Child-directed 'literacy events' in Death-eye Village

Here's some of what's been going on recently in my backyard, AKA Death-eye Village -- events that have me thinking about how play and literacy connect.

All villages need signage, of course, especially when they're home to shops selling weapons, potions and other accoutrements of magical play. 

Many visitors will want to know where to find the weaponry outlet.

And even within stores, you need to be pointed to the different product options on offer. 

I'll spare you pictures of the weapons themselves, the racks of wands and the (rather putrid) potion mixtures because what interests me here is how the children have naturally and enthusiastically included written language in their play.  

These signs were all made by a seven year old boy whose typical response when asked by a parent or teacher to write anything down is an agonized moan of dismay. And yet here he is running around voluntarily writing.

It turns out that the sign to Death-eye village is a classic example of what Stanford's Shirley Brice Heath famously called a 'literacy event.' Other examples would be reading the name of a favorite cereal on a store shelf, writing your name on a birthday card for a friend, or making money, tickets, or books for games with toys and pets. 

The number of literacy events experienced by children as they begin to read and write is a crucial predictor of their future development as readers and writers. One way to understand the achievement gap between children from lower and higher income households is that the former experience measurably fewer literacy events during their pre-school and elementary years than the latter. 

But a childhood of privilege isn't always amenable to literacy events either, at least those that children originate themselves. After all, a rigidly-scheduled day directed at notching up adult-sanctioned achievement leaves little time for free play. 

For the upscale, ambitious parent, free play is frustratingly . . . well, free. An hour with a tutor guarantees a set number of literacy events. An hour of free play might not see any. But those it does see, I'd argue, are of disproportionate value because they spring from child. 

Here are some lessons I've taken from observing my own children and their friends engaging with literacy in play:

1 - It happens when it happens. One child can want to start creating lists and signs literally years before another will. This is alarming and frustrating to caring but anxious parents who would really like to ensure that their children pass particular benchmarks by specific dates. But give children the time and space in which to develop that interest themselves and you'll help both inspire and preserve, indeed positively encourage, their emerging love of language.

2 - Because you can't schedule child-directed literacy events, children need a huge amount of free time in which to develop games that inspire them to literacy play. That's another big argument for dialing back the scheduling.

3 - Even though you can't schedule a self-motivated literacy event on cue, you can create circumstances likely to let them flower. Most importantly, you can give your children a rich world of stories from which to draw as inspiration. That world can come from conventional books, but it can also be inspired by movies, by conversations about family history, by song, by school, by church-going, by simply talking with a child about their everyday lives and interests. 

4 - You can also establish fertile ground for literacy by seeding your child's play environment with a very few basic, affordable materials: paper, cardboard, pens, tape, paint. That's about it (wood, nails, hammers, sticks, bottles, water, mulch, dirt are great, too).

5 - Lastly, you can probably help by also removing certain things from your kids' play life: an always-on TV or radio, toys that encourage passive as opposed to interactive play, and, perhaps, yourself. If you are not around to write the sign, for example, the child has to write it for him- or herself. The same applies to spelling. My rule is never to spell a word for a child until the child's first given it a go. It's amazing how often they get it right (Death-eye Village -- I had no idea my seven year old could spell that right). 

Most of all, though, we need confidence in our children's own amazing capacity (and need) for working out their lives through narrative. Give them the space to do that and we help enrich not only their lives, but ours as well.

A graveyard of grottos

Well, it's actually a regional park, the oldest municipal park in the state of California, according to Wikipedia. 

But for much of its early life, San Jose's Alum Rock Park was also a health spa. Between 1890 and 1932, the 27 mineral springs that run into Penitencia Creek were located and given their own small grottos. In addition, a railway line, swimming pool, tea garden, dance pavilion and a variety of privately owned bathhouses were built to accommodate visitors.

Today, most of those facilities have been dismantled and the park is oriented much more towards the direct and unmediated appreciation of nature. But the stone-built grottos along the creek remain, still dribbling out waters loaded with iron, calcium, sulphur and more. None feature alum, as it happens.

I knew none of this history (there's more here) until visiting the park yesterday. It's a lovely place - clearly popular with locals, and full of wildlife. The disused grottos are fascinating -- modern artifacts with the aura of something ancient that you might stumble upon in Tuscany or Greece.  






Valley snapshot - R.I.P. Great Horned Owl

I wasn't the only one to be excited that my friend Richard found a dead California Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus pacificus) in his backyard in Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood this afternoon. We ended up taking a gang of five children over with us to check out the poor deceased bird -- only to find five other kids already there. 

Because we saw no signs of damage, and because the owl's tail feathers were in pretty bad shape, the general (and sentimental) opinion was that the bird had simply succumbed to old age. We were all thrilled, though, to find that it had been living nearby.  

As a gardener plagued by squirrels, I was especially delighted. I'd known that Great Horned Owls were the only local owls that will take a squirrel, but had though they much preferred wooded areas to suburban garden landscapes. Not so, I guess. That's good news for us and a warning for the squirrels to perhaps move on, I rather hope.

November rose

The rains have just returned, making for easy drinking and an escape from the stress of summer drought. In response, the roses rush to bloom, even as the nights draw cooler. Their leaves will fall soon. For now, though, a moment of fragile balance in the garden.

Fire damage

It used to be a Helichrysum italicum, until a squirrel ate the plastic sheathing on the power line right above it this last weekend. Two wires in the cable touched, igniting the plastic which then dripped, burning, onto the unsuspecting plant. Said plant quickly became a burning bush, flaming some six feet into the air until the Fire Department arrived. Luckily, this all took place when we were home to notice and call for help before the car parked next to the Helichrysum caught fire as well.  

So what to put there now?  I'm thinking a smaller kind of daisy.  And cone flowers maybe, and some iris, too.