Book Review: Simplicity Parenting (The Power of Less)

From the Elephant Journal

If a child has been able in his play to give up his whole living being to the world around him, he will be able, in the serious tasks of later life, to devote himself with confidence to the service of the world. – Rudolf Steiner.

Deep, uninterrupted play is a child’s work; how a child discovers, and comes to understand herself and her world. When is child is absorbed in imaginative play, she is developing as a full human being; head, hand and heart.

In order for play to be effective and nourishing for children, children must remain present; to the input of experience, their senses, and their creative expression. It is our job, as parents and teachers to create environments that are responsive to a child’s rhythms, cycles, and developmental needs.

In his book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne explains that the pace of our modern world is way out of balance with the rhythms and space that children require. He points out that too much stuff, too many choices, and too little time takes a toll on children in a way that has led to grave consequences – anxiety, behavior problems and even developmental disorders.

Payne even makes it into a kind of formula. Quirk (a child’s natural state) + Stress = Disorder. He states that stress can push children along an established behavioral spectrum towards turmoil. He notes ‘when you simplify on a number of levels, back they come.’ He’s even proven through a number of studies that it seems to work. “68% of children whose parents and teachers adhered to a [simplicity] protocol in his studies went from clinically dysfunctional to clinically functional within four months.”

Consultant, trainer, and counselor Payne has spent many years helping families simplify. Simplicity, he argues, is the essence that allows a child to live and function in a healthy, well-balanced and resilient way. In Simplicity Parenting, Payne outlines four areas that need attention; environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out the adult world.

Through simplifying a child’s environment with a drastic reduction of ‘stuff’; increasing the rhythm of daily activities and home life; creating balanced and spacious schedules for children with plenty of downtime; and filtering out the adult worldby limiting exposure to the stress of adulthood, technology, television and unconscious dialogue, parents can create the space and freedom that children need to flourish.

Payne’s book is an echo of slow movements everywhere; slow food, slow travel, slow clothing and slow planet initiatives have been calling for us to slow down, be present, pay attention, and most of all enjoy the moment. Children naturally know this already. It’s our job to help them do it – mostly by simply getting out of the way.

Simplicity Parenting is a unique and thoughtful look at the impact the dizzying pace of modern life has on children, and what we might do about it.


This is Your Brain on Art

Neuro-ed researchers say creativity can set kids’ minds on fire.

By Deborah Rudacille

education3.jpg

ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN PAYNE

“It’s gonna be a really tough project. You’re gonna have to use your head, your brain, and your mind too,” substitute teacher Ned Schneebly (a.k.a. slacker Dewey Finn) warns his students in the TBS classic School of Rock. Like just about every film ever made about an inspirational teacher, the sweetly subversive Rock trades on the truism that emotional engagement fires the synapses, leading students to previously undreamed-of accomplishments. In many of those films—Dead Poet’s Society, Mona Lisa Smile, Mr. Holland’s Opus—art is the core of the great teacher’s pedagogy, the liberator of minds and hearts.

Mariale Hardiman and her colleagues at the Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Education would like to test that hypothesis. An early advocate of developing a pedagogy based on cognitive neuroscience (“neuro-ed” for short), Hardiman developed an “arts-integrated” curriculum—using the arts as a teaching methodology—at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School while serving as the school’s principal from 1993 to 2006. Other educators and theorists have promoted the use of arts in the classroom, as in the Waldorf and Reggio Emilia schools, but Hardiman says that her “brain-targeted” teaching model provides an instructional model that can be used in any school.

Like most educational experiments, however, arts integration has never been systematically tested. Based on her previous research and her experience at Roland Park, “I would guess that the kids who have done the work in an integrated way would have that knowledge more embedded in their memory,” Hardiman says. “But believe it or not, there are no controlled studies on that.”

And that, she and her colleagues say, is the problem with almost the whole of educational theory. “When you read about the medical practices of one hundred years ago, you think it’s crazy what people used to do,” says Charles Limb, scientific director of the Neuro-Ed Initiative. “And one day we may feel the same about how we used to teach children.”

An auditory researcher best known by the lay public for his “this is your brain on jazz” studies (see “The Creationist,” March ’10 Urbanite), Limb says the time is right for education to become more of an applied science like medicine. Not only are educators hungry for data on the effectiveness of teaching methodologies, but neuroscientists also now have the tools, and therefore the motivation, to measure complex human behaviors that were once beyond the scope of science—like how learning to play a musical instrument or painting a landscape or writing a short story reshapes the brain and therefore the person.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging—which tracks blood flow in the brain while a subject is engaged in a task—Limb has charted which areas of the brain are most active when jazz musicians improvise. “I image their brains when they are generating music on the spot, really high-level sophisticated music,” he says. “And we are seeing patterns of brain activity during those creative behaviors that are unlike anything seen during a scripted memorized behavior.” The pre-frontal cortex—the central brain structure involved in creative thinking, and the part of the brain that is, Limb says, “most human”—really lights up when subjects are creatively engaged.

