Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Infographics For Kids

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jabberwock word cloud

Recently, I’ve been messing around with infographic websites, looking for better ways to help my OLLY app customers get started. It’s always hard to learn how to use new software, especially one with a lot of different features, and no one really wants to wade through a lot of text. I have some video tutorials on how to use certain features, but I think a graphic flow map would give a better overview of the whole system at once.

That’s the beauty of infographics – the ability to pack lots of information into a small space by combining text with visual elements such as pictures, shapes, colors, symbols, charts, graphs, etc. It’s actually a lot of fun playing around with these, and it seems to me that kids might also enjoy making visual representations of subjects that are interesting to them.

Be warned: I’m not saying that making information graphics is easy, particularly when you have to first learn to use software to make them. I am suggesting a hands-on approach with paper, markers, scissors, and maybe magazine clippings of words and photos. If your kids are really into computers and want to try the digital approach, there are some simple do-it-yourself sites like ManyEyes, Creately, and Gliffy for diagrams. I used ABCya! Word Clouds for Kids for the word cloud at the top of this post (super easy).

I also found some interesting looking software for kids: Inspiration for grades 6-12, and Kidspiration for grades K-5 (see the examples below). I have not tried either of these, but the demos shown on the website make them look easy to learn and visually appealing for kids.

OverView Inspiration
Inspiration Closeup

Your kids could also try out some of the graphic capabilities of Microsoft PowerPoint and Word. Visiting online tutorials and help sites will get them started, and any time spent learning to use those applications will be worthwhile for future projects at school and on the job.

Even if your family is not inspired to make their own infographics, it’s fun (and educational) just to look at what other people have made. Here’s a few sites that I particularly like: is a place for graphic designers to showcase their work, and for businesses to find designers. Just do a search of their “Visualizations” to see the extraordinary variety.
How Big is a Giant Squid United States of Football

Good is another inspiring site, especially if you are an idealist who wants to save the world.
Reading For the Future

Kids Discover
Kids Discover has a nice collection of infographics especially for kids in a wide range of science, history and geography topics.
Anatomy of a Cell

Avatar Generation
Another cool site chock full of apps, games and infographs related to kids and technology.

As you look at different examples of information graphics, notice that the best ones have a cohesive theme along with original, accurate information and compelling graphics. There are a lot of bad examples out there – see if your kids can distinguish and explain the elements that make some visualizations better than others.

For more information on how infographics might be used to inspire reluctant report writers, please see my earlier post here.

A Christmas Present for Extended Family and Friends

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As a military family, we have moved around a lot, making it difficult to visit our relatives on a regular basis. One of the things I liked to do, starting the last week of November is make a year-in-review DVD to send to everybody. This used to be a HUGE project with the software I had available to me over the years, but modern technology has made the process so much easier.

The idea is to go through all your home videos from the year and capture the best segments using video editing software. You can then add transitions, effects, captions, still photos and music. I have to admit that my first videos were overly long and boring, with WAY too much grainy footage of babies laying on their backs blowing raspberries, or babies in the bouncer, or babies in the swing, etc. These are the types of videos that only the most doting of grandparents can tolerate. Since then, I’ve learned a few things. Here’s my top tips:

Top Ten Tips for Year-in-Review Videos:

1. Take good footage in the first place! Most cameras these days are pretty good, but take the time to look over the manual and learn how to use the various features. The improved video and sound quality (yeah for “Wind Reduction!) will make your job so much easier.

2. Don’t just take video of the kids. People want to see the adults in the family too, and someday your kids will want to remember what you looked like. Also try to get video of family friends (if they’ll let you) and various gatherings. This will give you a variety of material to mix in with the kid footage.

3. When filming, remember to change angles and use the zoom occasionally, but don’t make everyone seasick by walking around and panning the camera from side-to-side. Just use the pause button before switching to a new vantage point.

