Looking for interesting ideas for helping kids learn & experience life
July 9, 2007 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions for a list I'm making of things that I want to enable my kids to experience while growing up. Kind of "life experiences" or education that isn't the kind of thing they'll learn or experience in school.

For example, some of the things on my list so far include:
  • go camping
  • make homemade ice cream
  • volunteer time to help someone in need
etc. I'm not including things like "learn algebra" or "memorize x"; those are things they can get out of school. I'm looking for things that don't get taught in school, that will make them well-rounded both in their education and in their life experiences. Bonus points for "sneaky fun" experiences that they see as great fun, but also build character.

My kids currently are 2 boys, almost 6 and almost 4, but this list is something I intend to keep around till they're grown, so ideas for any age are welcome.
posted by greenmagnet to Human Relations (63 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Before the list items start to pour in, keep in mind that many of the best adventures will be things they might feel reluctant to tell you about once they perceive that society says they're unacceptable - be sure to keep letting them know that you'll always be there to listen to them and help them out, even if they've done something illegal or stupid. I'd hate to have experienced something awesome but been afraid to tell the person who inspired me to do it!
posted by mdonley at 10:25 AM on July 9, 2007

Learn how to...

Drink without being stupid about it
Drive a stick shift
Pack for a trip, either hiking or just traveling
Socialize with adults and children
Interact with animals
Try scary/interesting/new foods
Manage money responsibly
Take a punch
posted by craven_morhead at 10:28 AM on July 9, 2007

Use the public transportation in the city nearest to you.

Work in a garden (preferably growing some kind of food crop, or pumpkins).

Go white-water rafting (I'm not sure if this really counts as a learning experience, but it's something that shouldn't be missed--don't go cheap, though, save up for a proper tour that has self-bailing rafts and actual rapids).

Make different fires, using: matches, magnifying glass, and just sticks. Then cook over it.
posted by anaelith at 10:32 AM on July 9, 2007

Volunteer at a soup kitchen.
New Year's in Times Square.
Fly in a small plane.
Learn to fix a car engine.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:34 AM on July 9, 2007

Introduce them to adventurous and dangerous seeming sporting and leisure acitivities nice and early. Experience of stuff like kayaking, boating and hillwalking will do them the world of good in the future.
posted by fire&wings at 10:40 AM on July 9, 2007

Gymnastics and tumbling.
posted by Durin's Bane at 10:43 AM on July 9, 2007

Buy a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys for them. Here's a quote from a review:

"I simply cannot take this book section by section. There are instructions meant to get a boy started in tying knots, making a bow and arrow, fishing and many other activities. These are expected out of a book about being a boy. But included with such topics are other mini-chapters about the wonders of the world, grammar, historical battles, understanding latitude and longitude (something I never grasped in a classroom), the Declaration of Independence, poetry, Latin phrases, literature the Ten Commandments and also how to talk to girls."
posted by warble at 10:45 AM on July 9, 2007

Travel, travel, travel.
Be in a single foreign place for a while.
Exposure to multiple cultures.
Wander around museums (with an emphasis on wandering)
Try new foods
Stay for a week/month/year in a large city
Stay for a week/month/year in the country
posted by suedehead at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Meet and talk to disabled people, especially when they're young. I know this seems sort of odd, but when I was a kid we had a friend of the family who worked at the Perkins School for the Blind and we went on sort of a family field trip to spend the day there. We hung out with all the kids there all day [ate food, shot baskets with their basketball hoop with the chain basket, walked around on the pathways] and asked them all the questions I probably would have been too shy or awkward to ask them once I got older. It was really formative for me in terms of the "oh hey these kids are just like me!" way that I don't think you get from books or after-school specials.

Other things on the "I did some of this and you should too" list. Some of this might be "duh" obvious, but some might not.

