Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

old dog

I’ve been thinking recently about the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” How depressing! Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I really don’t want to be that dog!

Multiple brain studies confirm that during our lifetimes there are two great bursts in brain development. One is between birth and age 3 – during this time the brain is dense with neurons and primed to make synaptic connections. As the young child gets older, the brain begins its pruning process by getting rid of the connections it doesn’t routinely use. As another famous saying goes, “If you don’t use it you lose it”…very true for young brains. During adolescence, there is another great period of brain development. Last year I wrote a post about the Adolescent Brain with information from Dan Siegel’s recent book Brainstorm. Feel free to check it out for more information on teenage brain development.

But what about our adult brains? I love learning about education and what we (as educators and parents) we can do to optimize our children’s learning. But sometimes it makes me reflect on my own education and wonder what did I miss out on? What else could I have done if I had known more about learning & brain development? My goodness, how much smarter could I have been!?

So I’m left wondering, is there hope for us grown-ups? Can you actually teach an old dog new tricks?

Some recent studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientists suggest that aging brains might actually remain more malleable and plastic than previously thought. Neuroimaging studies suggest aging brains can actually reorganize and change, and not necessarily for the worse. Instead aging brains may just need to activate different parts of the brain to complete the same task – for example using parts of the left and right brain combined, as opposed to just one-side. Given this new potential for aging brain plasticity, logic would suggest that in fact, it is important for an old dog to at least attempt to learn new tricks. This could potentially stimulate the growth (albeit slow and small) of new neurons in old age. As we get older, new skills should be learned in immersive, engaging experiences. So don’t sit at home with a book expecting to learn how to knit – go out, join a class or a group of others interested in learning a new skill. One great option is groups like Skillshare – classes taught by regular people who want to trade their knowledge with others – learn anything from design to cooking to photography.

Learning a new skill can only bring positive changes to your life. In addition to keeping your brain active, studies show that it can also help your creativity, positivity and happiness. While I can’t guarantee it will spark the growth of new neurons, nor promise that picking up a new skill won’t take longer than when you were a kid, I can promise that no matter how old the dog, you can learn a new trick!

So what shall it be…Balancing a ball on my nose or learning guitar?

Hmm. Stay tuned!

We’re going on a toy hunt…

bear hunt

Yesterday, I started seeing commercials for “holiday shopping”. I swear they keep starting earlier and earlier each year! I barely put away (aka threw out) my Halloween costume from this weekend! But as always, it has started my brain thinking about toys for kids. People often ask, “What are the best toys I can give my child to promote learning at home?”

In truth, for young children, some of the best “educational toys” are things you can find around your house. Sure, technology is exciting and we are seeing it more and more in our classrooms, but I still believe in the learning power behind using your imagination to transform ordinary objects into something spectacular. While I was working in a classroom with two year-olds several years ago, I discovered the power of a simple cardboard box. Instantly it became the most exciting and most play-provoking item we had in our classroom. On your next rainy day (aka this coming Thursday for NYC), might I suggest going on a “toy” hunt around your house?

Here’s a list of popular items you can use in your search: 

large beads (the non-choking hazard type!)

old clothes for dress up

jar lids (great for stacking, sorting etc)

cardboard boxes

plastic tubs and tubes



old magazines

measuring tape

magnifying glasses or binoculars

Let your child take the lead, see how they use the objects and take note (figuratively but also literally!) Your child may be interested in using the items to extend their dramatic play or they may be more interested in using the items to create/build something new. Let their natural tendencies guide you.

I have long been a fan of the “Not A…” book series by Antoinette Portis. Her books inspire us to push our imaginations and realize that a simple objects can transform into anything through the power of play. You can find Not a Box and Not a Stick on Amazon. I highly recommend them for reading with your child (or on your own!) Hopefully they will inspire you to see the creative potential behind the simplest and possibly overlooked items in your home.

Happy Hunting!

Beautiful Objects

Children are attracted to things of beauty. Now what makes something beautiful? That is probably a deeper question for a different blog. When it comes to what young children are attracted to think of color, shape, pattern and form.

Many educational approaches/philosophies hold strongly to the belief that beauty is an essential component in appealing to children and inspiring their creativity. Maria Montessori believed the school environment needed to be filled with aesthetically pleasing objects in order to invite the children to work with them independently.  She created her materials to be innately beautiful and attractive to children.

Friedrich Froebel, an early pioneer in education, who inspired Maria Montessori in her material construction, created materials for children that he called “gifts”. These gifts were meant to introduce children to concepts ranging from geometry to form. As Herbert Spencer noted, concrete objects have a significant place in children’s learning, “The truths of number, of form, of relationship in position were all originally drawn from objects and to present these truths to the child in the concrete is to let him learn them as the race learned them.” Froebel hoped that by experimenting with these materials and through noticing aspects of their construction such as symmetry, children would find beauty in each gift. He also introduced the children to activities with his materials called “forms of beauty” in which children would use his pieces to create symmetric arrangements in two or three dimensions.

Finally, take one look at any school that models itself after the Reggio Emilia approach and you will understand the place of beautiful objects in early childhood as a way to inspire creativity. If you are interested in learning more about Reggio’s approach to beautiful things and finding the beauty in found materials check out this book called Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

To get you started on your journey to filling your home or classroom with beautiful and inspiring objects, I wanted to share a few with you that I found particularly attractive. Enjoy!

CRAYON ROCKS crayonrocks2

These drawing materials are made of soy wax from soybeans grown in the United States and natural mineral powders for the color, which makes them eco-friendly and safe for your child to use. Another bonus is the shape designed for young hands working on developing the fine motor skills to prepare to hold more traditional writing utensils. You can purchase them here.

