Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Over the holidays it is especially important to get outside and enjoy some time with nature. Spending time with nature helps us deal better with the stresses of the season, gives us a bit of a vitamin D boost, and is an enjoyable way to spend time with friends and family. If you are fortunate enough to live where the temperatures actually reach sub-zero at this time of year, you can go skating, skiing or snowshoeing. Those of us who only "might" get a white Christmas can still don rain or winter boots and hike through our local forests.

Each winter solstice, our family chooses one tree to decorate with bird seed treats. It is part of a tradition we started when the kids were toddlers, and as we visit that tree on our walks throughout the winter, the kids make note of animal tracks and what has been eaten and what has been left behind.

To warm up, try a bowl of homemade squash soup (recipe below), and/or an arctic float. Or just make some homemade hot chocolate and use a candy cane as your stir-stick for a seasonal treat.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup (makes about 6 litres)

2 medium butternut squashes, cut into quarters
one cooking onion
2-3 tart apples (Granny Smith, Spartan or Empire work well), peeled, cored and chopped
1-2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
sunflower oil
sea salt (about 2 teaspoons)
cinnamon (about 1.5 teaspoons)
nutmeg (about 1 teaspoon)
powdered ginger (about 1/2 teaspoon)
cayenne pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Add water to your baking dishes (just enough to soak the bottom of the dishes) then add your squash. You can remove the seeds before or after baking. Bake the sqaush for 40-60 minutes or until tender.

In a heavy and large soup pot, heat the oil. Fry the onion until it is clear, then add chopped carrots. Continue cooking for about 2 minutes, then add the apples and 2 cups of water (you may need more water later on). Continue cooking until the carrots and apples start to soften.

Scoop out the flesh from the squash and add it to the pot. Stir well and blend with an immersion blender, or in batches in a regular blender, using a large mixing bowl to hold the blended portions. Once it is all blended, return the soup to the pot.

Add the salt, pepper and spices to taste.

This freezes well too.


Friday, 16 December 2011

Time-Tested Toy Favourites

My own children are growing out of the "toy store" years, but as I prepare for the holidays, I will admit to more than a little nostalgia for those days.
There are some toys, however, that even now still get pulled out regularly. Their play value has not diminished over the years, and they have stood up to time & punishment, so I thought they deserve a special mention at this time of year for all those parents who are at the beginning of their toy journey.

Note that I have not included here non-commercial toys of great value, such as appliance boxes, tree forts, sand boxes, rice tables, dress-up trunks, art supplies, etc. Non-commercial toys will be a subject for a separate post at a later time.

1. Pattern blocks. These are colourful blocks in a variety of scaled geometric shapes. They are made of a variety of materials including wood (traditional, and sturdiest), plastic, foam, and magnets. These have been used free-form in our house to build mandalas, make pictures to illustrate stories, to work out geometry problems, for stop-motion animation projects and many other purposes too.

2. Plain (dot-free) wooden coloured dominoes & accompanying gadgets (spinner, teeter-totter, bridge, steps,  bell tunnel, etc.). There have been more domino runs built in our house than I can count, and not a week has gone by over the past 7 years that they have not some out for use. They often form part of a more elaborate Rube Goldberg machine contraption. Our Melissa & Doug set was unfortunately discontinued, so we were forced to make homemade dominoes to flesh out our set and keep up with design demands. Fortunately, another manufacturer (HearthSong) now makes a similar product.

3. Crazy Forts This tinker-toy style building set is aimed for preschoolers. It allows kids to build fort-sized contraptions while still keeping the kitchen chairs available for adult use. Just add a blanket or sheet to finish off the fort. There is also a separate LED light you can pick up that fits into a connector piece so you can light up your fort. Yes, my tween & teen still get some use from these, although they only come out every few months or so now.

4. Plain wooden blocks. The more, the better. Foam also work, but aren't nearly as rugged and are tougher to keep clean. Look for smaller sizes with lots of variety in shapes (cones, arches, pyramids, cylinders, cubes, rectangular and triangular prisms, semi-spheres, etc.).

5. I hesitate to include this as it is made of plastic, but Playmobil is still going strong in our house. My youngest uses it to model historical scenes as well as scenes from favourite novels.

6. Building sets, such as Lego, K'nex, Straws & Connectors, UberStix, etc. The key here is to buy generic sets with no theme; the themed sets we have have only seen a single use (or at most, a week's worth of play) and once the novelty wore off, the generic pieces were taken for use in more creative projects while the specialized pieces sat in storage bins. The one exception to this might be Lego Mindstorms. UberStix is especially interesting as it incorporates all major building sets along with recyclables, including plastic water bottles, shower caps, drinking straws, etc.

7. Snap Circuits These sets have a guide book that takes you through ordered projects that introduce you to basic concepts in a logical way. This includes basic principals of circuitry and safety guidelines. After that is where the real fun begins.
Hint: if you cannot find a Snap Circuits piece you want, you can connect regular wires & components to the set, but be sure to follow safety rules and size your parts accordingly. Be sure your children thoroughly understand the basics before your introduce non-Snap Circuits parts.

Do you have any favourites to add?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Celebrating a STEM Holiday Season

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, technology, engineering & mathematics.

Adding a little STEM to the holiday season is a great way to have a little geeky fun.


Mobius Paper Chains:
Liven up the traditional paper chains by giving each link a twist before fastening. Try making a thicker link on its own, then cut it down the centre to see what happens. You can use a few of these for your chain as well.  Try cutting a strip 1/3 from the edge all around. What happens?

Stars & Angles:
What kind of star do you get when you join up all the corners of a square? Pentagon? Hexagon? Septagon? Octagon? Calculate the angles involved in each of these. What is the sum of the angles for each of the different stars?
Now try drawing a triangle on a sphere (a balloon or Christmas ball will work well). Measure the angles of this triangle. What do you notice about their sum? What might this mean if you were to draw one of the stars on a sphere? Try it and see if your predictions hold.

For the younger set:
The Twelve Days of Christmas song lends itself well to learning ordinals (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), and at the end you can add up all the gifts the "true love" gave. Can you find a shortcut for adding successive numbers?

An Advent Calendar as well as a regular calendar can reinforce counting up and counting down skills.

A few chemistry concoctions lend themselves well to Christmas.

Crystal window paint: This easy-clean recipe uses epsom salts to make a crystal pattern on any glass surface.
  Use this salt solution recipe to paint crystal patterns for cards and gift tags.
  Make a classic borax crystal ornament (remember when you did this as a kid?)
  Use one of these recipes to make either shaving-cream or soap-based indoor "snow" dough.
  Paint the snow with spray bottles.
Don't forget to take a little time out for a nature walk and some star gazing too!

Design your own Rube Goldberg machine to deliver a gift to a loved one, or make it a little simpler and set up your electric or wooden train around the tree to do the same thing.
Make and use some squishy circuits (playdough recipes that conduct and resist currents) to make a light-up Christmas tree, Rudolph, etc.

Design an electronic gift card, video greeting or holiday game using one or more of the following:
Scratch drag-and-drop computer programming tool from MIT
Windows paint
Picasa (try making a mosaic creation too!)
MS Movie Maker
Or any other photo, drawing, graphics, video or word processing programs you like.
Or try Make-a Flake for some addictive mess-free snowflake making.

Remember, many more math & science activities can be found on the Lemonade website.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Books, Documentaries & Other Recent Discoveries to Share

Since the holiday season is rapidly approaching, I thought I'd share some recent gems I've found.


For tween/teens:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is a story of a 13 year-old boy who lives on a reservation, but decides to attend school off the rez in order to improve his prospects. The main character, Junior, is highly engaging and readers will find it easy to relate with him. While the story has a positive and hopeful slant, and many laugh-out-loud moments, it also realistically depicts many of the difficult challenges of rez life as well as the consequences Junior faces regarding his decision. Alexie strikes a winning balance here. This is definitely a winner!

