Toy-Free Kindergarten project

At some German kindergartens, the teachers take away all the kids’ toys for as long as three months–not to be cruel, but to help the children build resilience against future addiction, all without mentioning drugs at all. Read more about how it works on The


The Toy-Free Kindergarten

The program is based on the idea that habit-forming behaviors start in childhood.

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Teaching Children to Play with Fire

On a recent article in the New York Times , I highlighted a German fire safety training program that aims to keep kids safe by teaching them how to make fire–not to stay away from it. Check it out here


Kain Karawahn



Here’s a bit of Kain Karawahn’s fire training for kindergartners in action: (in German) The fire lesson really gets going about 1:35 in…


See more video at Karawahn’s youtube channel. And more images at the website  Mitfeuerspielen (that’s ‘playing with fire’ in German)

For more on the long human history with fire, read Professor Daniel Fessler’s paper: Burning Desire: Steps toward an Evolutionary Psychology of Fire Learning (PDF)

What do you think?

Does the American fire-prohibition approach of “learn not to burn” work to keep kids safe? Or should we try the German fire training method and teach kids how to make fire safely? 




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Simple ways to give kids more free play

children_playingAt this point, every parent in America has probably heard how important free play is for their kids. If you haven’t, there’s this article and this article and this article  just to name a few. We know that children need to explore, run, climb, build, make up games, take risks, and generally interact with other children so they can develop normally and avoid becoming 30-year-old unemployed basement dwellers.

We got it! Free play is critical. But the question is how do we give it to them? Especially when our parenting culture and our schools put up huge barriers to play–from longer school days and piles of homework to over-scheduled friends and playgrounds so safe they’re boring.

I’ve been grappling with this problem ever since moving back to the US from Germany, a country that highly values children’s free play, and I have several simple strategies that might help other American parents:

Turn your backyard into a junkyard. If there are no great playgrounds or wild spaces in
your neighborhood, you can make one of your very own, on the cheap–as long as you can tolerate some mess. You may have read how a Silicon Valley father turned his yard into a junkyardplayground. It’s quite amazing—and must have cost a bundle. This is the low-rent
version. The fanciest things we have are a tire-swing and a make-shift zipline made of sailboat halyard and a pulley. Everything else is junk: boxes and boards to build forts, old plastic bottles to make “potions” in,  sticks to make swords and bows, old buckets and rocks to “bowl” with. A neighbor kid visiting our house once declared “Everything in your backyard is broken!” It was a fair assessment, but I also couldn’t help but notice how much he enjoyed playing there.

Embrace big institutional “after-school care.” It’s where all the playing is happening these days. Most schools have killed recess, and I’ve yet to find a neighborhood that still has big groups of kids playing outside. After-school care, especially if it has a lot of kids enrolled and a big play area, is about the best chance kids have to play with other kids today. If you’re a family with two-full-time working parents and have to do this, lose the guilt—you’re doing your child some good by enrolling them in aftercare. If you don’t need after-school care, consider doing it anyway, not for your sake but for theirs.

Start an “unscheduled day” at your school or neighborhood park. I’m stealing this one from free-range kid founder Lenore Skenazy, but it’s a brilliant idea. Declare that your kids will be at the park for a few hours on the same day, every week. Get a few other families to commit and spread the word. Bring some sport things, fort-building materials, or just let the kids figure out what to do together. They’re actually quite good at it.

Remove distractions to play: Don’t over-schedule children with organized sports, oboe lessons, and Mandarin classes. These things are great in moderation, but not when they consume all their extra hours. Speaking of, rebel against homework—especially in the lower grades. No one has proven that homework in first and second grade helps anyone. As a parent you can just say ‘no.’ You have that power. Limit screen time—tablets, video games, and TV are addictive for children (and adults too)—I’m not a fan of an outright ban, but screens are like entertainment-candy, great treats for special times, but not good for constant, regular consumption.

kids_making_snowmanDon’t let the weather stop you: Wet muddy yards can be fun, and snow has got to be one of the best toys nature ever made. I realize right now I’m blogging in February from the comfort of California, but I grew up in Buffalo, New York so I know what I’m talking about. My mother often turned off the TV pointed at the snowsuits and told me to get outside. So invest in some winter wear and in a good pair of rain-pants and boots– as the Germans say “There is no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothing.”

You can read more about what I learned from German parents in this article (PDF) from The Times and this article from Stay tuned as well for my book, Achtung Baby! to be released in early 2018.

