behavior · children · cognition · environment · family · happiness · health · Nature · play

A Playful Day In the Backyard of Biomechanist Katy Bowman

Fall is finally upon us here in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not going to deny it anymore. But even as the weather gets cooler, my family and I are still finding ways to get outside and play.

I have always loved playing outside, climbing on rocks, trees, hiking, and splashing in puddles, and really want to pass this love of nature and outdoor movement on to my kids. It is so great to see other parents encourage their kids, and other grown-ups, to discover and recover their biophilia and love of playing outdoors.

One of the best outdoor play advocates I have met in a long time is Katy Bowman, although for her, moving and exploring the outdoors is simply behaving like a normal human.

Katy Bowman doing her thing
Katy Bowman doing her thing

Katy is a biomechanist with a deservedly large following of movement practitioners using her Restorative Exercise program. Katy is a huge advocate of natural movement and getting outside as much as possible, and encourages it with her kids as well. Katy talks about their experience in their outdoor “nature” preschool on her blog and podcast, but the enriching environments she has set up for her kids at home is in a class by itself.

Katy graciously invited my family out to her house outside of a small town on the Olympic Peninsula earlier this summer.

When we pull up to her house, the front yard looks fairly typical for any house containing small children; a few toys are strewn around the yard, slightly hidden by the uncut grass. Her husband and children have just headed off down the road for a walk. She helps us unload our brood out of the car after the long drive and immediately invites my daughter to explore, with me in tow.

We step out of the house into the backyard, and it is perfect.

My three-year-old daughter’s eyes light up like she’s hit the motherlode.

The lawn is littered with toys – costumes, stuffed animals, balls, a Little Tyke’s scooter car. There is a big basket of LEGOs sitting on the porch waiting to be dumped over and played with.

There are also complex toys laid out intentionally by Katy and her husband Michael for her kids to play with. A tippy rope ladder strung between two trees with a foam mat underneath; ladders laid on the ground for balancing, a jungle gym, a circle swing, large wooden ramps placed strategically up to table tops. The cherry tree is also filled with cherries, for good measure.

The kids have gotten creative with some of their building materials, including taking a couple of blocks from the flower box and made a corral for their plastic farm animals. They have also left little illustrations stealthily added around inside the house: on the wooden bed frame, the balance ball in Katy’s office, and on a couple of door frames.

And that’s before we even meet the chickens or go down to the Dungeness River to throw rocks, wade, climb, and make structures in the sand.

It is obvious the kids have the run of the house, and its affect is wonderful.

Katy has created a practice based on her high level training in biomechanics and years of teaching experience centered on creating a healthy, mobile human being, and this practice is reflected in how she and Michael have set up their home environment. Every space is open for movement, jump, climb, and play. There are edges and imperfectly balanced steps and slight risks everywhere. The kids must learn to navigate their environment safely, and have a blast doing it.

Katy often talks about getting her kids outside and exposed to new, playful challenges. And yet, when I ask her about it, she almost baulks at the idea she is supporting a primarily “playful” environment. For her, this is simply survival, teaching her little humans how to be human. She is merely creating and supporting healthy behaviors, what kids and grownups should be doing all the time.

They let their children go slow, at their pace. Their kids learn by doing, by experiencing. As do we all, really. It’s true that, thanks to the visit, I now have more confidence in being able to ford a fast-moving stream carrying my toddler. And it wasn’t part of a survival training camp or an emergency. It was part of our Sunday family outing. It may sound small or frivolous or “not necessary,” but for the survival of our species, that skill is a big deal.

To me, this kind of activity is not just good for restoring our body and capability to move, it is also restorative to our psyches and filling that need to explore and play at our own pace and learn in a playful way.

Finally my family has to head home. We take the time to let our kids say good night to the chickens before we load back into our car, driving away with the sunset on our backs. After getting to see and play in Katy’s backyard, both the grown-ups and the kids in our family feel renewed, replenished, and ready to play and explore our own backyard and our home environment in a new way.

I highly recommend digging in to Katy’s materials. She has some great ideas and thoughts around leading a healthy, restorative, and in my mind playful movement practice, whether it’s in nature or just in your own backyard.

anthropology · behavior · brain · children · community · education · environment · family · learning · mental health · psychology

Let the children play outside, darn it!