Middle -grade to adult readers will enjoy this historical fiction story:
Hannibal's Elephant Girl by Ariion Kathleen Brindley

A half- drowned young girl awakens to find herself near Hannibal's army in Northern Africa during the Punic wars. As she learns to handle elephants and makes the journey to Iberia and over the Alps, she rediscovers herself along the way.
I was honoured to see this in its early stages in Critique Circle, and have eagerly awaited seeing it in print so I could share it with friends & family. I highly recommend this, but be warned--you will want to reserve a long stretch of time to read it, because you won't want to put it down.
This book is available through Amazon.

For Teen & adult readers:
Exodus, Zenith & Aurora by Julie Bertagna

This futuristic trilogy follows humanity through the long-term effects of climate change. Ocean levels have risen dramatically, and land is scarce. Global communication & industry have become distant memories. As water levels continue to rise, a desperate village must make some difficult decisions.

This series is interestingly written in the present tense, which in itself helps to highlight the immediacy of the issue and draw the reader in, even if it feels a little strange at first. It is a haunting story that will stay with you long after you have finished.

Fun Non-Fiction:
Microcosms by Brandon Broll

Discovering the world through microscopic images at up to 22 million x magnification--truly an eye-opener!


Microcosmos Highlights the magic in the minute--names insect life in meadows & ponds in Europe. Hauntingly beautiful music, incredible cinematography, and only a little narration (& none of that horrible, inane & over-dramatized nonsense found in recent nature documentaries out of North America). You are allowed to sit back and enjoy nature's offerings, and don't be surprised if you find yourself heading outdoors with a magnifying glass in hand to see the nature up close in your own backyard after viewing!

Connections An oldie-goldie documentary series by James Burke from the 1970's, this was revived again twice in the 90's, but the original was the best. Burke takes us on surprising journes through the history of technology, science & innovation to show how seemingly random items are connected--even mistakes in science leading to revelations in other areas.

Cosmos Another oldie, this one by Carl Sagan (also available as a book), documenting our understanding of the universe. Even with its age, it remains relevant to those interested in history, math, science, astronomy, cosmology and wondering about how we all fit in to this universe.

Fun & Inspiring Links:

Be the Spark by Noah Kaplan Powerful poem & magical performance to inspire the best in all of us.

Hallelujah Chorus Flashmob Chorus Niagara flashmob at the Welland Seaway Mall (not just your average flashmob!)

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Value in a Piece of Paper

Steve Jobs, his passing and legacy
Khan Academy
Ted Talks
Wimp & Dump
Online AQ Courses
Online high school credits
Open Courseware

What do all of these have in common? They are all sources of educational inspiration for me over the past two months.
I've been wondering about the future, both for my children and for myself. What sort of education do we need? What will we be doing with our lives next year? 5, 10, 20 years from now?

The discussion nearly always turns to university education--which school, which program is the best choice to match interests and aptitudes?

As you may have discerned from previous posts, we are a homeschooling family--actually, we are unschoolers (perhaps not radical unschoolers, but unschoolers nonetheless). Much of the material we access comes from online sources. We are very fortunate to have a wealth of free, accessible resources at our fingertips. This was not possible 20 years ago.

Steve Jobs was brave enough to realize that much of his prescribed (and exceedingly expensive) education was irrelevant to him. So he cherry picked his way through, saving time, money and frustration to invent his own learning path.

Doing so is much easier now than ever, yet many of us balk at the thought of taking such responsibility for our learning. I will admit that I also find the thought a little dizzying. I loved my university years and would trade them for nothing. Well, my undergrad years anyhow.

And yet...

One of the things I'm considering doing as a second career requires university level math courses. To take these costs a total of about $3200, and that comes before the actual course itself. For a homeschooling mom, that is a lot of money.
And then I read the fine print: I could opt to sit a mathematical aptitude test for a cost of just $50 and have those requirements waived. Well, math has never been my strong point, but I do have a casual interest in it, so I occasionally pick up a book, or visit a website, or view a video on a topic within math. Still, I struggled with grade 12 math, so how could I possibly cope with more advanced material?

I took the practice test just for fun.

I received an 80%. Not wonderful, but enough to meet their requirements with some room to spare. And, thanks to YouTube and Khan Academy, I have since brushed up on the weaker areas now too. I guess since I was doing it out of interest and at my own pace, I really took in more than I'd realized.

It goes that way for most subjects in my experience. Developmental psychology was relevant when I could watch young relatives reaching developmental milestones, acquiring language, and growing in body, mind and spirit. Statistics and research design only became relevant when I began doing my own research. Physics became interesting when it began to describe things beyond the everyday. And so on. The motivation follows the need.

So I'm wondering now, what is the relevance of that heralded degree, SAT scores or other similar external validation in regard to education? Is the fact that our education systems are loaded with standardized curriculum & tests in actuality a reaction to the coming of the information age? Will the validating papers (certificates, diplomas, degrees) be replaced with something better, more customized and relevant? Will post-secondary level education become universally available?

Will we find our post-secondary institutions becoming places where only the hands-on, experiential "lab-based" courses (labs, medical courses, musical performance, teaching, fine art, etc.) need be taught, with the remaining resources dedicated to research?

Or, will we continue to follow the status quo and only value education that is expensive and exclusive? There is a great deal of potential here to educate most people to a higher level than previously imagined, for a small fraction of the cost.

How will we measure this? How will we value all relevant learning? How do we learn to value & encourage creativity and original thinking? These are the challenges we face.

Edit: I found this article today which tackles the possibilities of online education as a tool for educators:

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Libraries: the Cornerstone of Civilization

I am a library person. Even before registering the births of my sons, they were registered library card holders. We went home with favourites from my husband's and my own childhoods including lullaby CDs and our favourite stories and poems. When my youngest was born, we were such library "regulars" that the news of his arrival made the internal library staff's newsletter. While many people watch TV, play video games or go and hang out at the mall, you can find my family spending our few spare leisure hours at the local library, or back at home exploring our library loot.

I've read on various internet sites that evidence of libraries dates back to about 5000 years ago from clay tablets found in Mesopotamia. The first known public libraries emerged in about 400 BCE. If I could travel back in time, my first choice would be a visit to the library at Alexandria. Of course, I'd also like to arrange to be able to read ancient Hebrew, Greek and Coptic (and probably a few other languages as well) in order to actually gain anything useful from the experience, but imagine the treasures once housed there (or in any of the associated library buildings). You can keep your gold and silver, your gems and trinkets--I'll take the library thank you very much!

I would argue that the strength of a society can be measured best by looking at their libraries. But--remember that paper books and written words may not be the only form a library takes. The oral traditions of North America First Nation, for example, can be argued to be a form of library in which elders and storytellers become living repositories. Likewise, the internet is also a form of library. When knowledge is retained in retrievable format, this constitutes a library. When that knowledge is shared without limit, that becomes a public library.

Public libraries are an essential as part of a society's educational system. They allow for the spread of ideas, knowledge and information, and promote freedom of speech. They allow and promote a free and just society by giving all members access to vital information. Enemies to public libraries include those who would censor or destroy material, or limit public access.

Libraries should be free to use for all. This is perhaps one of the most crucial institutions for any government to maintain. When a population is educated and can find and share information and ideas readily, they are empowered to become better citizens. Reliable information built upon the work of many replaces guesswork and the need to "re-invent the wheel".

Libraries are also environmentally friendly. Imagine what the cost would be in money, ink and trees if every time you wanted to read a book you had to purchase a new copy. Now consider how much it would take for your town or city. For a family of voracious readers like mine, it would be truly phenomenal.

If you consider all the other materials that our libraries also provide, such as audio-visual materials, magazines & periodicals, you can see that the sharing nature of libraries is something that we might want to even consider expanding much further. Why not a power tool lending library? Or a toy lending library? In fact, there are places in which these are available too.

If you want to do some detailed research, you can explore the library at the closest university or college.