4. When editing, the key word is EDIT  . . . ruthlessly. Extended family and friends do want to see your kids, but not as much as you do (grandmothers excepted). You’ll have to decide how many seconds of a scene to include, depending on what’s going on in the scene. You can also edit out dead time to include only the most exciting bits of a birthday party or a trip to the zoo. Aim for a video length of about 20 – 40 min depending on how much action you have to work with.

5. While editing, alternate segments of different angles (if you have them) of the same scene. For example, if you’re editing your family’s Thanksgiving gathering, alternate between a broad view of the dining room, to action shots of the cooks in the kitchen, close-ups of the food, low angle of the kids playing on the floor, etc… If possible, try to alternate outdoor events with indoor events so that viewers don’t get tired of the same lighting.

6. Add a transition with a caption between events in your video. This helps viewers understand what is going on, where you are, when it happened, etc. My favorite transition is the “Ken Burns,” which is very understated and effective.

7. If you have a lot of great pictures, consider creating one or more separate slideshows that can be included on your DVD. Then on the DVD menu, list your slideshows and video/s titles with duration times for each so that viewers can choose what to watch based on how much time they have. 4 minute slideshow or 40 min video? Breaking up your content also helps viewers if they really want to see the pictures of your Yosemite vacation again, without necessarily seeing all the soccer team photos.

8. Quick – learn to play the guitar! For music to accompany your slideshows, it’s best to create your own, or search for “Royalty Free Music.” I’m no lawyer, but even if you have purchased music and only plan to make four copies of your slideshow, I believe copyright law only allows you to make one spare copy for yourself.

9. Use “Youtube” videos to teach yourself how to use whatever software you are using. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you are stuck, and really need to figure out how to do something.

10. This would be an excellent project for older kids and teens. They might need your help uploading all the raw video into the computer, and some overall editorial guidance, but then step back and see what they come up with. It will probably be hilarious. Plus, if they are at all computer savvy, they’ll probably figure out how to do it quicker than you will!

After burning your DVDs, label them and place them in jewel cases before packaging up in bubble mailers. Add a card and any gift cards and you’ll have a great present to connect with faraway loved ones!

2013 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards

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This coming Monday, Sep. 17th, is the opening day for submissions for the 2013 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards!!!

Here’s the link.

This is a big contest for teens across the U.S.A., including homeschooled teens, to enter their best art and/or writing. There are a huge variety of categories, from architecture to fashion to flash fiction. Prestigious judges “look for works that best exemplify the Awards’ core values:  originality, technical skill, and the emergence of personal voice or vision.”

From their website, here’s a little bit more about the contest:

“Today, we work with 100-plus regional programs across the country to bring the program to local communities, and over 60 scholarship partners. Teens in grades 7 through 12, from public, private, or home schools, can apply in 28 categories of art and writing for their chance to earn scholarships and have their works exhibited or published.  Students also submit work for special awards offered by sponsors including New York Life, the National Constitution Center, the AMD Foundation, Duck Tape®, 3D Systems, and Ovation – and for special honors like the National Student Poets Program, a joint project between the Alliance, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.”

As homeschoolers, it’s sometimes hard for students to gain recognition for their hard work or talents. Contests are a great way to give them a chance to strut their stuff – or even to motivate them to push a little harder on that short story or painting they’ve been working on. And winning a scholarship certainly wouldn’t hurt either!

Creative Rebellion

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I love serendipity! I’ve been thinking about this blog post for some time now, and just came across this video in my Facebook feed:

This video captures so well what I found in my research of famous homeschoolers. All of the people I studied had an independent streak, even as children. Some of the adults around them, particularly teachers, called them trouble-makers, or doubted that those “difficult” children would ever amount to anything. This is what happened to Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Mary Leakey, Quentin Tarantino, Walt Whitman, Ansel Adams, and countless others.

It can be very hard for some adults, set in their ways and opinions, to see the value in eccentricity, especially when all they see is boredom, inattention, and disruption. Teaching a classroom full of children is a TOUGH job. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, especially when someone else is telling you when, what, and how to teach.

