their very own children, or geeklets. These tech-heads know whereof they e-speak.

Jonathan Liu puts it right out there with “The 5 Best Toys of All Time.” And they are:

Stick, box, string, cardboard tube and dirt.

Hmmmmm. Not exactly sophisticated, cool, “the latest,” or advertised as educational.

Some readers objected to his priorities, so Liu included a few more in a subsequent column. They are:

Bubble wrap, rock, ball and water.

Once I got over the shock of the refreshing lack of batteries needed, I wanted to add doll, sand and clay.

But whatever. For once I am at one with hip, young super-sophisticates. Liu acknowledges that his choices involve a bit more risk than video games, and thus need some unintrusive supervision. But adults should be doing that anyway.

Still, the contrast between super-absorbing electronic entertainment and the traditional elements of play raises the question: What is a toy?

While researching children’s play and its relationship to academics, I found this oft-repeated saying: A good toy is 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.

A video game, or a movie-character doll, have plot lines already laid out. A kid “plays” by doing the plot correctly – finding the right pre-made path through the video adventure, or following the movie character’s story line precisely. Zero creativity.

Three important qualities characterize traditional play materials. (Ropes and blankets that make up indoor forts are hard to call toys, exactly.)

First, a good toy brings out the personality and passions of the child. What does he like to do? What does he repeat so he can get better and better at it? Is he a builder? Game-player? Adventurer? Pretender? Children are always telling us what skills and interests they want nourished, if we listen.

Secondly, traditional playthings are the way the child’s brain uploads the features, benefits and liabilities of the world around her. Sticks, for example, can be anything. (Which is why forbidding toy guns always seems to me like a losing proposition.) They can dig, be weaponry, scepters, farm tools. But they can also poke, hit and hurt. They come from trees, which are giant jungle gyms when frightened adults aren’t looking.

In a video game, the weapon in the avatar’s hand has no weight, length or other properties that might inform a kid’s later encounter with, say, tools. Playing with play stuff gets the kid ready to handle real stuff.

Because third – and this is a point almost entirely lost on adults – play is a way of getting ready for work. As kids get older, their traditional toys increasingly mimic adult work. Kids like to pretend to be adults. They want to tinker, build or cook, like the adults. Cars and roadways are dangerously adult, but kids can reproduce them in a sandbox.

On a fact sheet, The Alliance for Childhood recommends that you “bring back the art of real work. Believe it or not, adult activity – cooking, raking, cleaning, washing the car – actually inspires children to play. Children like to help for short periods and then engage in their own play.”

This is huge. If children learn to work through their play, later when they’re adults, they’ll look for work that has an element of play in it for them, hopefully. If play is just about being passively entertained, even with “interactive” features supplied by a keyboard, then work and school will just be boring drudgery because they’re not entertainment. Lots of essential work is tedious, but playful people can find the game aspect and make it work for them.

Honestly, I believe that the key reason we’re struggling to raise our kids’ academic achievement is that we’ve sucked play out of learning and work. Our work can look like such a drag to kids. We come home, plotz in front of the TV, and make it seem like there, on the screen, life finally has some juice.

Surely Geek Dads get their fill of playing with screens when they work. So no wonder that when they get playthings for their kids, they want to go retro with dirt, water, and totally fun cardboard boxes.

But theirs shouldn’t be the only such lucky kids.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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A Social Studies Project Lets Us Peek Through Windows into 3rd Grade Lives

Published by — At the International Charter School, in Pawtucket, RI, teachers and an artist help third grade students document their culture and lives using photographs.

The all-purpose room at International Charter School (ICS) crackles with excitement.

Along the walls are the final exhibitions for “Documenting Cultural Communities,” an annual third-grade social studies project. Each child has chosen three of their own photographs, a self-portrait and two others that document a moment emblematic of their family’s culture. Each wrote two pieces about what we see in the pictures, one in English and one in Spanish.

The displays open surprisingly clear windows into the kids’ hearts and homes.

