Lessons From Our Puppy

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Our house abounds with more energy than usual these days. We adopted a mixed-breed puppy five months ago. She’s jet black with white patches, and we named her Flower. Two little boys, a puppy, and two elderly cats make for a special brand of pandemonium — and a lot of joy.

I grew up with dogs, but I’ve spent 15 years with feline companions. So Flower astounds me. “She listens! She seems to like us! We can actually train her not to do something!” Our cats, quintessential introverts, have no interest in such things.

Pets are a huge responsibility and expense. Americans spend 60 billion dollars a year on them. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what we get from these intimate inter-species relationships. Here are a few of the lessons Flower is teaching (or reminding us of) these days.

You don’t need words to communicate

Dogs are experts at reading non-verbal cues and tone of voice. They watch us nearly as closely as our own infants and can supposedly read us better than chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest primate relatives. Scientists say humans and dogs evolved as companions over tens of thousands of years, and some theorize that wild dogs instigated the inter-species relationship by learning to understand our gestures.

For a long time, people assumed dogs were not as highly sensitive as they seem but were learning to recognize a cue, such as an angry voice. However, a more recent study suggests dogs categorize humans’ varied emotional responses, which helps them attune to our moods. And the ability seems to be intrinsic (not learned). In any case, spending time with a dog is an amazing lesson in how much we communicate without opening our mouths and how much we can learn about people by paying attention.

Empathy is powerful

One afternoon on the way to the dog park, Flower was a bundle of energy. It had just rained and the winding trail was slippery. As we rounded a curve, Flower saw the gate to the park, lunged for it, and pulled me down. What happened next surprised me. Flower forgot all about the dog park. She turned around, ran to me, curled into my lap, and started licking my face.

I spend a lot of time with two little boys who are still learning the ins and outs of empathy — “It doesn’t matter if you’re sad, right Mommy?” But empathy seems to come naturally to Flower. And she’s not unusual in the canine world. A dog is more likely to approach someone who’s crying than someone who is humming or talking, according to one study. Let’s face it, relationships — human or canine — can be challenging. A little empathy sure goes a long way.

Movement is fun

Dogs are excellent movement coaches. Flower never puts exercise on the end of her to-do list after a litany of chores. Moving is one of her favorite things, second only to food, and she never takes for granted the simple joy of walking or running or playing ball. Her zeal for moving helps us all add more of it to our days. Moreover, she reminds us that it can be our favorite part of the day.

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Categories Don’t Always Fit

Adopting a dog can supposedly ward off loneliness, not only because you have the dog as a companion, but because the dog invites more social interaction with other people. It’s true. Our walks these days are filled with happy conversations with strangers. People love dogs.

Many passersby are curious about what breed Flower is. She is about as mixed-breed as dogs get. We usually list off a few of the breeds we’re relatively certain she has — English Pointer, Australian Shepherd, etc. But that answer usually does not suffice. Quite a few people are convinced they know what category she’s actually in. From Jack Russell Terrier to Bulldog to Border Collie, we’ve heard lots of different ideas. We humans sure like our categories, don’t we? Flower’s a good reminder that dogs (and people) don’t always fit in one.

I loved having a dog companion when I was a kid, and it’s fun to see how much my boys already love Flower. (Unfortunately, our cats are not such huge fans.) Training a puppy is not easy, but it has a way of reminding us what’s important. Besides, watching Flower chase her tail never gets old.

Want Healthy, Happy Kids? Walk With Them.

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Walking has always been my favorite mode of transportation. Yes, it’s usually the slowest way to get somewhere, averaging fifteen minutes per mile. But it makes me feel clear-headed and invigorated when I get to my destination. Thus, I’ve long preferred striding, strolling, or sauntering to driving, riding, and even biking. That’s why I’ve commuted by foot to school and work most of my life, even when I was nine months pregnant.

My kids don’t exactly share my zeal for bipedal locomotion.

“You know, the car is faster,” four-year-old Ira patiently explains as we amble toward his preschool.

“One block, Mom. One block. Then we’ll turn around,” seven-year-old Ezra declares as we maneuver our puppy out the door for an after-school jaunt around the neighborhood.

I’ve never seen research on the topic, but the mental health benefits of walking seem to diminish rapidly when a child is trudging beside you complaining. So I’ve allowed and even encouraged the boys to grab their bikes on walks in the past. Wheels tend to help them move along at a nice pace, and their complaining wanes.

