{ whimsical urban spaces } for fostering play

live from AERA…*

I am currently attending the 2015 AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference in Chicago, and I have been attending and participating in a variety of exciting presentations, roundtables, and poster sessions about the many types of interesting research around education and its unique challenges. I am still making sense out of all I learned, and I hope to share some of the interesting talks with you in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, today I want to talk about this amazing playground I spotted here in downtown Chicago.

Fostering Play…*

Last week Elsa wrote about the importance of play in our ever-changing world, reminding us of the essential nature of play. Perhaps this was on my mind because during my free afternoon this weekend I was walking near Millennium Park and couldn’t help but stop to admire this incredible play space.

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Photo Eric X. via Yelp

Maggie Daley park is a $60 million, newly opened 20 acre recreational space, opened in 2014. It was designed by architect Michael Van Valkenburgh as “a counterpoint to the symmetry and formality of Grant Park… with..  curvilinear forms, dramatic topography, and many whimsical elements.” As described in this article, there is a 3-acre play garden designed in the spirit of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is the piece of the park I stumbled upon . I was immediately enchanted by the surrealist, cartoon-like environment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated that the play garden “will allow kids to challenge themselves and do things they didn’t know they could do“.

In a world where I worry about childhoods lived behind a screen and enacted through highly constrained, scripted environments, I am so excited by this notion of fostering unstructured play. The rich narrative and creative potential of places like this is endless, and I find myself envious of the young children who will be enjoying the play garden this spring.

More pictures of this play space below. I will report back on my more academic experience at this conference next Monday!

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Children loved running up and down the rubbery foam hills, rather than using the stairs.

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A giant bridge connecting two towers. When I crossed, three young boys were working together to shake the bridge, excited at the prospect of making me fall (I remained upright, to their extreme disapointment).

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My colleague from Teachers College taking a turn on one of the slides.

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A web made of wires and ropes, where young boys created a clubhouse to call home.

{ Play Is Our Adaptive Wild Card } In Order to Adapt Successfully to a Changing World, We Need to Play …*

Bonobos, like humans, love to play throughout their entire lives. Play is not just child’s games. For us and them, play is foundational for bonding relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience and it’s all about the generation of diversity —diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors and diversity of connections. And when you watch Bonobos play you’re seeing the very evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.” – Isabel Behncke Izquierdo

In this short and delightful TED talk, primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo highlights some of the ways in which the highly playful Bonobos can teach us about successfully naviating “a future where we need to adapt to an increasingly challenging world through greater creativity and greater cooperation. The secret is that play is the key to these capacities. In other words, play is our adaptive wild card. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play.” As you kick off the weekend, remember , “Play is not frivolous. Play is essential.”

Rethinking How We Define Passion & Why We Should Cultivate A Craftsman’s Mindset …*

Rethinking How We Define Passion & Why We Should Cultivate A Craftsman’s Mindset ...* | rethinked.org

I am reading a fascinating book on the history of the color palette and one of the chapters I was just reading addresses the historical shift of the perception of painting as a “craft profession to an art one.” This shift was accelerated in the mid-seventeenth century with the nascent field of ‘colormen,’ professionals who mixed raw materials into paints, something artists had mostly done themselves until that point.

“For “craftspeople” the ability to manage one’s material was all important; for “artists” the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding were simply time consuming obstacles to the main business of creation.”

[ . . . ]

“What was the good of painting a masterpiece if its constituent elements would spend the next few years fighting together chemically on the canvas, and ultimately turn black? The early seventeenth-centuy painter Anthony Van Dyck knew how to employ varnish so that colors that would otherwise react with each other would be safe from ruin; Victorian artists, however, did not, and this was, Holman Hunt predicted, to be their downfall. Part of the issue was that he–and his teachers, and his teachers’ teachers–had rarely had to mix paint from basic materials. He had never had to grind a rock, or powder a root, or burn a twig, or crush a dried insect. Nor, more importantly, had he observed the chemical reactions involved in paint-making and seen how colors changed over the years.”