The sad part of this is that many of us have learned to take our libraries for granted. When government cuts are made, libraries should be last (or near last) on the chopping block, yet in recent years, that has not been the trend. When a library is closed due to lack of public funding, it is akin to a society throwing up its arms in despair. It is a defeat of the spirit of curiosity and exploration, the very thirst for knowledge, which gives us meaning and purpose. Such a move hurts the most vulnerable members of society.

Libraries promote literacy, and provide a means to this end.
Long live the public library!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Halloween Science

 It's Halloween! Time to don your lab coat Mwahaha!

There are lots of strange & spooky science activities on Lemonade that are perfect for sharing at  Halloween, so I thought it might be a good idea to put them all together here so they can be easily accessed from one place. 

Halloween lends itself to lots of strange science activities, from spooky dry ice experiments, to cosmic black light effects and strange magical potions that disappear and reappear, that change colour unexpectedly or become slimy and ooze.

You can make your own shrunken heads from carved and dried apples (it will be as if those apple dolls your grandparents made became apple zombies).

It's also a time to look at some truly bizarre creatures , even more bizarre creatures and maybe do a little owl pellet detective work. If you have access to a microscope, you can see a whole world of alien-looking creatures--from pond critters & close-up insects to bacteria (in fact, you may want to try and culture some bacteria of your own--see below). Strange & spooky science effects can also be found in the kitchen with possessed dancing raisins & living sludge bread (yeast & sourdough).

To culture bacteria, you will need a petri dish (or clean, clear container), some powdered agar (you can find this at health food stores and science suppliers), chicken broth (to use as a nutrient base), cotton swabs, and a place to store the samples. Boil the chicken broth then add the agar and stir well. Pour the mixture into petri dishes, cover and refrigerate to set.

Use the cotton swabs to collect samples from anywhere you suspect germs & bacteria may be found. Try doorknobs, computer keyboards, pet mouths, human mouths--and so on. Gently brush each swab along the top of a gel, label and seal the dish. Repeat for each sample. Store the samples at room temperature, or experiment with making several copies and storing at various temperatures for several days or even weeks. Examine your results under a microscope if possible.

Of course, if you are doing this as a controlled experiment, you will need to be much more careful about preparing and storing the cultures in order to avoid contamination, but for pure exploration, these instructions should suffice.

Other ways to culture bacteria can be edible, such as making your own yogurt or cheese. In fact, when you eat yogurt, you are actually eating live bacterial cultures--poor things! They're being EATEN ALIVE!!!

More weird science can be found here.

Happy haunting!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Math Enrichment Resources

After several months off, I am finally returning. As long as Blogger and I can peacefully co-exist, I promise to resume regular posts.

Since I have been asked several times over the past two weeks for sources of math enrichment, today I post about math enrichment resources.

I will start with a shameless plug for my own math page, which can be found here. On this page you can find resources for young children, including everyday math around the home, baking with children, instructions for some math manipulatives you can make yourself from items you probably have already, and some strategy games you can also make yourself. There are also links to more advanced resources, including topics such as topology, tesselations, magic squares, Fibonacci & other sequences, computer programing, geometry, quantum math, math contests, and much more.

Another valuable resource for students working at grade 4 level and up is the CEMC (Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing) site. This is run from the University of Waterloo, and these are the people who bring you the Gauss, Pascal, Cayley, Fermat, Fryer, Galois, Hypatia, and Euclid Contests.
Past contests, along with solutions can be found here.
Online math games and resources from the CEMC can be found here.

Khan Academy offers free online instructional videos on a wide range of mathematical topics, along with online problems. These allow anyone to follow a self-guided course of instruction. If you log in to a free account, you can track your progress and view suggested subsequent topics to explore. Each video is 3-5 minutes in length. Topics range from basic operations to post-graduate topics and are ideal for all ages and levels.

For kids who want to learn to create their own video games, or just learn to program in general, Scratch from MIT is a child-friendly drag-and-drop program that introduces basic commands and can become highly addictive for kids and adults alike.

If you are like me and would like to limit the amount of time you and your children spend staring at screens, the following books might be of interest:

Big Ideas for Small Mathematicians &
Big Ideas for Growing Mathematicians Ann Kajander
Math for Smarty Pants Marilyn Burns
Math Games for Middle School Mario George Salvadori
Mathematics Made Simple, 6th Ed. Thomas Cusick
Chaos James Gleick

Unfortunately, my list lacks strong book-based math for the high-school level and beyond. Do you know of any good math enrichment offered in book form for these levels? Please add them to the comments.

Additional educational resources, sorted by subject:

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Birds and the Bees and the Flowers and the Trees: Messages from Pollinators

Last night my family and I went to see the documentary "Queen of the Sun".

No doubt you've heard all about "colony collapse disorder". There are many theories about its causes, but in reality, the causes are likely to be both diverse and related. Obviously, monoculture farming is not natural or bee-friendly. Nor are GMOs, pesticides, and even possibly cell phones. While the corporate giants fight to deny responsibility, the problem still remains.

What stands out in my mind is that honey bees are symbolic of the things we've lost touch with as a society. Take one bee away from her hive-mates and even if you feed and nurture her, without contact with those hive-mates, she will die. Likewise, there is a life-and-death connection between bees and the plants they pollinate. When considering honey bees, it is the hive rather than the individual that makes the whole; and that whole again can only be considered along with its partnership with the plants it pollinates.

Then, consider the herbivores who depend on those plants. And the carnivores who depend on those herbivores. Whatever you eat, whether vegan, vegetarian or omni, about 2/3 of your diet comes either directly or indirectly from foods pollinated by bees.

All can thank the hive of bees for their continued existence.

But we have lost sight of these basic interactions, and have chosen both consciously and subconsciously to replace our relationships and understandings of these with abstractions that distance us from the nature we depend upon for our own survival.

Can you tell the difference between a honey bee and a yellow jacket? A solitary native bee vs. a European honey bee? When you think of bees, do you picture honey and bee-stings?

The loss of as much as 90% of the bee population in some areas is an alarm for us. It is time to start moving in sustainable directions, particularly when it comes to agriculture. Taking shortcuts in order to build high-yield corporate farms is not a viable solution. Nature does not use monoculture. Nature also allows for competition in order to strengthen species.

Our Obsession with Monoculture

Before lawn pesticides were severely restricted in our area, we voluntarily chose not to use them. We also chose to let our lawn go dormant over dry spells rather than waste municipal water on it. The only help we gave it at all was aerating ever other year, and adding a little homemade compost, low-maintenance seed and a little white clover seed once. During the first year, our lawn had quite a few dandelions and some crabgrass. We dug some out, but weren't particularly studious about it. After the second year, we were able to get away with mowing it every 2 weeks in the spring and every 3 weeks over the summer and fall months (this allowed it to grow to up to about 5" maximum). As the clover appeared, the bluegrass died out and more hardy fescues took over. By the third year we had no more dandelions than anyone else on the street. There were at least 5 different varieties of grasses along with the clover, yet it was still a lawn.

I know there are still better choices for yards and ground covers, but even black-thumbed time-challenged types like us were able to get past the bluegrass monoculture.

When disease strikes, a region with a great diversity of life is much better able to cope and not only survive, but flourish than an area with little or no diversity. The strength and health of the region lies in its diversity both in terms of genetic diversity within a species, and also in species diversity. 

Just as nature prefers variety, so should we. Our mono-culture mentality goes much further than endless fields of GMO corn. We embrace standardized "everything": from healthcare to education to consumerism. Over the past twenty years, our schools have become a battleground between those who value creativity and individualsm vs. those who want standardization. We have turned industry, agriculture, healthcare and now education into factories that spew out an "average" product. In doing so, we miss many fantastic opportunities along the way.