However, this year I’m on a mission to get my kids walking more. I love bikes, but I’m convinced walking, the upright movement that distinguishes us as human, is an under-appreciated key to good health. Moreover, not walking — 35 percent fewer kids walk and bike to school than they did in 1969 — may be causing a lot of problems for our kids (and the rest of us).

Walking is Anti-Sitting

Walking is not as vigorous as running or playing. But it may actually be the moderate intensity of walking that makes it so good for us. Why? It doesn’t tire us out, so we continue to move around for the rest of the day. However, those vigorous bouts of high-intensity movement we usually call “exercise” often encourage us to sit more. In one study, exercisers were 30 percent less active on the days they hit the gym. That’s a problem because varied all-day movement seems to be the ticket to optimal health.

You’ve probably seen the headlines that sitting too much increases cardiovascular issues, even when people exercise vigorously several times a week. Excessive sitting is bad for kids too. Just three hours of uninterrupted sitting caused the blood vessels of girls, aged nine to 12, to restrict in a study. Unfortunately most kids sit a lot. Worldwide, children sit for about 8.5 hours a day.

What’s the antidote to sitting? Lots of walking. Walking is not only good for our hearts and organs, it’s good for the entire body. Riding a bike gets the blood flowing, however, the hips stay flexed, our shoulders hunch forward, and our tails tuck. However, walking, when done in proper alignment, is the opposite of sitting. The movement elongates the spine and tones the pelvic floor. Biomechanist Katy Bowman calls it a “biological imperative,” because we must do a lot of it to maintain a healthy body, especially a healthy skeleton.

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Walking Builds Healthy Bones

Experts say childhood is the best time to invest in healthy bones. According to the National Institute of Health, bone mineral density peaks around age 20 for boys and 18 for girls. Healthy bone mineral density both makes kids less at risk for childhood fractures and less likely to experience osteoporosis and fractures later in life. Alarmingly, more kids may have low bone mineral density than in previous eras, according to Orthopedic Surgeon Shevaun Mackie Doyle, perhaps because they get less activity and exposure to sunshine.

Biking gets kids outside, offers cardiovascular benefits, and is great for the environment when it replaces car trips. But it’s not so great for bone health, according to a number of studies. In studies, cyclists, especially those who ride on smooth terrain, have the same or even lower bone density than sedentary control groups. (Swimmers also have similar bone density to sedentary people, likely because both groups don’t bear their own weight while they’re moving.)

Walking not only builds healthy bones, it encourages kids to run, jump, skip, gallop, tromp, and tree-climb, all of which are superb bone builders.

Walking Improves Quality of Life

Walking isn’t just important for our bodies. It boosts mental health. It helps people attune to the environment, rather than their worries, and has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and improve memory. Walking to school helps kids focus for the rest of the day and has been shown to reduce the need for kids to take ADHD medication, according to a British study.

Daily walks also boost immunity, decreasing people’s chance of getting a cold by as much as 30 percent. That may be especially alluring to parents as we enter another cold and flu season.

Maybe you’re already convinced about walking’s superhero qualities? Warning: your kids may not be. Mine complain walking is boring and say it makes their legs tired. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to make it more palatable.

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How to Help Kids Love Walking

“You know, Mom, that was sort of fun,” Ezra remarked the other day after a one-and-a-half-mile walk to a school-related meeting. This walk is straight uphill, and a few months ago, he would have balked at the idea of it. So it was an exciting moment for me. However, getting him to this point required some effort on my part. The following tactics have made walking more fun for my kids and may help your kids enjoy walking more too.

  • Go Somewhere Fun

Whether it’s a playground or a birthday party, having a destination gets kids moving. One popular hike in our area is a winding uphill trek, but every kid I know hustles to the top. Why? There’s a swing up there.

  • Walk to School or on Errands

Walking is best when it’s used as a mode of transportation. That way, it becomes a seamless part of life, and kids and adults alike are less likely to think of it as optional “exercise.” Let’s face it, exercise is too often an activity we don’t enjoy that encourages more sedentary behavior for the rest of the day. It’s better to make walking routine.

  • Bring a Friend

Nothing seems to gets a kid moving like another kid. The instant a friend joins us, complaining vanishes as the kids race each other to the end of the block and scramble up trees.

