Learning (and loving) math through games

Math Pentathlon.jpg

Dr. Mandy Menzer is a psychologist in private practice in South Austin. In addition, she is currently the Math Pentathlon coordinator at AHB Community School. Dr. Menzer has been involved in the Math Pentathlon program as a coach, game monitor, and parent for nine years. We’re excited to welcome Dr. Menzer to the blog today as a guest contributor. If you have any questions about Math Pentathlon or participating in the AHB Math Pentathlon program (your kid does not have to be enrolled full-time at AHB), you can contact her at mandy@drmenzer.com.

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?
Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor

It is a common refrain for adults in our society to talk about how math is boring or complicated when it comes time to divide up a check or calculate the compound interest on our mortgage, for example. Is it any surprise that kids from an early age pick up on math as something to be avoided at all costs? As parents, we struggle with how to help our kids get through the never-ending grind of multiplication tables and percentages before moving on to the mysteries of Algebra and other advanced-level math, where we really start to feel out of our league.

And yet, there is an activity that kids actually enjoy doing that integrates all different types of mathematical and quantitative reasoning. GAMES!  Virtually any game that you can think of incorporates some type of mathematical concept that kids already understand at a practical level and that a sneaky parent or educator can further build on. Monopoly? Keeping track of the money in your hand and adding and subtracting to your stash. In fact, any game involving dice (or cards, for that matter) can lead to discussions around probability, even in terms of something as simple as which properties you should buy (the answer is anything within 7 spaces of a frequent landing spot such as Go or Jail).

Have a kid who is into sports? Chances are that they know a lot of numbers and statistics around their favorite player or team, which they may be more than happy to spend time digging into. Even a “word” game like Scrabble contains a lot of math, in terms of Which letters give me the most points? and How can I stick those letters on some big multipliers?

And lest we forget, video games can also integrate math skills, such as visual-spatial reasoning, problem solving, pattern recognition, and strategic thinking. I know that nothing else in life has challenged my brain as much as some of the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda videogame series.

As a psychologist and mom to two boys, as well as a huge math dork myself, I have long believed that games can be the gateway drug to achievement in math. Certainly, kids who enjoy mathematical activities are more likely to spend time practicing it (or at least make the nightly math homework less of a battle), and there seems to be data to back this up. “A new study led by Johns Hopkins University psychologists shows Bedtime Math’s Crazy 8 club significantly reduces children’s feelings of math anxiety after eight weeks of participation in the club. The effect was more pronounced among younger kids in kindergarten through second grade club.”

So how can I get started?

  1. Figure out what kinds of games your kids are into, and play with them! Depending on the age of your kid, sneak some extra thought questions in here and there (“Hmmm, is it worth selling off a cheaper Monopoly property here to build a third house on this property over there?”) or simply play dumb (“I’m not sure if I have enough money to build all three of these things . . .”). Engage them in a conversation as to whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and make them back it up with stats and data.
  2. Make everyday activities into math games. In my carpool, we routinely guess what time we will arrive at school. We have discovered that it generally takes about 11 minutes from Lady Bird Lake to get to school, so if they want to claim the “11-minute guess,” they have to do the math to figure out what time it will be 11 minutes from now. Older kids may really get incentivized by the whole concept of compound interest if you make it worth their while (“If you’ll save some of your allowance, I’ll give you 10% interest, compounded weekly.”) After all, who doesn’t like free money?
  3. Find games and activities that have math components that YOU enjoy, and model that for them. Candy Crush? Pattern recognition. Gardening or building projects require a lot of geometry and measurement. You may not need to add anything new; simply verbalize and acknowledge the mathematical elements in what you are already enjoying and let your kid see your enjoyment.

In addition, there are numerous games, apps, and activities that are specifically geared toward “math fun.” Some of my favorites include:

If you are interested in a way to get some consistent and fun math time in this school year, you can consider joining the Math Pentathlon program, which is offered by many local schools. If your school does not offer a program, feel free to join ours, which starts up September 12. We have a few slots available for kids who are in Kindergarten through 3rd grade. My family has participated 10 times with two wildly different children, and it’s always been a wonderful experience for us. Contact me, Dr. Mandy Menzer, at mmh20cornell@yahoo.com with any questions.

Dr. Mandy Menzer

What is a “wicked” problem?