The thing is, kids shouldn’t have to be troublemakers or rebels. We are the ones who make them so, by attempting to force them into a one-size-fits-all system. Our current educational system virtually guarantees that only the most independent, feisty, and stubborn children will make it through with their original creative instincts intact. The rest of us, the more timid and obedient ones, are easier to mold into what society expects from us.

But what if we had an educational system that honored each child’s unique interests and learning style, with no pressure to become something they are not? There would be no reason to rebel.

It would be hard for public schools to do this because they have so much pressure to be accountable, and not enough money to hire the teachers that would be needed. But private schools and home schools can do it!

I am assuming, since you are reading this post, that you are either homeschooling your kids or thinking about homeschooling. If I had just one message for you it would be this: don’t try to re-create public school at home.

New homeschooling parents are understandably worried, and not sure what to do, so they fall back on their own school days as a model to follow. Public schools have become so much a part of our common culture, everyone just assumes that school is the best place for learning to happen, or that the way schools teach is the only way for students to learn. But from the examples shown in the video above and from the famous homeschoolers I studied, it’s clear that the greatest creative breakthroughs occurred when people busted out of the societal box that held them in.

Creativity requires a certain amount of freedom to thrive. If that freedom is taken away, the feistiest among us will rebel to get it back. Even homeschooling kids will rebel if home is just like school. Maintaining good order and discipline for behavior, chores, manners, etc. is a great thing for parents to do, but learning and creativity are very personal endeavors. No two kids will have exactly the same interests or learning styles, so trying to follow a prescribed curriculum will be hit-or-miss. The best thing to do is create a “curriculum” largely dependent on each child’s inclinations.

There will be gaps in what your child learns, but there are also gaps in what a public school child learns. There are always gaps, because none of us knows everything there is to know, and we never will. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. That’s why the best thing we can do for our kids is keep their learning instincts alive, show them how to find what they need, and not squash their natural creative spirit. Let them choose what, when, and how to learn; follow their interests; and solve their own problems. You’ll still keep plenty busy helping them find the right resources and mentors, taking them places, listening, reading aloud, playing with them, answering questions, and otherwise guiding them along their way to adulthood. But you don’t have to be the mean ol’ schoolmarm.

You will be amazed at what they do, even without grading or coercion. Give freedom a chance!

Searching for Wild

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Every night in my little neighborhood tucked between a wetland and a hay field, our resident pack of coyotes comes out to throw a party. I never get tired of listening to them, and wonder at the huge variety of yips and yowls they exchange. My beagle doesn’t seem at all interested in them though. I would think that though she doesn’t speak their language, she ought to at least pay attention to her distant canine relatives. But no, she only barks at other dogs. Sometimes we scoff at her for not wanting to get her feet wet, or for curling up on top of a pile of pillows to take her nap, but she has her moments of wildness. Squirrels usually do the trick. When she catches the fresh scent of rodent, it drives her mad!  She strains at the leash, alternating between frantic snuffles along the ground and baying her heart out. If we let her off the leash, she would charge into the underbrush and never stop. It’s hard to resist the call of the wild.

I think humans are like that too. We may not feel the urge to chase squirrels, but we are always chasing something, always looking for that thing we lost. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush of fast cars, mountain climbing, or skydiving. Maybe it’s the peace of quiet forests, desert landscapes, or rolling meadows. We crave excitement, escape, beauty, mystery, and all the other things that represent wildness.

Children are closer to it than we adults. For them, the whole world already is exciting. Have you ever taken a walk with a toddler and had to stop every few feet while she stooped to investigate a snail or flower or lichen or funny clicking sound? Small children live through their senses. Any abstract thoughts are expressed in their imagination and play. It’s a joy to watch them at this stage. Why then, do so many adults rush children to grow up? Or keep them sheltered away in romper rooms cleansed of dirt, germs, stickers, bugs, or any other semblance of nature?

I am one of those who thinks it is because we distrust nature. If we don’t force children to stop playing and do their work, how will they ever learn it? If we don’t protect them from nature, they might get hurt. Dirt is just something that must be removed. And so it goes. And so children forget where there wonder began, and spend the rest of their lives looking for it.