Source: Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay

This reminded me of advice I read from Cal Newport about shifting from a ‘passion’ mindset, which has been a dominant cultural trope these past few decades–“what do I love to do and how do I do only that?”–to a “crafstman’s” mindset, a relentless focus on activating one’s unique potential by continually pushing to develop one’s skills and acquire new ones.

My advice is to abandon the passion mindset which asks “What does this job offer me? Am I happy with this job? Is it giving me everything I want?” Shift from that mindset to Steve Martin’s mindset, which is “What am I offering the world? How valuable am I? Am I really not that valuable? If I’m not that valuable, then I shouldn’t expect things in my working life. How can I get better?“ Like a craftsman, you find satisfaction in the development of your skill and then you leverage that skill once you have it to take control of your working life and build something that’s more long-term and meaningful… When I talk about the habits of the craftsman mindset, it’s really the habits of deliberate practice. So someone who has the craftsman mindset is trying to systematically build up valuable skills because that’s going to be their leverage, their capital for taking control of their career and they share the same habits you would see with violin players or athletes or chess players.

The craftsmen out there are not the guys checking their social media feeds every five minutes. They’re not looking for the easy win or the flow-state. They’re the guys that are out there three hours, pushing the skill. “This is hard but I’m going to master this new piece of software. I’m going to master this new mathematical framework.” That’s the mindset, the habit of the craftsman.

Source: Cal Newport on how you can be an expert and why you should *not* follow your passion

I think there is something about the craftsman’s mindset that is particularly important in our age of instant gratification and seemingly constant technological innovation. The abundant research on flow states is just one potent reminder of the joys and rewards to be found in taking the long road when creating something, whether it is a painting, a life or a career. Working through challenges is not a guarantee for reaching a flow state, but without an appropriate degree of difficulty relative to one’s skill level, without stretching past what we know, flow is impossible.

We need a collective rethink in how we define passion. Passion is not easy nor instantaneously gratifying and it is certainly not always joyful. When we ignore the painful aspects of passion, we lose out on the chance to ferociously pursue the possibility of living meaningful and fulfilling lives where we have the potential to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. 

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.” – Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves 

learn, practice, create & rethink …* 

{ Wondrous Wednesdays } Using Painting to Keep Zoo Animals Happy & Healthy …*

{ Wondrous Wednesdays } Using Painting to Keep Zoo Animals Happy & Healthy ...* | rethinked.org

Artist: Jack, Western Lowland Gorilla | Source: BioParkSociety.org

The abstract masterpieces of such unlikely artists as Prehensile Tail Porcupines, goats, hissing cockroaches and vinegaroons (had to Google that one) are sure to infuse your Wednesday with a hefty dose of wonder and delight. This budding art collective is the result of an enrichment program from the ABQ BioPark Zoo. The therapeutic and enriching benefits of painting, it would seem, extend to animals. “Getting them to use their brains and to figure things out keeps them happier and healthier,” says zoo manager, Lynn Tupa.

The animals at the ABQ BioPark Zoo have learned to paint as an enrichment activity, purely for their own pleasure and mental stimulation. To ensure that painting remains enjoyable for the animals, the opportunity to paint is an occasional treat, not part of their daily routine.

From primate Picassos to buggy Botticellis, our stable of talented animal artists has increased this year to provide an even greater variety of original masterpieces that will thrill collectors and animal enthusiasts alike. Choose from a number of genres and styles that include (but not limited to) elephants, gorillas, parrots, marsupials, alligators, insects and more!