Wicked Workshop is a maker-based experience that introduces youth to architecture through reality-based projects that tackle "wicked" problems such as inadequate housing and environmental health. The workshops are led by today’s guest contributor, Phyllis Henderson (Fifi), a parent of two with a 20+ year background in architecture, design, teaching, and research focused on the human experience of the built environment and nature.

What is a “wicked” problem?

A wicked problem is one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have one right answer. Environmental degradation, homelessness, and poverty are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they also may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

What are we doing?

We offer a K–12 maker program that introduces decision-making strategies for complex problem solving and critical thinking opportunities that are recognized as vital 21st-century skills necessary to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.  We do this through a straightforward hands-on curriculum that incrementally introduces materials and methods of construction, environmental and climate considerations, and cultures from around the globe. Students achieve global education, civic literacy, and advocacy while practicing adaptability, self-direction, collaboration, and leadership.

How do we do it?

We approach a wicked problem such as inadequate housing by first introducing a house from a particular culture. Students learn about structure, materials, construction, society, culture, environment, geography, and geometry through drawing and making. For example, for the Tatami House, we will visit Japanese culture and wood construction; for the Toltec Clay House we look at clay/mud and straw structures and Central African cultures. Students then apply their knowledge to design and construct their own iteration (or several iterations) that will ultimately be placed within a community setting and address the wicked problem.  This basic structure gives us ample opportunity to explore issues of citizenship and community while maintaining personalization and individual growth.


Why do we do it?

The positive implications and opportunities of the Wicked Workshop are far reaching for education and society. Students learn about partnerships and the value of collaboration as we directly engage community experts who are themselves working on wicked problems.  Students will present their work in a casual gallery setting for friendly constructive critique, suggestions for next steps, and how their ideas translate to real-world civic applications or possible service opportunities.

Will this be too complex for my Kindergartener or too simple for my 12th grader?

Not at all!  This program is designed to be open-ended to support learners at varying levels of maturity. We bring big ideas to a younger audience in a makerspace environment that is friendly and stress-free.  We encourage independent thinking, self-directed learning, exploration, iteration, and creativity.  We ask thinkers to make and makers to think through safe exploration where there are no wrong answers. We layer technical information in a makerspace way—through building, drawing, and talking about our ideas. For example, when we introduce inadequate housing to Kindergarteners (a wicked problem), we might talk about a fallen bird house or a fairy garden without proper water supply. For older students, we might look at the Tiny House Community (Community First! Village) in Austin and explore more complex urban density concepts.


Why such “big problems”?  My child likes crafts and making things but doesn’t want more “school” after school.

Neither do we! We are motivated toward making and tinkering. We will be making models, drawings, books, board games, cities, animal habitats, and more as we explore all aspects of the built environment.  When we find surprises in our research, we will explore them through making. “Big problems” serve as the real-world framework to guide decision-making and introduce the concept of civic responsibility and societal engagement—a role often played by the architect. We’re not planning to solve the world’s problems; however, big problems bring big ideas, and kids are capable of incredible things when given adequate time and space.  The goal of the studio workshop is to encourage each student to develop a process for making decisions (big and small) and to cultivate a level of comfort for giving and accepting criticism in an environment of self-discovery and thoughtful guidance.

Where did the idea for Wicked Workshop come from, and who’s teaching it?

My name is Phyllis Henderson, but I am called by my nickname “Fifi.” I’m a mom to two active girls, an architect, and an educator.  As a mom, I spend a lot of time looking for opportunities for my girls to build self-esteem, independence, and critical thinking skills.  As an educator with a PhD in architectural history and theory, I recognized that Design Thinking was being used outside of professional design practice to help resolve issues in multiple industries, including business and societal sectors.  Design Thinking is a non-linear, strategy-based process for problem solving that tackles issues through empathy and iterative hands-on making. It was developed by Stanford University’s “d” school for people in business, higher education, the public sector, and K–12 education as a process to create real change. As an architect, I practiced this methodology as a direct extension of my traditional university architecture school curriculum and decided to scale that learning experience for a younger audience.

Working with kids on big problems has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, and I am energized by the ideas, dynamism, and joy that kids bring to wicked problems. I’m looking forward to another year of amazing kids who tackle wicked problems!

Phyllis Henderson

Starting school and saying goodbye: Help for children and their grownups

Marie Catrett has been working with children and families for more than 15 years and has been an occasional guest contributor to this blog since 2012. As founder, teacher, and lead “puddle spaloosher” at Tigerlily Preschool in South Austin, she has deftly guided many families through the process of parting ways for the school day. Thanks to Marie for sharing her expert advice with Alt Ed Austins readers just in time for the new school year!