Our true value is in our uniqueness. We need to open our eyes and our minds to the possibilities that lie just outside our realm of expectation.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Eggy Science

In time for spring/ Easter, Lemonade has some egg-stra special experiments and activities relating to eggs.
On the Strange Science page, there is the disappearing shell trick and how to unboil an egg:

On the Advanced Experiments page, there are recipes for natural (food-based) dyes that can be used to dye eggs:

On the Spring Crafts page are instructions for some egg-dying techniques (marbling etc.):

And on the Wind Energy page is the classic egg-in-a-bottle trick for demonstrating the power of air pressure:

Other egg activities:

Eggshell collage: like sand art, except you use crushed shells from coloured eggs as your medium. You can either brush a thin layer of glue onto your paper a section at a time and sprinkle one colour at a time, or use peel-back "sticker" paper and remove a section at a time to expose the adhesive and sprinkle the shells on the exposed section one colour at a time.

Test the strength of eggshells by cutting shells in half the short-way around the egg (unless you are very skilled at this, you will probably only get a half-shell for each egg). You will need 4 same-sized eggshell halves that are free of cracks in total, and several heavy books, at least one of which is hard-covered.
Place the shells in a rectangle slightly smaller than the hard-covered book. Begin placing books on top, one at a time, until the shells crack. How much weight did the eggshells support?

Be sure to wash your hands well after working with eggs!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Thoughts on Nuclear Power

Due to concern about the reactors in Japan, there has been much talk about the fate of nuclear power in recent days. Is there a future for nuclear power?

I must admit that I am torn on the question. Nuclear power is not safe, at least not the way it is built, used and run by corporate and government entities around the world. But is there a way we could make it safe? In theory, it looks pretty good, but the reality is a little more complicated.

Nuclear power is cheap, until you take a closer look. First, there is the mining of uranium and other related minerals to consider. Then there is the building and maintaining of reactors, and most of us are aware of the shortcuts that have been taken in both of these, particularly in maintenance. I find it unbelievable to hear how the Mox fuels are being used, and how storage of spent fuel is designed close to the reactors. IMO, this is carelessness in the name of profit. This isn't only about Japan. By all accounts, the Japanese are dealing at least as well with this as any other country possibly could at this time.

If we were to incorporate every available safety precaution into the design of reactors, including the storage of spent fuel; and if we were to run the plants on a strict safety policy in which business models of "cost/benefit analysis" and "insurance risks" based purely on probabilities tallied against financial and political motivations were replaced with the calculation of risk to life and health as the only consideration, then perhaps there might be a place for nuclear power. However, the current realities show us that this simply isn't the case, and isn't likely to happen anytime in the near future. Nuclear power is cheap until there are accidents. And the cheapness of this source fails to take in some very real costs--even before disaster strikes. Government subsidies hide some of the costs. Uranium mining is costly in social, economic and especially environmental terms. The actual running of reactors, including maintenance, can become costly, particularly if public and employee safety is prioritized (as it should be). The lifespan of reactors is relatively short, although in many cases has been pushed beyond original design limits, again, due to economic and political concerns.
I have read conflicting reports about cancers and other radiation related illnesses in people living close to nuclear power plants; since I am no expert, I will leave that argument out for the time being. However, there is no doubt that there are safety concerns for the people who live near nuclear disaster zones, and also for the storage of spent fuel.

Spent fuel is often buried deep, however, geological disturbances happen, and are more likely to happen when the "safe" time frame reaches into the realm of tens of thousands of years or more. Moreover, this is costly disposal, and it is only a matter of time before those in charge start taking shortcuts (assuming of course, that that hasn't already happened).

One thing that generally does not enter into the discussion is the idea of  cost/benefit analysis in terms of time. In a best-case scenario, with no further nuclear accidents, leaks, etc., there is still the issue of spent fuel. The half-life of spent fuel, and the resulting large time lag between its use and the time in which it can be safely handled by unprotected people means the problems associated with its radioactivity will exist far into the future and affect many generations. Its useful production time and power is relatively minuscule in comparison.

Several years back some researchers mistakenly thought they had found the modern holy grail: cold fusion. Unfortunately, they were mistaken. Perhaps it is time for a new "X Prize" in energy research. Until then, we would be wise to eliminate our subsidies to dirty energy including fossil fuels and invest instead in renewable energy technology and conservation research and incentives. We can't afford to complacently continue on our current path.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Kids Can (and should) Learn to Cook

I've been reading with interest various posts and comments regarding the family dinner, and the tendency people have to eat more and more processed and "fast" foods. We all know that eating a variety of whole, fresh foods is important to maintain optimal health, both for ourselves and for the planet, however, we aren't always very good at putting that knowledge into practice.

While there are clearly several factors that lead to this, one thing I noticed is that in most families it is still the woman who bears the responsibility for shopping, meal planning and meal preparation, and in NONE of the piece or responses I have read do the children make any of the meals. Not a single response from any of the families who responded to the articles I read even mentioned their child(ren) helping in any way with dinner preparation.

This tendency towards processed food also coincides with another tendency of our society: to do everything for our children and deprive them of the opportunity to learn and take responsibility for meeting their own basic needs.

Toddlers as young as 3 (or younger) can learn to wash baby carrots and cherry tomatoes for themselves as snacks and make a simple sandwich. They can pour themselves a drink. They can pour baby spinach leaves into a salad spinner to wash and spin it for salad. They can set a table and clear the dishes afterward. Child labour? Hardly! This is part of learning needed skills and will help them learn that they are capable people with contributions that are important. Cooking can be creative and fun. It incorporates many of the skills involved in crafts and free play, with the added bonus that you can (usually!) eat what you make when you're done.

Like many other families, we converted a pot drawer to a plates and dishes drawer using a plate rack from Ikea. This made it easy for young children to be able to set the table without having to climb to reach items in high cupboards. It may seem backwards to some, but we keep less fragile items in the top cupboards so that if they are needed and the person reaching them fumbles, there is less potential for serious accidents. That is especially useful for me as I am rather vertically challenged, and tend to fumble, but is also practical for kids working in the kitchen. It is good to remember that cleanup is important when cooking too, for both practical and safety reasons. Show your child how to clean as they go so that there isn't a mound of mess left over at the end.

By the time children can reach the microwave or toaster oven, they can and should be taught how to use these safely. It is just as easy to teach them the safety rules that allow them to use them properly as it is to ban their use completely and then try and police that ban when they see you use these items regularly. Make sure you teach them to seek parental supervision first (at least until you are comfortable enough to allow them to work independently), stay with their cooking, and teach them specific safety tips for the appliances used (no metal in the micro, always empty the crumb tray before you turn on the toaster oven, watch your food so it doesn't burn, how to turn off the appliances, etc.).

Teaching them how to use your kitchen fire extinguisher is also a good idea. By the time a child is using appliances, they should be familiar with other major safety skills, such as the home fire plan, how to dial 911, where the family emergency meeting place will be, and which neighbours they can call on for help. More than once a child as young as 3 has saved a parent's life by calling 911.

There is no reason why a child who is able to reach the stove top cannot learn how to boil water. This is a good time to teach them about the dangers of dangling hair and clothing near a hot stove, and also a great time to introduce them to cooking a variety of pasta dishes. As they gain proficiency, they can learn to make soups, scramble eggs, cook rice and lentils, etc.

Learning to bake often starts with making cookies. This is a good project because few kids dislike cookies, measuring skills and reading a recipe are a part of the process, and the baking time is short. From baking cookies, kids can move on to preparing quiches, simple casseroles, and fun (but healthy) treats like pita pizzas.

By this time, your child will have gained enough cooking skills to be able to cope with feeding himself. He will also be able to help speed up dinnertime meal preparation because he have a better understanding of what needs to be done in order to get food on the table. This will make it easier to cook real food and enjoy more meals together as a family. This is a great way to put the maxim "many hands make light work" into action. Your toddler can put together a simple salad and set the table while your 2nd grader cooks the rice or pasta and pours water into glasses for everyone. A parent or older child prepares the rest of the stir-fry or curry, and in 40 minutes (the time it takes the pizza delivery to reach your home), you have a healthy meal on the table. Other meals such as pasta marinara, make-your-own pizza, casseroles, omelets, etc. can be made in even less time.

Slow meals eaten together encourage family conversation, and this in turn helps improve your child's language and communication skills, as well as awareness of other family member's experiences, local, national and international current events, and more.