The author/photographers are supposed to be stationed next to their work to answer visitors’ questions. But they can manage it only for a moment, trying to be official for a question or two. The gravitational pull to their swarm of friends is too great. They’re proud, excited. Their families are beaming. They’re mostly dressed to the nines. One twirls in her glittery purple dress, making the fringe fly.

ICS is a two-way bilingual school. Tonight celebrates the English/Spanish exhibition, but there will be another for the school’s Portuguese program.

After doing this project for three years, the teachers, Brooke Odessa and Rose Santamaria, no longer have the children write straight translations of their first piece because it’s too boring to read. The two writing pieces reveal different details.

While the quality of the writing varies, the sentiments are inspired. The children photograph whatever represents their culture, so the pictures only show what they care about. The school lends a digital camera to each child. Their families help them take excellent care of the equipment because this project is about them.

The pictures are intriguing. You’re drawn to the details.

One boy had himself photographed with his legs over his head in a spaghetti of limbs, and describes himself as “flexible.”

A girl photographed and wrote about the highly-decorated sea shell that had been used for her baptism in Mexico.

The pictures show us dads fixing cars, moms cooking, and backyard celebrations. We see a place set for dinner heaped with favorite foods. A dance band plays at a child’s church that looks to me like a hotel meeting room. The children in ICS’ Spanish/English classes are predominantly Hispanic, of course, so you can see how much closer Grandma, Auntie and Uncle are to the daily life of the households than you’d probably see in most Anglo families.

Most pictures show humble homes in Pawtucket, Providence and poor Central Falls, now famous for its bankruptcy. So one photograph of a grand, beachside outdoor space seems very out of place. The story explains that this child’s mother cleans this vacation home of wealthy people. He describes how the paper towels smell of Windex.

Several years ago, the teachers at ICS complained that typical social studies programs were totally lame as compared with what their diverse population could teach one another. The Rhode Island Foundation gave the teachers a grant to develop a school-wide curriculum of their own. Kindergarten begins, appropriately, with “me,” and each grade level expands the child’s social horizons outward to family, community, culture and finally to global citizenship.

The teachers explain that their curriculum is keyed to the national standards for social studies. But whenever possible, they ask the children to find examples of culture in their own lives and in the world around them.

As the third-grade teachers were developing their program, one of their parents happened to be Mary Beth Meehan, a professional photographer. Funded by another grant, she began teaching the children “narrative story-telling” in pictures. To prepare to make a picture, kids first walk about peering through rectangles cut out of black construction paper, learning to see the world as composed inside a frame.

Meehan laughs, “The first thing they have to do ASAP is to get over the posing thing. Here’s Mom with my sisters smiling at the camera. That’s fine, but it’s not a candid moment in a story.”

Meehan says, “My favorite part of the project is when the pictures come back.” She loads them onto her computer and prints out contact sheets. Kids start making decisions about which pictures to highlight. They work together editing.

A kid will passionately defend the picture of a beloved cat. With their new sophistication, the other kids might reject the picture as ill-composed. They decide together. Meehan herself didn’t much like a picture of a soda can from Colombia, but the kids talked her into it. “And they were right. It does represent a cultural artifact.” Its aesthetic is not at all American.

Head of School Julie Nora reports that at the four national conferences where they’ve presented this project, everyone loves it, but wants to know if it would work without a professional photographer. Well, sort of. But not at this level of quality. The kids get a full-on art lesson in the midst of rich social studies and writing. They won’t forget what it means to frame a composition or the difference between an authentic moment and a staged shot. They care to do their best work.

Since 2008-09 to 2010-11, ICS’ 5th-grade writing scores have improved from 36 to 57 percent, almost reaching the state average – in a school where by design, half the children are English-language learners. Not surprisingly, 59 percent are eligible for subsidized lunch.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have great riches in their lives to share with us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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Nixing Managed Risk of Childhood Play Produces Wimps

Published by — Eliminating ‘managed risk’ from normal childhood play does a disservice to kids by sequestering them from life’s normal ups and downs.

When I was maybe, like 7 years old, I accidently broke Bill Kelly’s leg.

I’m guessing he was 12, maybe 13.