It’s just that kind of creative lightning storm that that Hardiman and her colleague Susan Magsamen, founders of the Neuro-Education Initiative, would like to encourage in schoolchildren by pairing the arts with more traditional teaching methods to facilitate learning across the curriculum.

At Roland Park, Hardiman created an approach in which students were enrolled in music, theater, visual arts, and dance programs—and encouraged to incorporate those arts into their core classes to reinforce the learning of key concepts. Faculty involve the arts in their lessons as well. Fractions might be taught using rhythm and beat to illustrate the concept of 3/4 time, the rotation of the planets around the sun via dance. While studying the novel Hatchet, students at Roland Park created a tableau to depict through their bodies what it would be like to be stranded alone in the wilderness, the theme of the book.

It may sound a little hippy-dippy, but arts evoke emotion, Hardiman points out, and the role that emotions play in laying down long-term memory (and thus learning) is well-established. Our brains take in enormous amounts of information each day and prioritize data to be stored in both short- and long-term memory. First priority is information related to survival, such as perceived threats. Second priority is emotionally-tinged data. Most new information is lost within twenty-four hours—unless the brain has a strong motive for converting it to long-term memory and rehearses or repeats the data to effect an actual change in the physical structure of neurons, a process called long-term potentiation. Arts integration, with its emphasis on repetition of information through both cognitive and emotional brain circuitry, theoretically helps facilitate that process.

Trained as a learning disabilities specialist, Hardiman has been mapping the connections between neuroscience and education for more than thirty years. “The very first definitions of learning disability came right out of neurology,” she points out. “It was really the neuroscientists studying brain injury that led to psychologists picking it up and then educators. And now, years later, it has been proven that yes, there are differences in how children with learning disabilities process information.”

Meanwhile, as a teacher and later as an administrator, she saw various “flavor of the month” educational initiatives come and go and was bothered by the field’s lack of scientific rigor. “It’s always a new initiative: Throw out the old and start something new. It’s why education never really changes, because we don’t have a model that incorporates all the best practices and is informed by research.”

So while still at Roland Park, she published a book, Connecting Brain Research with Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model, that drew together the emerging themes of her own research. The first, and perhaps most controversial in terms of conventional educational practice, is the vital role that emotions play in learning. “Traditionally our culture teaches us that the intellectual side, our cognitive system, is totally separate from our emotional system,” she says. “Teachers are certainly not taught to take into account a child’s emotional presence in the classroom. Just the opposite. It’s ‘Sit down and do your work.'”

Another factor in the model is the need to present big concepts rather than just discrete facts. “The analogy is that if we look at a puzzle but never see the big picture, just the little pieces, then the little pieces don’t make sense,” she says. The brain, Hardiman points out, “really does like to look at big pictures. It’s always trying to make sense of information.”

All of this has profound implications for educational policy, Hardiman says. If one takes it as a given that the purpose of education is not merely the regurgitation of facts, but also the acquisition of higher-level skills like problem-solving and innovation, then we as a nation are on the wrong track with the current “teach to the test” approach. “Kids are getting better and better at being test-takers,” she says. But they are not necessarily getting better at learning the content or exhibiting application of knowledge. “So we believe that neuro-education and learning about how children think and learn can really change what happens in classrooms and change the policies that focus on such a narrow view of what education is.”

Both Hardiman and Limb are quick to say that they are not advocating a wholesale abandonment of traditional teaching methods. Worksheets are not going to disappear anytime soon. At Roland Park, for example, “we were always very focused on our test scores because we had to be,” Hardiman says, with scores on standardized tests tied to school funding. But within that traditional model, there is still room for innovation, she says.

Teachers themselves agree, up to a point. “If it’s done right, arts integration helps,” says Amy Begg-Marino, a seventh-grade art teacher at Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle School, one of six Baltimore City schools now experimenting with the model, “because it gives students more avenues to explore a subject and different ways to produce something proving they understand the concept being taught.”

Not only does arts integration help students grasp concepts, but it can also be a tremendous aid in classroom management. “Generally some of the kids who are the worst kids in other classes are angels in mine because they like doing something they are good at,” Begg-Marino says. “You have sixth-graders who read on a fourth-grade level, and if you give them sixth-grade work they are automatically going to act out because they get frustrated. But you don’t have to draw the perfect picture for it to look fabulous.”

But practical considerations limit the method’s effectiveness. “There is not really enough planning time built into the schedule to do good arts integration right now,” Begg-Marino says. “I get one hour of planning for every five hours of teaching.” There is just no time in the schedule, she says, to help a math or science or English or social studies instructor plan a lesson that integrates arts concepts. “So practically it’s very hard.”