  • Play games

A game of Red Light, Green Light or Follow the Leader is a sure way to get kids excited about a walk. We’ve invented our own walking game called Force Fields. Basically, there are imaginary “force fields” we can fall into in as we walk, and someone has to rescue us with an imaginary rope or magic dust. The game relieves my kids’ fatigue and boredom quickly, and they have a great time thinking up variations, such as “whirlwind force fields” and “quicksand force fields.”

  • Expect to Carry Little Ones Sometimes

Little legs tire faster than ours, so our littlest kiddos will probably need to be carried sometimes. It may be tempting to bring along a stroller or backpack, and I do when we’re going a long way, but these tools can encourage more sitting than walking. So on shorter walks I leave them at home and expect to carry my four-year-old occasionally. Here’s what I’ve learned. When I resist carrying him, everyone is miserable. When I happily let him climb up on my back, he’s usually back on his feet and running around within a block or two. And the good news is, carrying little ones is something we’re built to do, and it makes our bones and bodies strong. Think of it as strength training with built in hugs.

Conclusion

Many adults are looking for ways to feel better, relieve musculoskeletal pain, and connect with our kids. At the same time, we’re worried that our kids get sick too much, spend too much time on the couch with electronics, or have trouble focusing at school. The solution to all of those problems and many more is free and accessible to nearly everyone. Walk!

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Do you walk with your kids? Have you found ways to make it enjoyable for them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Living Big in a Tiny House

 

Photo by Tammy Strobel.

Photo by Tammy Strobel.

I haven’t been writing much here, but I’ve been busy! I have lots of articles coming out soon. Check out my portfolio or Contently page to see all of my latest work.

I reviewed Dee Williams’ The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.

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At 41, Dee Williams was a “nor­mal, middle-class, middle-of-the-road woman with a mortgage and a job and friends.” She worked as a state hazardous waste inspector and owned a 1927 Portland, Ore., fixer-upper that she shared with a rotation of roommates. She “went running and climbing and paddling, racing in a thousand different direc­tions at a thousand miles per hour.”

Then one day she woke up in an intensive care unit tethered to a urine bag, IV pole, and heart monitor, and the doctors diagnosed her with a potentially fatal heart condition. “It felt like death, or my mortality, or something bigger still, was leaning into my bed with the moonlight, clat­tering when I moved hangers in the closet, buzzing behind the sound of the shower running or my car idling in traffic,” she writes in The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir.

Soon after her diagnosis, Williams discovered an article about an Iowa City man who built and moved into a house the size of a shed. The idea of building such a little house—the process itself and the paring down it would require to move in—enticed Williams. “Somehow, it would shrink my life into a manageable mouthful,” she writes. Before long, Williams was drafting blueprints for her own tiny house.

Designing a house, even a very small one, involved some “outright panic” for Williams. She planned to live in the backyard of a house belong­ing to friends more than a hundred miles away in Olympia, Wash. Thus the house would need to fit on a trailer and be under 13.5 feet tall per Depart­ment of Transportation requirements. It would also need to withstand the rough shaking that transporting a house on the highway can present.

Excerpt from the book:

I thought I’d find something in all of this, and I got more than I bargained for. I discovered a new way of looking at the sky, the winter rain, the neighbors, and myself; and a different way of spending my time. Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.

I now this sounds cheesy, and in fact, it sounds fairly similar to the gobbledygook that friends have thrown at me just after having their first baby. But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house—a sense of largeness, freedom, and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place you’d rather be.

As she built, Williams experienced sore muscles, bumps, bruises, smashed fingers—and lost her ponytail after she accidentally glued it to her house. She also had a lot of fun. “Risking life and limb every day” distracted her from her potentially debilitating disease. And she erected an undeniably attractive 84-square-foot cedar-and-knotty-pine house that man­ages to look open and airy in photos despite its minuscule size.

In a society drowning in commer­cials, books, and schemes promising to deliver us from hardship, it might have been tempting for Williams to oversell downsizing. She resisted that temptation—The Big Tiny abounds with refreshing honesty, humor, and endearing quirkiness.

Williams admits that getting rid of her three-bedroom house full of stuff was more agonizing than she expected, and living in less than a hundred square feet isn’t always comfortable. She has no refrigerator or plumb­ing. She cooks on a single burner and sleeps with her propane heater off, because she’s afraid her house will catch fire. She estimates she’s happy about 85 percent of the time, about the same amount of time she was happy in her big house.