Three doors down from ours, the Kelly’s house teemed with neighborhood kids and their brood of 7. They’d set up croquet in their backyard. And I got it into my idiot head that I would hold onto the handle of one of the mallets and swing it round and round, enjoying the centrifugal pull of the mallet head. In the midst of my hands-on experiment with momentum, I lost my grip. The mallet flew. I heard Bill scream bloody murder and saw him go down.

Mortified, petrified, hysterical, I ran home, and when I could stop sobbing for a second, blurted out my crime to my parents. They were suitably alarmed. My dad went down the block to see what he could do.

While the grown-ups were buzzing about the incident, no big wave of fury crashed on me. In time I was marched down to apologize to Bill in front of his and my parents. Bill was rip-snortingly angry because his leg really hurt.

But most importantly, he couldn’t play baseball with a cast. The Kelly boys were sports nuts. I’m sure I gushed remorse, because my face gets hot with shame, to this day.

But that’s all that happened, such as I remember. Surely my parents paid the medical costs or settled up somehow. Surely the adults’ conversation was dark and concerned as they scrambled to care for Bill. I didn’t need retribution added to how stupid and awful I felt. My mother let me know she believed it was an unfortunate accident.

It was a hard lesson for all of us: Be careful. Be mindful. That lesson can’t be learned once and for all, like multiplication, but must be faced time and time again.

I’ll bet a point came when my parents and the Kellys had a good laugh, and perhaps a drink together. The families developed no tensions. Bill was back on the ballfields soon enough. The Steiny kids played at the Kelly’s house, and their kids at ours. Life went on.

In those days everyone assumed that stuff happened.

These days? Are you kidding? That could have been a massive law suit. That could have set off ugly tensions between the two families, perhaps infecting the swarm of neighborhood kids.

These days an amazing number of people assume that childhood should be scrubbed clean of broken legs, bruised egos and minor property damage. Communities teach children that they should not have to expect nor tolerate adversity. And in the event of accidents or even deliberate misbehavior, adults often turn to the problem-solving industry, the legal system – or some other authority with the power to impose retribution.

So parents, neighbors, schools and Departments of Parks and Recreation spend vast resources protecting themselves from litigation, in the name of protecting the children. You’re a lawsuit waiting to happen if you don’t practice zero tolerance towards foolish youthful behavior and the inevitable consequences of immaturity.

So kids do not learn managed risk. If kids never fall, how do they learn balance? If they never resolve their own heated disputes, how do they learn to deal with bullies? If they never make mistakes, how will they persist to real, hard-earned success? Childhood is the perfect time to suffer the minor consequences of getting dirty, getting hurt, and losing one’s temper.

What is childhood without managed risk?

Well, poor training, for one thing. Kids arrive at the school door with less and less common sense. Beyond organized sports and electronics, they know nothing of the kind of playing that includes banging wood together, roaming the neighborhood, breaking something or, sigh, accidently hurting someone.

In a recent study by the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, college officials report that students’ demand for mental-health services is soaring. These are the youth who have survived our educational system and have enough family support to get them to college. But even they now arrive at college fragile from over-protection and clueless about managing the big world in front of them. They have little resilience and no notion how to deal with a crabby roommate.

Consider that nationally SAT scores have declined, the NAEPs have been flat, and the states’ local testing programs show remarkably little progress. Yes, the quality of schools is part of the problem. But we’re asking the great majority of kids to build their understanding of Algebra I and the scientific method on a clueless foundation of protected and manufactured experiences. Organized sports, T.V., and video games do not teach creativity, resourcefulness or how to resolve disputes without adult intervention.

The fear of liability is not keeping the kids safe at all, but making them stupid with lack of everyday, knockabout experience. Put up with the occasional broken leg. And get real. Bullying will never go away. All of us need to learn the skills and confidence to manage social challenges.

Adversity is life. We’re sparing kids the work of learning to deal with life.

And just for the record: the most dangerous thing a kid can do is get in your car with you, even properly secured.

I’m pretty sure Bill became a successful doctor. Absolutely no worse the wear. And my accident was just a good story and big lesson for our ‘hood.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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