Head over to the Bio Park Society website to view (and perhaps purchase) the paintings (all done with non-toxic tempera paint) by this unlikely band of artists. All proceeds from the paintings directly support that animal’s program at the ABQ BioPark. You can also ‘meet’ some of the artists through their endearing online bios. From Shona the Warthog, who has found the activity “very therapeutic since her mate, Chip, recently passed away,” to Sarah the Orangutan who, “reserves her favorite colors, like silver, to paint her hands and feet and uses her least favorite colors on the canvas,” (a girl’s gotta have her favorite things), you’ll learn about the unique manner in which each artist approaches his or her craft and some intriguing facts about their species. Some of the animals, like Crocket the Raccoon, have instantly taken to the activity while others, like Tonka the Orangutan, are more reticent. “His appearance is very important to him. He will pick up his very long hair as he tries to avoid mud puddles. This is why we are still working on his painting. He goes to great lengths to avoid getting his hands dirty and will continuously wipe the paint off them.”

delight, wonder & rethink …* 

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Artist: Calloway – Banded Armadillo | Source: BioParkSociety.org

Listen to Understand Rather Than to Respond …*

Listen to Understand Rather Than to Respond ...* |rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

If you want to become a better listener, probably the single most important thing you can do or the best thing you can do is adopt this idea and that is to listen to understand as opposed to just listening merely to respond.” – Tom Yorton

Here’s a great short video featuring Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works and co-author of the recently published Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City talk about the importance of practicing and improving one’s capacity for effective listening. Yorton shares a very helpful stance from which to frame our listening opportunities: listen to understand, not to respond. This reminded me of the beginning stance necessary for assertive inquiry –a powerful method of productive dialogue–“I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.” The desire to understand one’s interlocutor is a critical ingredient for effective listening whether you’re practicing Integrative Thinking with your team members or empathizing with your loved ones.

practice, listen, understand . . . *

{ incandescent souls }, eulogy virtues, & character education…*

David Brooks wrote a beautiful Op-Ed piece for the New York Times this past weekend titled “The Moral Bucket List.” In it, he talks about resume virtues versus eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the skills we learn for career success and what our education system is largely designed to teach. Eulogy virtues, however, are the types of things discussed at your funeral (to be a bit morbid). They include attributes such as kindness, bravery, honesty, or love.  In the article, he talks about those people with impressive eulogy virtues, who radiate an inner light,

“They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

We all know these types of people. Perhaps some of you fit this description. Yet I think it is far too common today to focus on our resume virtues at the expense of our eulogy ones. As Brooks writes, “it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity… Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

However, the good news is that an incandescent soul can be cultivated, and Brooks compiles what he calls a “moral bucket list” for those wishing to get closer to their desired selves.

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the moral bucket list…*

According to Brooks, the moral bucket list includes 6 experiences:

1. the humility shift – a shift to honestly admitting your own weaknesses. This is followed by…

2. self-defeat – confronting these weaknesses and finding ways to counteract them. Next is…

3. the dependency leap – switching from an individualist/ highly autonomous perspective on life to one that allows for admitting when you need help or support and a life rooted in connections with others.

4. energizing love is the type of life-changing love for another that overcomes one’s innate self-centeredness.

5. the call within the call is an experience that turns a career into a passion.

6. the conscience leap is the moment when one makes a moral decision, no matter the stakes.

How can educators support eulogy virtues? …*

Soft Skills…*

The above moral bucket list experiences have a lot to do with those “soft skills” that we talk about these days in education such teamwork, emotional intelligence, empathy. They also involve metacognition – specifically self-awareness and reflection on one’s faults and how to remedy these. Always an advocate for soft skills, I suggest we continue to emphasize the importance of these for building both our resume AND eulogy virtues

Collectivism and connectedness…*

Brooks suggests that we need to take a less self-centered approach to education. While we often tell our graduates to “follow your passion” or “be true to yourself”, we should focus less on the self and more on the self as connected to the world. We should say “what is life asking of you?” or “how can you match your talents and skill sets with one of our society’s deep needs?”.