When Dad was taking Jim to school for the first time, Jim said, ‘Will I have a friend at school?’ ‘I think you will,’ said Dad. And Dad smiled down at him.

In the big schoolroom Dad said, ‘Goodbye.’ Jim didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to say goodbye. ‘Come Jim,’ the teacher said.

Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen

Starting school can feel like such a leap of faith for parent and child. If you’re anxious about the transition, let’s take a deep breath together and look at some ways to help. Welcome to preschool!

My teaching year begins with the work of welcoming young children and their families into our school program. Everyone is excited, nervous, and maybe even a little sad thinking about this transition, about saying goodbye. Stepping into a new space is hard work for both the children and the grownups. Everyone new to each other: new school, getting to know and trust a new teacher, navigating a change in morning routine.  All these pieces will become familiar with practice, but in the beginning everything feels so unfamiliar.

 Marie Catrett and Tigerlily Preschool alum Willa

Marie Catrett and Tigerlily Preschool alum Willa

During the week before school begins, children first come with a parent for a one-on-one visit with me in the new space. “Hello,” I say gently, “my name is Marie. It’s so nice to meet you.” I’m a welcoming, gentle presence, letting my energy meet them where they are. “This is a very informal visit,” I explain to the parents. “We really don’t have an agenda at all except to invite the children to start checking things out, to be curious.” I’m eager to see what sort of things these three- and four-year-olds are interested in. Some kids race around touching everything, maybe talking a mile a minute. Another child might perch on the edge of his mom’s lap, taking it all in much more slowly. Either approach—and everything in between—is most welcome. We are saying our first hello to each other.

On the second visit the children come again with their parents in a small group for a playdate-style visit, seeing me and the classroom again, and starting to get to know the other children. We might return to a favorite activity from their first visit, put away some personal items in their cubby, or check out the all-important bathroom. As the children continue to explore, I am checking in with their parents: how are you feeling about goodbye?

Goodbyes will happen on the children’s next trip to Tigerlily, their first day of school. Sometimes separation feels like the hardest thing we’ll do together. Growth sure can feel uncomfortable: all that change, all that new, but when a child works through separation, they build new connections, confidence in themselves, and we should trust in their ability to step out into a supportive and ever expanding world. The same can be true for the grownups. As our child works through the goodbye process, we’re growing as parents, too. Starting school is kind of our first goodbye. We promise a three-year-old we will return, always, and our experience together of separation and coming back becomes a sturdy base for future comings and goings, transitions of all kinds for the rest of our lives.  

Here’s what I know: I expect that at some point in the year every child will go through a period of having some hard goodbyes. Some children have their rough patch right at the start of school. Letting the person you love most go away IS sad. Another child may bounce into the room, barely looking back as their parent tries to be heard: “Goodbye, goodbye? Honey, mama’s leaving now. . . . ” Then in a few weeks or months, boom! a period of some sad goodbyes because sleep has been off, breakfast was too rushed, or it is a gloomy day so staying in bed with pajamas and lovies and pancakes just sounds a whole lot better.

As the teacher I’m ready to support this transition with a lot of love and some very good tools to help us get through the hard work of goodbye and on to the other side of having a wonderful time together.

Some suggestions:

1.     Don’t start too soon.
Try not to process the upcoming start of school too far in advance. The weeks and weeks and weeks of summer are too long for young children to think and worry about an upcoming transition. A few days is just right. I would wait to talk in great detail about school until there has been an actual visit to the new place because then you can talk about specific details, and that’s so helpful and reassuring to young children. “Yes, you have a hook with your name on it for your new backpack, don’t you? And we saw the place you’ll put your lunchbox. I remember how much you liked those swings. . . . ”

2.     Talk to the teacher.
Have a conversation with your child’s teacher about what goodbye will look like with your child. After several getting-to-know-each-other visits, we have some sense of each other, and you can share your best guess of how saying goodbye will go for your child. And you might, happily, be surprised! Do ask: What does support here look like for a child who is having a hard time? I believe that children are fully entitled to feel what they feel. Part of my job is helping a child access ways to express those feelings in appropriate and ultimately helpful ways.