At the grocery store, point out the country of origin signs on the fruits and vegetables. How far did your carrots travel to reach you? How about your mangoes, bananas, or broccoli? You can even do a whole study unit on this topic (you will need to scroll down a bit).

In fact, our food and where it comes from is an incredibly important, diverse and relevant topic for our children, and teaching them about it will serve them well throughout their lives.

Lemonade's Easy Kid-Friendly Recipes
Litterless Lunch Tips and Recipes 
Baked Treats and Holiday Favourites

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Life of Awesome

The other day, when we were out browsing at a local bookstore, my son happened upon The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. In case you are unfamiliar with it, it is a collection of life tidbits that are often overlooked, such as when you are in a long lineup and suddenly a cashier opens up a new checkout.

We were in a bit of a hurry by the time he found it, but it stayed with him and he proceeded to share some of his favourites with us over dinner. His enthusiasm was catching, and we found ourselves coming up with "awesomes" of our own.

The first true spring evening. Catching a glimpse of a shooting star. Unloading the dishwasher to find no rejects. The delicious smell of line-dried bedsheets. Being greeted at the end of the day by your favourite tail-wagging dog. The first crocus buds peeking through the snow cover. The shy grin of an infant over her mother's shoulder. Being the first onto the skating rink after the Zamboni. Buses that connect. All green lights on a drive when you're running late. The taste of a cold drink of water on a hot summers day. The sound of waves on the seashore.

I could go on. And the thing is, I should go on. All too often we fail to appreciate the small wonders in our daily lives. We forget to stop and smell the roses (or bedsheets--take your pick!), and yet, when it all comes down to it, it's those small, seemingly insignificant miracles that hold so much importance in our lives.

You've probably heard the phrases "count your blessings" and "stop and smell the roses", but for us, it was this "Book of Awesome", with its obvious appeal to a tween boy (which is awesome in and of itself) that really made us stop and put those things into words to share.

We are now working on our own "awesome lists". With all the rushing around that we do in our society, it can become all too easy to focus on the negative, to work on problems that seem urgent and forget to balance that with the positives that surround us. Shifting the focus to the positive in our lives is helping us put things into a more balanced perspective.

Your list will likely be a little different than mine, but chances are we will have at least a couple of things in common. These are things that bring us together in our experience, despite the fact that we may live in different countries, be of different cultures, religions etc. and never meet. It is part of the shared human experience. We are not so different as it might appear after all.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Disconnect Disease Part 2

Not long ago I wrote about "disconnect disease" has affected our society in that fewer people than ever have a connection with nature. We no longer see ourselves as part of the web of life, nor do we understand how interdependent we are with other forms of life.

After some reflection, I realized that people are also disconnected from each other. We no longer know the names of our neighbours. We no longer know the parents of our childrens' friends--or even the names of their friends at times. We fail to take the time to stop and talk with the librarian, grocery clerk, or any of the other people we encounter as we go about our daily tasks. We walk past the street musician without even hearing their music; we ignore the homeless, and we fail to make eye contact with passers-by.

Stranger danger is highly over-rated. Statistics show that crimes are much more likely to occur between family and friends than from a stranger.

We are busy, but does that business bring us any joy or fulfillment? Surely taking a moment to say hello and inquire about someone is worth slowing down a little. Life is not a race.

I have lived in ten different cities now. We stayed in the last one for ten years, but only ever got to know our neighbours by their first names, and knew very little about them. Everyone kept to themselves. We didn't try very hard to change that, and were not sorry to leave. Perhaps if we'd made some effort, things would have been different. Sadly, many others have similar experiences.

When I was in my teens, we lived in an unusual neighbourhood. It was a large city block of low-income housing. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't terrible either. There was no graffiti or garbage lying around; it was just old war-time housing. There were no fences in the backyards, so all the back became a large field. The younger kids would play baseball there in the summer, and even cross-country ski in the winter. It was a perfect spot for huge games of hide-and-seek and capture the flag. Neighbours would sit outside on warm summer evenings and watch the kids play, or join in every now and then. As the mosquitoes came out, the women would often visit each other for a coffee while the men put the kids to bed.

One summer, our neighbour who had recently immigrated from Italy took it upon herself to teach us all how to make fresh pasta. We'd drape pasta all over the kitchens to dry. She also organized us all in a huge tomato canning weekend. We peeled and chopped  huge tub-fulls of Roma tomatoes together. Once the tomatoes were in the jars she added her own home grown basilica (basil) before the lids went on. Some of those tomatoes and pasta were used at my youngest brother's Christening party in a huge lasagna. Of course, the neighbours were a part of that too. I can tell you that after doing the same thing in my own home alone, that there is nothing like the camaraderie of friends to make such things not only faster and more efficient, but extremely fun as well.

My parents bought their first home a few years later. Their neighbours only speak to them if they have a complaint. The house is quite nice, and they own it, which is somewhat of a dream for them. But they have not been happy there. They now hope to sell the house and move back into that complex so they can once again be a part of the community. Although many of the neighbours we had then no longer live there, the sense of community lives on. And the friendships they made during those years have also lived on.

Community, although very rare, is still possible in the western world.

Former Canadian Olympian Silken Laumann is an advocate for unstructured family play. She suggests getting the neighbourhood together to play at a local park at a regular designated time. Including as many people as possible, and playing along with the kids every now and then can help get things started. Some tried and true outdoor games for larger groups can be found here:

Other ideas:
- organize a block party and/or street dance, being sure to invite everyone
- volunteer locally with your entire family
- organize tree planting at a local park and make it a potluck picnic too
- smile and say hello when you see a neighbour
- shovel your neighbour's walk
- mow your neighbour's lawn
- be sure to make a point of knowing your neighbour's full names and contact info in case of emergency
- organize a street-wide yard sale
- sit outside and chat with neighbours on evenings when the weather is nice (it will make you feel better than watching re-runs on television!)
- refrain from gossip, and always give the benefit of the doubt if you hear gossip from others
- include everyone
- be willing and ready to receive kindness from your neighbours too
- be quick to introduce yourself to new people in your neighbourhood to make them feel welcome

It is tough to get started, especially if you are shy like me, (I still never make eye contact with strangers!) but the effort is well worth it. Just ask my parents!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Bucket List of Giving

You've probably heard about "bucket lists" from the movie of the same title. The idea is that you make a list of "must do" items to complete before you die. This can be a great way to get your life back on track and to focus on the things that are most important to you.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what I can contribute to the world that is truly meaningful. What causes mean the most to me? What differences can I make in this world to leave it better for my descendants?
It's a difficult choice, and the possibilities can seem too great to know where to start.

Then I remembered (actually, through a cheesy ad on Facebook) about making a bucket list. The two ideas seem to go hand in hand. So I am going to work on a bucket list of giving. Here are a few ideas, but the list is still in the making:
- spend a day planting trees with a group of neighbours or youth each spring and fall
- make my home a meeting place for my kids' friends to come and help work on service projects
- volunteer my services as a tutor for kids whose parent's cannot afford it
- visit a 3rd world country with my family so we can learn first hand about how the rest of the world lives, and hopefully participate in helping that community
- make crafts with the kids to sell at the annual holiday bazaar and let the kids donate proceeds to their choice of charity
- become more aware of the various cultures in our community and participate in cultural events
- remember to start carrying cash so I'm prepared to give when I see a homeless person
- remember to buy for the food drive in the "off season" too
- participate in creek/river/park cleanups when needed
- write more letters and raise awareness on key issues esp. regarding children and the environment
- play "secret Santa" all year long, whenever I can find an opportunity to lift someone's spirits
- write letters to the stores and businesses I boycott to let them know that I'm doing it and why--like the Bulk Barn store I avoid after hearing a manager there complain about a "bag lady" who "had the nerve" to stand outside the store (she was afraid the woman would scare off customers!), and the numerous businesses with signs that limit the # of students in the store at a time, as well as Walmart, Costco, etc.

