Head Games

21 ways to turn your kid into a brainiac without really trying

by Gary Drevitch

(C) 2005 Time Out New York Kids

Time Out New York Kids Sept.-Oct. 2005


Up, Up, and Away

Kids who look up in awe every time a plane flies overhead are probably ready to turn that curiosity into a learning experience. Thanks to the volunteer pilots of the EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT ASSOCIATION'S YOUNG EAGLES program (Harrison Ford is the chairman), kids ages 8 to 17 can climb into the cockpit on free small-plane flights and have their first taste of aviation education. Scarsdale aviator Hank Grudberg, who flies out of Westchester County Airport in White Plains, gives kids and parents an airport tour and a primer on aircraft safety before taking off with them for a ten-minute flight to the Tappan Zee Bridge and back. In the air, every child takes a turn in the copilot’s seat to get the feel of the controls. One ten-year-old from the Bronx mimicked Grudberg’s motions so well as he executed various turning maneuvers that the pilot had to ask, "Have you ever flown a small airplane?" "Yeah," the kid said, "I have 500 hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator."

-- Gary Drevitch

Contact EAA (877-806-8902) or e-mail youngeagles@eaa.org to schedule a trip.


I, Robot

Robotics positions itself as the chess of the 21st century

A decade ago, the big news in the extracurricular world was chess, a game whose touted benefits included improved concentration, memory, logic, analytical skills, and a sense of independence. Today, the news is robotics: teachers and parents recognize the value of an activity that involves math, art, science, design, engineering, computer programming and problem-solving. Kids, meanwhile, recognize the pure fun of taking a pile of gears and wires and Legos and turning them into a robot that can send a soccer ball sailing across a table into a goal.

Having established itself in the past couple of years as a staple in several of the city's afterschool programs, robotics is set to land on even more activity menus this fall. the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE (www.usfirst.org), in which teams of middle-school kids enter their robots in competition, will boast participants from 150 area schools. "We have so many success stories," says New York FLL senior mentor John Park. "Kids become accomplished in robotics, and then they set new goals for themselves."

For those just getting started, ROBOT VILLAGE, an Upper West Side robotics store as inviting as Dad’s basement workshop, offers classes for kids ages 3 to 12. "A lot of parents specifically tell us they want kids to create robots from scratch," owner David Greenbaum says. The results can be seen in the motley mix of mechanical characters scattered around the workshop, including teams of soccer-playing bots. "When you have a lot of screaming eight-year-olds battling with them, it gets pretty loud in here," Greenbaum says with pride.

Robot Village also grooms kids to teach peers One member of Greenbaum’s faculty is a 14-year-old alum of his classes, and Greenbaum hopes more former students will take on teaching roles. "If a ten-year-old knows something about robotics that they can teach to a six-year-old, why shouldn’t they do it?" he says.

Kids helping kids is a natural outcome of city robotics classes that mix ages. At VISION EDUCATION AND MEDIA in Gramercy, it’s not unusual for sibs to work side-by-side, says coordinator John Kratz, who leads RoboFun classes year-round. All of Kratz’s classes use the Lego Mindstorms robotics system because, he says, "The Legos engage the kids and take away their initial fear. Then they can take it to different levels with computer programming, setting goals for themselves and reaching them through hands-on experimentation."

Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène, director of HI ART! in Chelsea, says that robotics fits right in with her program's more traditional mix of opera, dance and painting classes. "We’re interested in where the kind of choices you make in art coincide with the ones you make in robotics," she says. HiArt! will offer a new ten-week robotics class this winter, and stereotypes to the contrary, girls (who can and do love to engineer robots) will be there.

The educational lineup at THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY also features robotics, with school-vacation workshops planned for 2005-06. "Robotics is an ideal way for us to highlight the direction that the sciences are taking, and for young people to develop an appreciation for the applications of mathematics and engineering," says director of public programs Elaine Charnov. "It’s also a whole lot of fun."

-- Gary Drevitch

* Robot Village, 252 W 81st St (212-799-7626).

* Vision Education, 38 E 23rd St (212-245-0444; www.vemny.org).

* HiArt!, 601 W 26th St (212-362-8190; www.hiartkids.com).

* American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St (212-769-5100; www.amnh.org).


Teen People

At three city venues, big kids take on little kids' questions

My son’s inaugural visit to the NEW YORK HALL OF SCIENCE was a memorable one: He learned how astronauts live in space, launched foam rockets and he tested his throwing arm with a radar gun. At the end of the day, he paid the museum his highest compliment: He asked to have his fifth birthday party there. And no wonder. The Hall of Science’s teenage "explainers" had facilitated each of our experiences that day.

Museums across the city have learned the value of hiring teens to guide younger children through their exhibits. The reason is simple, says Hall of Science director Alan Friedman: Little kids like big kids.

According to Friedman, children do their best learning by asking, so Hall of Science explainer Michelle Rivera, 20, a biology major at Queens College, says her mission is to show kids "the cool parts" of exhibits and initiate discussions. "They ask us questions," she says, "and then we ask them questions to see if they understand."

The teen guides in the WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART’s Youth Insights program spend time investigating the work on view so they can lead children – and other teens – on exhibition tours that the museum prefers to call "dialogues," because everyone is encouraged to speak frankly, and no artworks are sacred. Victoria Bryant, 18, of Crown Heights, a Bryn Mawr freshman who spent two high-school years with Youth Insights, recalls, "We were worried about whether we could talk to younger children on the same level as other teens, but they really got into it, and they are so much more candid than other people." Kids are most likely to meet Youth Insights participants during Whitney Family Fun mornings – gallery tours and workshops that take place on alternate Saturdays.

The AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY is deploying youth guides this fall exclusively in the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Rachel Connolly, manager of astrophysics education, says the space center attracts children, but is not very hands-on. So, to get kids excited, teens take to the floor with interactive activity carts about light, telescopes and planets. "Children relate to high-school kids and look up to them," she says. "They have to be dragged away." Saman Hasan, a Stuyvesant High School senior who spent her summer in the Rose Center, says kids can’t help but be curious about the goggles, lenses and other devices on the teens’ carts. They want to find out how these things work. "That’s what I came here for," Hasan says, "to help them understand."

-- Gary Drevitch

* American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St (212-769-5100; www.amnh.org)

* New York Hall of Science, 47-01 111th St, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens (718-699-0005; www.nyhallsci.org)

* Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave (800-944-8639, family programs 212-671-5300; www.whitney.org; www.youth2youth.org).