- catch and eat your own fish
- ride on someone's motorcycle
- fly in a helicopter
- go on a factory tour of whatever food you like to eat
- go see a play
- have a pet
- build a marble coaster in the basement
- watch the meteor showers
- go to a small farm
- go to a big farm
- take a road trip
- stay someplace without electricity or running water for a week
- plant a garden, plant flowers
- take public transportation
- spend a weekend without spending any money
- hundred dollar holiday for xmas
- be tourists in your own town
- geocache
- volunteer working with senior citizens
- volunteer at the library
- make friends with people from other cultures and cook food for each other or share things from your culture
- research your ancestors
- keep a scrapbook
- start a campfire
- learn to identify animal tracks
- learn birdcalls
- have a backyard wildlife sanctuary
- keep a journal
- keep a sketchbook
- keep a video diary
- send and receive mail through regular old snail mail, have a pen pal
- help someone build something
- help someone clean something up
- donate money to a worthwhile cause
- invest some of your money for a far off goal
- contribute to wikipedia
- learn to weave
- learn the constellations
- learn to tie knots
- learn to make your own clothes
- learn to make your own [processed food you didn't know you could make] (applesauce, hummus, bread, whatever)
- volunteer to help prisoners
- volunteer in an election
- volunteer in local government
- beautify a park
- help injured wildlife
- teach other people what you've learned
posted by jessamyn at 10:50 AM on July 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wish something like this was done for me... here are some things I think would be good:

Balance a checkbook
Change a tire
Check oil in car
Drive a manual transmission
Be a gentleman (as a girl, I have been on dates with guys that just were rude... simple things like opening a door, ect are nice)
Read a map (although I suppose they teach that in school)
Read a compass (nowadays its all GPS :P)
Say no to drugs (hehe, sorry)
How to Swim and Dive
Some self defense
Write and discuss a family tree (things about your heritage, as much as you know... get other family involved too)
Use a telescope together

Wish I could think of more but I am at work and that took up all my extra brain space :)
BTW, I think this is very awesome of you. Good Luck!
posted by ForeverDcember at 10:50 AM on July 9, 2007

posted by radioamy at 10:50 AM on July 9, 2007

CPR/First aid cert.
posted by rhoticity at 11:11 AM on July 9, 2007

Ride a horse-- really ride one, at speed-- it's an incredible feeling
Shoot a .22 at a tin can
Dig a hole
Build a fort
Sail a small boat, like a Sunfish
Swim in the ocean
Echoing the travel suggestions-- I wish I'd learned earlier that travel is not something to be nervous about. I used to get anxious whenever I went somewhere foreign, because my family didn't travel much when I was a child. I think I missed out on a lot of interesting, chill experiences of other cultures because of this.
posted by weezetr at 11:12 AM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Use a telescope together to see the rings of Saturn.
Go to a planetarium, preferably the Haydn Planetarium in New York.
Build model rockets.
Play catch.
posted by alms at 11:13 AM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, these are great suggestions; exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. I'm really looking forward to seeing what else gets suggested.
posted by greenmagnet at 11:15 AM on July 9, 2007

Kind of hard to put on a list, and a little different from what you've listed but . . .

This might be obvious, and depending on the personality, might not seem like something that requires effort, but I remember feeling bored and agitated as a kid and teenager, and it would have been helpful if someone had made a point of saying (in a kind way), something about my being responsible for my own happiness/well-being etc. That I had the power to change both my situation and how I felt about my situation -- and to help me realize that although I felt uncomfortable being alone and/or bored, it would a.) pass with time and b.) was something that I could do something about both by taking action and by changing my response to the situation. I am not sure how you teach this (or even say it in a way that a kid can hear it), but it seems like it could be a useful thing to practice early on in life.

Oh, and adding to that, it would be really helpful to learn and practice meditation/mindfulness. The ability to pause before acting, to take a step back, is a wonderful benefit of such practice.