When she escaped the “mindless rotisserie of work and projects” that guided her in her old house, Williams discovered a satisfaction that came from getting to know herself. “Let­ting go of ‘stuff,’” she writes, “allowed the world to collapse behind me as I moved, so I became nothing more or less than who I simply was: Me.”

The house and its large skylight helped her connect with nature in a new way. “I like the excitement of the windstorms and the rain pound­ing down a thousand different ways, inches from my head,” she writes. She also has more time for drinking tea on her porch and chatting with friends, because she no longer has to juggle bills and worry about constant home repairs.

What Williams celebrates most is that her new lifestyle requires her to depend on others. She lives “in com­munity” with her friends Hugh and Annie, their two sons, and Hugh’s elderly aunt Rita because she’s located in their backyard and needs their run­ning water. Williams happily takes on the role of Rita’s caretaker in exchange for using Rita’s shower and occasion­ally her oven. “If more people under­stood how nice it is to have a sense of home that extends past our locked doors, past our neighbors’ padlocks…we’d live in a very different place,” she insists.

Williams’ enthusiasm for small living and her charming hand-built house have already helped launch a tiny house movement. The Big Tiny will encourage many more people to assess whether bigger and more means happier—proof that making something tiny can ignite something very big.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

My article about urban homesteading was featured on CustomMade blog this week, accompanied by some beautiful graphics. I’ll have lots more articles coming out soon! Jump on over to my portfolio or Contently page to see my latest published work.

7 Reasons to Join the Urban Homesteading Revolution

By Abby Quillen

I grew up in a fairly typical late-20th-century family. We lived a few blocks from the center of town. We bought all of our food at a chain grocery store—and much of it was instant, frozen, or packaged. I’d never spent much time around livestock or farms, but at a young age, I longed to grow a garden, bake bread, and cook from scratch.

When I was in college, I pored over back issues of Mother Earth News and devoured Living the Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir about homesteading in Vermont, which helped launch the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. At the same time, I loved living close to a city center—riding my bike and walking everywhere, spending the afternoon at the library or swimming pool, going to book readings and events, and living close to my friends. It was hard to imagine leaving all of it behind, although I always thought I might.

When my husband and I were considering buying our first house, we realized we might be able to combine the best of urban living with the best of the back-to-the-land movement. We weren’t alone: Around the time our son was born in 2008, a lot of people were talking about “urban homesteading.”

What is urban homesteading? In short, it looks different for every family. For mine, it means we live in a regular, ranch-style house in the city. In our backyard, we have a small flock of three chickens and a large vegetable garden that provides us with peas, greens, tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, and herbs. We compost. We cook nearly all of our meals from scratch, including bread, tortillas, and pizza crust, and we brew beer. We chop wood to heat our house, and we hang our laundry on a clothesline. We make most of our own household cleaners and personal care products out of simple ingredients, like baking soda and vinegar. Biking is our main form of transit. And we try to be intentional about the things we buy. For other families, urban homesteading includes keeping bees, raising rabbits, making clothes, or preserving food.

More than anything, urban homesteading is a mindset. It turns us from consumers who are disconnected from where our food and belongings come from into producers who use our hands to make some of what we need to live. Most of us have little desire to be as self-sufficient as the original homesteaders had to be and the back-to-the-landers strived to be. In my family’s case, we’re thrilled to take advantage of all of the wonderful elements of urban life, including farmer’s markets and grocery stores as well as chocolate, coffee, and cultural events.

In some areas, urban homesteading has become mainstream. Where I live in Eugene, Oregon, nearly everyone I know has a vegetable garden and a flock of backyard hens. It’s no wonder the movement is picking up steam. There are many excellent reasons to celebrate the revolution.

1. Homegrown food is safer, more nutritious, and tastes better.

When the latest salmonella or e-coli outbreak dominates the headlines, it’s comforting to know exactly where your food comes from and how it’s raised. And because vitamin content is depleted by light, temperature, and time, freshly picked produce grown near your house is more nutritious than conventional produce, which is transported an average of 1,494 miles before it reaches the grocery store.