3.     Build a routine.
A goodbye routine is a structured plan that x, y, z, will happen and then it will be time for goodbye. Something like “We’ll get to school, put your lunchbox on the blue shelf, then go out to the swings. Then Dad will get a big hug, say goodbye, and see you right after lunch.” Keep it simple.

4.     Make your routine and stick to it.
Having a dependable sequence of events will help you both navigate the morning. After your child has gone through the routine a few times, it becomes familiar and predictable, two things that really help children with anxiety. I encourage parents to stick with their routine even (and especially!) through a hard goodbye. Your routine can be a kind of guide rope, a path to follow when things feel hard. Give it a few days. It will get better.

When we talk about respecting feelings, that’s pretty easy with the good ones: excitement, joy, curiosity, contentment. But I think it’s essential that the hard stuff get honored too: sadness, fear, anger, worry. All of the feelings—the entire rainbow of them—are okay to feel and express, even the hard ones.

In my room we dance for our joy, singing the names of the people we love: Mama, Papa, Murphy the dog. We talk about what’s going on. If somebody’s angry: I see you’re so mad he crashed your block tower, but I can’t let you hit him. Let’s make some more space to work, and I’ll help you tell him that you don’t want him to crash your tower ever again. If somebody’s sad: You know what, yesterday when you had that sad time before story I remember you and I rocked in the rocking chair together and pretty soon you felt much better, and then you painted about the sunflower. You could have some more rocking today to help yourself feel better.

Here it is okay to feel sad. Sadness is part of being a person. When we can feel our sadness and talk about it, we create a safe place to be who we are, together, and to notice the many options available to us to help get to feeling better. Going through the hard part is what gets you to the better place. We’re learning how to take good care of ourselves and each other and all our other learning happens from there.

Here’s what teacher support during a hard goodbye can look like:

  • Recognize what the child is feeling. “You’re feeling really sad to say goodbye.” 
  • Validation. “Yes, it was hard to say goodbye to Mama this morning. You really miss her, and she loves you so much.”
  • Offer comfort. “I’m here to help, and I promised your grownups I would take very good care of you while you are at school.  May I hold you / read you a story / see about some more pushes on the swing?”  
  • Explain what’s happening, emphasizing the parent’s return. “We’re going to play outside and have some snack, and you know what, Mama will be right back for you after lunch. Mama always comes back.”
  • Help engage the child with activity. “Yesterday you were so busy with digging in the sandbox, shall we go see if the buckets and shovels are out?” 

Speaking on behalf of early childhood teachers everywhere, I want worried parents to know that after you leave a sad kid, they almost always get much better very quickly! Staying on and extending goodbye in the hopes that by doing more things you’ll then be able to depart without tears makes total sense to me in my parental heart, but as the teacher what I see most often is that on a hard morning, when the parent chooses to delay leaving over and over again, the child’s anxiety continues to grow and grow. I ask parents to stay until they are confident in my ability to take care of their child, and then go ahead and say goodbye and leave, knowing that I will be right there to use my very good tools to help. Things are almost always better very quickly, but if they ever should not be—if within a few minutes I am not able to comfort a child and help them to engage in something wonderful—I’m in touch with the parent to check in and consider any adjustments needed to our transition plan. 

So: Deep breaths; things are going to be okay. We are all doing such important growing!

When your child has moved through their hard goodbye period, and separation does in fact go more smoothly, there’s a powerful story we can help them notice about themselves. “You know what, when you first started school everything was new and it was pretty hard to say goodbye, but you got some help and cheering up, and pretty soon we figured out how to do ten pushes on the swing and a great big hug, and now you know I always come back right after lunch.” When we help children to tell the story of their own growth, these messages help them tackle the other hard things. “Pretty soon you knew all about preschool after you did it some. Now you know ALL about it and are ready to graduate, and you know what? Starting kindergarten will be like that.”

Instead of making the goodbye process about avoiding tears, let’s focus on authentic feelings, being present to the child’s experience, and our confidence that children are capable of doing this important work.

Marie Catrett


Does your bright child have dyslexia? Warning signs that this thinking style is not being maximized at school

Guest contributor Deanne Repich is Co-Founder and Head of School at Great Minds Learning Community, a three-day micro-school tailored to the unique needs of gifted and twice-exceptional kids, including bright kids with dyslexia, ADHD/hypermobile, sensory processing challenges, vision challenges, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, chemical sensitivity and allergies, Asperger’s/High Functioning Autism, anxiety, or social difficulties. The micro-school features personalized, differentiated learning; a sensory-friendly environment; key supports for your gifted or 2e child’s unique gifts and challenges; and student-driven, project-based learning in an environment that nurtures the whole child intellectually, emotionally, and socially. An educator for almost two decades with experience in gifted and 2e kids, she is a Positive Discipline in the Classroom certified educator, a member of SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted), and a mom to two twice-exceptional children. You can learn more at greatmindslc.com or contact Deanne directly at deanne@greatmindslc.com.