Also, I have to second the idea of doing something potentially dangerous esp. in the company of a respected adult. It's a huge confidence builder. I will never forget sailing with my dad through a particularly narrow and tricky channel between 2 islands -- he insisted that I steer us through. It was a great test -- I am not sure if I really felt like he would take over if I had a problem, he wasn't hovering like that, so it felt like I did something very challenging -- and that I could do it, and other things like it, again.
posted by nnk at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Learn how to behave in a theatre.

posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:28 AM on July 9, 2007

- write and act in your own movie (this can involve everything from building sets to editing video).
- build something* (eg, kite, boat, etc) and then use it
- let them pick out one thing each month that they want to try.

* Subscribe to Make magazine for ideas.

Also, let them see you learn new things so they know that this doesn't stop when they are "old."
posted by probablysteve at 11:32 AM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Go to a minor league baseball game.

Learn about savings / compound interest. (a bit advanced but I really wish I had learned this when I was younger)

Go backpacking. Not “camping”, where you take a cooler and hibachi out of the trunk of the car, but backpacking. Show them how little they really need to live in the woods comfortably for a weekend.

Build a fort or tree house and spend the night in it.

Eat something that they’ve caught/hunted/picked themselves.

Show them the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the craters of the moon. Pretty much any dime store telescope can do this.

What are they REALLY in? Trains? Take a train trip? Planes? Fly in a small plane and/or go to an air show.

Do they still have demolition derbies? I have many fond memories of watching races and demolition derbies at the Westboro Speedway (the fastest quarter mile in the East!), which is now, sadly, a mall or furniture store or something.

Climb a mountain. Doesn’t have to be big, just something with a 360 degree view so they can get a sense of just how damn big the world is. Bring a USGS map and a compass to the top of said mountain and identify all the water towers, antenna, etc.
posted by bondcliff at 11:33 AM on July 9, 2007

Go to an orchestra concert. Multiple times!
Eat exotic foods.
Definitely travel.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:38 AM on July 9, 2007

I agree with weezetr, get them into horses. I abhor dude ranches because the horses are always grumpy and lame. I teach riding lessons and I can't tell you how important it is for kids to learn how to treat large animals that should be approached with care. So many children grow up afraid of horses, which only gets worse later in life. When you ride a horse you create an important bond that isn't found with household pets and yes, it's really fun.
posted by Viomeda at 11:39 AM on July 9, 2007

I'll try to avoid duplicating any of the awesome ideas already mentioned

- learn to tread water, and do the deadman's float
- jump into water from a rope swing
- go on an overnight backpacking trip - carrying everything you need to survive comfortably is a much more awesome feeling than just car camping, though that is fun too
- master basic throwing and catching (both ball and frisbee)
- ride a rollercoaster
- save money for a significant chunk of time to buy something you really want
posted by vytae at 11:41 AM on July 9, 2007

Something I've always been glad my dad instilled an interest in me for is basic sky-watching --not necessarily with telescopes, but the ability to recognize constellations, including more obscure ones; what times of year they appear and where in the sky; names of some of the stars; the visible planets and when they appear (and where); the Summer Triangle, etc.
posted by frobozz at 11:47 AM on July 9, 2007

Came here to nth international travel and cuisine, which I figured would be here already, but thought of something else as I read: exposure to how adults other than one's parents make a living. Not just vocationally, but from a practical day-to-day perspective as well.
posted by gnomeloaf at 11:50 AM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: I just want to add some other, random life skills. I mourn the lack of home ec/shop classes, at least, the late incarnation where all genders had to do both.

Basic home repair. My partner doesn't know how to unclog a toilet and I find it infuriating.

Dealing with laundry, and keeping clothes in good shape.

Basic sewing repairs - you don't need to learn how to use a machine like my brother did, but knowing how to put a few stitches in with confidence will help when they're older. Also it will prevent them doing things like stapling their coat back together.

