Thursday, 28 October 2010

Taking Time to Read

Last weekend we took the kids to the Ontario Science Centre. Like every other time we've visited, there was the inevitable run-in I've come to dread.

This time it was a father and his son who looked to be about five years old. We were at a table with a ramp. There were two discs on the table. One was a solid wood disc and the other was a metal disc with a hollow centre. They had the same circumference, and for those of us who could be bothered to read the large sign, they had the same mass.

The idea was to send them down the ramp together to see which moved faster, and try and figure out why that was. There was an explanation at the bottom of the sign as well.

This man, like so many other parents and kids I've seen there, just guessed what it was about (wrongly) and told his son it was because the metal was heavier. I actually interrupted this time and told them that according to the sign the discs had the same mass. He just said "is that so?" in a rather rude and incredulous tone and continued pulling his son through the exhibit hall.

Maybe he had a reason for his behaviour. Perhaps he was illiterate and really could not read the sign. But surely the majority of the visitors are able to read. So why don't they?

Is it really a wonder so many people blindly accept pseudo-science when they can't even be bothered to read two sentences on a sign? Why do people even bother going there if they aren't willing to take the time to actually look and experience what is on offer? (Are these the same people who get all of their news via television?) And yet, sadly, many people do just that.

Was this man's son not worth the effort to get the facts right? Was the dad just putting in time until the outing was over? Will the son remember the trip, and if so, what will he have gotten out of being rushed from display to display without ever really getting a chance to check any of it out himself?

I have the same gripe when I send out emails. There are people (admittedly not nearly as many) who insist on only reading the first line or sentence in an email. Even when I start out with an opening such as: "I have two questions for you:" certain people will just jump ahead with the first, sometimes not even reading that one thoroughly enough to answer what I've actually asked.

The problem isn't limited to rushed parents either. When my youngest went to junior kindergarten (very briefly!), the teacher would hold up a "big book", and instead of reading it aloud to the kids, she'd play the book tape and turn the pages. When parents and teachers don't bother to read with their kids, should we be surprised when those kids themselves fail to see the value and joy of reading?

Maybe it's just a symptom of a larger problem. We're always rushed--with increasing demands on our time, and advertising everywhere we look that promises quick and convenient solutions, many of us have lost the art of living in the moment. We continually look ahead, but have difficulty clearing our minds enough to concentrate on the immediate.

Today is voting day. I always hope people will read the candidates' platforms thoroughly before casting their vote, but as I grow older, I wonder: since many don't/won't bother to read, perhaps election signs with names alone are sadly just as effective. We've been trained to respond to quick, flashy images to become voracious unquestioning consumers, and it shows.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Great Green Halloween Tips

I love this time of year--the fall colours and crunchy leaves underfoot, comfort food from our backyard harvest, the early evening family read-alouds, the dramatic fall skies, the absence of mosquitoes on long forest walks, and especially Halloween!

Halloween has gotten a bad name due to the greed/candy obsession that has replaced the old traditions of apples, pears and baked goods, and a friendly visit with the neighbours. I'm talking here only of Halloween, not "Devil's Night" on the 30th--that's a different subject!

While the rumours of razor blades in apples are just an urban myth, many adults still won't let their kids eat fruit collected from strangers. Peanuts are also likely to cause parents grief as more and more kids are diagnosed with peanut allergies.

It was especially sad when kids were getting mugged for their Unicef boxes and Unicef changed their program. Now there are other community initiatives in place though. Some groups in our community put up signs on mailboxes a week ahead telling people that instead of collecting candy, they will be collecting unperishable items for the local food drive. Not many people are willing to mug someone for a box of KD, at least not in a country as fortunate as ours!

Halloween is one of many big marketing opportunities for the box stores, but we don't have to run out and buy cheap single-wear costumes made thousands of kilometers away. Nor do we have to purchase tons of plastic-wrapped corn-syrup and sugar laden "treats" in order to do the holiday justice.

For costumes, you can search your closet for a truly creative and unique costume. Some great closet costume ideas can be found here. If this doesn't work, consider borrowing costume components from a friend or relative, or purchase items from a local thrift shop.

For handouts, people often try and replace all that candy with plastic toys. While the following suggestions might not be absolutely perfect, they are an improvement on Tootsie Rolls TM and chips.
  •  if you have saved the plastic eggs from Easter (we don't buy them, but always seem to end up with lots anyhow!) you can use those as containers for homemade playdough, slime or silly putty (recipes can be found here). You can also use zip-lock baggies if you must. Be sure to label these so they aren't accidentally eaten, or thrown out because they were an unknown product.
  • you can design and print your own bookmarks (to be greener, print them on recycled card stock); add a yarn tassle to the top to make it fancy
  • small, fair-trade chocolate bars instead of larger amounts of lesser quality candy
  • small bottles of soap bubbles
  • a flower bulb (tulip, daffodil, etc.) along with planting instructions
  • print out some Madlibs, word puzzles, etc., roll them up and tie off with a ribbon (you have my permission to reprint and distribute these as long as you leave the website url line on the bottom of each)
  • pencils (not quite as popular or original as some of the above, but my kids still like getting them!)
  • a talented balloon sculptor on our street used to make balloons to order for all the neighbourhood trick or treaters--and she used the kind that quickly biodegrade
  • Annikin publishes tiny paper picture books that can be purchased in bulk and includes many of their more popular titles--you can promote early literacy while giving out treats!
  • super-bounce balls, while still pretty much in the realm of  "junk toys" still tend to see much more use than the other "junk toys" found in loot bags etc.
  • tennis balls and skipping ropes are also more likely to see long-term use than plastic toys
Alternatives to avoid:
  • toothbrushes are not likely to make you very popular with the kids, and attaching ads/business cards to goodies is just plain tacky
  • artificial sweeteners are unhealthy at best and are particularly risky for children--sugar is actually a much safer option
  • avoid anything that has partially hydrogenated oil (some chocolate and most chewy taffies), hydrogenated oil, BHA or BHT (most chewing gum) as these are particularly unhealthy bordering on dangerous to consume
Please add your own suggestions to the comments, or email them to me and I'll post them here and give you credit. There has to be a better way than all the waste that usually happens at Halloween!

This year we are setting up a driveway "Mad Science Lab" with dry ice, lots of mystery flasks etc. and a mix-your own slime (the silly putty recipe at the link above) station. I'm wearing one of my mom's old lab coats that I've made some "explosion burn holes" in. I'll be teasing all my hair up and back, and donning safety glasses. With the safety glasses on, I'm sprinkling some black tempera paint powder on my face so that when I take off the glasses it leaves their silhouette on my face. a pocket protector, pens, test tubes, calculator etc. finishes the outfit. Halloween lab sound effects (bubbling potion, explosions etc.) will add to the effect. Total purchase price: free, as I already owned all the components.

For dry ice tips, tricks and very cool experiments (bad pun intended), click here.

Happy Haunting!