Sunday, November 19, 2017

Guided Explorative Projects

Explorative, creative learning is important. But it can be very hard to make happen, especially for those (most) of us parents who were raised in a conventional coercive school system. Two of the biggest issues we have run up against are my own fears of kids not doing enough, and my kids' difficulty in finding inspiration. So over the years I've come up with a few strategies for nudging them along without coercion, and I thought I'd share them with you.

*A note on curriculum: While I'm aware that many of my readers follow a purchased or school-provided curriculum, I think it's important to remember how very little these guidelines actually matter. If somebody says your child should learn the names of all our local planets in grade two, so you ensure memorization of these names and planet features, what is the likelihood that your child will remember them ten years later? Not much, unless the child was and continued to be interested in those facts. However, if the child never knew the names until he was in his twenties, and then took it upon himself to explore and discover them, he'd probably remember them simply because he cared more. It's like that with everything from reading to math skills to social skills. When we perceive a personal need or desire to learn, we do. There is indeed a progression of suggested skills in most curriculum packages, but I have learned from my children that skill #7 doesn't need to be preceded by a teaching of skills #'s 1-6. When the need for them arises, they'll fall into place. And depending on the kids' learning styles, the way things fall into place will differ.

I suppose this article will be useful for different people in different ways. If you're a teacher or a homeschool parent you'll want to adapt to your curriculum; if you're an unschooler or a teacher of self-directed learners, you might want to read this article with the kids and see how or if they'd like to engage with these ideas. Whatever you do - enjoy! And I'd be happy to hear about other ideas in the comments.

The essential thing to keep kids interested is to keep the subject matter relevant. Unless a child has some personal context for ancient Rome or cell biology, it will be of little interest. So start with things that matter. And that's home. Family. Direct experiences the child is having. And you can't provide the experiences to augment the ideas you're trying to teach; you have to provide the experiences first - or better yet, work with experiences the child already has and allow those to lead to new and different places.

Now for the project suggestions:


I have to start here because honestly there are so many amazing books out there that bring our own local spaces to life with wonderful stories and images. From local mythology to children's picture books to adult fiction and non-fiction, there is very little as wonderful as exploring your own world through a passionate author's eyes.

Activities to do with the books include:
  • create maps of the places listed in the books
  • write fan-fiction based on the books
  • create dramatic productions based on the characters or even directly adapted from the books
  • create a tour-guide to the area shown in the book
  • take the book to the specific location where the story takes place and read it there
  • replicate the foods, crafts, or other things mentioned in the book
  • ...etc. Let the book and your kids' creativity lead the way!

This was my kids' giant hand-drawn map of Haida Gwaai, inspired from print-outs, photos, and the amazing book, the Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant. We also wrote to John, since he's a local author, and thanked him for his wonderful book.

Local Map Exploration

Get a very good local map (printed version is better than digital) and hang it on an often-seen wall. Good sources for such maps are often geological survey departments, hiking or orienteering groups,  a map store, or Backroad Mapbooks, here in Canada. Find a map that has topography, creeks, trails, historical and geological features... whatever interesting things you can find. If the best maps you can access are online, find one and have it printed large-scale to hang on your wall, or laminated for table- or floor-use.

The key here is local. You want to find a map local enough and large enough that you can see the location of your house or building as distinct from your neighbour's. This is what makes things matter. You can draw yourselves onto the spot where you live.

The obvious is to start exploring things you find on the map, and letting those explorations lead to new discoveries, but we've also had many fun map-games, in addition to the exploring. Sometimes we got out little toy cars and drove them around on the map, telling stories as we went; sometimes we made map-board-games, where we set out missions to accomplish on the map, and used dice-throws to determine inches traveled between places. For example: Leave home, go to the store to buy popcorn, check the mail, pick up a parcel from the post office, go to friend's house to pick them up, and take them to the beach for dinner. First person to arrive at the beach is the winner! Although in our non-competitive household, we ended up picking each other up from the road as we went by.

Another idea is long-distance treasure-hunting, using the map as a first clue and travel-aid. We once set up a fabulous mile-and-a-half treasure hunt for our daughter's birthday cake. The hunt began in the daylight, and by the time they found the cake it was dark, necessitating a hike up a candle-lit trail to the cake in the dark woods. Of course my job was to hike the cake in before they arrived, turn on the electric-tea-light-lit trail markers, and then light the cake just as they arrived. And yes - forest fires are a concern here. But it was well into the rainy season by the time we did this.