As for experiences, I don't see 'classic family road trip' anywhere else. You need one of those.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:51 AM on July 9, 2007

exposure to how adults other than one's parents make a living

Ooh, yeah. When I was a kid my ideas were pretty much limited to the standard kid's book lists of doctor, nurse, police officer, teacher, etc. plus maybe a dark and foreboding sense of middle management. I wonder how my "when I grow up, I want to be a . . ." conversations would have gone if I had heard of caterers or music teachers or PR people or food stylists or whatever when I was much younger. Hardly anyone I know now has a nice, neat, archetypal job that's easy to illustrate in bright colors on a single page.
posted by vytae at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2007

First respect for law and societal conventions, then the proper amount of disrespect for the same.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Oh man, I keep coming up with others.
- skip rocks on a pond
- write a really simple computer program (try here)
- make [grandma's special recipe] with grandma - bonus points if it's something really involved, like pickles
- tend a garden for a season
- present a persuasive argument (engage them in intelligent discussion around the dinner table, rather than assigning a speech topic or something)
- go on a photo walk, maybe even develop their own photos if you have access to a dark-room
- learn to touch type
posted by vytae at 12:10 PM on July 9, 2007

- Build something using power tools.
- Demo something using axes, sledges, crowbars, and any other manual tool you can think of.

That last point goes towards letting your boys break things. If you're getting rid of the furniture in their room, there's no reason you can't let them toss it out the window (assuming, of course, that it fits).

- Maintain a bicycle.
- Name the wildflowers in your region.
- Dance.
- Spend a day at a library (for fun, as opposed to for school).
- Teach them to fail. Teach them to fail gracefully. And teach them that there are very few things you can pooch in the first 20, 30, 40 years of your life that you can't fix in the next 20, 30, 40.
posted by bfranklin at 12:11 PM on July 9, 2007

- learn to play a musical instrument
posted by vytae at 12:14 PM on July 9, 2007

Jeez, people.


You know how the American Pie movies prominently feature the line, "This one time, at band camp..."? I went to that band camp, the one that line specifically references, for about seven summers. (And, it's actually a fine arts camp for band, orchestra, choir, theatre, art, dance, piano, and probably some other specialty I'm forgetting.) I met three of my closest friends there, and when other high school friends flaked out, it never mattered with my Blue Lake boys. And they may live far-away states/countries, I still love them dearly and can't imagine my life without them.

Blue Lake Rocks!

Let your kids be on their own for a week or two at a summer camp in the country, and they'll learn to paddle a canoe, make friendship bracelets, and how to identify trees. I loved it.
posted by santojulieta at 12:42 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Brain started working again:

Roll down a big, grassy hill
Make a compost pile (?- my step-dad and I had one to "harvest" worms for fishing)
Have a snowball fight
Visit a Farmer's Market
Explore a creek (Crayfish!)
Get a caterpillar and watch it develop into a butterfly
posted by ForeverDcember at 12:44 PM on July 9, 2007

How to have fun without money.

How to have conversations with strangers.

Travel outside of the country, and outside the sphere of comfort.

Ride a bike every day for a year and see if your life is better.

Make difficult decisions. Feel okay about making changes to your life that other people think are very weird.

Grow your own herbs.


Learn a language that's not English.

posted by entropone at 12:49 PM on July 9, 2007

Speak in front of a large audience, and enjoy it.
Rebuild something -- see MAKE magazine for what I mean.
posted by effugas at 12:50 PM on July 9, 2007

One thing they don't teach in school is how to manage your money.

By this I mean, not to use credit cards, what a stock is, what a bond is, how a checking account works.

So many of my friends have hurt themselves in their early twenties by racking up debt and not saving.

So I would definately say that you should teach them about money, but make it fun. Dave Ramsey has a saving program for kids or maybe when they get a little older buy a small stock purchase in a company they love.

Something like that.
posted by bananafish at 1:01 PM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: I'll throw in some of my own ideas that I haven't seen so far, for other people's reference:

- make homemade butter
- rake up big piles of leaves and jump in
- climb a tree
- chop down a (dead) tree
- go to court and watch a trial, sentencing, etc.
- wash a car by hand. Ideally this should degenerate into a water fight after the car is clean....
- work (paid) part-time during the summer
- learn the basics about the inner workings of a computer
- learn to ice/roller skate
- see assorted natural wonders: a cave, a geyser, waterfalls, mountains, etc.
- visit a dam
posted by greenmagnet at 1:33 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: Teach them to be grateful for the things they have. My daughter is 3 and we've started writing a "grateful" journal. Each night before bed, we each list 3 things we're grateful for experiencing for that particular day. Not only is it cool to get some hints at the inner workings of my child's mind, but some of her answers are hilarious and very heartwarming. It's so easy to get stuck in the "have not" mentality and this reminds both of us that we have quite a bit to be grateful for and happy about.

