Tinkering Outside

On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama officially kicked-off the White House Summer Exercise Series.  Eighty-four local children hopped, skipped, and jumped with the First Lady on the South Lawn as part of her Let’s Move campaign.

Let’s Move! has an ambitious but important goal: to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. [This initiative] will give parents the support they need, provide healthier food in schools, help our kids to be more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available in every part of our country.

I wonder if FLOTUS was aware of—and if so, whether she endorsed—”Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day.” Spearheaded by Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, May 22 (this past Saturday) was promoted as an opportunity to help our children reclaim the childhood most of us fondly remember (though have sanitized and stripped away from them):

The crime rate in America is back to where it was in the early ’70s. Crime was going up then, and it peaked around 20 years later. By the mid ’90s it was coming down and continues to do so.  So the strange fact — very hard to digest — is that if YOU were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids today are safer than you were! I know it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, here’s an interesting poll about how the majority of people feel crime is going up when actually its going down. But anyway, the point is:

Most of us used to play outside in the park, without our parents, without cell phones, without Purell or bottled water and we survived! Thrived! We cherish the memories! And if you believe the million studies that I’m always publishing here, kids are healthier, happier and better-adjusted if they get to spend some time each day in “free play,” without adults hovering.

I know there will be shrill voices insisting, “Predators are gonna love this holiday!” but keep a level head. Crime is down. Awareness is up. There is safety in numbers, which means getting kids outside again, together. This won’t happen until we actually start DOING IT.

So spread the word and be not afraid. Free-Range Kids never says there is no risk in the world, only that the risk is small and worth taking, as it always has been. The trade-off is kids who make up games, who solve problems, who discover nature and get moving (to coin a phrase). Kids who don’t need a screen to entertain them. Playing outside, on their own, is what kids all over the world do. We have forgotten how vital and wonderful it is.

Walk around your neighborhood. Do you see empty sidewalks? Empty yards? Empty playgrounds? It’s a waste — of childhood.

My thought on Leave Your Child at the Park Day is simply to make it more than an annual exercise — let children run outside, scrape their knees, and indulge in exuberant, sometimes reckless, free-play every single day. But why let children have all the fun? This coming weekend, or after work or school during the week, try and honor the makeshift “Take MYSELF to the Park and Leave Me There Day.” We could all use some smiles and sunshine.

Finally, this theme of engaging in outdoor and hands-on play reminds me of a great program called Tinkering School, which provides kids with a collaborative and safe environment to build things—as well as a safe place to fail, one of the most important aspects in the cultivation of creativity. In his short but motivating 10-minute TED talk, Gever Tulley, the founder of Tinkering School, explains the benefits of doing “5 Dangerous Things.”

See you outside!


May 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm 1 comment

Blame the teachers’ unions?

The cover story of this past Sunday’s New York Times magazine asks, “Are teachers’ unions the enemy of reform?

What the reformers have come to believe matters most is good teachers. “It’s all about the talent,” [Education] Secretary Duncan told me. Thus, the highest number of points [on applications for a share of $4.35 billion promised to the most reform-minded districts and states in the country as part of the federal incentive program known as Race to the Top] would be awarded based on a commitment to eliminate what teachers’ union leaders consider the most important protections enjoyed by their members: seniority-based compensation and permanent job security. To win the contest, the states had to present new laws, contracts and data systems making teachers individually responsible for what their students achieve, and demonstrating, for example, that budget-forced teacher layoffs will be based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority. (Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs. These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach for America, out of classrooms in the coming months.)

If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. Ten percent of the delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention were teachers’ union members. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union. And they have typically contributed many times more to state and local candidates. About 95 percent of it has gone to Democrats.

A panel of educators at a recent Intelligence Squared forum debated the motion, “Don’t blame teachers unions’ for our failing schools.”(Click the link to watch or listen to the debate.)

Before the debate, 24% of the audience voted for the motion, 43% against and 33% were undecided. After the debate, 25% voted for the motion, 68% against and only 7% remained undecided. The “against the motion” team carried the day.

On a related note, a powerful forthcoming film illustrates the personal stories that are too-often drowned out by a frightening collection of dire education statistics.

A synopsis of the film Waiting for Superman, due in theaters this fall:

For a nation that proudly declared it would leave no child behind, America continues to do so at alarming rates. Despite increased spending and politicians’ promises, our buckling public–education system, once the best in the world, routinely forsakes the education of millions of children. Oscar®—winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH) reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR “SUPERMAN.” As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop—out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems. However, embracing the belief that good teachers make good schools, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have—in reshaping the culture—refused to leave their students behind.

UPDATE: Click here for a video clip of Geoffrey Canada, visionary founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, who explained at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival that some teachers simply can’t teach — and offered an idea about what to do with them.

May 26, 2010 at 11:46 am 1 comment

The new three R’s: Reading, writing, and running

A recent ABC News story profiles an exercise-based learning readiness program at Naperville Central High School, near Chicago, that is credited for helping students to achieve “astounding” academic achievement — a doubling of reading scores and an “increase of math scores by a factor of 20.”