English: Children in Khorixas, Namibia Deutsch...
Why aren’t American kids allowed to play outside anymore; Children in Khorixas, Namibia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


While summer may just be getting into full swing in my neck of the woods, it’s almost over for most everyone else (*sob!*). It seems everyone is trying to take advantage of a few last weekends of summer before school starts back up. But for some kids, that is a lot harder than it sounds. Free Range Kids recently posted about separate instances of a mom and a dad getting in trouble for letting their kids play outside unattended.


The mom’s story:


Today the police visited my home after one of my neighbors called in about my children being outside alone…in our yard with a home on two sides and six foot fence on the other two sides. The officer said, “Don’t have me called back out.” So now, do I have to go outside with my children every time they go out? I have a chronic illness and sitting outside all day sucks for me. They love being outside. They come in for bathroom breaks, they come in to tattle, they come in to say “I Love You”… they are in and out every 5-10 minutes. I check on them anytime I pass the door, and I lay or sit next to an open window. If I call for them, they come to the door/window and answer as a “check in.” They will literally stay outside from wake up to 9 pm, when I force them to come in, with breaks for the above and for food. They were perfectly safe. I don’t know what to do.


The dad’s story:


Dear Lenore: A neighbor of mine called the Texas CPS (Child Protective Services) and the Police on my wife and I because we allow our children, ages 6 and 8, to play in the courtyard directly in front of our apartment. CPS has been investigating my family since April 4th 2012, it is now August 12 2012, and all they have come up with is the one report to Police about my 6-year-old being outside in front of his home. Now we are dealing with the courts in a “Negligent Supervision” case, which makes absolutely no sense because my child wasn’t hurt or asking anyone for help. I was outside with my son when the Police arrived, but the CPS caseworker insists that I take drug tests and parenting classes. People are not neighbors anymore, they are just @$$holes. – A Texas Dad


Unfortunately the Free Range Kids blog has waaaay too many examples of this kind of reaction from authorities.


I find this really concerning, since we’re basically telling children they can’t be responsible for themselves when parents are trying to teach their children independence and responsibility, we’re not allowing them unstructured play time which is crucial for learning and brain development, that it is a way more dangerous world out there than it really is, AND it discourages them from exploring and getting exposure to nature and natural sunlight, both things that are crucial for growing bodies.


Why are children no longer allowed to play in their own front yards? I’m sorry if this comes off as a rant, but I feel not letting children play outside and learn on their own is a serious problem if we are simultaneously so concerned about “winning” the education race against other nations.

Aside from yelling at CPS and the police, what can we do as concerned citizens, either with children or without, to encourage and enable children to play outside and allow parents to let their children roam a little bit freer and get the unstructured, unsupervised play time they need in order to develop normally? Ideas welcome in the comments below.




behavior · emotion · family · happiness · mental health

Steps to ease into being grateful, and how it benefits you psychologically

"The most psychologically correct holiday of the year is upon us." according to the New York Times article, A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day.

Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury.

But say you’re not in the habit of giving thanks. After all, we’re only asked to officially do it once or twice a year. Well, there are some pointers in the article to get you going:

Start with “gratitude lite.” – start out with writing just five things, and maybe a sentence or two about why you’re appreciative of them.

Don’t confuse gratitude with indebtedness
– you don’t need to owe anybody anything to be grateful for them.

Try it on your family
– even if they are horribly dysfunctional, you can still be grateful they passed the peas without throwing you a dirty look.

Don’t counterattack
– okay, so maybe they did throw you a dirty look. By being grateful to them anyway, it puts individuals off guard and makes them more likely to be kinder in the future, according to some studies.

Share the feeling – … “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Dr. McCullough says. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did.”

Try a gratitude visit.This exercise, recommended by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, begins with writing a 300-word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Deliver it in person, preferably without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole thing slowly to your benefactor. “You will be happier and less depressed one month from now,” Dr. Seligman guarantees in his book “Flourish.”

Contemplate a higher power. Religious individuals don’t necessarily act with more gratitude in a specific situation, but thinking about religion can cause people to feel and act more gratefully, as demonstrated in experiments by Jo-Ann Tsang and colleagues at Baylor University. Other research shows that praying can increase gratitude.

Go for deep gratitude. Once you’ve learned to count your blessings, Dr. Emmons says, you can think bigger…

And if that seems too daunting, you can least tell yourself —

Hey, it could always be worse. When your relatives force you to look at photos on their phones, be thankful they no longer have access to a slide projector. When your aunt expounds on politics, rejoice inwardly that she does not hold elected office. Instead of focusing on the dry, tasteless turkey on your plate, be grateful the six-hour roasting process killed any toxic bacteria.

