Monday, May 21, 2018

Hanging with the Gang

I see this question a lot, "What kind of activities can I do with a kid that they'll enjoy?"

For me, the word activity has come to mean something designed specifically for children as in 'Activity Book'.  The question starts to answer itself when that word is removed to give, "What can the kid and I do that would be enjoyable?"

In my experience, kids really enjoy seeing, and participating in life, as it exists now, unabridged for their consumption.  So, my answer? They enjoy doing pretty much everything they're included in! Here's a list on answers I compiled the last time I heard this question.  Got any favorites you'd like to add?
  • Grocery shopping, putting them on them on the ground to help me with shopping, or just to explore as we go.
  • Running errands, the gang loves going pretty much anywhere to see new things. The pipe & tubing store was a big hit for example. 
  • Feed stores are fun. There's always something new going on. Where we used to live, they frequently had baby chickens, or ducks, or rabbits.
  • Library story times. Book store story times.
  • Coffee shops, especially with courtyards. The gang spreads out and figures out games of their own.
  • Playgrounds. If you wan to make friends, the homeschooling groups here in SF have playground meetups. I bet someone there might also. We also made play date cards for our kids in case they meet kids they'd like to play with again.
  • Adventure days: we pick something interesting, and go see it. We don't always see what we set out to see, but we always find interesting things. We went to C&H sugar near here. We couldn't get in, but we saw the factory, saw syrup trucks loading, met a cat, and explored town.
  • Hanging out at pubs. There's a pub here with tables in an alley where the gang runs back and forth playing games. We all get lunch, they play, I get to sip a beer. If friends come along, we get to hang out and talk. Oh, also, I've had some great conversations with the gang doing this.
  • Exploring downtown. The gang and I walk around checking out store fronts in neighborhoods we haven't visited before.
  • Fishing: The current five year-old here loves fishing. Whether we catch anything or not makes no difference.
  • Hiking: Park hiking and forest hiking are both big here.
  • Camping: The kids have a blast setting up camp, and hiking. We all go to sleep when it gets dark, it's the best sleep I've had since the kids arrived.
  • Wandering through college campuses: there are usually big grassy spots, libraries, art departments, and our favorite architecture buildings.

There's a corollary to the question above, "I had kids and now I really miss doing things I used to." I'll talk more about that soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Meerkats and Ravens

One... TwoThree.  One... Three... "Ummm... Oh hey! Hey Two!" Two, Three, Meerkat!  One just piqued a Meerkat!  I waved, just barely, quick eye contact, a tip of the head, a grin, a gentle raise of my hand in a faint parenting salute.  The meerkat's eyes flashed from mildly alarmed to mildly amused as they turned to watch One hook it down the sidewalk at a rocket pace, hands held flat for 'maximum speed' as she ran, jumping to a stop a few feet before the corner.

The gang--7 y.o. No. One, 5 y.o. No. Two, and 3 y.o. No. Three, were having a blast with their urban version of 'beneficial risky, independent play'.  They know they're free to do as they please as we wander around downtown, as long as they check every driveway, and stop to wait for me at every corner.  On the long city blocks, they tend to get way ahead.  I watch for a patch of pink polka-dotted tights, or a bouncing lock of ultra-blonde hair to flag them as they bob and weave through the crowds of San Francisco.  Sometimes they're running for the sheer thrill of the speed.  Sometimes they stop to check out new businesses they haven't noticed before.  Other times, they stop to strike up conversations with passers by whose attention they've nabbed.  I love it because we move along at a quick clip, I know where all of them are, (they're in front of me), and I get to watch their burgeoning independence.

As the kids gambol through the city, some adults, usually tourists, spotting an independent, rather small kid... well, they worry just a bit.  They look at the kid, then look again, then inevitably look up and around to scan the crowd for parents.  Meerkating, we call it.  I've learned to watch for it.  A little nod, occasionally a happy word or two, and the they're on their way.  I say it's mostly tourists because the neighborhoods the gang frequents have built up a certain familiarity with them.  When my partner and I get time for a rare date, staff near the front doors of San Francisco's downtown businesses come out to ask us where the kids are as we amble by. 