There will be more, but this is a starting point.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Family Dinner: an Endangered Species

I've written about the importance of free play in children's everyday life. Now I'm going to move on to another important topic: the family dinner.

More and more families find they are rushed from program to meeting etc. and their increasingly busy schedules and longer work hours mean they skip family meals. When this happens, everyone loses out, especially the children.

What is so important about eating together?
One important benefit of stopping to eat a healthy, home-cooked meal together is that it's a good way to help model healthy eating and cooking habits to your children. While that might not be practical every night, making it a priority over processed or restaurant eating will send a clearer message than endless memorizing of serving sizes and food groups.

Besides the meal itself, the family dinner provides a time for family members to come together and discuss their day. It gives family members a chance to come together, reconnect and share their experiences. It allows family members to better understand each other. It gives children a chance to learn and practice important communication skills.

If we leave the important job of learning communication skills to school time, we do our children a disservice. A school classroom typically consists of 25-30 students and one teacher. Occasionally, there is a second adult (resource teacher, etc.) also available. This means that most opportunities for communication, especially oral communication, are severely limited by group size alone. Most talking done in school happens either by teachers to students in a one-way fashion, or between classes with peers. Communication with peers is important. So is the ability to communicate with adults. When children communicate with adults, their language and communication skills are challenged in different ways than they are when communicating with peers. Those who regularly converse with adults tend to have a broader vocabulary and speak with greater clarity than those who do not.

Children who develop confidence in speaking with adults who are willing to listen and converse with them learn to value their own input.

Another benefit to the family dinner conversation is the potential for meaningful discussion. Current events, family events, and day-to-day happenings provide opportunities to discuss various values and viewpoints. This invites family members, especially (but definitely not exclusively) children, to reflect on their own values and beliefs, and exercise critical thinking skills. Parents might encourage their children to think about other viewpoints, or brainstorm possible solutions to problems. Children might introduce issues and concerns to parents. Doing so provides an opportunity to practice communication with adults in a safe way, with adults they can trust to be caring and supportive. Adults can be good listeners, and ask appropriate questions to help the child think of things in more depth, with more breadth (what other factors might be involved) or from different angles.

One thing to remember when discussing tricky or controversial topics, especially ones to which you have your own strong opinions, is to express your opinions as opinions and not facts. It's OK to tell your kids how you feel and why you feel that way, but it is not OK to demand that they adopt your views at face value. If your wish is to help your children grow as thinking individuals, it is important to expose them as objectively as possible to a variety of viewpoints and let them draw their own conclusions. It is equally important to expect their views to change as they learn and grow.

Some kid-friendly recipes can be found here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

More About Child Empowerment

I just finished reading Free the Children by Craig Kielburger. This is one person who shows what an empowered child with determination can accomplish.

One thing he mentions often in the book is that in all the organizations he contacted that were working towards the welfare of children, none of the advocates or advisers themselves were youth or children. As with most other facets of life, adults were calling all the shots when it came to the children, and there was no real desire to change this.

Thankfully, Craig helped pave the way for youth to become involved in issues that affect them. But we need to do more. As a society, we need to recognize the important contributions that children can and should be making towards their future. It is no longer acceptable or desirable for adults to marginalize children. Children's voices need to be heard. Being young is not a disease to be overcome, nor is it a handicap. Youth have energy and a vested interest to make a positive difference in the world. They have a right to invest their energy into their futures.

Contrast this with some kids we know locally. These kids are screen and electronic gadget addicts, who have little interest in the real world. How did that come to be? Could it be that dinnertime conversations about world events no longer take place in their household? Do the parents believe that the children should be sheltered from the "harsh realities of the world"? Or is it just a little easier, a little more convenient to let them follow the status quo?

Not long from now those children will be adults. They will have the ability to vote. They will need to find ways of earning a living. They will need to work through personal and business relationships. They will need basic living skills such as cooking. cleaning, and planning a budget. They will be faced with an onslaught of decisions to make. How well prepared will they be?

I've heard so many adults condone over-scheduling kids' free time by rationalizing that "I'll know where they are and what they're doing" (control) or "it will keep them out of trouble" (assuming that anything the child might plan would be problematic--and showing a sad lack of trust in the child).

I have posted on Twitter and on this board about the necessity of free, regular, unstructured outdoor play in children's lives. We also need to allow them to become involved in the "civilized" world around them (and yes, the word "allow" is intentional here). We need to teach them coping skills then trust them to use them. It is not unreasonable for a 12 year old to use public transit. It is unreasonable to cloister our children and do everything for them, then expect them to miraculously grow into mature, capable adults.

We need to answer our children's questions honestly and completely, and admit when we do not know the answers. We need to encourage them to find out more. We need to ensure they know how to go about learning more--whether it be learning how to use an online library catalogue, interview experts, or simply make a phone call. We need to encourage them to develop their communication skills effectively. Part of that means including them in adult conversations. We need to listen and show we value their input, and we need to ask them questions to help them clarify their thoughts as well as their speech.

When we shelter children to the truth and to the negative aspects of the world around them, we do them a disservice. Children know that the world isn't perfect. Trying to hide it can make them nervous or anxious. Eventually, they will learn about it for themselves, and if they are unprepared, it can become devastating. Better they learn about the issues and become empowered to act.

Click here for my original article about child empowerment.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Disconnect Disease

Today the US government approved the use of GMO alfalfa. In North America, there is an alarming number of people who believe that climate change is either a hoax, a natural phenomenon, or a problem of the future. Many children today are hard pressed to name even 10 different species of life native to their area.

It is a sad sign of our times that people have completely lost touch with their connection to nature. We view all non-human life forms (and even some humans too, if they live far away and look or sound different) as resources to be consumed. Our society has forgotten the interconnected nature of life on our little planet. We are not aliens imported into a warehouse of resources; we too are living people and are part of the web of life.

We used to talk about "food chains" in science class when I was a kid. The imagery is clear: a straight line where the smallest species is eaten by the next smallest and so forth. My younger brothers learned about the "food web" in which more complexity is introduced. The reality is that ALL of life is interconnected. Nature is a vital part of who we are.

When the bees aren't around in their usual numbers, it affects not only bee-eaters, but many plants that depend on bees for pollination. In turn, other animals are affected as the food normally produced by those plants is no longer available. This spreads not only up and down a food "chain", but also to other chains. Animals who miss their usual food will need to adapt by eating something else, or die out. Should they begin eating other plants, this now affects another "chain", and so on. The repercussions may extend for years or decades, and as such, are little understood by a science still in its infancy.

We have lost many of our songbirds to tropical forest destruction. We are losing our coral reefs to climate change and ocean acidification. Every loss affects us in ways we may not yet comprehend.

And yet, despite the extreme consequences that can arise from the disruption of even a single species, we continue to tamper with the web of life with little thought about the consequences. From material waste, climate change, genetic modification, pharmaceutical and industrial pollution, nano technology, and overpopulation, we are causing a huge decline in biodiversity on our planet. It is a huge experiment in which we play both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, except in this case, it affects all of life as we know it.

Perhaps part of our problem stems from the terminology we use when we refer to species survival. I suspect that if Charles Darwin were here today, he'd want to rethink the words he used in his description of the process of evolution. In stressing the competitive nature of survival, we've missed the point that nature is a closed system with its own mechanisms for maintaining balance. A "successful" species, meaning one that increases its overall population, can only remain as successful as its food resources allow. Humans are a very successful species, but if we continue to grow our population will crash as more and more species are crowded out and our food resources diminish. Growth cannot continue indefinitely. In one way or another, balance must and will be reached. The difference in humans is the terrifying tendency we have to destroy life for reasons other than food.

So while we all sit here staring at our screens (yes, I am guilty), our children learn about technology, politics, consumerism, perhaps some human rights lessons, and are rushed from program to activity. They learn to view nature as something that happens "out there" independent of them. We are robbing ourselves and our children of our natural heritage and future. Life on earth is a closed system, and we are on a path that both stretches it to its limits, and destroys much of what makes life worth living. And in our rush for more, faster, better, most of us have forgotten how to live.