Happy Thanksgiving!

behavior · brain · children · environment · family · learning · psychology

How To Help Your Child’s Brain Grow Up Strong : NPR

A lot of parents freak out about how to provide enriching environments for their children and help them grow, from music lessons to early reading to math flash cards.

In one of those “well duh” books, two neuroscientists, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang remind us it doesn’t take all that much…

Babies may look helpless, but as soon as they come into the world, they’re able to do a number of important things. They can recognize faces and moving objects. They’re attracted to language. And from very early on, they can differentiate their mother from other humans.

“They really come equipped to learn about the world in a way that wasn’t appreciated until recently,” says neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt. “It took scientists a long time to realize that their brains are doing some very complicated things.”

Aamodt and fellow neuroscientist Sam Wang explain how the human brain develops from infancy to adolescence in their new book, Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. The two researchers also offer tips for parents to help their children eat their spinach, learn their ABCs and navigate elementary school.

more via How To Help Your Child’s Brain Grow Up Strong : NPR, on Fresh Air.

They talk with Terry Gross about complicated concepts like self control, abstract thought, and things that are even hard for some grown-ups, and how to create an environment that makes kids want to practice these things.

anthropology · behavior · children · culture · education · family

Children’s past role and identity as worker

Children in Jerusalem.
The role of children has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Image via Wikipedia

This call for paper submissions from the The Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past got me thinking about how actively children used to participate in the daily household and economic life of families, from general maintenance like sweeping the kitchen to vital income by helping during harvest time.  Children used to have to help out on the farm, and later work in factories, in order to help their families make ends meet. While some of the work was dangerous and unhealthy, some of the work was beneficial to both the kid and the family. Kids felt like they contributed to their family, and learned skills from farming to general entrepreneurship. I wonder what kids are missing out on by not having as many daily chores to do, or summer jobs like mowing lawns and lemonade stands, and how children fit into our idea of work now.

In 2011, the themed session will be on children and work. The aim of the themed papers will be to bring together scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines who are studying any aspect of children and work in the past – children as economic contributors, children as slaves, elite children taking on adult roles, children as carers, children as consumers, the impact of working in childhood on children and society. The aim will be to advance cross-cultural knowledge and understanding of childhood and children in the past, and in particular to evaluate the varying nature and impact – social, economic, cultural, medical – of work performed by or for children in the past. Archaeology, history, literature and other sources will be explored.
In providing this opportunity for scholars of childhood to present their work to an international, interdisciplinary audience, the SSCIP International Conference aims to generate new perspectives on existing knowledge and to stimulate new avenues of research for the future.

I’d be interested to hear what jobs you had growing up, before the age of 18. Did your parents encourage you to work? Did you get an allowance or did you get paid by the job, or were you just expected to “earn your keep”? How is it different with your own kids, or nieces and nephews?

community · design · family · health

Granny Pods Keep Elderly Close, At Safe Distance : NPR

His idea might seem strange, but “granny pods” are catching on.The granny pods real name is the MEDCottage, and its basically a mini mobile home that rents for about $2,000 a month. You park one in the backyard, hook it up to your water and electricity, and it becomes a free-standing spare room for Grandma and Grandpa.The concept is catching on all over the country, but nowhere more so than Virginia, where the state government has eased zoning restrictions on these high-tech hideaways, which go on the market early next year.The MEDCottage is homey on the outside, with taupe vinyl siding and white trim around French doors. Inside, it looks like a nice hotel suite, complete with kitchen and bathroom — and security cameras.

more via Granny Pods Keep Elderly Close, At Safe Distance : NPR.

brain · community · creativity · happiness · mental health · play · psychology

Grandma the superhero

Mental health is important throughout the entire human lifespan, from infancy (see previous post) to old age.

Courtesy of Boing Boing, I ran across this great story about actively pursuing good mental health, helping out a fellow human being, and using creativity and silliness to accomplish it.

“Sacha Goldberger found his 91-year-old Hungarian grandmother Frederika, a WWII survivor, feeling lonely and depressed. To cheer her up, he photographed her dressed up as a fictional superhero. To his surprise, she loved it. The photos are a bit comical, but there’s an underlying sense of hope, strength and courage in them.”