An even more delicious reason to celebrate homegrown food is the flavor. Gourmet chefs use the freshest ingredients they can find for a reason. The first time I cooked one of the eggs laid by our hens, I couldn’t believe how large and yellow the yolk was or how delectable it tasted. And it’s easy to appreciate novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s zeal for sun-ripened garden tomatoes. “The first tomato brings me to my knees,” she writes. “Its vital stats are recorded in my journal with the care of a birth announcement.”

2. Urban homesteading encourages healthy movement.

When I started gardening and making more things around the house and yard, I noticed a side effect: I felt better. It’s not surprising. Digging the dandelions out of a raised bed, brewing an India Pale Ale, and peeling potatoes fall in line with the sort of daily activities most important for maintaining a healthy body weight, according to research conducted by Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic. In Levine’s study, people were fed an extra thousand calories a day. Those who did the most daily non-exercise activity (as opposed to deliberate exercise for fitness) gained the least weight.

Non-Exercise Activity Helps Maintain a Healthy Body

And in a nine-country European breast cancer study, of all the activities and recreational exercise women partook in, household activity—including housework, home repair, gardening, and stair climbing—was the only activity to significantly reduce breast cancer risk.

We hear a lot about the dangers of sitting, and most of us have to sit for some part of the day. But increasing our movement in our daily lives can make a huge difference for our health and the way we feel.

3. Urban homesteading helps families connect with nature and the seasons.

Growing up in Colorado, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time hiking and camping. Gardening has given me an even more intimate connection with the natural world, since now I must work with it as a co-creator. And it has given my two young sons a wonderful relationship with plants and seasonal rhythms. They love the garden and beg to help plant seeds, pull weeds, and harvest. Every time one of them asks me if it’s pea or fig season yet, or recognizes an edible plant in someone’s yard, I smile. Those may seem like simple things, but for me as a kid, produce was something that was shipped across the country and delivered to a refrigerated section of the grocery store.

4. Urban homesteading is thrifty. 

It’s no coincidence the urban homesteading boom coincided with a worldwide economic recession. If you build your soil, save seeds, and tend your garden well, you can save hundreds of dollars on organic produce each season by growing your own. Keeping chickens can also save you money. We estimate that our eggs cost $3.35 a dozen (in organic chicken feed) at the most, compared to $5 to $7 for similar eggs at the health food store. However, we were lucky to inherit our chicken coop, so others may have to include that expense as well.

Cooking from scratch saves us the most money. It’s not just that making stock, microbrews, and bread products from bulk ingredients is cheaper than buying them. As we’ve become better chefs, we’re also not as apt to go to restaurants, which used to be a huge drain on our finances.

Save Money in the Garden: 5 Tips for Thrifty Growing

5. Turning a lawn into a homestead makes productive use of land and supports healthier ecosystems.

In the memoir Paradise Lot, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates recount how they transformed their backyard—one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in Holyoke, Massachusetts—into a permaculture oasis where they grow about 160 edible perennials. What was once a barren lot is now habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms. “Imagine what would happen,” Toensmeier writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”

Most of us don’t have the skills or desire to garden on the scale that Toensmeier and Bates do. But by planting a few vegetables, herbs, or fruit trees, we create habitats for birds, butterflies, and pollinators. And by composting kitchen waste, chicken manure, and fallen leaves, we improve the ecosystem that supports all life.

6. Gardening and creating things boosts the spirits.

Author Matthew Crawford traded his job at a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles because working with his hands made him feel more alive. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day,” Crawford writes.

We’ve all experienced the thrill that comes from making or fixing something. In her book Lifting Depression, neuroscientist Dr. Kelly Lambert explains that association. “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals,” she explains. Lambert contends that in our drive to do less physical work to acquire what we want and need, we may have lost something vital to our mental well-being—an innate resistance to depression.

I can attest to what Lambert says. Almost nothing is as satisfying as appraising a finished scarf or jar of sauerkraut, or cutting the first slice off a loaf of homemade bread. I have no doubt that creating something with my hands every day—even a meal—is imperative for my mental health.

7. Urban homesteading encourages families to live, work, and buy more intentionally.

These days, before we buy something impulsively, my husband and I are more likely to ask ourselves some simple questions. Can we make, fix, or do this ourselves, and is it worth the time and energy? Sometimes the answer is no. For me, canning and making clothing are not worth the effort. But just asking these questions makes our family more intentional about how we live and work, and what we buy.