Photo credits:
Top: Children playing by David Robert Bliwas
Bottom right: Kids making snowman by Homayon Zeary

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Dear America, Please Don’t Kill Halloween


Halloween is about the best thing about American childhood that our helicopter culture has been unable to ruin–yet. Despite our constant control of our children, on Halloween they can run around freely, sometimes even without their parents, and ask strangers for candy!

It’s a holiday all about facing fear: fear of the dark, fear of having to knock on someone’s door, the irrational fear of witches, ghosts, and demons running through the night… If you take the metaphor far enough, Halloween is about facing our fear of death–and all the gruesomeness attended with it.

Halloween laughs at fear, at death itself. We come out of the other side of the Haunted House exhilarated and alive. Children come home from a night of battling terror with a big old bag of candy as a reward.

Halloween is an emotional learning experience wrapped in chocolate joy. It should be defended and preserved not killed off by a bunch of ninnies worried about creepy clowns.

So let’s talk about the clowns. My daughter came home the other day and said kids told her clowns are luring children into the woods and killing them. This is not patently not true—but too many adults have bought into this urban legend/internet hoax and given it even more power. I recently got a message blast from the school district superintendent herself telling parents to watch out for clowns! (none have een been spotted in our area.)

Now, our elementary school says the kids cannot wear clown costumes—even though it’s Halloween and the children are in elementary school. Clowns are funny and scary. They are perfect Halloween costumes for the under 12 crowd. Even better that there are these rumors running around, let the children face that fear–and laugh at it.

As reasonable adults, we should know better than to give credence to fears that have no basis in reality.

When I was a kid, the threat to Halloween was razor blades and poison in candy. These threats turned out to have little actual truth to them, but ever since then no one can give out any homemade goodies. That changed the neighborhood feel of Halloween forever. Suddenly all our neighbors were suspect: they could all be out to maim children! To this day, people still don’t hand out anything but pre-packaged candy, and some hospitals even offer free x-rays of that.

If the clown scare follows the same illogical pattern, the fear-control-freaks will start limiting what kids can wear for Halloween. (I mean forget clowns! Have you noticed that many kids dress like murderers from the movies? Complete with fake chainsaws and bloody knives!) Let’s not turn all costume wearers into would-be child-murderers.

Some time ago, a couple I knew who were new parents wore beanies on their head and carried around their baby at a Halloween parents—they were dressed as helicopter parents. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant costume. But I should have been afraid. After all, they were dressed as the biggest threat to Halloween.

Frown Clown

 Photos creative commons license; top: anjanettew. Bottom: Shawn Campbell
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Why we should be more German


I love my country, but I have to admit I miss Germany. I lived there for six years. I’ve been back in California for six months, but all the sunshine and American friendliness didn’t quite make-up for Christmastime in Germany: drinking warm mulled wine outside, the smell of an open grill cooking real bratwurst—made from pork, not those bland, beef tubes we call hot dogs.

Lately, Germany has made it especially hard for me to enjoy being home. Mainly because Germany keeps showing up the U.S. The latest blow? U.S. News Word and Report ranked the country #1 in the world. The U.S. came in 4th.

That’s right, in a strange twist of history, Germany is now the nation to follow, not America. U.S. News even said most people thought Germany was better for entrepreneurship! What? That’s supposed to be our thing.

Here are several other ways Americans could be more German:

1. Vacation and work: the stereotype is that Germans work hard. They do. They also take six * weeks of vacation a year. Everyone does from the CEOs down to the garbagemen. Yet somehow the country still functions. How many weeks do you get? Maybe we Americans can afford to take a few more weeks off.

2. Family support: Germany provides affordable childcare and after-school care on a sliding scale, according to income. Berlin, where I lived, recently made all early childcare/pre-school free for everyone (article here in German). Oh, and there’s three years of maternity and paternity leave, with partial pay! Yet, the German economy still functions. Clearly, we could add a few months of paid parental leave and a year or two of subsidized preschool without breaking America’s bank.

3. Immigration: Yes, there’s been some trouble in Germany over this, but still, the majority of Germans remain welcoming to refugees—nearly a million of whom arrived in 2015. America offered to take in 10,000 Syrians, and people are still screaming about it. According to NYT columnist Roger Cohen, Germany is the new “can-do” nation.