This is all very bleak, but it is also an opportunity. I challenge myself and you to make the time to spend outdoors in a natural place at least one day a week. Take as much time as you can possibly spare, and share it with a younger person. Learn to observe. Learn to relax. Learn to listen, and learn to just be. And eventually, we will learn once again how to live.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Going Green: The Next Steps

So you recycle and compost, you turn down the thermostat on winter nights and turn it up on summer days and you've replaced your obsolete incandescent lights. You carpool, use transit, cycle or walk most places. You buy local organic food and eat low on the food chain. You can't remember the last time you used a plastic bag for your groceries.

So now what?

Beyond the basics, most people think going green must by default mean spending money--often a great deal of it--on fancy technology. And it is true that adding PV panels to your roof or a wind turbine in your yard or a geothermal well can be costly; as can a hybrid vehicle. Certainly these do pay back over time, but many people can't afford the initial investment.

So what can you do?

1. Never underestimate the impact of smaller actions. Bringing along your own cutlery and containers to fast food restaurants makes a difference (better yet, pack your own food from home!). Watch your water usage; it takes energy to treat water and pump it into your home. Challenge yourself to reduce your usage of gas, electricity and oil.

2. Buy less. Buy used. Learn to repair items, or find someone who can. Try manual versions of appliances such as a can opener, chopper, food mill, etc. (You'll especially enjoy the benefits if you have to prepare food during a blackout!).

3. Avoid disposable items. Diapers, bags, razors, wipes, cloths, dishes, cups, cutlery, pens, tablecloths--all have reusable versions, which are better quality and will save money in the long run. If you are female, consider using a Diva cup or other silicone menstrual device.

4. Let your elected representatives know how you feel about environmental issues. Keep correspondence brief, and provide evidence where appropriate. Remind them often!

5. Teach the children in your life the importance of environmentally sound practices.

6. Ensure the children in your life do not suffer from nature deficit disorder by providing many opportunities for outdoor play in various natural settings and in all seasons.

7. Share your progress with others. Peer pressure can be a positive thing too!

8. Keep up to date on new technologies that might apply to your circumstances.

9. If you cannot replace your old leaky windows, re-caulk the edges and during the colder months, add a shrink-wrap film "pane" to conserve heat (kits can be found at any hardware store).

10. Research raw food recipes for ones that appeal to your family, and have a "raw food day" once or twice a week to save on cooking energy. When you do cook, make a double batch to serve at another meal.

11. Have yourself take off of any or all mailing lists, and subscribe to magazines and newspapers online. View these on a laptop rather than desktop computer if that is an option for you.

12. Check your mindset: do you think as a consumer or conserver? Relatives who have lived through the depression may have some enlightening tips on becoming thriftier and reducing wasteful habits. My grandmother once suggested I use dark fabric for diapers so I wouldn't need to bleach them down to white. She also had a recipe for making her own soap and could darn socks, mend holes and re-sew buttons in her sleep.

13. Learn to up-cycle items: old worn jeans can become a new handbag or backpack; holey underwear makes a great dust rag. Many more great ideas can be found online.

With all the interest in solar energy, a Newfoundlander has invented the ultimate in up-cycling. The main component to his solar heating panel is aluminum soft drink cans. It may just be that many of the ideas we need will involve ways to use common items and/or technologies we already have in new and innovative ways.

Other innovations to look for: refrigerators with outdoor venting options, cars with carbon fiber bodies and cold fusion (hey, we can dream, right?!).

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Water-a Right or a Commodity?

Like so many things, my recent interest in water issues springs from my children; in this case my oldest son, who became interested in water issues in relation to a science project.

I am one of those people, who despite living in the Great Lakes region, where the world's largest supply of fresh water exists, and the tap water is treated and reliable, filtered my drinking water before consuming, even before the Walkerton incident.

While living on Lake Ontario, our family began to buy RO water from a local store. Even now, we have installed an RO system in our house for drinking water. This system uses a huge amount of water to backwash the filter, but that water can be captured and used for laundry and such. Still, it is a luxury, especially as we have ready access to what is arguably the best drinking water on the planet.

So I admit that I feel a little (though not a lot) guilty when I pass judgment on those I see with grocery carts loaded with crates of bottled water in individual-sized plastic bottles. Do those people understand how much waste they are generating with all that plastic? Even if it were all recycled successfully (which is rare, even if you do put it all in your blue box), do they understand that much of it is tap water (at best), and that none of it is regulated with the rigorous testing standards that our municipal tap water requires? Some, if not all of those plastic bottles also contain BPA, which has been shown to be toxic. Do consumers not understand how much less waste they would create by using their own reusable water bottle, in terms of energy, materials, health and money?

But others have addressed this issue, so I will move on now.

In Kenya and several other African countries, the World Bank's policy of putting exports first has meant that areas that are drought-prone are being used to produce frivolous water-intense products, such as cut flowers for the European market, despite their own population's desperate need for water to meet their own basic needs. The wealthy prosper while the general population pays with their health, and sometimes their lives.

What would change were water to be added to the list of human rights? To be honest, I really don't know. There are other rights that did make the list that are largely ignored in many countries. Still, I suspect that governments and multi-national institutions would feel a greater pressure to ensure the availability of water to the people. This doesn't mean it would change much, but it might provide a starting point for discussion, negotiations, legislation, etc.

I've heard the argument over and over--"we have the same amount of water we have always had--it's a demand issue". Well, this is true, to a point. Rising ocean levels and aridation of land mean that while the planetary water level remains static, the amount of fresh water available is decreasing. Add to this the problems of shrinking glaciers and pollution, and you can see that while population is definitely a mitigating factor, there is much more to this than a simple demand issue. We live in a world in which more people have access to a cell phone than have access to a toilet. This is not a healthy situation, particularly in areas that have high population density. Outbreaks of cholera are becoming more common. The health of a population is dependent on the availability of a reliable source of clean water.

Yes, we need to run factories, refineries, industry, etc. We need to farm in order to feed the planet, but we need to do it in a manner that protects our waterways. Gone are the days when we can carelessly heap on tonnes of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers without experiencing the consequences within our own lifetimes. We need to care for the soil in order to preserve the land for future crops as well as regain the health of our waterways. We need industry, but we also need to find a balance that allows us to meet our own more basic needs.

Other threats to our water that I've read about recently include natural gas "fracking", over-use of large capacity wells that can cause water table imbalances leading to arsenic contamination (geologist types might be able to explain this better than I), nano particles which may cause problems we have yet to discover, GMO-based agriculture, factory farming (mono-culture farms, lack of soil maintenance/crop rotation, reliance on agro chemicals, poor livestock rearing practices, etc.), and invasive species. And that's before I've actually started any dedicated reading or research into the subject!

My own country's government recently voted against declaring water a human right. Since we have the largest amount of fresh water of any nation on the planet, and our country's economy has always been "resource-focused", it is perhaps understandable that some might be inclined to treat it as such. However, I do not need to consume a tree or an ingot of nickel in order to survive. None of us does. These are secondary needs; water is a primary need without which none of us can survive. It is my assertion that it needs to be treated as such.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What Do Bright Kids Owe the World?

One of my teachers once told our class that we were responsible for developing our talents to their utmost potential. Since it was a Catholic school, this was part of a religion class, and the idea was that God gave us those gifts with certain expectations.

Now, whether you subscribe to any particular religious teachings or not, if you are gifted, bright or have a child or children who are bright or gifted, you will likely have encountered this same attitude/belief.

For some kids, this is carried to extreme and causes them untold stress as they try to meet the expectations of those around them. Some will decide not to play that game, and purposefully underachieve to avoid such problems. And some others seem to be able to cope with what comes their way.

I wonder though, if this isn't a dangerously flawed idea. We don't make such demands on other populations. We don't make other kids "perform" like circus monkeys simply because they are exceptional in some way. We don't make unreasonable demands on them, to the tune of "you're so bright, you fix it" with the "it" being "little" issues such as world hunger, peace, environmental degradation, national debt, curing cancer, etc. So why is it OK to do this with bright and gifted kids?