Local Resource History and Manufacturing:

Things don't just come from a store! Hopefully you already shop locally as much as possible, so follow some of those leads. If you see locally-produced goods for sale, see if you can arrange for guided tours of the places they're produced. Sometimes you can even get involved in the production or tending at the facility. Some ideas of this sort are:
  • farms (we once watched a lamb being born at the farm where we buy our lamb-meat!)
  • dairies, including the grazing areas for the cattle or goats, if possible
  • broom-makers, milliners, glass-blowers, shoemakers and other specialty shops
  • breweries, candymakers, and other food production
  • cement factories
  • the local dump or recycling facility - we did a tour of ours once and it was fascinating!
  • mines (including abandoned mine-adits like the one near our house!)
  • fisheries and fish-processing plants
The list goes on and on of course... look at where the objects you buy come from, and see if you can visit! We once discovered that the wheelbarrow we own (the most popular affordable wheelbarrow at our local shop) actually is made in the small Dutch town where my grandmother and father lived! Since it's half-way around the world, we haven't been there, but we sure looked them up on Google Maps! You just never know what discoveries this exploration may bring to you.

Google Maps or Google Earth:

Well where to begin?! Obviously just exploring Google Maps (or Google Earth if you want to get fancy) is a fabulous activity on its own - no guidelines, nobody hanging over your shoulder, handing over expectations or asking you what you learned... just discover. We've found some of the most amazing things, from unknown (to us) remote modern day civilizations, to craters, migrating animals in the Savanna, and even shipwrecks. We also toured our own community in Streetview and found people we know!

But I promised you some guided activity ideas. Here are a few.

How about guided Streetview tours? Yep! Google offers those: Google Maps Treks
You can also use Google Maps to create your own customized maps on My Maps. Consider using this tool for special projects that you set up for your children or better yet that they make for themselves. Some ideas to consider: a treasure-hunt, a map of local pets or babysitting clients, a road-conditions map, or a forest or wilderness observation/conservation map (make field trips into specific areas and detail the condition of the area, animals observed, or places of interest on an interactive map to share with others). You can also use My Maps to track where you've been on your local (or global) adventures! These maps can have multiple contributors, which opens the opportunity for groups of kids to work together on creating useful and interesting maps that are meaningful to them in a local and social context.

One activity I set up for my kids was a Google-based story writing project. I set up a few tables like the one below, providing just enough information for some Google-maps searches that led them to a few vaguely or directly-related places around the world. Each of the sets of places followed some kind of theme or story-line I had in mind, but I didn't provide this to my kids. Their mission was to fill in the table as much as possible or desired, and then to write a story using all or most of the places, things, and details from the table. Don't get too attached to your own ideas that went into compiling the table - if you leave enough information out and encourage your kids to really let loose creatively on a regular basis, the story your kids produce will likely be nothing like the one you had envisioned. Your kids might even discover a different place, business, or item at the coordinates you've given. That doesn't matter - this activity has no wrong answers. There's sure to be something interesting to come out of any solution to the puzzle.

Obviously, this does take a bit of prep-work, but I have to admit it was fun for me. :-) The table below is an example, but if you use this idea, I encourage you to tailor the table to suit your own needs and interests. I usually had the Place Name column and the Address/Coordinates column, but often had other things like "altitude", "local recipe", or "person who lives there", which sometimes included real people in our community, famous people, or scientists or employees whose names I found on websites of the places I listed!

Name of PlaceGPS coordinates or
Street Address
Person, plant or animalWeather forecast
(or other detail)
Other notes

201 Kicking Horse Ave P.O. Box 148
Field, British Columbia

-1C (31F)

51.430112, -116.462598phyllopod

Use satellite view

Highway 838 Midland Provincial Park Drumheller, Alberta Canada

Maotianshan Shales


Youpaotai Rd, Nanshan Qu, Shenzhen Shi, Guangdong Sheng, China A small weed growing from a crack in the pavement

Use satellite view!

Spoiler Alert! If you are wondering what this table is about and don't want to go research those locations, here they are, in order that they appear on the table. This will give you an idea of the theme I was following, on this table:
  • Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation
  • Mt. Field (location of Walcott Quarry; Cambrian fossils)
  • Midland Provincial Park (contains Royal Tyrell Museum and is near to Fossil World)
  • Maotianshan Shales (Cambrian shales in Chengjiang, Yuxi, China)
  • Chiwan container terminal in China

And maybe story-writing isn't your or your kids' thing? Maybe this info will feed into a fabulous painting or sculpture; maybe it will become a theatrical production or a YouTube comedy show. The idea is to give some inspiration and then step back to allow kids to run wild and see what comes out. So work with it until it works for you.

