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Kids’ books that take the SCARY out of science

A version of this story first appeared in The Last Word on Nothing.

As the parent of a 3-year-old, I spend a lot of time reading kids’ books. Some are wonderful, a lot are so-so, and a few are so frigging annoying that -- I confess -- I hide them. As a science writer, I always expect to like science-themed books -- this is my kind of brainwashing, I think -- but lately, I’ve even packed a few of them off to the thrift store.

In uncharitable moments, I might gripe about these books’ bad artwork or mixed meters. But my real problem is with the way they present science. According to them, science is not, as my colleagues and I humbly remind you, The Last Word on Nothing. It’s an intimidating institution filled with intimidating grownups, all of whom have The Last Word on Pretty Much Everything. “Putting a dinosaur skeleton together takes hard work -- and lots of special knowledge and skill,” one book intones.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up living in a world that looks like this -- and that is a truly scary prospect.

I was well into an undergraduate biology major before I grasped that science is not a pile of interesting facts, but a process -- not the only way to learn about the world, but a very powerful one. I’d like my daughter to arrive at that realization a little sooner than I did. I’d also like her to know that she doesn’t need a Ph.D. to start thinking like a scientist.

Yes, in the official world of science, credentials do count, and in most cases they should. But kids should know that anyone can make observations, form hypotheses, and figure out how to test them. Anyone can have a eureka moment. Anyone can go on a voyage of discovery, even if it begins and ends in the town park.

I’ve started to think that the best books for budding scientists don’t lecture, teach, or even talk much about science. Instead, they find other ways to celebrate the crooked, fascinating path that is the scientific life. Below are a half dozen that get unanimous approval in my household.


Birth control still one of Obama’s best environmental policies

The Obama administration is expected to propose a birth-control compromise today for Catholic-run institutions that don't want to pay for their employees to avoid pregnancy. New federal rules guarantee free contraception coverage, but a narrow exception already exists for Catholic churches that don't believe in not having babies. The compromise would still allow women to access contraception but would not make objecting employers pay for it directly.

Update: Here's a fact sheet with details about the compromise. The upshot: Religious employers aren't required to pay for birth control, but if they don't cover it, the woman's insurance company has to shoulder the whole cost.

Even with the compromise, the administration's contraception policy ranks pretty high on the list of green initiatives it's undertaken. It's not usually labelled as an environmental policy, but babies use a lot of stuff! And then they grow up and use even more.

That said, hormone-based birth control may be less eco-friendly than plain old condoms (even allowing for the fact that you never see ortho-tricyclen strewn on the ground in parks).

Read more: Family


Look, Dad! No hands! The travails of teaching kids to bike in the city

The author's son Dean shows off his skills near their home in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Joel Gwadz.)

Mark Twain once wrote, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

This is true. Riding a bike is potentially dangerous, particularly in this era of turbo powered autos and text messaging. But if you don’t tangle with the cars, biking is an enriching activity that is not only fun but also good for your health, and in my years as an urban cyclist, I have come to understand the dangers, and avoid them.

Still, I can get anxious about these dangers when riding with my kids. Even as an “alterna-dad,” I still have some qualities of a modern helicopter parent. My wife and I micromanage every second for our sons Dean and Grant, who are 10 and 7 years old, from coaching them on each spoonful of cereal in the morning to an overly involved tuck-in routine at bedtime.

Our family lives in a historic neighborhood of 100-year-old row houses in Washington, D.C., less than two miles from the White House and within earshot of the tiger’s roar at the National Zoo. Quaint as our neighborhood is, our kids do not cross the street without us holding their hands. They do not ride the bus, take the subway, or even walk to the corner store without us.

So it is no shock that our kids do not ride their bikes around the city without us by their side. As we ride I issue instructions with each push of the pedals and each turn of the handlebars. It is like I am the puppet master, controlling my bicycle riding marionettes. I instruct my boys to avoid each obstacle and every potentially dangerous encounter as we roll. But I want to teach my kids how to navigate the urban labyrinth without a parent hovering over them.

Here are some rules I’ve set in an effort to keep my boys safe:

Read more: Biking, Family


New Agtivist: Adam Berman, faith-based urban farmer

Adam Berman at his Berkeley farm.

Urban Adamah, a one-acre urban farm on a vacant lot in a gritty stretch of Berkeley, has transformed an area better known for liquor stores and light industry into a thriving community gathering space and food hub.

