Fear of Falling: Adult Origins of Children’s Fears

As adults, we know that our actions and attitudes have a dramatic effect on the young people with whom we live and work . Most of us also recognize that acting on our best intentions sometimes has unintended consequences. Seeing the pronounced effect even small actions can have young people can be enlightening.

A while back I took a class of second graders on a short hike. The trail we took wound its way above a creek, climbing to the top of the hill before heading back down to a rocky beach about a 1/2 a mile downstream. Not a long hike, but pretty big for some of the students. At one point during the hike it becomes necessary to work your way around a protruding tree root along an especially narrow part of the trail. Negotiating some rocks at the highest point along the trail you then proceed down a set of rough stone “stairs”. It can be a bit dramatic–which is part of the reason I do it. I’ve hiked this route many times with students from 8 to 18 years old without incident. Until Tuesday…

On Tuesday four adults set out with eight students to hike the trail. We’d split the class of twenty-four into 3 equal groups to ease the flow and give students opportunities to experience three different activities centered around an investigation of water in the natural environment. Our first hike was completed without incident–save for the obligatory conversations along the way reminding excited students not to run and to stay in close porximity. When we reached the root mentioned above, the adults took up positions along the side of the trail to guide students safely along. Each student passed through in turn and walked down the steps back onto the dirt trail.

Our second group of the day was having much the same experience until the second to last girl–we’ll call her G–passed me on the stairs. As I looked up to make sure the next child was safely in place to begin the descent, G took a tentative step backward and tumbled from the side of the stone stairway. It was a dramatic fall. When I jumped down to help G, she was a bit shaken, but there was no obvious damage save a small scrape on her arm. In fact, when given the choice, G opted to head on up to a higher, but wider trail for the return trip rather than crossing a foot bridge to head back on a level, paved path.

My final hike of the afternoon was pretty much the same as the first two until we reached the now infamous stairs. Though none of the children knew about G’s fall, as adults we were a bit more cautious (I might even say overly cautious). We maintained what we felt was the same attitude and demeanor, but this time I walked with each student from the root negotiation all the way down each step.

The process took considerably longer and was a little awkward, but that’s not what was most striking. In this third group several students expressed fear either verbally or through their posture. This hadn’t happened in our earlier hikes. Granted there had been slight hesitations and slow steps, but never the outright expression of fear.

There was nothing remarkable about this final set of students. No more or less experience on hiking trails, no age or ability differences. The only difference was in the actions of the adults. In our abundance of caution, we’d instilled a level of fear beyond what was ordinary… or necessary.

As adults we often tell ourselves that our primary obligations are to love and protect our children. But what kind of love is it when our protective instincts instill fear?

What’s your Intelligence?

The other day I went running with my 13-year-old son, Louis, in Rock Creek Park. It used to be that we’d go running and I’d adjust my pace, and maybe even our course, so that we could run together–so that Louis wasn’t chasing me through the woods. This run, however, was different. From our first steps into the woods it was clear, I had become the hound chasing the fox. The fox slid through narrow turns and over obstacles, while I, the clumsy hound, tried my best to keep up lumbering along with my tongue out and haunches flailing.

Now let’s make no mistake, I still have some chops as a trail runner, and this was my trail. The Pulpit Rock trail we were running is a narrow, winding, root- and rock-filled path. It takes you up and down some steep hills, and along the creek. It’s a ton of fun. From years of running the trail I’ve become attuned to its twists and turns, roots and rocks, and seasonal changes. But Louis has a natural grace and ability at 13 that I never had. Small for his age, his physical intelligence is remarkable for a boy who can’t find his socks when they’re on his feet. It’s something I’ve always known about Lou, but watching his feet fly over the trail–from behind, which is where I was for most of this run–I was able to see how smart his feet are.

We do don’t often think of physical acumen as an intelligence, but what else would you call it? Perhaps because it comes so naturally to some we see it as a gift rather than intelligence–and like any intelligence it is a gift. But it’s a gift that must be used, explored and fostered if it’s going to grow and develop.

I encounter students–boys mostly, but by no means exclusively–who don’t think they’re smart, but who can run like the wind, climb without fear or consistently toss exquisite layups. We encourage them on the court or out on the rocks. We stand in awe of their abilities and their fearlessness. It goes beyond our awe of youth, these people are physically brilliant.

Physical intelligence is just one example. I also know young people who shine outdoors. Put them in the woods and they come to life. Then there are those people who can manipulate clay or wood or some other material in almost magical ways–pulling beauty and function from what many of us consider a lump of dirt or firewood.

As educators we spend a good deal of time talking about how we can harness a students love of sports, nature, art… you name it, in the service of teaching math or writing. And I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. But what we essentially tell that person is “You know the way your smart at (fill in the blank)? Well, that’s nice, but it really doesn’t mean a lot. Here’s how you need to be smart.” Is that really the message we intend to send?