The first two kids, One and Two, learned the ropes of independent, risky play walking with, but tens of meters from me in grocery stores.  (Three learned not in grocery stores, but simply by hanging out with her sibs.)  The well-defined right angle turns of the aisles served as excellent intersections to get used to my hollered directions when necessary.  "Hard Left!"  "Hard Right!"  "U-Turn!"  The kids seemed safe enough.  They were contained inside four walls with lots of space and a pretty good line-of-sight from them to me. We soon discovered though, that grocery stores host ravens rather than meerkats.

Grocery stores--depending very much on their location within the country, and even within individual neighborhoods of various cities--can contain an odd lot of ultra-territorial shoppers.  They seem unconvinced that kids belong in their store at all, but unsupervised kids?  Surely disaster will ensue.  To be fair, the gang and I have been the recipients of amused grins from harangued parents with screaming kids tucked safely into their carts, but we've also seen the disapproving glares of shoppers certain that kids, free, happy kids roaming a grocery store must be, at some very visceral level, wrong.

Cruising through a grocery store years ago when No. Two was in fact probably 2 years old, he became fascinated with the bulk food bins.  Not with their contents mind you, but with their tied on shovels for scooping out said contents into a bag.  At the tail end of a slightly grueling shopping trip--Two had pulled out, and then re-inserted every bulk shovel he could reach--I wasn't very surprised when he peeled off from me at the checkout line to, excuse the pun ,check out yet another set of bulk bins across the aisle.  "No problem," I thought. "I'll just holler for him before I pay.  He loves the buttons on the debit-card machine.  This'll be easy."

I hollered.  Two did not appear.  I hollered again.  Still nothing.  Feeling a little nervous, I hopped out of line and went to check on him.  Two was gone.  He'd been captured by a raven.  Meerkats, verify safety and move on.  Ravens, collect.  Having found a prized treasure, they make off with it.  I'm sure they think they're helping just like the meerkats.  They are however, in my very biased, and not at all humble opinion, huge pains in the butt.  I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

A frenzied search for Two revealed that he was safe.  The raven had deposited him with a 'responsible adult', one of the store's staff who had seen Two wandering to and fro with me during the entire shopping trip.  She had immediately set out in search of me, and found me soon after.  The employee giggled, Two giggled, I heaved a sigh of relief.  All was well.

Two seems to attract ravens.  Perhaps it's the mop of shiny blonde hair on top of his head, I don't know.  When playing another of our urban games, 'splitting the route', he was captured again, this time by a more persistent raven.

We were hanging out at a playground adjacent to the museum we were headed to when my phone rang.  It was work.  My partner didn't even blink.  She took the kids and headed in so they'd still make their event on time.  I stayed and dealt with the call.

A few minutes later I was headed to the museum.  Needing to blow off a bit of post work-call steam, I took the route to the museum that went through the tunnels of Golden Gate Park.  As I emerged into the concourse in front of the museum I spotted Two.  He'd also decided to take the tunnels independent of my partner and the rest of the gang.  His approved plan was to wander up to the cross-walk, wait for Mom-person to turn up on the other side of the street, and then re-join the rest of the gang.  it was a gutsy plan that almost worked.

He never saw the raven coming until it was too late.  As I approached, I saw the raven stand over him, peering down into his eyes, in a surprisingly bird-like manner.  I was still a ways off, but I could see that she was asking Two something.  Transfixed by her avian stare, Two looked back unblinking, unresponsive.  I walked up, said, "Hey Two!" That was enough, taking the time to blink he regained motor control and wandered over to me.

"Is this your child?"


"Well, I just found him here!"

"Uh hunh.  Yup, you did."

"Well..." uncertain of where to got with this whole conversation, the raven side-stepped away.