Thanks for the question. So many great responses. I'm definitely going to reference these.
posted by kelzabel at 1:58 PM on July 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: See a baby being born, or at least a litter of kittens or puppies.

Attend ceremonies for a variety of different religious faiths, and learn the basics about what they believe.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:59 PM on July 9, 2007

Here are some great suggestions from celebrities (First Lady of California Maria Shriver: "Run in the sprinklers. And make sure at least one of your parents runs with you.")

And here's a book called 101 Things Every Kid Should Do Growing Up, which includes the fantastic suggestion that "Every child should catch snowflakes on his tongue and eyelashes".

I ran a quick google search of "things every kid should do", but I'm sure you could find more such lists by tweaking the wording. Of course it's more fun to read the suggestions all on one page here. :)
posted by vytae at 1:59 PM on July 9, 2007

See pictures of a diverse range of naked human bodies, and of human beings having sex in various ways, with a chance to ask questions.

Learn about their own bodies: how they work, how to take care of them, how to enjoy them, how to give pleasure to others.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:02 PM on July 9, 2007

If you want help giving them access to many of the experiences on this list, check out the Boy Scouts. In a good group, the leader will be an expert at letting the boys take as much responsiblity as they can - When my son moved up from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, his den/pack/(group of about 6 boys) had to plan, shop and prepare their own meal as well as washing and repacking their communal gear. They got to go snow campling, learned to lash and then ride a zip line and lots of cool stuff we would not have known how to teach them. Plus he got hte experience of learning how to work with other kids (his age and older) to get things done and, as a bonus, a chance to do most of this without his own parents around.
posted by metahawk at 2:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: I have two for you, but they're blanket experience types to be applied liberally:

#1: Anything that gets done "for" them, make sure they experience doing it for themselves.

This applies to the trivial (doing their own laundry) to the significant (slaughter their own food), from the mundane (learn to drive stickshift) to the unusual (build a dam that produces a small amount of electric power.)

We live in a society where things come easy, and we don't spend much time thinking about the underlying mechanisms that produce that comfort. Giving them the opportunity to experience these things -- sans lectures about morality -- will give them more fodder for their own personal development, and feed the relationship they have with their world.

#2: Anything they can do "virtually", make sure they experience doing it "for real".

Travel. Shooting a gun. Driving a race car. Shopping. Meeting new peers. Research. Tons of things can be done these days via computer, but nothing beats the real thing. Even if it's just a taste of the "real" version (go carts for race car driving, a day at the library for research) they should know what it's like to truly do these things that they normally touch a mouse/keyboard/joystick to do.
posted by davejay at 2:51 PM on July 9, 2007

Learn how to take something apart and see how it works (or at least peek inside), then put it back together. And learn how to fix things--but more importantly, be able to tell whether it's something they can fix, or whether an expert is needed.

Be able to make things--paintings, drawings, sculptures, whatever. If there's an art museum nearby, they probably offer various art classes for kids (probably as 1-4ish sessions of an hour or a few hours--not a huge commitment like taking piano lessons). I had a lot of fun with those when I was small, and I think that being able to take classes that are for fun, rather than a grade, is a valuable thing in general. (Can I mention free universities at this point? Those are great for that (fun and fairly low-commitment), and you can learn all kinds of cool stuff.)

Identify insects and spiders from a gardener's perspective--which ones eat your beans, which ones you leave alone because they eat the ones that eat your beans, which ones sting or bite, and so on.

Read a manual to figure out how to do something.

Read for pleasure--it's a shame when kids think of reading as this boring thing they have to do for school because English class was the first time they read a whole novel and it was a dreadful, lifeless experience.