Perhaps that is why we have art. Poets can sense the truth of something just out of reach and try to capture it in words. Artists don’t just paint likenesses of people and fruit bowls, they compose visions of pattern and light and emotion that help other people see what they see. Musicians play, dancers twirl, actors cry, and writers struggle because they are grasping for that wild world outside of ordinary reality. One could argue that the best artists have found it. They channel wildness to the rest of us. It is really the source of all creativity.

As parents, the best thing we can do to help our kids develop creativity is not to squash it in the first place. Let them be children as long as it lasts, because it won’t last forever. They will move on when it is time. Let them be outside as much as possible, using their senses, playing, and getting dirty. Hopefully when they do grow up, they’ll keep a little spark of wildness inside them, like a bit of wolf inside the heart of a pup, and the world will always be a wondrous place.

Our New “Sputnik Moment” – More Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians

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Maybe it’s just my selective hearing, but it seems like everybody these days is talking about how desperately the United States needs to entice and retain more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, especially in response to our perceived technological race with China.* On Monday, I heard a very interesting talk by Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn From China, in which she mentions China’s ability to churn out highly qualified math and science students. In contrast, statistics of U.S. graduates in 2009 show that we graduated roughly 89,000 visual and performing arts majors, but only 69,000 engineering majors, and 22,000 in the physical sciences or science technologies (see source). President Obama even alluded to this as our new “Sputnik Moment” in his State of the Union Address. Technological innovation and research are being hailed again as the answer to our economic, security, and way-of-life problems.

I’m not going to argue with this (yet*). It would be great if we could invent a long-lasting solar battery, learn to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate seawater cheaply and easily, find a cure for AIDS, etc. There are lots of ways that technology could really help us right now. The problem seems to be that not enough U.S. students are interested in or capable of rigorous study in these fields. So, naturally, policy-makers are thinking of every way possible to provide incentives for students, training for teachers, and more rigor in our national curriculum. It’s just ironic that we are paying so much attention to China’s school system in hopes of learning how to boost our kids’ STEM literacy while the Chinese are looking closely at our school system for ideas on how to boost creativity in their own students.

Nicholas D. Kristof noticed this in a recent New York Times article: “But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”  He wrote: “One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a ‘creativity-killer.’ Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to ‘programs for trained seals.’ Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.”

Isn’t that great? I love that the Chinese want their kids to be more creative, but it’s sad that so many of our kids are not prepared for the academic challenge of STEM fields. Perhaps the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to build more rigor into our children’s education without squelching their creative spirit? I think so, and there are two big things that would help: giving kids ownership of their education, and  inspiring them with the best examples we can find.

1. OWNERSHIP – I’ve written before about my thoughts on systematic science vs. haphazard (self-directed) science education. The main point I want to emphasize here is that timing is everything. I disagree strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s opinion that the U.S. should start serious academic training in preschool, as they do in China. It is true that preschoolers are very malleable and easy to teach at this age, but they have far more important things to be doing with this precious time than getting a headstart on high school. Kids are BORN creative. If China (or the U.S.) wants their people to be creative, they don’t have to do anything special, they only have to avoid stopping it. That means letting children play, explore, touch, listen to stories, laugh, help, and be loved. As children mature, they are much better equipped to take on abstract studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As teenagers, they are more than able to take on rigorous studies if they are so inclined. The problem with pushing academics too early is that it kills curiosity. Once intrinsic motivation is lost, schools must rely on external motivators (rewards and punishment) to make up the difference. From what I have read about China’s education system, their rewards and punishments are more consequential than ours, and maybe that is why their kids take studying so seriously. But I think the best solution is to let kids direct their own education for their own reasons, because curiosity and ambition are powerful forces all on their own.