View Grandma’s Superhero Therapy (18 photos). From the blog: 

Frederika was born in Budapest 20 years before World War II. During the war, at the peril of her own life, she courageously saved the lives of ten people. When asked how, he tells us “she hid the Jewish people she knew, moving them around to different places everyday.” As a survivor of Nazism and Communism, she then immigrated away from Hungary to France, forced by the Communist regime to leave her homeland illegally or face death.

Aside from great strength, Frederika has an incredible sense of humor, one that defies time and misfortune. She is funny and cynical, always mocking people that she loves.

With the unexpected success of this series, titled “Mamika,” Goldberger created a MySpace page for his grandmother. She now has over 2,200 friends and receives messages like: “You’re the grandmother that I have dreamed of, would you adopt me?” and ” You made my day, I hope to be like you at your age.”

People often forget just how much fun, funny, and spunky people can be after living on this Earth for a few decades. My grandmas were and are unstoppable forces of nature.

There have been a few photographic projects with older folks, in retirement homes or elsewhere, but the artist in me definitely feels like this demographic is an important part of humanity to explore that has been relatively neglected.

environment · happiness · health

The last word: The secret to living past 100 – The Week

My grandma and I had a pact that we’d both do our best to live to be 100. She died at 85 after a long, happy life, married to her best friend since 1st grade. Go Mommo! But I’m still in the running, so I’m always interested in how Centenarians live it up. And it seems to boil down to two things: luck, and keeping a good attitude about life. 

Israeli physician Nir Barzilai and his staff at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have asked hundreds of centenarians hundreds of questions, including details of their living circumstances, nutrition, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical activity, sleep, education, status, and spirituality — all in the hope of finding commonalities.

The results are sobering: “There is no pattern,” says Barzilai, 54. “The usual recommendations for a healthy life — not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down — they apply to us average people, but not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own.” He pulls spreadsheets out of a drawer, adjusts his glasses, and reads aloud: “At the age of 70, a total of 37 percent of our subjects were, according to their own statements, overweight; 37 percent were smokers, on average for 31 years; 44 percent said that they exercised only moderately; 20 percent never exercised.”

More at The last word: The secret to living past 100 – The Week.

The women in my family tend to live a long time, although I don’t think anyone has made it to 100 yet. What is your family’s pattern for longevity? Were people healthy right before they died, or did they linger with illness?

Social · writing

Mary Catherine Bateson on Domesticity –

garden art at Dr. Bateson's New Hampshire farm

A nicely written article in the August 25th edition of the New York Times on anthropologist Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson (Margaret Mead‘s and Gregory Bateson‘s daughter) on her latest book which looks at domesticity, homemaking, and what it means to be part of a couple.

In Dr. Bateson’s parlance, homemaking is … a metaphor for community, for the design of an environment — professional or domestic or societal — that challenges and supports its inhabitants, an ideal closer to the arrangement of a Samoan village than a perfectly appointed living room. “It’s critical that home not just be a place that you use whatever is there, but that it be a place you are truly responsible for,” she said. “It’s not just your home and you get to mess it up.”

Homemaking, she added, is also a metaphor for longevity, a way of looking at the second stage of adulthood that precedes old age — what she calls “adulthood II” — which is the subject of her new book.

Yes, it’s a sequel to her 1990 meditation on the stop-and-start nature of women’s lives, except that this time she has invited men into the conversation.

more at At Home With Mary Catherine Bateson – Mary Catherine Bateson on Domesticity –


Playing with the gorillas

Rafe and I once again ventured to the zoo. Our primate highlight this trip: the baby gorilla! The last time we were there the little girl was more interested in snuggling with her mom and sister, but this time she was ready to play!(and eat bark, but to each her own).

It was fascinating to see the baby and her older sister playing together. The sister would pound her chest as the play signal to start chasing her, and the baby would start chasing the sister in circles around their mom. The baby tried it a couple of times, but couldn’t quite get it down, so she looked like she was trying the rub-belly/pat-head trick that kids try. The two would also play wrestle a little, and then start chasing again. Usually the baby chased the sister, I think the sister chased the baby once.

The sister also carried the baby under her belly and on her back, letting the baby jump off.

The mom was pretty patient with the whole thing, only reaching in a couple of times and pulling the baby out of the play fighting to calm her down, or to breastfeed her. The way that kid went for the nipple man, WOW, poor mom.

Since I am studying play right now for my thesis, watching these two spend time playing was just fascinating and made my week!

I felt so honored to see this family hanging out, getting along, and playing.

See more photos on my flickr.