Your bright child has been diagnosed with dyslexia. Maybe it’s a new diagnosis, or maybe you’ve been dealing with your child’s school’s well-meaning but incomplete accommodations for dyslexia for years and are frustrated.

Dyslexia is a gift and a challenge that affects 1 in 5 people in the U.S. Yes, it’s a challenge. However, it's vitally important to realize that “dyslexia” is merely a label to describe a unique way of processing information that, in addition to its challenges, gives other incredibly important advantages.

Although reading and spelling are areas of difficulty for people with dyslexia, scientific evidence suggests that dyslexics have multiple areas of strength from their thinking style, such as excellent spatial reasoning, narrative reasoning and seeing the big picture, reasoning well in dynamic settings, a strong ability to learn from experience because of how they remember facts as experiences or stories, out-of-the box solutions to problems, empathy, and critical thinking.


Warning Signs

Your child’s school is not maximizing the immense power of his dyslexic thinking style if he is:

  • Losing recess or being excluded from activities because of needing more time to complete homework involving reading
  • Being punished (e.g. having to pick up trash) during recess because of needing more time to complete homework involving reading
  • Missing favorite subjects consistently to be pulled out for specialized reading support
  • Being pigeonholed as either being gifted or having a disability instead of having both needs met
  • Not given the daily opportunity to display learning mastery that reflects his true intellectual potential through strengths-based alternatives to reading, such as through audio, video, or hands-on projects
  • Not given frequent targeted, individualized instruction in an Orton-Gillingham-based system to improve reading and spelling skills
  • Being teased by other kids about his reading level and the administration minimizing your concerns about it
  • Being “tolerated” or “accommodated” for the learning difference instead of the immense gifts of his thinking style being truly celebrated
  • Given support for reading and spelling only, not the many other challenges that typically go along with dyslexia, such as directionality, telling time, organization, social challenges, and so on
  • Called “lazy,” “stubborn,” “uncooperative,” or other negative characteristics, when in fact the learning difference is the main reason behind the “problems”

Looking at famous successful dyslexic role models, such as billionaire Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, physicist Albert Einstein, actress Whoopi Goldberg, writer Agatha Christie, and director Steven Spielberg (and many, many, others), not to mention the 40-60% of self-made millionaires who were diagnosed as dyslexic, shows us that this thinking style is important in our world and can lead to a path of success for your child.


Positive Signs

What does a school that helps your child see and nurture the many gifts of her dyslexic thinking style look like? Like this:

  • No penalties, punishments, or exclusions because of dyslexia. Being included in recess and other fun activities even when she needs more time to complete projects involving reading
  • Teachers addressing and nurturing both her intellectual gifts and the lagging skills due to dyslexia effectively
  • Mastery shown in a format that matches his strengths (e.g. oral or project-based demonstration of mastery) while encouraging growth in areas of lagging skills
  • Regular targeted, individualized instruction in an Orton-Gillingham-based system to improve reading and spelling skills
  • School culture that celebrates (not just tolerates) her unique gifts and strengths coming from her thinking style
  • Guided support for non-reading ways that dyslexia presents challenges (organization, reading maps, social difficulties, difficulty keeping to a schedule, etc.)
  • Passion-based learning support for lagging skills. This means getting to know what makes your child tick and using passions as a doorway to developing lagging skills, through “just-right” challenges
  • Support for uneven learning in different subjects and skills, understanding that kids, especially very bright learners, have uneven development across subjects and skills
  • Learning with peers with similar thinking styles. You’d be amazed how quickly your child’s self-esteem soars when she is in a room with several other bright, dyslexic kids with whom she can relate
  • Teachers that understand learning differences and know that your child is not lazy, stubborn, or other negative characteristics, that respect your child and provide nurturing and guided support

If your child’s school experience looks more like the Warning Signs I described, it’s time to work with your child’s school toward substantial positive change. If that doesn’t work, it might be time to consider switching to a school that will help him realize his full potential and find success through the powerful gifts of his unique thinking style.