2. INSPIRING EXAMPLES – Passionate teachers, mentors, museums, science centers, movies, demonstrations, exhibits, and fairs like the Maker Faire are all wonderful ways to show kids the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Reading well-written books by authors who are truly passionate about their subject is another way to spark interest. Textbooks are usually not inspiring because they are written by a committee whose sole purpose is to instruct. Even if you don’t live close to a metro area with museums, science centers, and events to visit, make an effort to find inspiring examples for your kids. Work with your homeschool group to find local mentors or teachers for workshops and field trips. Are there any blacksmiths in your area? Beekeepers? Interesting retirees? We once made friends with an elderly woman who power-walked through our neighborhood every morning. We gave her bags of oranges from our tree and she invited us over for lunch one afternoon so that her retired husband could have someone to talk to. It turns out that her husband was a retired astrophysicist. As we enjoyed the gourmet home-cooked Chinese feast our friend had prepared for us, her husband talked non-stop about his fascinating research on comets. None of us had ever been interested in comets before that day, but his passion was contagious. When we got home, my kids all wanted to look up comets on the Internet so we could see what he had been talking about. If I had tried to introduce comets as part of some science curriculum, there is very little chance it would have made any impression on my kids. But a real person with real enthusiasm is hard to beat.

Fortunately, we also have access to very interesting people via the Internet. In my next post, I’ll talk about STEM- related websites that might inspire your kids.

*I’ve also heard reports that recent college graduates with engineering degrees can’t get jobs, but I’ll save that for another post.



Learning at the Edge

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A. & E. Exploring the edge of a stream

Any naturalist knows that the most interesting place to look for things is at the edges. Where a field meets a forest or a river flows into the sea or where the reef hangs over deep water – those are the areas that are especially abundant. The edges are where species from two different ecosystems mingle and hide and hunt. There are even plant and animal species that exist only in these edge habitats.

Ecologists call this the “edge effect,” but I think the same phenomenon applies anywhere that two different areas intersect. For instance, physics is interesting, but exploring the edges of physics and art, or physics and psychology, or physics and theology, can be even more interesting. How about the intersection of martial arts and mythology, or architecture and music, or history and dance?

Everything in this world is attached to something else. By exploring the edges of seemingly unrelated fields of study, new ideas are born. In fact, that’s where all the great thinkers are. Buckminster Fuller lamented that our modern educational system concentrated too much on creating specialists when what we really needed were more generalists. By this he meant people who studied a variety of things and could make valuable connections between them. These are the Renaissance thinkers or polymaths like Leonard da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and others who are able to see the large patterns that others may not see.

We will always need specialists in every field, because they are able to study something deeply and make new discoveries based on years of intensive research. But we need generalists too; those who have spent time and effort to learn several subjects very well, and have made something of what they learned. Simply being well-informed isn’t enough. We all tend to dabble in different subjects, but a real polymath will put in some real time and effort on several subjects (not necessarily all at once), and come up with new insights or contributions.

This is one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. Because we have the freedom to customize our curriculum, our children can study the things that most interest them, for as long as they want. For science, my daughter only wanted to study anatomy and health. Every year for six years I would ask her, “Do you want to read this book about rocks? (or electricity, or space, or whatever)” and she would say no. She only wanted more books about muscles, bones, cells, blood, viruses, etc… It could be about animals or humans, sometimes plants, but certainly nothing that hadn’t once been alive.  We read books about Florence Nightingale and medieval medicine, constructed models, did Janice VanCleave experiments, drew pictures, counted heartbeats, looked for golden ratios in the human face, listened to trees with a stethoscope, looked at nematodes with a microscope, played the Somebody game, watched documentaries about the brain, evolution, animals, etc.  When we discovered animal carcasses while hiking, she would squat down to investigate the position of the bones and look for clues as to how the animal died and who had been eating it.

It’s amazing how many different topics you can touch on with a single abiding interest. She was happy for me to find interesting things for her to read and do as long as it was related to anatomy or health. Thinking about it now, I probably could have interested her in electricity if we had researched the body’s electrical field, or space exploration if we had looked at what astronauts did to stay healthy during missions (in fact, this was her favorite exhibit at the local Air and Space Museum).