She also recognizes downsides to the methodology. Say students are reading The Scarlet Letter, and multiple options are offered to assess their understanding of the book’s themes. Some students may choose to write a paper on the book; some may write an alternate chapter for the book; others may draw a new cover or illustrate a scene. But when it comes time for testing, she points out, the child who chose the art project may not be prepared for the kind of convergent thinking—coming up with the one right answer—required by tests.

And with the Obama administration’s new Race to the Top initiative linking teachers’ professional advancement—salary and promotions—to their students’ test scores, many may resist using precious planning time to put together lessons that may enrich students’ understanding of the subject but don’t necessarily translate into higher scores.

The folks involved in the Neuro-Ed Initiative understand that reality but insist that by sharing information, neuroscientists and educators may, in the long run, help shape policy and classroom practice. “Neuroscientists study the brain, and educators want to train and educate the brain,” Limb says. “So in the end we are looking at the same organ from different sides. There really ought to be a dialogue.”

Limb and his colleagues have already taken steps to create that conversation, sponsoring seminars like the 2009 “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” conference at the American Visionary Art Museum. Scientists presented their research, and teachers quizzed them on how the work might apply to classroom instruction. Begg-Marino attended the conference and liked what she heard. But, as she pointed out, “a study is one thing and to prove it would be great. But implementation is a whole other thing.”

Limb acknowledges the challenges. “To me it seems a given that one day we’ll have a better working understanding of how the mind works, and that will be the main basis for how we try to instill new knowledge. But how to get there is like science fiction.

“We have to start somewhere,” he adds. “Being practical, we think the first step is to measure whether an arts-integrated approach to teaching children is more effective.”

Though Hardiman doesn’t yet have enough data to prove the effectiveness of her model, test scores did rise at Roland Park after her arts-integrated curriculum was launched. Still, she says, that wasn’t the main goal. “The test scores did continue to go up. However, the driving force for arts integration was to foster deeper thinking.”

—Deborah Rudacille attended Catholic schools for sixteen years, from elementary through college, and later taught writing for five years in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Distance Education program. An excerpt from her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town, was published in the May Urbanite.

An Overview of Last Child in the Woods

Bookcover - Last Child in the Woods

In this influential work about the staggering divide between children and the outdoors, child advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature-deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

Last Child in the Woods is the first book to bring together a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. More than just raising an alarm, Louv offers practical solutions and simple ways to heal the broken bond—and many are right in our own backyard.

This new edition reflects the enormous changes that have taken place since the book was originally published. It includes:

  • 100 actions you can take to create change in your community, school, and family.
  • 35 discussion points to inspire people of all ages to talk about the importance of nature in their lives.
  • A new progress report by the author about the growing Leave No Child Inside movement.
  • New and updated research confirming that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder has spurred a national dialogue among educators, health professionals, parents, developers and conservationists. This is a book that will change the way you think about your future and the future of your children.

Nature Activities for Kids and Families

Waldorf Toys: Bringing New Consciousness to Choosing Children’s Toys

Written by Simple Homeschool contributor Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys and Moon Child

As a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, one of my favorite “parent evenings” to offer was on the subject of toys and play. Over the years, I don’t think there was a single parent who walked away from such a meeting without a new consciousness about choosing healthy playthings for his or her children.

At the outset of our meeting, I explained how a young child learns about the world through all her senses. Unlike adults, a baby or toddler does not rely solely on her sense of sight, and make quick judgments about things based on a visual perception.

Experiencing Toys Blindfolded

Well, I didn’t really blindfold them, but I asked parents to close their eyes and not to peek. Then I would hand each parent a different toy.

I would randomly hand out an assortment of toys from a typical child’s toy box–a Barbie doll, a metal toy car, an action figure, a baby doll with plastic head and limbs, Legos, plush animals, a My Little Pony, toys that make noise, and so forth.

Other parents would be handed toys typically found in a Waldorf early childhood classroom–things like a smooth river stone, a Waldorf doll made of cotton and wool, carved wooden animals, play silks, a wooden toy car, a handmade puppet or a shell.

I asked the parents to feel each toy, smell it, touch it to their cheek, and taste it (as a young child would) if they dared! After the adult had an experience of one toy, he would hold it up and I would place the opposite type of toy in his hands.

When it comes to toys, a baby will grasp a toy, feel it, smell it and put it in her mouth. Did you know that along with the fingertips, ours lips are full of nerve-endings and one of the most sensitive parts of our body?

Sharing the Experience

At the end of this exercise, parents would share their experiences. Typically, parents would describe feeling tense, repelled or confused when handed one of the plastic or synthetic toys, and to describe the feeling of comfort or relaxation they would feel after being handed a natural toy.