Two and I headed for the museum.  My work call had been tense.  Ravens are a tense lot for me, our values tending to be at the polar ends of a spectrum.  A spectrum so wide it sometimes feels like a chasm-y void.  So, it is with some chagrin, but perhaps not so much surprise, I tell you that when Two decided further explorations of the area were in order--rather than heading directly for the museum--I had a less than respectful parenting moment.  I told Two we'd be late.  I'm sure I mentioned one of us sitting in a corner.  I feel certain it was Two who would have been doing the sitting in this scenario, not me, (admittedly it should have been me).

When I looked up form my stern rebuke the raven was back, but they weren't alone.  I was confronted with a conspiracy of ravens.  They'd brought three additional adult members of their family who were bouncing along behind in their raven-like gait, chests puffed out with the clear importance of their business.

"Are you sure this child is yours?"

Floored at the query--seriously, if this kid wasn't 'mine', (a word loaded with connotations of ownership that I personally try not to use),  wouldn't I already be inside the nice, quiet museum doing something blissfully calm?  I snapped.  "God-Damn-It! What the hell do you think!?"

Paradoxically, the conspiracy of ravens now seemed completely convinced that Two and I were inextricably linked by the sacred bonds of parent and child.  They all wondered off, gazes diverting to a hundred different places, their bounces ever so slightly smaller, chests ever so slightly less puffed.  Two and I made amends, and happily headed into the museum, taking time as is two's wont to occasionally explore a bit more.

I mentioned grocery shopping as our independent urban-play boot camp.  Grocery stores still serve as one of our key playing fields, but the game has evolved.  Now, the gang does part of the shopping.  The saved time cuts our trips in half.  The gang comes back beaming with their groceries in hand.  They've learned from their experiences.  They travel as an unstoppable pack now.  Ravens be damned.

Varied urban games weave through the cloth of the gang's history.  Actual shopping didn't evolve from learning to move about semi-freely in grocery stores as I might have expected.  It evolved instead from another game, wandering back into cafe's to retrieve napkins, water, or whatever small convenience the gang or I might need at the time.  That game didn't just become grocery shopping.  Now that One knows how to make change she also handles our takeout ordering.  I get to wait outside, blissfully taking in San Francisco's awe-inspiring architecture, immersed in the moist, yet somehow crisp with cold Bay air.

The gang continually invents new urban games.  Prepping for the day--not too many years from now--that they'll be able to head out on their own, they take charge of showing me how to get places.  I give them our destination.  They run ahead, waiting at key turns to make sure I've seen them before they head for the journey's next juncture.  The whole thing is another natural evolution.  Two is a precocious geographer.  Even as a three year-old, he'd break in each new nanny showing them how to get to the places the gang went, insisting they travel on the same side of the street as the way he'd memorized the route.

We take public transit everywhere, and the gang considers it both a right of passage, and a matter of intense pride that they get on and off on their own, and find their own seats, or simply hang on if it's too crowded.  The years when Two and Three were largely regarded as too small to do such things were rough for us.  The rage expressed in the scream of a kid who was successfully extricating themselves from a bus with their siblings when a 'helpful' stranger lifted them out has few parallels.

Are there benefits to risky, independent, urban play like the ones so often touted for risky, independent play in nature?  I think so.  The gang have made friends with kids and adults all over the peninsula.  Their independence is through the roof.  The city isn't daunting.  It's, quite frankly,  theirs.  They're aware of their surroundings, whether it's weaving through crowds as they go, or gazing at the oh so shiny treasures in Gumps and Burberry's.  Even the ravens have served a happy purpose in the end.

Recently One was 'captured' by a museum guard as she was free-ranging, checking out exhibits on her own, while her sibs attended a class.  As it turns out, free-ranging is simply not allowed there until your 12.  The guard told One she should come with them.  One, not knowing the guard from the man on the moon replied that no, she wouldn't be coming with him.  Her nanny and her sibs would be coming out of the door across the way in just three minutes.  They could wait together if he liked, but they'd wait where they stood.