I’ve highlighted the action-based learning program at Naperville a number of time (here), but this provides an opportunity to again promote PE4Life (the developer Learning Readiness Physical Education) and John Ratey’s book Spark! (an explanation of “the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain”).

Below is a story that aired on CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2009 about the LRPE program at Naperville — with enough exposure to research about the relationship between body and cognitive development, programs like this might begin to take root at schools throughout the country.

May 6, 2010 at 10:54 am 1 comment

Get out!

A recent analysis of 10 studies that involved more than 1,250 participants found that physical activity in the presence of nature—known as “green exercise”—has a tremendous influence on mental health. The positive effects on self-esteem and mood were magnified when people were actively engaged in a physical task (e.g., walking, gardening, cycling) near a body of water.

One of the more interesting discoveries is that it only took five minutes (!) of movement in a park, along a trail, or in a garden to achieve the greatest effect on mental health.

Jo Barton and Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, authors of the study, explain some of the implications, especially for the treatment of stress, depression, and other types of mental anguish. An excerpt:

The results show acute short-term exposures to facilitated green exercise improves both self-esteem and mood irrespective of duration, intensity, location, gender, age, and health status….

The findings also suggest that those who are currently sedentary, nonactive, and/or mentally unwell would accrue health benefits if they were able to undertake regular, short-duration physical activity in accessible (probably nearby) green space. Such doses of nature will contribute to immediate mental health benefits. As with smoking, giving up inactivity and urban-only living results in immediate and positive health outcomes, even from short duration and light activity such as walking….

The outcomes do suggest a new priority for frontline environmental and health professionals—a regime of doses of nature may be prescribed for anyone, but will have a greater effect for the inactive or stressed and mentally ill, or at presurgery (source) or for recovery (source). Employers, for example, could encourage staff in stressful workplaces to take a short walk at lunchtime in the nearest park to improve mental health, which may in turn affect productivity. A particular focus should be on children: regular outdoor play brings immediate health benefits, and may instill healthy behaviors early in life (source)…. And outdoor free-play is vital for development and cognitive skills (source).


“What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis.”
Jo Barton and Jules Pretty
Environmental Science & Technology
, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/es903183r
Publication Date (Web): March 25, 2010
Online access:

May 6, 2010 at 9:52 am 2 comments

“I want to solve the demon”

Jure Robic is perhaps “the world’s best endurance athlete.”

Over the past two years, Robic, who is 40 years old, has won almost every race he has entered, including the last two editions of ultracycling’s biggest event, the 3,000-mile Insight Race Across America (RAAM). In 2004, Robic set a world record in the 24-hour time trial by covering 518.7 miles. Last year, he did himself one better, following up his RAAM victory with a victory six weeks later in Le Tour Direct, a 2,500-mile race on a course contrived from classic Tour de France routes. Robic finished in 7 days and 19 hours, and climbed some 140,000 feet, the equivalent of nearly five trips up Mount Everest.

To achieve such success, Robic trains 335 days each year, for five and a half hours per day, “logging some 28,000 miles, or roughly one trip around the planet.”

As explained in this NYT profile, however, it’s Robic’s insanity “that sets him apart from the rest of the world.”

The craziness is methodical and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.

‘‘Mujahedeen, shooting at me,’’ he explains. ‘‘So I ride faster.’’

His wife, a nurse, interjects: ‘‘The first time I went to a race, I was not prepared to see what happens to his mind. We nearly split up.’’

As kottke notes, Robic’s story is “awesome and disturbing.” Kottke also points us to another fascinating episode of RadioLab, this on the limits of the human body:

Jad and Robert talk to two Ironman competitors, Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham to find out how they do what they do. Physiologist Dr. David Jones tells us how to trick the voice in your head that tells you you’re exhausted. Then we follow two men, Patrick Autissier and Jure Robic, as they bike across the country as fast as they can in a crazy race called The Ride Across America. Producer Lulu Miller brings us their story and New York Times writer Daniel Coyle walks us through the process of physical and mental breakdown RAAM competitors face.

Also worth checking out—Discovery produces an interesting video series called “Human Body: Pushing the Limits.”

UPDATE: Here’s the clip of Julie Moss’ epic body breakdown in the 1982 Hawaii Ironman referenced on RadioLab:

April 22, 2010 at 10:45 pm 3 comments

A strong body, strong mind

Discover magazine explains “Why athletes are geniuses“:

This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action…. The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports.

MindHacks explains the methods of the brain scanning research and concludes:

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice. It’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

April 21, 2010 at 11:25 am 1 comment

Play is the beginning of knowledge

From a review of Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind in this month’s The Atlantic:

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Update: Andrew Sullivan explains why play matters:

Once one leaves the reductionism of evolutionary biology, can we not see play as also, well, play? And play is defined by its uselessness, its freedom, its ability to resist productivity. It is a form of ultimate freedom – in my view, the freest human beings can be. Because a game has no known winner in advance, if it has any winner at all. It is about being together and engaging together without an ulterior purpose.

That’s why I see play as something close to the divine. That’s why I believe Jesus loved children. Because, in play, they had found a way to be with each other without any other over-arching purpose.

April 21, 2010 at 10:51 am 1 comment

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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