The philosophy for stumblers…*

Brooks ends by suggesting something that I love, because it has a lot to do with the value of failure (an idea that I am designing my doctoral work around). He talks about “a philosophy for stumblers” or the idea that incandescent souls stumble through life, always enmeshed in a struggle towards an ideal. They are not squeamish about their imperfect nature, but rather constantly transcending, growing, and learning. As Brooks states,

“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be”

This so clearly aligns with my beloved philosophy around failure – the idea that failure is a good and natural part of learning and growing. Therefore, if we can bring students to view life with the philosophy of stumblers (or the design thinking mindset of “fail forward”), perhaps we can help mold more incandescent souls, stumbling through life and making the world a better place…*

 

 

Finding Inspiration In A Tiny Radical Act of Rethinking …*

Finding Inspiration In A Tiny Radical Act of Rethinking ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

This Tuesday, on the corner of 16th and 7th, I found fully deployed that yet unnamed cluster of capacities that animates the rethinker * A dynamic mix of courage, hope, curiosity, grit, and childlike wonder. It came in the form of a woman wearing a Post Office uniform. She was walking a few steps ahead of me, each of us braced against the strong gusts of wind blowing down Seventh Avenue. Right as we reached the corner, she bent down to pick up and examine a discarded lottery ticket that was blowing down the street.

I was struck by that tiny act, which to me encapsulates the essential impulse of rethinking…* What are the chances that someone would get a winning lottery ticket and throw it away or lose it? It seems the odds would be lesser still than actually getting a winning lottery ticket. Yet she picked it up in a glorious leap of faith, a radical act of rebellion against the status quo. In that tiny action was an infinite and definitive stand against believing that things will be as they have always been, that they should be as they are. Probably not, but what if? Fortune could be found floating on the corner along with the plastic bags and other detritus of the city. You won’t know unless you check.

R E T H I N K  . . . *

{ Stand by Your Choices } When the Going Gets Tough, Remember You Chose This …*

A few months ago, I shared a list of the top five things that walking 500 miles helped me understand in a deeper or different way. Here is a bit more context around the fourth lesson- stand by your choices– When the going gets tough, lean into the discomfort, after all, you’re the one that chose to put yourself in this situation

. . . *

I first discovered the notion of “leaning into discomfort” last year, from my father. In a spur of the moment decision that still baffles me I had committed to run a half-marathon. I printed a training schedule I found online, got a good pair of running shoes and motivated myself with the promise of New York’s best donuts (I stand by that claim) at Peter Pan after every run. I was soon forced by an interminable string of snowstorms to train indoors on a treadmill. Let’s be honest, running in place inside in bad lighting is far from a stimulating experience. I dealt with the drudgery of burning lungs, aching muscles and being forced to awkwardly stare at my wheezing tomato-red reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors strategically (perversely) placed in front of the treadmills by zoning out. I would pick a point on my shirt, somewhere near the collar, directly under my chin, stare at it in the mirror and blast music (or podcasts, thank you Debbie Millman) in my headphones to slowly force my mind out of the gym. My runs were a chore and while with time I came to appreciate and look forward to the way I felt after a long run, the act itself was something I just had to get through.

That changed when one weekend I visited my parents and went on a run with my father who is an avid runner. He told me to leave my music at home and said to focus instead on the way the air felt in my lungs, the crunch of the ground under my sneakers, the noise of the birds overhead–to lean into the experience, discomfort and all; to be fully present in the moment. This all sounded like a terrible idea but I trust and look up to him enough that I was willing to give it a try. It was on that run that my feelings about running started to change. I acquired a new appreciation for the act itself, I began to enjoy the feeling of running, not just the feeling that came when I stopped. There was still discomfort and pain but I discovered a strong sense of joy in those aches. This was my body, moving, strengthening and even though the process sometimes hurt, I felt incredibly excited by experiencing the fullness of the process.

I injured myself two weeks before the race and was told by my doctor that I had to stop running for a few months until I recovered. I’ve since given up on the idea of running a half-marathon but I’ve kept running. I don’t want to force myself to run in place on a treadmill for up to an hour and a half to reach a certain number of miles by race day, but I come alive when the weather is pleasant and I’m out for a run.