The flip-side of course, is that after awhile, the kids won't need me anymore, at least not for outings.  But that's OK, because oh the things they'll do without me!  I suspect they'll do them all well and with a certain independent sense of adventure and panache!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Risky Play Urban-Style

'Risky' play is a new term for what a lot of us would have just called playing as kids.  It involves doing things like digging around in the dirt, climbing trees, and exploring the neighborhood with little or no supervision.  I'm a huge fan of 'risky' outdoor play having partaken in it as a kid myself.  We camp, hike, and/or we hit the beach most weeks.  OK, the gang--7 y.o. No. One, 5 y.o. No. Two, and 3 y.o. No. Three--hikes every day.  They also dig in the dirt, climb trees, run away from waves, and dash down hills routinely.

I'm also a fan of what might be deemed 'risky' urban play, which I haven't seen discussed as often in the modern literature although Colin Ward was a proponent back in the '70s.  Here are some of the ways we try to practice 'risky' play when we're in town:

Venturing Ahead
The gang tends to cruise out ahead of us when we walk around town.  They know they can go as far as the next corner, or the next driveway.  With the long blocks downtown, they get plenty of room to independently explore before we catch up.  The gang finds new stores they want to explore, strike up conversations with strangers, weave through crowds, and generally have a blast.

Independent Grocering
One of our first experiments with in town risky play centered around grocery stores.  I'd put the kids on the ground, and send them out ahead of me to check things out while we were shopping.  We've now worked our way up to the gang spreading out across the store to pick up items independently and shorten our shopping time.

Transit Dispersal
San Francisco has an incredible transit system, so we don't drive.  The gang, since they were able to walk, have insisted on getting themselves on and off public transit.  This evolved into two different kinds of play, one that's widely sanctioned, and one that's sanctioned by some of their caregivers, but not others.  The first way is simple enough, the gang all sit wherever they'd like.  I don't help, they're responsible for finding their own spot.  This leads to them sitting all over the bus.  They tend to strike up conversations on buses and trains as well.  Some of my neighbors have introduced themselves to me by asking if I was the dad of Nos. One, Two, or Three.

The second way is that the kids have developed the bus into a bit of an acrobatics gym.  It turns out that if you grab onto the post of a jointed bus as it goes around a turn, and if you happen to be three years old, you can generate enough centrifugal force to fly your feet off the ground.  This and other wonders occur to the gang weekly as they experiment on the more crowded rides where they can't get a seat.

Take me there
One of the gang's favorite games is to take me to locations in the city they're familiar with.  We'll hop off the train, I'll say something like "Take me to the Mechanics Institute", and they're gone.  They keep within sight so I can figure out which way to go by following them, but the trip is their's from that point on.

Retrieving Necessities
Another early urban risky play game was going back into whichever coffee shop or cafe we happened to be hanging out at for whatever the gang might need.  Sometimes that was a glass of water for themselves or one of their sibs.  Sometimes it's a napkin for me.  Sometimes it's taking our dishes and trash to the bus tray.  The gang gets to do things all by themselves, interact with the staff and other customers, figure things out, and ask for help if they need it.

Ordering Lunch
Now that No. One's learning math, she's getting to go on even more independent missions.  When she and I are downtown, she gets to go inside our favorite carry-out joints, to order, pick-up, and pay for our food.  I wait outside, she's on her own.

'Round the Block or Through the Tunnel
Finally, as the gang has become more independent, we've been splitting our urban routes in much the same way we do our hikes.  If there's more than one way to reach a location--say going down one block while the rest of us go down another, or travelling through a tunnel while the rest of us take the over-the-hill route--then the gang are free to take a different route than their caregiver.  We meet up on the other side at the same destination.

We're constantly coming up with more ways to give the gang their heads and encourage them do span out and play while we're in the city.  How does your gang play around town?

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Bus Surfing, Dorian Gray, and Loveness

The gang, (7 y.o. No. 1, 5 y.o. No. 2 and 3 y.o. No. 3), are reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray" this week.  I hear that the story will become more variated as we go on, but for the moment, it's been easy-going and pleasant.  Two somewhat attractive men, one an artist putting the finishing touches on what may be his greatest painting, the other a Lord lounging on a divan made Persian saddle bags are discussing a beautiful man, the subject of said artist's, said painting.  This, like The Island of Dr. Moreau before it has sprung from 2's interest in ghosts and zombies, and our library's book group studying Mystery and Horror in Victorian England.  So far, it's a blast.  We're learning new words, new turns of phrase, and new, albeit fictional and archaic, surroundings.