After all, most of us gravitate toward our strengths and find success and fulfillment there in life, both professionally and personally, and your child is no different. It is time well-invested to help your child leverage her strengths, and her dyslexic thinking style is a huge one.

Deanne Repich

Welcoming the directions and elements with children


Tracy Schagen is the owner and director of The Greenwood School, a Pagan-inspired preschool in Southwest Austin. Tracy enjoys creating nature-based curriculum for children and building community for their families and friends. Sage Holli Bara, who wrote the song on which Tracy’s guest post below is based, co-founded The Greenwood School with Tracy in 2001. Sage is a certified Music Together instructor and enjoys teaching music in and around Austin.

Each morning at The Greenwood School, in Austin, Texas, we welcome the directions and the elements with a song. As we sing the beautiful tune, we turn our circle to face first north, then east, then south, and finally west, appreciating each direction for its contribution. During each of our eight festivals, our morning greeting to the four directions is embellished by four mini-cauldrons. Each cauldron contains a representation of the element associated with its direction. We place the cauldrons just outside our circle, creating a compass rose around us. For north, our cauldron contains a bit of rich soil from the school garden. For east, a small piece of dry ice transforms into white vapor floating away on the morning breeze. The cauldron on the south contains a dancing flame, easily created by lighting a small amount of alcohol. Our cauldron on the west contains a pool of cool spring water. The Greenwood School’s large Hill Country playground offers ample opportunities for children to connect these symbols to processes and cycles of nature.

music for directions LW-2.jpg

This circle song has been offered to us by Sage Holli Bara, a former administrator and current music teacher at The Greenwood School. The song welcomes the four directions and acknowledges the gifts of the elements.

C          F     F   A  G    F         C      D     F  D    C
Good morning to the north, your earth is so strong.

C          F     F   A  G    F         C      D     F  D    C
Good morning to the east, your winds bring us song.

C          F     F   A  G    F         C      D     F  D    C
Good morning to the south, you warm us each day.

C          F     F   A  G    F     A   A     G  F    F      E     G F
Good morning to the west, on your waters we float away.

“Good morning to the north, your earth is so strong.”

The strength of the earth is quite easy to demonstrate in Central Texas since we must bust rocks for hours to plant a tree on our playground. The children love to move soil, sand, and rocks. They labor daily, pushing and pulling against the strength of the earth. Their efforts are rewarded as their bodies grow strong and their castles grow high.

Gnome Mosaic LW_375.jpg

Gnomes are the elemental mascot of The Greenwood School, so the children are very familiar with the image of a garden gnome carrying a bundle of flowers. Our gardens are ornate, with gnome statues that come alive in the imagination. From the window we see children stop with their parents to admire the garden gnomes as they come and go along the path. We have one child that respectfully addresses each individual gnome as he passes. His father patiently waits until the child’s ritual is complete. While gnomes work with the soil, rocks, and crystals, dwarves dig beneath the surface, and giants wander above it.

The earth elementals are all continually healing the land, so that we may continue to live on it. Near the end of summer, we use the tale of The Three Billy Goats Gruff to inspire strength and courage during life transitions. The presence of the troll forces each “kid” to find his own inner strength before crossing to the green meadow. The children act out the story on our own garden bridge, choosing and changing roles tentatively at first, but over time, every child becomes bold when confronted by the grumpy troll. Every year, a particular child will want to be the troll again and again. This is often a child with self-esteem challenges. Dramatically playing an elemental role can be a magical and transformative experience.

“Good morning to the east, your winds bring us song.”

drumming the wind LW.jpg

I was playing a hand drum one day and took advantage of the children’s curiosity about the drum. I was able to bring to life the line in the song that says “your winds bring us song.” After striking the drum, I waved it left and right in the air to cause the air to reverberate around the children. They were so close that they could feel the air moving in sync with the sound. It was amazing. They literally felt the sound of air moving. I extended the learning to voice and challenged the boys and girls to take a deep breath of air and hold a note with me until they ran out of air and had to breathe in again. Then I demonstrated the concept with a balloon, allowing air to escape the pinched-off balloon, squealing loudly and then tapering off to a deeper sound and sputtering into silence. Zephyrs are elementals of the wind, so we enjoy them whenever they come to visit. When a windy day presents itself, we quickly help the children tie streamers to sticks. Like zephyrs, the children enjoy dancing in the wind with the colorful streamers.

