Friday, January 07, 2011

widening the comfort zone

My wife, daughter and I are in a friend's home perched on a mountainside near Matapalo in Costa Rica. We have a view of the ocean a great distance at the front, and the jungle up to the back door behind. I may go into a sort of making withdrawal after a few days of this. I need the world more actively at hand, but am living the life of wealthy gringo for a few days, but of course this life for me is a pretense. Things cost more than one might think and I will have to go home and work hard to catch up.

I am reminded of the tools we give kids. How about plastic saws and hammers that allow them to play Bob the Builder, when we could give them real capacities. When my daughter asked if she could do wood carving in my shop, I thought at first of giving her my old carving chisels to use, but then realized that my better set would give better results, give her more satisfaction in their use, and be more likely to call for re-engagement at a later time. If I couldn't trust her in the use of my best tools, how are we to trust our children in the preservation of our planet? How we are training them in schools is an indication that we had best not. And yet, time marches like ants, and while the future is theirs, not ours what we do now has effects for generations.

There is a relentless quality to the natural world. The waves on the beach come crashing in one after another. Here on the mountainside, the jungle vines are growing each day. Unattended, they would devour this small house. There is a plane flying overhead. It will land. As a seemingly unrelated counterpoint, on a limb off the porch sits a black headed trogon like the one shown in the photo above. We stand still and stare eye to eye, with my binoculars forming circles around my eyes that match the circles I see around his. The moment is surreal, past in a flash and timeless.

One of the most important things about travel is stepping outside the comfort zone, and for kids, it can be essential. How do we create schools that provide both a sense of security for learning and provide a means for kids to step beyond themselves? We are preparing them for a future which we cannot know.

There are days in which I should refrain from posting in the blog. There are days when I'm processing what I have seen, heard and experienced. A few days traveling in Costa Rica have put me in that state. If you are uncomfortable with the challenges of engaging your hands in learning, (as some might reasonably be) there is nothing to it but to do it. Yesterday I had the chance to milk a cow, and I stood by shy. I watched my own comfort zone interfere with a simple thing that I now regret. The most challenging part of hands on learning is that you probably won't be led there by statistics and research, but rather by your own inclinations. Step our of the comfort zone. Make, fix, create. Milk a cow and have no regrets.

John Grossbohlin sent a link to an article in the New York Times about a turn-around in attitudes toward play. Parents are realizing that playing computer games does nothing for children's creativity. In fact, placing children constantly in the comfort zone of screen-time and game controllers is far more incidious. They say "playing" computer games. But they are nothing like being in he real outdoors. Baseball, anyone? And did you know that all major league baseballs are hand sewn in San Juan, Costa Rica? The article in the New York Times can be found here: Effort to Restore Children's Play Gains Momentum.


  1. I fully agree. I took metal shop and wood shop courses about 60 years ago in middle school. I went on to earn a PhD in physics and became an inventor, with about 100 patents. I greatly value the manual arts education, in school and from my father in a home shop, that raised my mechanical intuition to the level I have enjoyed.

  2. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Enjoy that vacation! By the way, did you know that "Matapalo" in Spanish means "stick-killer"? Killing sticks is not what we do as woodworkers. Giving them a new life is more like it.


  3. I find myself having mixed emotions in reading the article from the New York Times about play. I am happy to see such enthusiasm about making play a priority. However, I am saddened when I think about why this article had to be written. Something very wrong is going on in the minds of people. I thank God for the way I was raised, and for the fact that I teach. This way I get to share some of the joys of my childhood with my students...until of course I am fired for their test scores being too low! Until then , I will share my love for play with them.


  4. John Grossbohlin3:05 PM

    I let my boys use my best tools too. As a kid I used beat hand tools and came to the conclusion real work couldn't be done with hand tools. After working at Colonial Williamsburg my mind changed and I bought good quality hand tools. I got a lot of funny looks at NWA's Showcase when visitors saw my young boys using my L-N dovetail saw and sharp chisels. The crowd around the L-N booth was rather surprised when I had my son try a No 5 bench plane and then bought it for the boys' use as a jointer. My No 7 plane was simply too big for them to handle (As a side benefit that plane has become a favorite of mine!). I'm not saying that everyone should buy their children thousands of dollars of L-N tools but I do advocate providing them with well tuned quality tools.

  5. We know that test scores are only a small measure,but we have become a nation of pinheads. The real test for teachers should be to observe whether or not the teacher has motivated the student for outside the classroom learning. I, for one can claim that most of what I've learned has been outside the classroom. E tu? I am trying to remember the Spanish I learned in high school, and making a fool of myself everywhere I go.

  6. John, the planes you bought will last generations. So it is fantastic that you are giving the boys skill to use them.

    Can you see the long term effects?

  7. In order for teachers to motivate their students, they themselves have to be a model what learning is. This is a problem. Some teachers lack the humility that it takes to be this way. Instead, they correct everyone's mistakes, but theirs go uncorrected. I refer to this phenomenon as the "ivory tower syndrome."