One thing they don't teach in school is how to manage your money.

By this I mean, not to use credit cards, what a stock is, what a bond is, how a checking account works.

I second this, although I would say "how" to use credit cards instead of "not". If you don't teach them this, they'll probably only come across it in college classes, and then only if they specifically take finance classes. (They might come across the concept of compounding interest before that, depending on what math classes they take, but there's not a lot of emphasis on it.)
posted by Many bubbles at 3:42 PM on July 9, 2007

make your kids write every day. really. people are such crappy writers these days--being good at it will open doors.

have them read at least one book a month and write a one-age report about it (on top of schoolwork).

teach them how to cook and do their own laundry. have them start doing this as soon as possible (i began doing my own laundry at age 7).

start volunteering.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:49 PM on July 9, 2007

Great question!

davejay: #1: Anything that gets done "for" them, make sure they experience doing it for themselves.

OH HELL YES. I grew up in a family where everything was done for me. And I seriously mean EVERYTHING - I only really got to feed myself when I was about eight, and it took till I was 12 for my mum to stop showering me. Even *now* they still do things for me even when I insist I do it myself - and when I do do things myself, they panic and freak out (yesterday I had to arrange accommodation for myself while travelling in another city due to a last-minute change of circumstance, and my mum was in histrionics over a "heart attack".) For some reason, in their quest to make sure I never get into any hardship, they hardly ever let me do anything on my own.

I had a pretty privileged life (chauffeur! maid! whatever I wanted!) but I also never really learnt how to do things on my own. I'm quite the independent spirit, so living like this was stifling, but I never knew how to cope otherwise. I'm 22 and I'm *still* learning how to do things I really should have figured out a long time ago - I only learnt how to use the photocopier LAST YEAR, for goodness sake, and I'm quite the tech-head.

Trust me, it feels SO GOOD to know that you are able to do something on your own. That doesn't mean you can't get help, by all means ask for help if you're stuck. But to be able to do something for yourself by yourself? SUCH A THRILL. Please do not deny your children this thrill.

Your kids will be the best people to ask for ideas. They're naturally curious and imaginative, and often will come up with a whole list of things they want to do. They may not want to do some of the things on your list, and that's fine. Don't *make* them do anything - they'd only resent it and learn nothing. Get them engaged in whatever they're doing; that's where the motivation comes from. But do keep the list, it is a good source of ideas.

Some suggestions:

* Study abroad
* Live with a host family for a while and learn about their life
* Make a care package for someone
* Make a website
* Volunteer
* Organize something - a kid's club, a fundraiser, whatever
* Make something for somebody
* Take a leaf from Oprah's book - give them some money and tell them that they can spend it on whoever they wish, as long as it's for someone else and not themselves
* Do a 24-hour challenge of some sort
* Get a mentor
* Be a mentor
posted by divabat at 4:20 PM on July 9, 2007

Here's the list.

That said, and not that this is the advice you asked for, but I think you should just chill. Watch your boys and just teach them as the spirit moves you. Be open and spontaneous, don't start checking things off a list.
posted by nax at 4:46 PM on July 9, 2007

Dance with them until they get to the age where dancing is embarassing. It's sad how many guys never ever even try to dance. I'm not talking ballroom either, just the willingness to find the beat and move.

Teach them the proper form for the major lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press). If you don't know them all the better to learn them yourself so you can teach this one. Teach them the importance of physical activity of their choosing on a regular basis. A good way to do this is to go for family walks after dinner.

Teach them about nutrition-- don't rely on school to explain this well.