The wonderful fun thing about learning is making connections – finding out how things are related. And to see that, you must go to the edges and look.

Try this: Bring to mind two or three things that you are very interested in, and find the connections between them.

Should kids keep illustrated journals?

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Illustrated journals seem like such a good idea for kids, right? It’s a good excuse for building writing and drawing skills, not to mention budding scientific observation.  Wouldn’t we all be proud to have a child like Teddy Roosevelt, who kept detailed journals filled with his sketches of birds, mammals, and other creatures, sometimes even labeled with their Latin names?  Charlotte Mason, that wonderful Victorian era champion for homeschooling, was also an enthusiastic advocate for children keeping nature notebooks.

It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, especially since I enjoyed keeping illustrated journals myself. The problem was, when I introduced the idea to my oldest son Jesse, he had absolutely no interest in drawing anything from real life. He liked to draw, and would often sit for an hour with a piece of paper, illustrating a space battle while narrating the scene aloud (with plenty of explosions and sound effects):


Robot Battle by Jesse, age 10

This kid was obsessed with monsters, aliens, space villains, and ray guns. Running around outside was fun, but he wasn’t admiring the flora and fauna for what it was, because in his mind, trees were fortresses and rocks were spaceships. There were monsters hiding behind every bush and he carried his homemade stick saber wherever he went. Occasionally, he would stop short to admire a spider spinning her web or tadpoles swimming near the edge of the pond, but drawing those scenes would have ruined the enjoyment. No, as soon as he was back inside, this is what he would draw:

Space Battle by Jesse, age 8


I was happy that he was so imaginative, but sometimes I worried a bit that he didn’t want to do anything “academic.” Write a paragraph on tadpoles or “What I did today?” Forget it. Writing thank you notes was required, and he saw that it was important, so that was OK with him. Otherwise, the only type of writing he might do involved dire peril or good vs. evil, and that was only to keep Mom happy. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Jesse was around 13 and saw a friend’s sarcastic birthday letter, that he really started writing on his own. His friend’s letter opened the possibility of humorous writing, and Jesse has never looked back. He’s actually a wonderful writer, and now, at the age of 19, he’s working on a degree in communications, with the dream of writing for television.

Looking back on all of Jesse’s drawings now, I can see that he was essentially keeping a journal. But it was a journal of his imagination. It satisfied something deep inside of him that I did not need to interfere with. He enjoys nature, but does not want to be a scientist or naturalist. He enjoys drawing and art, but does not want to become an artist. What he really wants to be is what he already is – a story teller. His early drawings were just stories that he told himself. Later, when he was ready to put the stories in words to share with others, he started writing. Now, it makes him happy, and he can spend hours working on one of his fantasy novels or screenplays.

Illustrated journaling or nature notebooks can be a fine idea if kids like it, but if they don’t, then it’s just another artificial school thing that must be done to please an adult. I suspect that the kids who enjoy nature notebooks, like Teddy Roosevelt, are naturally inclined to be naturalists, or at least observers.

My daughter is an observer. She could draw amazing pictures at a very young age because she actually looked at what she was drawing, but she still preferred imaginative drawings. She was not at all interested in her nature notebook, but drew countless fairies, babies, animals and story scenes in her large sketchpads (she didn’t like being cramped). One time she was inspired to tell a story, comic book style:

The Day I Saw a Garter Snake by Emma, age 7


She wasn’t using her best drawing skills in this example, because she was more interested in telling the story. She first drew the major plot elements, then told me the words to write in each frame. This was a very satisfying project for her because the event (seeing the snake) was so important and thrilling that she really needed to express it. Just like her brother, her drawings reflected what she was thinking about. They reflected what was important to her. My kids didn’t need me to tell them what to draw, or even to give suggestions. Even as she got older, Emma didn’t like art project books because she preferred to create her own projects. Now, at age 15, she is attending a charter school for the arts and must work on the assignments that the drawing/painting teacher gives her. But most of the assignments are about technique and the students are free to choose their own subjects as long as they practice the right technique. Plus, it was Emma’s choice to attend this school, and she gives it 110%.