The gang have also been studying movement.  They're working on balance, strength, and falling.  Their work has changed our public transit system from a living room surrogate to a gym.  No. 1 can grab  of bars on either side of the bus at once, and is practicing her hang-time, (literally), suspending herself in midair for ever increasing intervals as we travel around town.  No. 3 can't reach both bars, and so has contented herself instead with a form of bus and train surfing to work on balance.  Positioning herself on the conveyance as if it were a long surfboard, she puts her arms out, bends her knees, and practices taking the dips and curves.

The gang is still soldering, still learning reading, and still exploring.  In the past week, 3 ramped up her art production, highlighted by presenting us with a squiggly, abstract sketch of... 'Loveness'.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Unschooling Math Jams: Squaring Numbers in their own Base

Some of the most fun I have working on math with seven year-old No. 1 is discovering new things about math myself.  Last week, we discovered that square of any number in its own base is 100!  Pretty cool!  As usual we figured it out by talking rather than by writing things down, and as usual it was sheer happenstance that we figured it out at all.  Here’s how it went.

I've really been looking forward to working through multiplication ala binary numbers with seven year-old No. 1.  She kind of beat me to the punch though: in the last few weeks she's been learning her multiplication tables in base 10 on her own.  This became apparent when five year-old No. 2 decided he wanted to do some 'schoolwork' a few days back.

"I can sing that song... about the letters? all by myself now!"  2 meant the alphabet song.  His attitude towards academics is the ultimate in not retaining unnecessary facts, not even the name of the song :)

After 2 had worked his way through the song, No. 1 wanted to show off, and said "Listen to me!"

Mom-person shut her down with "What's 3 times 2?"

A few seconds later No. 1 replied, "6!"

Getting three year-old No. 3 involved, Mom-person asked, "What's 2 plus 1?"

3 immediately, and happily replied "5!" her answer to almost all math questions.

Mom-person turned to No. 2 next, "OK, what's 2 plus 1?"

After a bit of work, and some reconnoitering of fingers, 3 responded with "3!"

I wanted to make sure 1 was keeping 1's hand in the game with binary numbers, and she was having fun demonstrating her math prowess, so I asked, "How do you write 3 in base 2?"

She thought for a bit, "11."

"Yup, that's it."

Then, Mom-person jumped in with the question that started up the rest of the conversation, "What's 10 times 10?"

No. 1 had in fact been working on memorizing her multiplication tables.  "100," she replied.

I asked her how you write 100.

"1, 0, 0"

1 and I had been worked on multiplication as shifting in binary a few weeks ago.  I hopped back in with "What's 2 times 2?"


"How do you write that in binary?"

"1, 0, 0?" she answered.


I hadn't known the pattern before, but I thought I saw it now.  I asked No. 1, "What's 5 times 5?"

No. 1 hadn't memorized this one yet, so she started in flashing one hand full of five fingers after another at herself, counting as she went.

Meanwhile, I was working through what base five digits would hold on my fingers.  You get up to four on the first digit.  On the second digit, 1 is equal to 1 in the fives place, you can all the way up to four though, so you can get four fives in the fives place followed by four ones in the ones place which gives you twenty-four before you run out of room which means.

"Five times five is 25!" No. 1 cut in just ahead of me.

Having just figured out everything would work out I asked, "How do you write that down in base 5?"

1 looked at me for a few seconds.

"Well, if 10 times 10 is written down as 1, 0, 0 in base 10, and 2 times 2 is written down as 1, 0, 0 in base two, what's 5 times 5 written down as in base 5?"

"1, 0, 0!"

And so we'd figured out an easy way to write down the square of a number, just write it down in its base, and it'll be, (you guessed it), 1, 0, 0!