“Good morning to the south, you warm us each day.”

We welcome fire into our experience as often as safely possible. We all know that children love dragons. The great dragons purge and cleanse with fire—leaving only truth and purity behind. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is one of our favorite songs. Puff is a story of friendship and change. It is a story about growing up. The element of fire helps children understand that growing up comes with responsibility and privilege. Children who desire the privilege of “playing with fire” must commit to learning safe practices. The privilege must be earned. Knowledgeable adults can raise safe, responsible, and capable children who will enjoy camp fires, fireworks, toasting marshmallows, and many other fun traditions around this element.

Jack-o-flame LW.jpg

After a windy storm, the children collect fallen sticks and branches and place them on the brush pile. These gifts from the Zephyrs accumulate as the children build anticipation for the solstice bonfire. We set the pile aflame in the evening at solstice time. Since our school is rural, we are also free to demonstrate the safe use of firecrackers. Some children prefer to watch from indoors, peering excitedly through the window. Over time, they usually develop tolerance for the noise and join the group outdoors. I have found that the little poppers are the most fun for children because they can hold them and pop them on their own.

I find teaching children about fire to be the most fun and exciting part of my work with elements. One of my favorites is the Jack-O-Flame we make for our Samhain Festival (Halloween). Once the Samhain festival was forced indoors by storms, and we watched from a window, as our Jack-O-Flame burned wildly in the pouring rain to the soundtrack of booming thunder. It is a beautiful thing when the elements teach children about compromise, contrast, and alignment.

“Good morning to the west, on your waters we float away.”

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Since many Texas families vacation on our Hill Country lakes and along the Gulf Coast, we bring lots of boats and sea shore images to our stories and songs. The imagination of the child floats away as he explores the element water. This delightfully cooling element becomes an obsession in the Texas summer heat. Getting wet is the only way to escape the suffocating damp air. Water is lifting to our spirits. Water loves to play. Who can resist the guessing game “Will it sink or will it float”? Water will play this game with you endlessly.

The water elementals, the undines, enjoy frolicking in our fountain in front of our school. The fountain and stone statue are protected by gnomes and watched over by flower fairies. Several varieties of birds, including hummers and wrens, come and visit the fountain every day and pay their respects to the undines. Children beg to hold the water hose that replenishes the vanishing water. While we fill the fountain bowl, I share stories of how the fence lizards breathe fire at the water to make it rise up and become the clouds that bring rain.

“Below, above, we gather together, we share our love.”

This reference to the element spirit reminds us that we are connected, sharing energetic unity in this life. The elementals exist all around us, above and below, in nature and in cities everywhere.

Tracy Schagen

Walk and talk with your family in the free Marathon Kids summer challenge!

Heidi Gollub is familiar to many Alt Ed Austin readers as the founder and former editor-in-chief of Free Fun in Austin, the award-winning family website. Now Heidi has joined the Marathon Kids team, and she stopped by the blog to let us know about a cool summer program for building both connection and physical fitness with your kids.

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Hey, summer is a great time to connect with your kids! The days are longer, shadows shorter, and all of you have a chance to decompress from school and take a break. It’s the perfect opportunity to be with your family in new environments and in unique ways that you haven’t explored during the school year.

One way to get your kids talking is through exercise, and this summer Marathon Kids is helping families facilitate that through their FREE summer Walk and Talk challenge.

In schools all over the country, teachers are using social-emotional learning (SEL) tools to help raise kinder, more empathetic, more positive kids with fewer instances of depression and stress. SEL can improve achievement, and it also increases positive behaviors such as kindness, sharing, and empathy and improves attitudes toward school.

Marathon Kids Walk and Talk program, which is partnering with the TODAY Parenting team to reach more families, was created with that SEL connection in mind. The program is absolutely FREE and will help keep your kids active and engaged with you all summer!

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When parents register online, they’ll receive a link to two resources:

  • a set of conversation topics created by family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa (each topic—26 in all—matches up with a mile of walking or running)
  • a special mileage log to track your progress

After 26(.2) miles, parent and child will have completed the equivalent of a full marathon and will have gotten to know each other a little better in the process.

The topics cover a broad range, from health, education, and friendship up through knock-knock jokes and dreams of travel. Dr. Gilboa wrote starter questions for each topic, which are appropriate for the youngest child all the way into the college years.

All are welcome to register for free here: MarathonKids.org/WalkandTalk

Heidi Gollub