Speaking of things not to rely on school to teach, show them how to argue a position, spot the logical flaws in another person's argument, and concede the point when they are wrong. Then teach them how NOT to be a dick on the internet.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:14 PM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: For nax: I agree with that...rest assured I don't intend to be the parent that runs their kids' life off a checklist, schedules a million things for them to do, etc. Rather, I hope to have cool ideas and experiences that we can do together as time and the occasion warrant. And watching them and playing the silly games they invent is way more fun than my ideas anyway, usually. :)
posted by greenmagnet at 5:25 PM on July 9, 2007

Learn to do without:
- food
- speaking (while still interacting with others)
- TV
- cars
- toys
- computers

For youngsters, the period of privation might be just an hour or so; for older kids, a full day. (You might join them, so they don't view this as punishment.)
posted by rob511 at 5:47 PM on July 9, 2007

I can't believe nobody has said this one: change a diaper
posted by rcavett at 6:37 PM on July 9, 2007

50 comments down & I think nobody said this yet: exposure to gay & lesbian people, culture etc - at the very least, as something not to be afraid of or demonise.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:53 PM on July 9, 2007

Response by poster: These answers are all so good and helpful. I'm going to mark a few outstanding ones as best answers, but they are all great! I'd still love to hear more if anyone still has ideas.
posted by greenmagnet at 6:59 PM on July 9, 2007

Another miss, so far? Martial arts!! Sheesh! Various kinds, mix them up: judo, aikido, taekwondo, muay thai, capoeira, kung fu etc. These will go a long way towards instilling confidence, self-reliance, discipline, health, respect etc, as well as usually involving elements of learning other cultures & outlooks on life.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:00 PM on July 9, 2007

(boys should also especially enjoy weapon-play styles: kendo, fencing etc, not only the punchy-kicky-throwy ones)
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:04 PM on July 9, 2007

(ps - I don't think there's anything wrong with starting kids really early on martial arts. In fact, it's almost the earlier the better. Boys don't develop the physical strength to actually hurt each other in any non-trivial way until they're about 15 or so, which means all the time until then they can beat up on each other with feather-blows & commit the movements & techniques to muscle-memory)
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:23 PM on July 9, 2007

Learn the answers to these questions.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:26 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: One more very generic suggestion: a lot of the (very good) suggestions here seem to involve either self-directed learning or one-off things mentored by a parent other trusted adult.

Personally, I think it's quite important to always have at least one formal, structured, extra-curricular activity running at any point in time. These might be things like organised sports, youth theatre groups, music classes & the like.

Apart from the obvious self-development aspects, they introduce kids to social circles outside of the playground, and instil a level of discipline & dedication to achieving some kind of goal.

I don't think I've ever been without at least one such structured extracurricular activity since I started kindergarten, and even as a full-time employed adult, I still become very itchy if I'm not formally studying at least one thing outside of office hours.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:38 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: How to cook. It sounds silly, but I know people in their twenties and thirties who are literally just now learning how to boil water.

How to do something that used to be necessary to live but is no longer especially relevant in today's society--spinning yarn, for example, or hunting for food, preserving fruits and vegetables, making paper... It makes me sad that it seems like a lot of this traditional knowledge is being lost.

Teach them how to open a bank account, how to balance a checkbook, and how to invest, even if you only ever deal in tiny increments that are subsidised by the bank of mom and dad.

Basic carpentry. When I was little, my dad built things for the house--bookshelves, for example, or hutches--and had me help him. To this day, it's probably the most useful thing he taught me, and I don't think he realises it. Because of this, though, I can hang my own picture frames, fix my shelves when they break, know how to replace crown molding, hang cabinet doors, set doors on a track...the list goes on and on. I didn't do anything big when I helped him--mostly I just followed him around and handed him nails and hammers--but what I watched him do really stuck with me.

Care for an infant: feeding, diapering, burping, clothing, bathing.

Care for an elderly or infirm person and finding a balance between assisting and condescending to them.

How to converse politely, both in formal and casual conversations. Again, it sounds silly, but having worked in places with a lot of people-contact, you'd be amazed at how many people can't phone to ask about their credit card bill without also telling you about their sex life.

How to treat people in service occupations. A subheader here could be "how to behave in a restaurant that is not McDonalds, and then one that is not Applebee's".