Just read what Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the Germany’s center-right party and Time’s person of the year, had to say about immigration earlier this year:

“There is no question that the influx of so many people will still demand more from us. It will take time, effort and money—especially when it comes to the very important task of integrating those who will be remaining here permanently.

Here we want to, and must, learn from the mistakes of the past. Our values, our traditions, our understanding of the law, our language, our rules and regulations — all of these things undergird our society and are the fundamental requirements for the positive and mutually respectful coexistence of all the people in our country. This applies to everyone who wants to live here. Successful immigration, however, benefits a country — economically as well as socially.” (translation from the New York Times)

Can you imagine a center-right politician in the U.S. saying such a thing? (Do we have a center-right politician?) America is a nation of immigrants, and it should act more like one–or in this case more like Germany.

4. National identity: Germans don’t wave the flag much, except when the World Cup is on (which, by the way, they won). Blind nationalism is viewed with suspicion, and check out what Merkel said about that: “It is important, not to follow those who, with coldness or even hate in their hearts, want to claim Germanness solely for themselves and exclude others.”

We should make the same argument about American-ness, especially because again we are a nation of immigrants. We would do well to learn more about our own history. Speaking of…

5. History: Germans have learned from theirs. They have many museums, years of school curriculum, art works, monuments, even “stumble stones” paved into the very sidewalks to remind them of the horrible mistakes of the World War II. Maybe the U.S. should think about some memorials to the Trail of Tears or slavery. The national mall would be a good place to remember such things just as the Holocaust and the abuses of the Stasi are remembered in the German capital of Berlin.

6. Freedom: The Germans raise their kids to be independent, free-thinking, and self-reliant. They let their elementary-age kids walk to school, play in parks, buy things in stores, all without constant adult supervision. They also give them more responsibility—not just in the ability to move around but intellectually.

We should really try this out. I’ve written about this key difference before here and here, and I’m working on a whole book about the topic, stay tuned for more…

America has got a lot going for it: a robust economy, a culture of openness–and one of strengths is that in the U.S., there is always an opportunity to remake yourself. I think we should take that opportunity on a culture-wide basis and become a little more German.

But we have to face it: Germany is doing many things better than us–not just the sausage. (Though I do have to say that it really is much, much better. Are you listening American butchers? Skip the beef, try smoked pork!)


*Corrected 9/16/16. Note: 20 days (4 weeks) of vacation are mandated by law but many Germans now have six weeks to go  on holiday (an earlier version had it incorrectly at 5 weeks).


Bundestag courtesy of Herman on Flickr 

Christmas market bratwurst grill photo courtesy of Shrinkn Violet on Flickr

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Save the soil to save the Earth

A Q & A with Ronald Amundson

I recently had the privilege of interviewing soil scientist Ronald Amundson for Aeon magazine. Here’s a sample below. You can read the whole thing at this link.

dirtsm“Ronald Amundson is professor of environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, and dirt is his life’s work. He grew up on a farm in South Dakota and credits a great high‑school teacher for inspiring him to look at the more ‘intellectual aspects of soil’. Since then, Amundson has gone on to study the desert-like soils on Mars as well as the life-supporting soils on Earth. He was recently the lead author on a paper about the state of the world’s soils. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Aeon asked Amundson how we can address the current problems with our soil – or whether we should start looking at the desolate surface of Mars as our future.

Why should we be so worried about the state of our planet’s soil?

Amundson: We had 10,000 years when we could make mistakes that would ruin the soil, cause erosion or ecological degradation, and people could move on to new places. Now we’ve essentially filled up the globe. We’ve exploited about all of the soils left that are applicable to agriculture. So we are at a point where we can’t make mistakes any more.”

Read more….

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Germans extend tech help to refugees

If you are looking for good news about the refugee crisis, you can’t do much better than a story about ordinary people using their skills to help others.  I particularly enjoyed working on this article for and talking to the people involved in the Refugee Hackathon and at Refugees Online. If you’d like to help, please visit their sites to find out more.


As more refugees reach Germany, here’s how its tech community has responded

by Sara Zaske on, 11/20/15

refugeesmIn the fallout from the Paris attacks, the longer-running controversy over refugees has taken on a new significance. But the fact remains that this summer, Germans surprised the world by opening their borders to a wave of asylum seekers.

Now, with more than 800,000 having already arrived, the country’s IT community is getting down to the practical issues of devising ways to help refugees through technology… (Read full story on

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