Crows are well known for their intelligence. In fact, the entire Corvidae family is renowned for being the smartest of all birds and some of the smartest of all animals. The secret to their superior intellect has been located in their brain for the first time, according to a new study from Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder from the Institute of Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen. – See more at: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/crow-brains-reveal-secrets-their-intelligence#sthash.welnXqx2.dpuf

By Third Grade…. Is that what matters?

Yesterday NPR discussed President Obama’s proposal for universal early childhood education. A popular argument for universal early childhood education cited by Gene Sperling, an economist who I really admire–as much as one can admire an economist–is that spending on early childhood education save taxpayer dollars down the road. Sperling sites research suggesting that every dollar spent on high-qulaity pre-kindergarten education saves between $4 and $17 down the road in terms of things like higher wages and decreased juvenile delinquency. Nice, right?

This morning, continuing their look at the President’s proposal, the station showcased Georgia’s early adoption of universal early childhood education legislation. Critics of the policy point to the added cost and evidence that by third grade the gains seen due to early childhood education basically even out. In other words kids who went to pre-k are performing at the same levels as those who didn’t.

Aside from the point that the evidence is arguable on that last point, I think both commentaries point to a common but pretty disturbing perspective: That the value of the child can be measured–should be measured–in future achievement. Essentially we are saying, it doesn’t matter so much what high-quality early childhood experience means to a child, unless it translates into higher test scores, higher wages, or increased employability later. We value the child on for his or her future potential, not for the inherent value of that child as a person. I find that to be one of the saddest comments on our educational system and our society as a whole.



This is a great application of a very old art form to an even older mode of transportation. Using new materials, Anton Willis has created something brilliant, beautiful and useful.

Originally posted on MAKE:

Last week, I had the pleasure of testing out Oru Kayak, the world’s first origami kayak. It was wonderful!

Anton Willis, the designer, and I met at the Berkeley Marina to put his latest iteration to the test. I had been watching Anton construct the kayak for months at TechShop and had always bugged him about taking me out for a test ride. I finally got my wish.

He pulled the folded kayak, roughly the size of a large artist portfolio, out of his car and set it in the grass near the docks. A small crowd began to form as he unfolded the cut sheet of corrugated plastic, the same material as the political advertisement in your neighbor’s front lawn. The entire build time took about ten minutes, but easily could’ve been halved without the peppering of questions from the onlookers.

Before I knew it, I was paddling…

View original 128 more words

Bicycle Revolution

I recently began reading “Bicycle Diaries” by David Byrne. Bicycle Diaries, by David ByrnThe book is basically a meditation on culture, politics, art and life in general, explored via Byrne’s travels through the world’s cities via bike. As I’m sure Byrne intended,  his writing reminds me of the act of riding itself.  Not the type of competitive riding, where you dress up in tight-fitting clothes and ride in a peloton. No, the type of cycling that frees you to explore, to spend hours riding inefficient routes through cities and towns. The kind of riding that gives you a whole new sense of place. Byrne hits upon truth that has been essential to me since I first grabbed a set of handle bars and put my feet to pedals. Bicycles are fantastic, beautiful and empowering machines–life would be less good without them.

Washington, DC, where I live, is in the midst of a bicycle renaissance. I hate to use the word, but it’s awesome to see. Chunky red and yellow City Bikes ply recently painted bike lanes  from Arlington to Capital Hill to Georgetown. And everyone, or almost everyone, is riding. Old people, young people, businessmen in suits and women in heels are indulging in the pure joy and freedom of hopping on a bike and pedaling the streets and trails of the city and suburbs.

Bicycles and cyclists are causing a small revolution in the region. City and transportation planners are integrating bikes into their plans. Walk out of any Metro from Anacostia to Arlington and you’re likely to see a half full rack of red bikes. Who would have thought fifteen years ago that such a simple technology would hold so many answers to the regions transportation woes?

I know I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to cycling. Even I don’t expect bicycles to solve the problems associated with suburban sprawl and traffic congestion. However, by getting butts on bikes we’re making strides. We’re sending a message about our priorities, and maybe we’re even doing a little something to stem the rising tide of obesity in the nation’s capital. Or maybe we’re just giving more people the means to engage life on their own terms and not to be tied down to bus schedules or the high price of gasoline.


Patterned by Nature: North Carolina Museum Translates Nature’s Patterns into a Moving Work of Art

Patterns exist all around us. Finding and interpreting them is most often a matter of close observation and creative, thoughtful documentation. In North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences, Sosolimited and Plebian Design have found an interesting, engaging and quite beautiful way of using technology to demonstrate recurring patterns in nature.
Read the full post here. Excerpt below…

Patterned by Nature – Transparent pixels in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Some time ago Sosolimited and Plebian Design set out to create a large scale transparent LCD sculpture for a science museum atrium. Each pixel was designed as a piece of glass that could independently change the transparency of: from opaque black to transparent. The sculpture was designed to curve up through the atrium of the museum and display down-sampled patterns from nature, along with a high fidelity soundtrack. Almost two years later, its wonderful to see this project finally come to life.