Exploring Google Maps is a bit like air-travel, so here's one last idea, while it's on my mind: get the free flight simulator, GeoFS, and fly from airport to airport, discovering new places as you go! My son has spent countless hours discovering new places both local and abroad. It can be fun to start at your local airport, fly over your own home, and then abroad to locations you've visited before or perhaps completely new places. And of course... there are many types of planes to fly, and some are better at aerobatics than others. It's basically a violence-free reality-based video game. There's a little concern with the ability to talk to other users online, but I'll leave you to your own family's internet safety protocol for that one. Enjoy!

Please do add your own fabulous ideas in the comments. I'm always happy to hear about them, and so are other readers!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Exciting news, here... remember when I reluctantly gave up most of my teaching in order to concentrate on my art career? I still love teaching, and have managed to get a little in, but I really have been working my butt off in the art department, too. And finally I have a big announcement:

It's official! Over the coming eight months I will be collecting stories in south-western BC, Germany and the Netherlands for a new installation called what.home. I've got some big grant applications sent off, a growing list of people to interview, a Kickstarter campaign, and most excitingly this beautiful invitation from Goleb in Amsterdam (photo). Would you like to tell me your stories about home? Find out how at the end of this post. First let me tell you what it's all about!

Globalism, human transience and the prevalence of social media mean that our homes, lives, and thought processes have been fractured into a multitude of soundbites and images gone before we even process them. Our mindscapes consist of a jumble of these pieces, and out of this we are forming our current definition of 'home'.

what.home is a series of interviews about the concept of 'home', how our lives and cultures are affected by displacement, settlement, migration, identity, colonization, and landscape. The interviews will be presented in fragments through social media (@what.home) and as an immersive fractured film installation in Europe and Canada. In fracturing and disseminating the stories of home I am creating a space for viewers to reassemble them into our global conscience, pulling ourselves together across cultural and experiential divides.

My own and my husband's families immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States (but from England, the Ukraine and Ireland, generations earlier), and made the BC wilderness their business and their hearts' home. We are people of European ancestry living on unceded First Nations territory. Stories of our European heritage and emigration are part of our psyches, but so are Salish stories, British Columbia settler history, and the BC rainforest that we know as home.

Everywhere people are affected by the busy moving around of our global population. “Home” has come to mean many things to many people. Currently, as racial and territorial violence increase around the world, and we live here as settlers on a land that isn't even our own, questions of belonging and identity seem to matter very much.

I have been invited to research, develop, and install this work at Goleb in Amsterdam in May, 2018. Goleb is an artist-run project space that works with issues of identity and belonging through its immigrant artist population. Goleb artists have been very active in the areas of home, belonging and identity that I am dealing with in my own work. From Igor Sevcuk to Toby Paul; Go-Eun Im to Bardhi Haliti to Hee-Seung Choi, the artists at Goleb represent a diaspora of experiences of home and identity; all working in related directions and from diverse backgrounds. Together we plan to work with globalism and the rising spectre of territorial tension/injustice.

In the end all these stories will come together as a fractured projection installation at Goleb in Amsterdam and in British Columbia. Yes, it's a huge project, so I am taking it one chunk at a time. Right now I'm booking interviews and making travel plans!

Would you like to get involved? This year I am looking for people of all backgrounds and histories to interview on Bowen Island, Vancouver's lower mainland, southern Vancouver Island, the Netherlands, Bavaria, and between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden in Germany! Please contact me in person through my website and we will arrange to do an interview on a dry day in an outdoor location that relates to the word 'home' for you. Indoor interviews are possible when outdoors is not an option.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

kitten mania

Between the teens and the new feline baby I am getting absolutely nothing done this afternoon, so why not share a bunch of kitten photos? I seem to get more traffic to kitten photos than anything else, so... indulge, readers! Our kitten is undeniably adorable.

Both cats seem to get along better when they're treated equally. So we've moved Blackberry's belongings out of the bathroom and are just giving her freedom. She follows Lughnasa around and attempts to copy her. This results in some incredibly sweet things like the fact that they now both eat dinner with us, and that Lughnasa has taken on the role of mentor. She still lets Blackberry know with a swipe, hiss, or growl, when her behaviour is over-the-top, but she also spends a huge amount of time hanging out near Blackberry and demonstrating things, then waiting and watching in case Blackberry will follow suit.

What can I say. Kittens are hilarious.

Here you see Lughnasa very pointedly demonstrating how to climb around in the tree. Blackberry only followed as far as the main trunk, but Lughnasa waited quite a while to see if she might come further out. Then when Blackberry started goofing around, Lughnasa gave her a little hiss and swipe, and left.

After Lughnasa left, Blackberry didn't know what to do, so just hung around in the tree for a while, waiting. We waited with her.