The answer is simple: it isn't.

Bright and gifted kids deserve to live the lives they choose. Their contributions to society are their choice. Only through nurturing and supporting them as children will they be able to learn to make choices and develop and grow. And only then will they be able to contribute in a meaningful way. They need time to play, to grow, and to just "be" kids like any other kids. Denying them these opportunities is irresponsible and will not enrich their lives in any way--including educationally. Study after study had shown that kids denied play opportunities have much lower overall academic achievement than those who play. Gifted kids need a childhood too. They need the freedom to try new things and make mistakes. And, being gifted, some of their mistakes might be a little bigger than most. It's from learning to take risks that true learning happens.

On the flip side, how many of us have been told "well, if you're so smart, then..." by someone? Now, how many were told this by an adult in front of a group of our peers? Not only does this ridicule the student, but it also sends out a strong message that intelligence and reflection--thinking skills--are not valued or even welcomed in that group. When this is a school group, it is especially problematic.

It is no wonder that many gifted kids experience depression.

We need to change this. We need to take the effort to better understand gifted children's needs, first as children and secondly as children with unique needs. We need to challenge gifted kids without overloading them. We need to encourage them to pursue their interests in depth, and provide opportunites, resources and contacts to enable them to do so. We need to allow them "down time". We need to support their social and emotional needs as much as we do their educational needs. We need to recognize that being gifted will mean something different for each individual, and that their needs will vary greatly from child to child and also over time.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to allow them to choose their own future. If a gifted child chooses a less challenging career choice in favour of freedom, less work hours, more family time, and/or the ability to pursue an interesting hobby, we need to accept their choice as we would any other person's choice. If they decide to pursue higher education and push the limits of human knowledge in some way, we also need to accept and support their choice.
Being born with a greater intellectual potential isn't something people choose. Sure, we would all prefer it over other options, no doubt. But it should not become a lifelong debt to repay to society. In the end, the only thing a gifted child owes to themselves and society is the freedom to live the life they choose.

We have come a long way in our understanding of the needs of the gifted, but we still have a long way to go.

If your child is bright and/or gifted, you can obtain additional support from your local chapter of ABC:

ABC Ontario Chapter:
ABC Alberta
ABC New Brunswick

International Agencies:

Friday, 7 January 2011

Food, Kids and Cooking

Food is a basic necessity. For many eons, humans have been fairly successful at finding, hunting and growing food. This is evident in the fact that there are nearly 7 billion of us on the planet. Yet for many people today, food remains somewhat of a mystery.

I will admit that I am one of these people. The other day, as I was making lentil salad, I realized I have no idea what the plant form of lentils looks like, despite the fact that I eat a fair quantity on a regular basis. Like many of us, I suffer from a disconnect between the origin of my food and its appearance on the grocery store shelves.

I started thinking seriously about food a number of years ago, when I was in teacher's college. I had a sudden inspiration in the grocery store about an integrated unit related to the grocery store. Integrated units were the rage at the time (if you're in education, you will see that I am clearly dating myself here!). The idea was to combine subjects in order to show their relevance to the real world. For example, my grocery unit combined math (costs/budgeting, measurement and proportions), geography (mapping food origins, comparing growing regions/climates), history (comparing older and newer recipes), language arts (writing the recipe, following directions, reading labels, etc.) and so on.

The general idea of my grocery unit is as follows: on the first trip to the store, take a general survey of the different places foods we regularly eat come from. Return to the classroom and plot the items on a map.
Next, the class votes on 2-3 popular food recipes to make together in groups. Once the recipe is recorded, there is a second trip to the grocery store to purchase items. Older kids are encouraged to budget at this stage and to read (or calculate) the value of the ingredients on a cost per unit basis.
Back in the classroom, the kids prepare their foods and share them. They also plot out (on a new map) the origin of each of the ingredients. Older kids are asked to calculate the total (minimum) distance their ingredients had to travel in order to reach them. The recipes are shared with the entire class.

An extension to this that I've tried to do with my own family as a homeschooling parent is to grow some of the ingredients, and visit farms (we joined a CSA) and farmer's markets to see the entire process of food production. We have been fascinated by brussel sprout trees, enchanted with the baby cows, and learned that there's a lot more to soil than meets the eye. We also learned that there are different farming philosophies, and that we have some strong feelings about where our food comes from--something which  just a few years earlier I'd never really thought much about.

The kids have also learned to cook, which is a skill that I believe will help them maintain healthy eating habits throughout their lives. Some of their favourite recipes can be found here.

So now my new mission will be to figure out just what lentils look like from start to finish.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Creating Special Moments

This post is inspired by a story by Stuart McLean called "The Mystery Book" which can be found here:

Have you ever secretly done something that you expect, or perhaps just dare to hope, will profoundly touch another person's life? Something that they are sure to cherish as a special memory for years to come? Something that takes a little extra thought and imagination, but once you find the idea, you know deep within your being that this is something that is Special?

Sometimes I have had that feeling, and I recognized it when I first heard that story a little over a year ago at the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert. When I heard that the story was being aired this year, I was especially glad as it is one of my favourites.

Yet, having recognized that feeling, I was hard pressed to come up with the examples of when I've actually experienced it first-hand.

Since I've had a year to reflect on it, I did come up with a few that I'd thought were sure winners, but upon reflection, didn't actually work out that way.

There was a hand-knit sweater I made from hand-spun designer yarn that cost more than I'd ever consider investing on a project for myself, but was perfect for the woman who would wear it. I was excited about the project--I researched pattern after pattern to put together something especially suited to her in colour, texture and form. I knit and re-knit parts until they met my satisfaction. It was perfect. Except she started menopause and didn't wear it due to hot flashes, then lost weight and it didn't fit her. She no longer has it--I think it went to Goodwill. I would have re-used the yarn and knit something else had she given me the chance.

Then there was the year that my parents were invited to a getaway with a group of friends and asked me to babysit for them that weekend. I was taking a double course load at university, and that weekend fell in the middle of exams. With 6 exams and 4 major papers, plus the demands of work, I just couldn't swing it. They were disappointed to say the least. So I saved up, eating Mr. Noodles for supper and taking on extra shifts ushering at the theatre and serving coffee at a campus coffee shop, and bought them a weekend getaway. I planned it when exams were over and watched the kids for them. I picked out concert tickets, booked them a reservation at a nicer restaurant, and bought them a suite at the hotel along with champagne and brunch. My dad said he slept through the concert I sent them to, and although they enjoyed the brunch, the rest was essentially a flop.

I did buy books for my own younger brothers, and often. I chose a variety, particularly favourites from my own childhood and classics. While they tended to ignore them for a while, eventually they both found the Lord of the Rings series inspiring and are now avid readers. Maybe that wasn't a total flop, but they weren't "sparkly special" the way I always hoped they'd be. I also tried to share my passion for nature with them by taking them along with my boyfriend on camping and canoe trips.

In the end, none of these was particularly special as it goes, at least not to the receivers. And maybe that's not the point. Maybe it's all about the sharing, caring, planning and just plain thinking about the person that really matters. Maybe these sorts of acts of sharing, although intended for others, are really for ourselves. And maybe that's not such a bad thing, if it allows us to continue giving, sharing, planning, spending the time and considering others despite the setbacks. Maybe it's one of the things that makes us alive.

Who knows--maybe Sam tossed out the book Stephanie bought for him. It's possible that he missed the point altogether. It would be quite likely that he would have a completely different experience than the one she had had with her book. Perhaps for him it was just a book and nothing more.

But the caring and sharing that came from that act, I believe, is what it's all about. And like some kind of twisted Karma of giving, I have to believe that it made a difference, a positive difference, even if it might not have been the one intended.

Sometimes we need to be Santa, in order to feel real and alive. We need to share in order to truly appreciate the beauty and joy we've experienced in our own lives. It helps us remember the important things. The outcome is only a part of it; as with much in life, it's often the journey matters most.