My instincts and experience tell me that forcing kids to do a particular kind of journaling is not necessary and may even be counterproductive. It is fine for us to do our own journaling or nature notebooks; maybe our kids will wish to do something similar. But don’t require it. Just pay attention to what it is they really want to do. You might learn something interesting.

Illustrated Journals

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I was flipping through one of my journals this week and was struck by how well my illustrations reminded me of the hour I spent sketching the scene. I usually only had time to sketch when I was waiting for something – my kids to get out of a class, or my husband to get done with kite-surfing or off of work. While I waited, I would pull out my little blank page journal and look for something to draw.  One book is full of rocks, telephone poles, Douglas Fir cones, lifeguard stands, marinas, mountains, coiled rope, plants, and tequila bottles.

Waiting outside of pottery class

Sometimes I just doodle or try to draw pictures of animate objects like my kids or dog – but those never turn out too well. Occasionally my daughter has given me a creativity assignment to “draw a monster” or take turns with a collaborative fantasy picture, where she starts something, I add to it, and we switch back and forth until the page is filled with giant snails, hot air balloons, unicorns, and lemonade stands. But my favorite pictures are the ones that I drew from real life – my life. These are the pictures that actually bring back memories of a time and place.

Regular Thursday Date Night at Ward Center, Honolulu


These are the sort of scenes that words can’t always capture. I suppose I could have taken pictures of all these places, but the act of drawing really forces you to pay attention to the details. You may not notice the curves of the lamp post or the structure of the table umbrella until you try to draw it. Who cares, you might ask, about the structure of table umbrellas, but the point is that it forces you to be where you are at that particular moment. It’s meditative. When I draw something in front of me, I’m not thinking about my troubles, or planning for the future, I’m just observing. And real sketching forces you to quiet your logical left brain, because your left brain doesn’t know how to draw (it tries to make you draw symbols instead of what is really there).

Two great books on this subject are The Creative License and An Illustrated Life, both by Danny Gregory. If you’re worried about your lack of drawing skills, these books will put you at ease, and explain how the simple act of drawing regularly can unlock your dormant creativity. Danny Gregory insists that we are all artists, and his books are the best I have seen for showing the sheer variety of personal styles. He gives loads of examples from his own and other people’s journals. They are all wonderful in their own peculiar way. I love to see how different people will draw the same thing in completely different ways.

Two Scenes from Kailua Beach Park, Oahu


There are enormous benefits to keeping a journal, but illustrated journaling is even better. That doesn’t mean that every page must be illustrated, but even leaving room for little tiny drawings of your fortune cookie, or spoon, or cat’s paw, can bring back a flood of memories someday. And when life bogs down into a series of chores, spills, obligations, and temper tantrums, it’s important to remember that we are creative beings. Next time you are waiting outside of dance class or soccer practice, resist the temptation to play games on your phone and pull out a journal instead. In the long run, it will be much better for your sense of well-being. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” – Henry James

Gingerbread Beach Cottage

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For our last Christmas in Hawaii, my daughter and I made our own version of a gingerbread house. The idea was to try to duplicate one of Thor’s epic beach cottages, although you may not see much resemblance. The only gingerbread we used was for the surfboards. We used giant shredded wheat biscuits (split lengthwise) for the body of the house because we wanted it to look like a lil’ grass shack. Various pretzels and graham crackers provided building materials; and the foundation was cardboard placed over Heineken bottles, since everyone in Hawaii seems to drink Heineken. We used cornmeal for the sand, seaweed for the palm trees, and thick frosting to hold the whole thing together. It wasn’t long before the ants found it!

Can you imagine your own “gingerbread” creation for Christmas? It’s a fun kind of mix between architecture, cooking, and design, with a bit of ingenuity mixed in. Teenagers make especially capable helpers. Have fun!