“Patterned by Nature” was commissioned by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the newly built Nature Research Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The exhibit celebrates our abstraction of nature’s infinite complexity into patterns through the scientific process, and through our perceptions. It brings to light the similarity of patterns in our universe, across all scales of space and time.

The 90’x10’ “ribbon” winds through the five story atrium of the museum and is made of 3600 tiles of LCD glass. It runs on roughly 75 watts, less power than a laptop computer. Animations are created by independently varying the transparency of each piece of glass. The content cycles through twenty programs, ranging from clouds to rain drops to colonies of bacteria to flocking birds to geese to cuttlefish skin to pulsating black holes. The animations were created through a combination of algorithmic software modeling of natural phenomena and compositing of actual footage.

An eight channel soundtrack accompanies the animations on the ribbon, giving visitors clues to the identity of the pixelated movements. In addition, two screens show high resolution imagery and text revealing the content on the ribbon at any moment.

Patterned by Nature was created by Plebian DesignHypersonic Design & Engineering, and Sosolimited.

Living in Pictures: Of sharing and the act of living

Karen Rosenberg notes in Everyone Lives, In Pictures, her New York Times analysis of Instagram and similar photo applications, that a new cultural norm has arisen in photography. She quotes Susan Sontag’s collection of essays “On Photography.” In 1977 Sontag wrote:

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”

“But”, as Rosenberg notes, “that was before smartphones and social media; before the imperative to share our photographs; before Instagram, purchased earlier this month by Facebook for $1 billion. The act of snapping a picture is no longer enough to confirm reality and enhance experience; only sharing can give us that validation.”

Rosenberg’s article reminds me of something that happened a while ago, when I took a group of students hiking on the Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls, Maryland just outside Washington, DC.

As we entered the trail from the northern side a student asked if she could listen to her Ipod while we hiked. I told the group that I’d really prefer that we not be hooked into technology during the hike. In other words, not cell phones, no texting, no music or apps. The one exception I was willing to make (and which I generally am willing to make) was the used of electronic devces for taking pictures.

So we began our hike. We scrambled over boulders, walked shaded paths and climbed a pretty steep wall, all before we stopped to eat lunch. As we came to an overlook where we could see the river below us and across to the Virginia side, I saw one of the students, thumbs working hard typing away on his smartphone.

I reminded him that we weren’t going to be e-mailing or texting while we hiked–or at all in the woods.

“No, no…” he said, “It’s alright, I’m not texting, I’m just posting my pictures to Facebook.”

Beauty and Humor in the Natural World

In nature, form follows function… beauty and humor follow form. Some would argue that art is simply a comment (or multiple comments) on the form and function found in the natural world. And while I’m not qualified to make any definitive arguments on the nature of art, two projects that have that have recently come to my attention demonstrate pretty clearly how the artistic eye (and in the first case, also the scientific eye) uses close observation to create beautiful and even humorous images.

The form in nature that follows the specific function of individual proteins, inspires Maja Klevanski, a.k.a. May K, to create sparse black and white drawings that often humorously reflect the very function of the proteins she studies as a doctoral candidate at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Germany. In the “Drunk Girl” drawing below, Klevanski  illustrates the job of the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzyme.

ADH enzyme

Drunk Girl
Protein Data Bank ID: 1ADC
Protein Name: Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH)
Organism: Equus caballus (Horse)
Title of Drawing: “Drunken Girl”

This time the drawing doesn’t have exactly the same look as the protein, but it is involved in the very same activity, in breaking down alcohol.

[Roman] asked me to draw an ethanol molecule. But as I can draw only proteins, I suggested him that I could draw the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), an enzyme which breaks down ethanol in our liver. How much alcohol we can stand, directly depends on the amount of ADH in our body. Thus, to all proud hard drinkers: It’s not you coping with all these alcohol amounts… always remember that there are these sweet little ADH girls in your body without whose help you would be lost.

Tree Ring Print: Bryan Nash GillBryan Nash Gill’s relief prints of tree cross sections draw art from the very simplest and most common natural objects. Gill sees the beauty, as many of us have, in the concentric growth rings of trees. He has developed a process for transfer the life and history represented in the rings to a new media, creating in the truest sense wood cut prints, with a beauty attributable to, but separate from the natural object from which the pattern is derived.

Gill and Klevanski share the artist/scientist’s penchant for close observation, along with the  the creative vision to produce something new and original that speaks directly to their works’ origins in the natural world.