Cultural tolerance. Attend a Pride festival, attend a service at a mosque, at a temple, buy tickets to a fund-raising supper for a cultural group, attend every random cultural festival that you come across. Even if you don't agree with all the lifestyles mentioned, even if you think that religious types are insane and scary or that gay people are all going to hell, setting your children on a path towards respecting people, even the ones that they don't agree with, is huge. Plus, this is awesomely fun. My daughter and I went to a local Polish festival last year and ate sauerkraut and sausages and pirogies and admired all the sparkly lights and rode a -- one of those whirly rides. Earlier this year we went to the Duct Tape Festival, which is sort of a mecca for the redneck and bizarre, and we watched a Garth Brooks tribute band and ate deep-fried pickles and fries with vinegar and sno-cones. The Hispanic festival was horchata and churros and a fashion show and a fantastic band. Hours of awesome and very inexpensive entertainment.

Camp under the stars. (Yes, that means without a tent.)

Go to a pick-your-own farm and pick your own apples, strawberries, blueberries...

Go to a real farm and see how things are grown, or, better yet, keep a garden and try and produce all your favourite fruits and vegetables in it.

Keep a vegetarian (or vegan) diet for a week or two.

Hike. Pick different terrains and talk about what animals might live there and how the natural features got formed. Even small children can do a fair piece--my then-three-year-old daughter and I did three to five miles several times a week last summer. I usually carried her on my back for the last mile or two, but she could pretty consistantly do at least two miles without complaint. We hiked along the Erie Canal, around a glacier-formed meromictic lake, in an area with a lot of waterfalls and cliff faces, in a swampy wildlife preserve... We haven't managed to do as much this summer, but it's a really enjoyable way to spend a couple hours.

Learn how to travel by at least one alternate form of transportation. Canoe, kayak, sailboat, horseback, camel, unicycle, hovercraft... If learning sounds like too much (or too expensive) consider taking a trip by boat or small plane.

How to fix your own clothes. Everyone should be able to at least sew a loose button and fix a drooping hem.
posted by meghanmiller at 8:08 PM on July 9, 2007

Make a time capsule! (And actually wait until the designated time to open it!)
posted by thebrokenmuse at 8:29 PM on July 9, 2007

Best answer: I really like a lot of these suggestions. I would add: make sure that your children have, at some point, an extended and up-close encounter with real poverty. We live in a very class-segregated society, and those of us with at least a modicum of privilege very rarely interact with the tangible aspects of serious poverty. The occasional afternoon serving dinner at a soup kitchen is great, but I would urge a more fundamental encounter.

I don't think it really matters if they go off and spend three weeks in an Indian slum, or the same time helping rebuild houses in a very poor neighborhood on the US gulf coast, or something else entirely. Once you have watched a mother choose which child will eat that day and which won't, or seen how hard someone who does day labor actually works, it is much harder to fall back on stereotypes like "poor people are lazy," or "they are just so ignorant." And there is something about the immersion in the tactile experience of living and working beside deep poverty that is very different than reading about it, or watching a documentary, or visiting for the afternoon.

I didn't have this experience until I joined the Peace Corps in my twenties. I really wish I had had this when I was about 14 -- I think I would have been a lot less spoiled and arrogant as a teenager if I had been given this kind of perspective. What you are proposing is, at heart, about giving your children options and opportunities. I think that the way they will be able to contextualize and appreciate those opportunities is by spending time with, and coming to truly understand, those who lack those options.
posted by Forktine at 11:14 PM on July 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Read music / play an instrument
Draw reasonably well / understand composition
Speak a useful foreign language / understand another culture
Be polite without being a doormat
Speak up and be confident without being condescending
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:32 AM on July 10, 2007

Host a foreign exchange student at least once.
posted by po at 9:38 PM on July 10, 2007

I will second the read for pleasure suggested by Many Bubbles. What my parents did to encourage this was to make a chart where I'd write in each book I'd read. After every so many books, there'd be a reward of some sort. The rewards got incrementally better and I'd usually have to read at least one classic among the others before a reward. I'd definitely recommend this form of encouragement.
posted by andythebean at 9:52 PM on July 10, 2007

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