Adam Berman founded the farm in the summer of 2010 with just such lofty goals. Urban Adamah (for the Hebrew word for "earth") offers a fellowship program for young adults, dubbed The Jewish Sustainability Corps, that integrates organic farming, social justice outreach, leadership training, environmental education, and progressive Jewish spiritual practice. There's yoga, meditation, and singing too.

Berman, who directed a Jewish retreat center where he founded a similar fellowship in Connecticut before relocating to Berkeley, got a lucky break when landowner Wareham Development agreed to host the farm rent-free for two years. Hence, the portable feel to the project: The farm has dozens of raised, movable produce pallets, greenhouses, a cob oven, chicken coops on wheels, and large tents that serve as classrooms. Everything on the property could be transported with relative ease, if a new location proves necessary. Raised beds filled with fresh, organic soil also solves the problem of contaminated soil on the property, a former printing press site.


Your stroller wheels, on the bus

The author and her son, strolling happily -- just not onto the bus. (Photo by Alyse Nelson.)

Cross-posted from Sightline Daily.

I recall vividly how embarrassed I felt the first time I climbed on the bus with my baby boy. We’d waited expectantly -- he bundled up in his stroller and me imagining the bus driver welcoming us aboard, lowering the wheelchair lift so we could roll on in style. In the stores and sidewalks of my neighborhood, people made way for us, slowing so we could pass on a congested sidewalk or holding doors open while we rolled into a shop.

But when the bus arrived, instead of lowering the lift, the driver told me to fold Orion’s stroller. My cheeks burned red as I hastily unpacked -- diaper bag, toys, blanket, and groceries -- while holding onto my squirming bundle of joy. Then, with one hand, I attempted to fold the stroller and carry the load aboard, knowing that everyone was watching me, passengers cursing under their breaths and the driver reviewing his timetable.

Read more: Family, Transportation


Merry Bikesmas: A 1970s Schwinn livens up a family holiday

Photo: Joe Penniston This year, as we have in years past, my wife and I packed up the kids and flew across the country to spend the holidays with her family in suburban Baltimore. Christmas at the Thomas house is always a festive affair: crab soup, wine by the bottleful, quality time with grandma and grandpa and sundry cousins. And for my benefit, they keep the Barry Manilow Christmas tunes to a minimum. (Sincere thanks for that, guys.) There's just one problem: Put me in the 'burbs for more than about 48 hours and I go completely batshit. I'm not …


What can trick-or-treaters tell you about the health of your neighborhood?

When my brother and I were little, around this time of year we loved to watch The Halloween Tree, an animated feature based on a Ray Bradbury book of the same name. The movie opens with Bradbury himself narrating: It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around that you couldn't see the town. On the other hand, there wasn't so much town around that you couldn't see and feel and touch the wilderness. The town was full of fences to …

Read more: Cities, Family, Living


Mom could be arrested for letting her kid bike to school

There are a few factors that make it tricky for kids to bike or walk alone: Bad drivers who face insufficient consequences, lack of sidewalks and protected bike lanes, too few crosswalks. We COULD improve biking and walking infrastructure, and have cops actually crack down on illegal driving maneuvers. But that's hard! Instead, let's just arrest everybody who doesn't drive their kids to school. That appears to be the approach in Elizabethton, Tenn., where Teresa Tryon has been threatened with arrest if she keeps letting her daughter bike to school on her own. Tryon lives only a mile from her 5th-grader's …

Read more: Biking, Cities, Family


Danish-style driving at Legoland California

Learning the rules of the road at Legoland.Photo: Sarah Goodyear When I was a kid, the first amusement park I ever went to was Disneyland. One of my favorite attractions was Autopia -- the race-track style driving course where you "steer" a car along a track that looks suspiciously like an interstate highway. (Sponsored by Chevron!) Well, last weekend I went to Legoland California with my 9-year-old son, and I discovered just how differently the Danes (they're the ones who invented Lego) see driving. The driving attraction at Legoland is an urban streetscape in which the kids are actually in …


Transportation and social justice: The sentence is in on the Raquel Nelson case

Raquel NelsonCould the Raquel Nelson case be a turning point in the way pedestrian rights are seen in this country? I write this shortly after the sentencing in Nelson's case. In case you haven't heard of her, Nelson is the Atlanta-area single mother who was convicted of vehicular homicide after her 4-year-old son was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver who later admitted to drinking and being on painkillers. Nelson and her three children, ages 9, 4, and 2, were trying to get from a bus stop to their apartment complex directly across a busy road, and there was …