Learning Materials Workshop 

This award winning company makes beautiful Reggio inspired materials for children, however I know many adults that enjoy their designer appeal. Here are two of my favorite materials they sell.

Coloraturo Block Set $75                                              Dwellings $40 dwellingscoloraturo1


Through my work with the TEDx community, I recently met a woman of whom I’m fast becoming a major fan. Her name is Tania Luna and she is Surpriseologist. What is that you might ask? Well, she specializes in the art and science of surprise, providing one-of-a-kind experiences at her company Surprise Industries.

Over a cup of coffee, Tania and I began chatting about the role that surprise can play in early childhood education. As we were talking I came to realize how the two are actually quite connected. For young children the world is full of surprises, so many experiences are new and seen through fresh eyes. However, in the classroom, routine can quickly set in and once it does active learning steadily decreases. So how can we as teachers (and parents) reinvigorate their learning experience? Well through surprise of course!

Here are some quick & simple ideas to bring back the wonder:

Move things around: In my house I am able to navigate through my bedroom and hallways in the dark. Everything has been in the place for so long that the motion of moving through has become second nature to me. I am no longer actively thinking about walking through the space. But put something else there or move the furniture and I actually have to think for a moment in the dark about what might be right in front of me. The same works for the classroom; move things around and get kids thinking. This can apply for the home as well. If you have a play area in your house, move everything around, switch it up & give it a fresh feel.

Introduce a new material or sensory experience: Have you tried Oobleck? I love it! Or how about Flubber? Ditto. These are two great sensory play materials, easily made at home, that are worth a try. Or switch to a natural version of a familiar substance to see the difference. For example, introduce real clay instead of Play-doh and listen to your children as they explore, see what new ideas come out if their discoveries.

Use an old material in a new way: Have your kids ever helped you make a salad? Have they enjoyed using the salad spinner? What if instead of lettuce you put in paper and drops of paint? Spin-Art is so fun and a surprising way to use a common household item.

My students surprise me every day, the best thing I can do is to return the favor and always keep our learning fun. How do you incorporate surprise into your classroom or home? I’d love to hear your ideas!

For more information on Tania and her tips for incorporating surprise into your life, check out surpriseindustries.com

What I learned at TED2012 about Failure & Creativity

Recently, I spent an amazing week at the 2012 TEDActive conference watching a series of talks by inspirational people who are changing the world. While listening to all these world-changing ideas, a common theme began to stand out…FAILURE.  As Brené Brown suggested in her talk that closed the conference, TED is like the “failure conference”, because the people there have failed many times, but they are not afraid of it.  This is something I heard time and time again during the week. It made me think hard about my students.

We need to teach our kids not to be afraid of failure. In order to truly have innovation, we need to be open to the possibility of failure. Ainissa Ramirez spent some of her years as a professor of mechanical engineering at Yale. She gave a talk this year at TED where she not only stressed the importance of science education, especially for girls, she spoke about the power of failure. “We need kids to know it’s okay to fail. You fail your way to your answer. Scientists fail all the time, they just brand their failure as ‘data’.”

For most of the children I work with, this willingness to just ‘give it a try’ is innate. They see the world as filled with endless possibilities. Sadly, we commonly see this fearless spirit get drained away by the time we reach adulthood. So how do we keep this spirit alive, to carry us through our early adolescence and inspire us throughout our adult lives? Parents and teachers are paramount in this quest, finding ways to support and encourage the natural creativity we see flowing from our students & children.

David Kelley, founder of the legendary design firm IDEO, gave a talk about creativity and how he has dedicated his life in part to helping people regain their creative confidence. Where did they lose it? Kelley believes many of us lost it in childhood, potentially through the discouragement of a teacher or a peer.  Maybe we were shamed, purposefully or not, and were left feeling badly about our “artistic” abilities, which had such an impact that it stayed with us as we grew. “Well I’m just not a creative person,” many of us have been wrongly led to believe. But as Kelly points out, this simply isn’t true. There is creativity in all of us!  As our children’s support system, we need to choose our words wisely. While we do not want to blindly praise them for everything they do, we also need build confidence in their strengths and support them to try the tasks they find challenging.

Within the early childhood community we often talk about the “Zone of Proximal Development”, a term coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He defined it as, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.[1] It is up to us as educators and parents to guide our children to the top of this zone. To do so, we need to be prepared for the child to fail at first. I would never ask a child in my class to do a task I knew they could not accomplish. I may ask them to do things that are challenging and that they may not solve on the first try, but I am always there to help them through. By demonstrating to children that the old saying of, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is true, they will internalize the idea that pushing themselves can result in a sense of pride and accomplishment.

If I learned anything during my week at TED, it’s that failure is part of creating amazing new things. One of the most powerful moments of the conference came when Regina Dugan, director of DARPA, asked the audience, “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I think we all realized in that moment that the possibilities would be endless. We need to discourage the fear of failure and learn to see it as merely a step on the path to success, for not only our children but ourselves.

[1] L.S. Vygotsky: Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 1978, p. 86

Have you met TED?

I am spending this week at the TEDActive Conference in Palm Springs and so far it has been life changing. I have been involved with the TED community in some form since 2009, but this is my first official TED. The community & the talks help me find inspiration & motivation to contribute to our world as best I can.

If you are unfamiliar with TED, then let me offer you a talk I consider to be the gateway drug to TED. First, a little background explanation….One of my main drives, as an educator of young children, is to foster the natural creativity we all have as kids but that sadly, for many of us, flitters away as we grow up. Sir Ken Robinson is a pioneer and revolutionary in education reform and a spokesman for the importance of supporting creativity. Once you hear him speak, not only will you want to know more about TED, you will want to do everything you can to foster your child’s natural creativity.

And with that, here is Sir Ken Robinson