After having the experience, parents made important discoveries and had plenty to share with one another.

I invite you to try it. The element of surprise will be missing, but try experiencing different types of playthings with your eyes closed, and see what you discover.

Make a Story

In the second part of the evening, I asked parents to get down on the floor and play.

In one part of the room, I had laid out a pile of the toys typically found in a child’s toy box on the floor—an assortment that might include a Barbie, action figures, plastic dinosaurs, Happy Meal toys, metal cars and so on.

In the other room would be a pile of wool puppets, stones, wooden tree blocks, play silks, wooden animals, pinecones and so forth.

I would give each group of parents 15 minutes to play and come up with a story using their toys.  After 15 minutes, I would ask each group to switch places.

The results were almost always the same. Parents described having a hard time coming up with a cohesive story with the plastic toys. Observing them play, I noticed how loud the adults in this group would get. Invariably, the plastic dinosaurs and action figures would become aggressive and start attacking the other toys. (What else can one do with a brawny action figure?)

The stories that evolved from parents playing with the natural toys, on the other hand, were usually more like fairy tales—stories of daily life, family and animals; sometimes adventure and magic. It was always interesting to observe how quiet and absorbed in play this group of adults would become.

Observe Your Own Children

I wish I could give you the same hands-on experience through cyberspace. Words can never be as powerful as direct, experiential learning. But if you have the opportunity, observe your children and how they play with different kinds of toys. Play with them and try to create stories of your own. Observe for yourself the different qualities of play that various toys inspire.

Suspending Judgment

I’ve tried to stress to parents over the years that choosing toys is not about “good toys” vs. “bad toys.” Rather, it’s about bringing new consciousness to selecting children’s playthings.

  • Is it beautiful?
  • Does it feel good?
  • Does it leave room for the imagination?
  • Will it inspire creative play?
  • Is it open-ended? (That is, is there more than one way to play with it?)

If you can answer yes to these questions, you will be providing your child with all the tools needed for years of healthy play!

Shelby County Schools Arts Infusion Project

Shelby County Schools of Memphis, Tennessee

Shelby County Schools in Memphis, TN is currently working with a U.S. Department of Education grant to infuse music and visual arts into the classrooms of ten elementary and middle schools. The SCS Arts Infusion Project provides professional development in the arts, supplies and materials and arts experiences to its member schools. The project also facilitates strong ties with arts organizations across the Mid-South region. For more information on the Shelby County Schools Arts Infusion Project, please visit: http://scsaip.weebly.com

Arts Infusion Blog

Arts Infusion Links

Arts Infusion Newsletters

Less Play Today Means Fewer Leaders For Tomorrow

This October, Play for Tomorrow and Goddard Systems take the lead nationwide in highlighting the power of play in learning.

The Exclusive Preschool Sponsor of the First National Ultimate Block Party, Goddard will spread the message with Mini Block Parties across the country.

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa., Sept. 14 /PRNewswire/ — In 1981, 40% of children’s time was spent in play. By 1997, that number had shrunk to only 25%(1). In the last two decades, kids have lost eight hours of free play per week and 30,000 schools across the U.S. have eliminated recess to make time for more academic study(2) – despite scientific findings that link recess to better concentration and more effective learning.

This October, Goddard Systems, named the #1 childcare franchise company for the ninth year in a row by Entrepreneur magazine, is taking a stand, nationally and locally, for the power of play in learning.  For the complete article, read here.

It is officially ARTS IN EDUCATION WEEK!

On July 26, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the second week of September as “Arts in Education Week.”  The resolution (H.Con.Res. 275) was proposed and introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier from California.

The resolution states: […] Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theatre, media arts, literature, design, and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students.


Click here to read the full resolution.

Congress designated Arts in Education Week to promote and showcase the immense role arts education has in producing engaged, successful, and college and career-ready students. You can read statements made by congressmen on the House floor regarding arts education here.

Get Involved!

FIND OUT what is happening in your state.

What are the policies for including arts in education in your state? Visit the AEP Arts Education State Policy Database. This searchable database contains the latest information on arts education state policies and practices. Since 1999, AEP has gathered these data through an annual survey of arts education personnel in state education agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Check out what is happening in Memphis:

Shelby County Schools of Memphis, Tennessee

Shelby County Schools in Memphis, TN is currently working with a U.S. Department of Education grant to infuse music and visual arts into the classrooms of ten elementary and middle schools. The SCS Arts Infusion Project provides professional development in the arts, supplies and materials and arts experiences to its member schools. The project also facilitates strong ties with arts organizations across the Mid-South region. For more information on the Shelby County Schools Arts Infusion Project, please visit: http://scsaip.weebly.com

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