{ Stand by Your Choices } When the Going Gets Tough, Remember You Chose This ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

Entering Galicia

 

The last stage of the Camino Frances goes through the luxuriant hills of Galicia. The second I crossed over into Galicia three things happened: I was awed by the breathtaking greens hidden and revealed by opaque layers of thick fog; it rained all day every day, and I came down with a massive cold. I’m not talking little seasonal sniffle, no, this was the real thing–mouth breathing, body aches, sore throat and fever. I tried to rally and thought about my father’s advice to embrace the fulness of each experience by leaning into all its components, including the uncomfortable ones. That got me through most of the first day but by the third day, walking from morning to mid-afternoon in torrential rain, slipping in mud, and lugging my heavy pack, I fell prey to whining and self-pity.

After spending the better part of the morning telling myself that this was awful, that I hated it, that it was the stupidest thing I had ever done, I was reluctantly forced to come to the unavoidable conclusion that I had no one to “blame” for this but myself. No one had made me walk, it had been my choice and it had been something I had really wanted, something I thought would be important. The mud, the rain, the cold, the constant running out of tissues and burning sore throat, all that was a consequence of a choice I had made. It was part of the package.

I have always been obsessed by notions of identity–who are we? how do we know? why does it matter?– There are so many layers to get lost in when trying to formulate a sense of the self. In the bustle of daily life it is so easy to avoid owning up to who we are by hiding behind habits, labels, complacency. We make excuses–we’re too tired, too busy, too stressed, we’d be/act differently if only… It’s astonishing what carrying all your belongings on your back will do to help you clarify things. In the end, when all the noise is removed and each day comes down to lacing up your boots and walking down the path you have chosen, the questions crystalize. Do you walk through the breathtaking landscapes but also the cow shit and the mud pits? Do you own your choice or not?

My walk helped crystalize some thoughts around selfhood, voice and experience that have been brewing in my mind for the past few years. I feel a bit vulnerable sharing this insight because it seems so definitive and if there is one thing I find ridiculous it’s certainties. But for me, at this stage in my life, at least, I reached the end of my walk and the conclusion that the measure of who we are comes down to wether or not we are willing to stand behind our choices.

In some way, choices are cheap– A or B, stripes or polka dots, adventure or safety. We may agonize for extended periods of time over which choice to make, but the actual decision takes only a moment. The real work comes after, will we reaffirm our decision each day and embrace the consequences or will we whine and blame and become alienated from ourselves and our experience in the process. It’s been said before, but there is an expiration date for blaming your parents and circumstances for wasting the numbered amount of moments you are given.

This is about taking ownership for the lives we live; it’s about living with intent, courage and perseverance. Do you want to go through life running in place in bad neon lighting, blasting music through your headphones until your mind is numb or do you want to live the fullness of who you are by accepting accountability for the decisions your make? It’s not our choices that define us, but our capacity and willingness to stand behind them.

{ Stand by Your Choices } When the Going Gets Tough, Remember You Chose This ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

What the last 10 days of my Camino looked like, more or less.

 

Aja Monet – Powerful Women Voices, Nomads & Poetry …*

“Everybody sings, you know. You might not ever share that you sing with anybody, but everybody has a song. My focus has always been on writing good lyrics and things that inspire people but I recognize my voice and I recognize my voice does something to the lyrics and to the words, not that it’s necessarily singing but it’s inflecting a certain emotion.” – Aja Monet

A couple of weeks ago, I shared an arresting image from the amazing non-profit Get Lit. It was a screenshot of the Image results page to a Google search for “famous authors,” all of whom–save for the notable exception of Maya Angelou and Agatha Christie–were male, white, and many of them, dead. Get Lit captioned the image, “We need young female voices because this is what comes up when you google “famous authors.” So I thought today I’d highlight an incredible woman poet with a strong and moving voice, the spendid Aja Monet. I discovered Monet serendipitously last week while looking into the production company, Greatcoat Films, that had made the short film on Kintsugi featured in Friday’s post.