As a society, we’re often encouraged to make decisions based on two variables: time and labor. When it comes to household tasks, it’s usually seen as preferable to save both time and labor. While making a stew will take longer and require more physical work than buying a can, the process is enjoyable and good for the body. In addition, the homemade variety is healthier, tastes better, and brings greater satisfaction. Equations look different when you add in all of the variables.

I hardly think of my family as urban homesteaders anymore, because the parts of the lifestyle that once seemed foreign and daunting, such as gardening, composting, and cooking from scratch, are now routine. They help us stay connected and make our lives feel richer. It’s powerful to produce some of what we need to survive, especially food.

Growing Cycle

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Hello sunshine!

We’re making the most of a stretch of sparkling spring days with tea parties, egg hunts, and fun-packed afternoons with friends. I’m sure the rain will send us inside soon. See you then….

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Hopeful Weekend Links

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Blood Moon Will Be a Sight to Behold During Total Lunar Eclipse – Ben Brumfield, CNN

Parking Lots Demolished as Driving Wanes – Romy Varghese, Business Week

bring your own cookies – Karen Maezen Miller, cheerio road

10 Things Creative People Know – Peggy Taylor and Charlie Murphie, YES! Magazine

20 Things Every Parent Should Hear – Beth Woolsey, Five Kids is a Lot of Kids

The Best Time of the Day for Creativity – Kevan Lee, Lifehacker

March Seeds Bring April Greens

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It’s gardening time again! It feels like it was the shortest winter in history (although I perhaps would not have said that mid-January). I planted a few of our beds a couple of weeks ago. It’s our seventh gardening season in our backyard, and I actually sort of know what I’m doing now. It helps that I have two eager little helpers. Ezra and Ira love the garden! Their faces light up at the very mention of planting.

Once we’re in the garden, our activities usually go like this: Ezra and I till a bed. Ira finds a “wormy.” Ezra and I spread fertilizer on a bed. Ira plays with the wormy. Ezra and I plant some seeds. Ira finds another wormy. Ira is enthusiastic about invertebrates.

We’re excitedly watching starts grow and seeds sprout, and we’re already harvesting a bit of lettuce and kale that self-started, perennial herbs, and lots of dandelion greens. Have I mentioned it’s prime dandelion harvesting season?

Wild foods tend to be much more nutritious than the produce in our supermarkets or even farmer’s markets. Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, explains that when we bred the bitterness out of our produce, we also lost nutrition. “The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became … the less advantageous they were for our health.”

Fortunately, despite many efforts to eradicate it, most of us have a wild edible green growing in abundance all around us, and it’s a nutritional powerhouse. A half pound of dandelion greens provides:

  • 649% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin K,
  • 338% of your vitamin A,
  • 58% of your vitamin C,
  • 39% of your iron,
  • 20% of your Riboflavin,
  • 19% of your calcium,
  • 19% of your vitamin B-6, and
  • 9% of your dietary fiber

Don’t let all those nutrients go to waste! Check out this post or this article for more information about this humble super food and recipes. This year I can’t wait to try Rachel Turiel’s dandelion pesto.

We’ll likely be seeing many more April showers, but you’ll hopefully find us sloshing around the garden playing with wormies or armed with a colander eying our neighbors’ weeds. Wishing you some similar spring time revelry.

Is it gardening season where you live? If so, what’s coming up in your garden? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Hopeful Weekend Links

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Get Ready! A tetrad of lunar eclipses, beginning in April – Earth Sky

Why do we make students sit still in class? – Carolina Blatt-Gross

How to Save Money on Food by Wasting Less – Lindsay Wilson, Shrink That Footprint

The Overprotected Kid – Hannah Rosin, The Atlantic

The Hard Alphabet – Sara Bir, Full Grown People

Ideas for Making Small Spaces More Efficient – Amazing Oasis

Free Range Learning: Book Review

natural learning, holistic education, homeschooling, unschooling

It’s the perfect time for me to read Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, which author Laura Grace Weldon sent me for review consideration. My husband Aaron and I spent much of February visiting schools because our five-year-old son Ezra will be eligible to attend kindergarten next year. Although we’re planning to enroll our boys in school, I’m glad I read Weldon’s book, which champions a way of homeschooling that verges considerably from what most public and private schools offer.