When the cats' food was separated, each cat was desperately trying to eat the other's food, instead of her own. As soon as we put them in the same place, each began eating mostly her own food, with a bite or two of the other's, for good measure. They also wait patiently while the other eats. No competition, now that we're giving them their freedom to sort out their own issues! Apparently unschooling/free-range parenting is important for cats, too. :-)

We're having to take Blackberry out for more supervised outdoor visits, these days. She's beginning to show signs of boredom and confusion inside (shredding things, chewing cables, peeing on the couch), so her outdoor habituation training has begun! Lughnasa seems happy about this, and is eager to be a patient mentor. Generally after playing outside Blackberry becomes so exhausted that she goes crazy, and needs to be brought in for a big nap. The expression you see here is as she was crossing the border to overtired-mania.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Non-Consumerist Gifts

When I was a teen, I learned about the troubles that human greed would eventually bring us; chiefly through global warming, by the year 2100 or so. I was worried for my grandchildren but relieved that I and possibly my children would be dead by the time anything too scary happened. And I thought it would be a good idea to stop consuming so much. I tried to cut back, and I took pride in buying second-hand, mending and repairing.

When I was in my early twenties, my partner and I understood that climate change was happening much faster than we'd previously understood, and that our future children would most definitely be impacted by it. We expected to feel the effects of our over-consumption by about 2050, when we'd be settling into retirement, and hopefully better prepared for whatever wars, famine, climate change or societal collapse might happen. And we had kids anyway, and we bought them lots of stuff, but I tried to limit my purchases to things that were educational or at least natural and beautiful and not made in countries that underpaid their workers or polluted with their factories. We only bought junky toys sometimes. And miraculously, my partner and I raised two kids who were happy to be given "experiences" or "wishes" as gifts from us and their friends... and they were still inundated with toys, clothing, books and other things, because frankly it's hard to walk down the street without returning home with something, whether it's brand new, from the thrift shop, from the free bin at school, or just found on the sidewalk. Stuff is everywhere, so it was hardly our fault.

In my thirties it became apparent that climate change was happening now, and that any associated plagues, wars, and apocalypse would destroy whatever parts of the world they might by the time our children were adults. And we knew that our own greed and consumption was complicit in this, so we challenged our family to stop giving gifts. We got some hearty approval, some reluctant cooperation, some quiet and not-so-quiet gift-giving-anyway, and some outrightly offended very dear friends and family, who justifiably said that our decision to opt out of consumerist holidays (while maintaining the treasured family gathering traditions we love) was selfish and arrogant, and a slap in the face to people who just wanted to give us gifts because they love us. Thank goodness we're still close to most of these people. If you're reading this, we hope you forgive us. We know the mistake was ours.

We failed. We are now in our forties, and the stirrings of war and societal collapse have been pulling at the hairs on our backs for a few years already. We managed to turn a few people away from gift-giving, got politically involved in efforts to stop consumerism, gave and received a few feel-good 'sponsorship' gifts, and tried very very hard to save the world, while still managing to fill our home with stuff. We also built more storage.

The problem is not gifting. The problem is wanting. This week I was out walking in the crisp autumn air with my friend, shuffling intentionally through the fluffy leaves, and trying to come to terms with the fact that I can't afford a new camera body for my current art project. My friend mentioned a psychological experiment she knows about, where in one asks oneself "what do I truly need?"... and of course ... I already have everything I truly need. I have a home to live in, as much food as my family can possibly eat, clean water, happy healthy children, and good friends with whom to enjoy the gorgeous piece of earth we live upon. Do I need a camera body for this project? No. I knew that already. I just wanted one, and used logic to convince myself I needed one. I also model that unfortunate skill to my children, all the time.

Yup. I'm still consuming, and the fault is mine.

Back to gifts. At dinner today I asked my kids what non-consumerist gifts would make them happy. They said they'd like to do things with us. Dedicated parent-kid time. They'd like to go hiking. They both thought that yesterday's hot chocolate picnic was an awesome gift. "But it wasn't a gift." We said. "Well, you know..." my son ventured. And my daughter explained that a gift has to be something unusual. For example reading a book together isn't much of a gift for a family that does it every night. But for our two teens who have been neglected in this way in recent years, it's a special thing right now. Dessert can be a gift if you don't do it often.

So, following this logic, which seems incredibly solid to me, it seems that gifts are gifts because we rarely do them. Holiday gift-giving has to be ever more extravagant because we buy so much during the year. If we want to survive, we have to stop buying stuff all the time. Then it would still be wonderful to give each other a hike or a good pair of mittens or a cup of hot chocolate for Christmas.