Monet is dedicated to empowering at-risk youths right here in NYC by helping them learn to use, harness and share their own voices. I loved Monet’s take on education, which I found in the bio section of her website:

As a Teaching Artist for Urban Word NYC as well as Urban Arts Partnership in NYC, she uses poetry as a therapeutic tool with at-risk inner city kids, showing how words can empower and encourage holistic healing in youth education. She teaches her students to harness meaning in the world and to transform the world by transforming selves. In an interview, Monet speaks to her passion for education: “Education gave me perspective on my circumstances and it fueled my imagination by providing me with teachers that made the difference where my parenting may have failed. Education was the village that raised me. I care about it because I recognize the difference it makes in my life and the impact it has on fine-tuning my vision.” 

Watch the short interview and her extraordinary “Nomads” below, both films brought to you by Greatcoat films.

“Anything I feel or something I’m inspired by, something compels me to speak. Sometimes I don’t know what it is but I trust that it comes from an authentic place, I trust that it comes from a true place and I just write about it.”

Aja Monet: Poet, Voice, Storyteller from Greatcoat Films on Vimeo.

“POETRY, AT ITS BEST, IS A CRAFT, AN ART THAT TRANSCENDS THE WRTING INTO DOING AND INTO CREATING ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF SEEING THE WORLD.”

- Aja Monet

Aja Monet “Nomads” from Greatcoat Films on Vimeo.

listen, speak, rethink …* 

Music As An Evolutionary Adaptation to Help us Overcome Cognitive Dissonance & Retain Contradictory Knowledge. …*

Music As An Evolutionary Adaptation to Help us Overcome Cognitive Dissonance & Retain Contradictory Knowledge. ...* |rethinked.org - photo: Elsa Fridman

Integrative Thinking, as Roger Martin defines it in his splendid book on the subject, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, is:

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

The cognitive dissonance we experience as we work our way through this tension often comes with a high level of emotional and cognitive discomfort. It’s painful–frightening even–to question the ‘truth’ and reality of our knowledge and beliefs. All too often, in an effort to rid ourselves of this highly unpleasant sense of unease, we disengage with one of the two elements procuding the dissonance; disregarding one idea or point of view to focus exclusively on the one that feels familiar and safe to us. In disengaging, we lose out on the vast possibilities of the tension. Not only is this a lost opportunity for us to grow as teams and individuals, it often holds a heavy social and human cost as we hold on to harmful and negative stereotypes and assumptions about who other people are and what their beliefs may be.

Just a few days ago, I read an intriguing theory from physicist and investigator of human cognitive functioning, Leonid Perlovsky, that suggests adding music to our Integrative Thinking toolbox as a coping strategy to stay in the uncomfortable, if highly productive, space of cognitive dissonance long enough to work through the tensions and derive the benefits. Music, according to Perlovsky, is an “evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us navigate a world rife with contradictions.”

The idea is that music – which can convey an array of nuanced emotions – helps us reconcile our own conflicted emotions when making choices. And the more diverse, differentiated emotions we possess, the more well-founded our decisions become. Whether it’s choosing to play with a toy or deciding to propose to a boyfriend or girlfriend, our research shows that music can enhance our cognitive abilities.

Thus, because we constantly grapple with cognitive dissonances, we created music, in part, to help us tolerate – and overcome – them.

This is the universal purpose of music.

Perlovsky backs up his theory by sharing some of the experiments he and his team have conducted on the subject. One of the experiments that he shares will be of particular interest to educators and integrative thinkers:

we gave a group of fifteen-year-old students a typical multiple choice exam, and asked them to record the difficulty of each question, along with how much time it took them to answer each one.

It turned out that more difficult questions were answered faster (and grades suffered), because students didn’t want to prolong unpleasant dissonance of choosing between difficult options. However when Mozart’s music played in the background, they spent more time on the difficult questions. Their scores improved.

Source: How music helps resolve our deepest inner conflicts

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