Weldon calls for highly individual, interest-led, experiential education that gives children lives full of “conversation, music, play, stories, struggles and overcoming struggles, chores, laughter and the excitement of examining in depth any of the rich wells of knowledge that humanity has to offer.” She’s critical of any system that “makes the child a passive recipient of education” whether it’s a public school or a homeschooling curriculum that prescribes conformity to standards. She doesn’t advocate any one prescribed style of homeschooling, but a flexible mix and match according to what best suits a family’s needs.

At 301 pages, published by Hohm Press, Free Range Learning looks like a textbook, but it’s not a dry read. Weldon’s writing is as clear and lively as on her popular blog, and she presents considerable eye-opening research about the value of homeschooling, like the following:

One study tested homeschooled as well as schooled children using the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, a measure of social development. On this test, the homeschooled children scored higher in socialization, communication, daily living skills and maturity. Overall the mean score of the schooled children stood at the 23rd percentile. In contrast, the mean score for the homeschooled children stood at the 84th percentile.

Weldon also gives homeschooling parents and homeschooled students a voice in pages of anecdotes, like this one by Linda from Ohio:

I did not plan to stay home with Jeffrey. As a licensed occupational therapist, I’d been eager to get back to work in a hospital setting. But when we put him in school he did very poorly. They slapped three labels on him before he turned six. We put him in private school. That was worse. We could see school wasn’t an option for him. So Matt and I reassessed. Now I have a part-time practice at home. … I think our family is closer as a result of this style of education, and Jeffrey has no evidence of the problems the school pointed to. I’m glad our son didn’t adjust to school and we didn’t accept their labels.

When we chose not to send Ezra to preschool this year, I realized how counter-culture homeschooling is. “Which preschool does he go to?” we’re asked regularly when we’re out and about. When I reply that Ezra stays home, many well-meaning parents relay the importance of preschool for a child’s social skills and development. I’m quietly heartened that the research suggests that young kids who stay home with involved parents thrive. In the same vein, I imagine homeschooling parents breathe a sigh of relief when they read Weldon’s supportive research and case studies.

She devotes the second half of the book to providing reams of ideas for exploring different subjects with kids, including all of the usual school subjects as well as business and finance, volunteerism, and ethics. In nearly every chapter, she provides an abundance of resources, including lists of youth organizations, mentorship programs, learning communities, online courses, service travel agencies, etc.

Weldon’s ideas and resources are impressive, but her real gift is her compelling and joyful vision of what a quality home education can look like:

Among today’s homeschoolers are children who wonder aloud any time of day and whose questions are answered. Children who stay up late to stargaze, who eagerly practice the violin and study Latin, who slosh in the edges of a pond to see tadpoles, who design their own video games, who read books till noon in their pajamas. These children are empowered to be free range learners.

I was lucky to grow up with voracious lifelong learners, who were my greatest teachers. Books were stacked on every surface in our house. On weekends, we visited ghost towns and museums, attended history lectures, and met all kinds of interesting writers and thinkers. My parents liked to joke that they homeschooled us, but we also went to school. I hope to follow in that tradition with my kids.

Truthfully, when my older sister went to school, I begged my parents to send me to preschool, and I loved school all the way through college. As an adult, though, I’m increasingly concerned about our approach to schooling. As Weldon points out, our standards-obsessed education system, with its focus on test scores and grades too often discourages creativity, curiosity, risk-taking, and initiative. As my first child embarks into kindergarten, I’m just as concerned as Weldon that “the very structure of school makes the child a passive recipient of education designed by others.”

My family is fortunate to live in a community with an abundance of school choice, and we’re planning to send Ezra to a public alternative school that favors interest-led, project-based learning and favors cooperation over competitiveness. I hope it’s a good fit for him and that he loves school as much as I did. If it’s not, we’ll re-evaluate and happily consider other options, including homeschooling. No matter what we end up doing, I’m thrilled to have Laura Grace Weldon’s beautifully written book at hand. It’s every parent’s job to create an enriching household that fosters a love of learning, and Weldon offers an invaluable resource for doing that.

Hopeful Weekend Links

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New Parenting Study Released – Sarah Miller, The New Yorker

Science Compard Every Diet, and the Winner is Real Food – James Hamblin, The Atlantic

The Wonders and Eternal Shelf Life of Honey – Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian

When Mothers Get Moving, Children are More Active Too – Linda Poon, NPR

The Simplest Thing that Makes the Happiest People in the World So Happy – Eric Barcer, Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Lessons in Organic Urbanism from India – Taz Loomans, Blooming Rock