Engage in Counter-Tourism

My kids staged a revolt after one too many visits to historical sites.

We were touring a restoration village; you know, the sort of place featuring a blacksmith shop, one room schoolhouse, mill, general store, and a few homes. Normally we stroll around on our own at heritage sites, looking and talking and speculating as we let curiosity lead us. But this time we came with a group of parents and children, so we politely followed a docent as she gave a series of memorized talks meant to educate the sweaty masses. It was hot and stuffy in those small buildings. The docent droned about the historic significance of various items, never changing her patter to meet a child’s interests. Worse, every time she was asked a question she went back to the beginning of her particular speech rather than jump back in where she’d stopped.

It was slow torture of the instructional kind.

If only we’d visited as counter-tourists. For well over a decade Phil Smith, aka Crab Man, has encouraged people to bend tourism into their own unique experiences.  He asks us to look past the official versions provided by guide books, limited by entrance fees, and structured around prohibited areas. Right beyond, we can experience these places playfully.

Tactics he shares in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site may seem silly to the uninitiated. But they are, at the very core, a way of stepping past approved viewpoints to freshly explore and discover new stories.


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man

It’s an approach that sidesteps the homogenization that Dr. Smith terms “mythogeography” or “the past on life support,” and instead celebrates the open-ended meaning found in every heritage site as a form of play.

Thanks to suggestions in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site we might make some new earthworks in the back yard after visiting a prehistoric site or visit a shopping mall as if it were a post-apocalyptic artifact.

Thanks to suggestions in his larger-scale work Counter-Tourism: The Handbook we might leave notes in graveyards, kiss statues, photograph mold and stains, knock on doors in search of our ancestor’s homes, or use a dream symbolism book to interpret a heritage site. (He invites you to submit your own counter-tourism hacks, too.)

This can get as complicated as you’d like because Dr. Smith is a complex guy. He’s written over 100 plays, does site-specific performances in unconventional setting, creates “mis-guides” and counter-tours, and authored books such as On Walking and Mythogeography.

We’re taking his work at the most basic level. If I can talk my family into checking out another heritage site, we’ll follow one of his suggestions. Maybe we’ll all wear pirate eye patches.

Making a Reader Out of My Son With The Minecraft Essential Handbook and The Redstone Handbook

Minecraft Essentials and Redstone Handbook \ Image: Dakster Sullivan
Minecraft Essentials and Redstone Handbook \ Image: Dakster Sullivan

Like many kids these days, my eight-year-old son is obsessed with Minecraft. He has it on the computer and his iPad so he can play it anywhere. We used to have restrictions on his play time, but now that he’s reading because of the game, the gloves are, for the most part, off.

Scholastic has done what I thought couldn’t be done—they got my son excited about reading by making not one, but two books that make him want to read and teach him at the same time.

The Minecraft Essential Handbook has a lot of basic information on the game. Some of the topics include:

  • Short history of Minecraft
  • Controls
  • Inventory
  • Torches
  • Shelter
  • Food and Heath
  • Table of Elements

There are several other “must know” topics.

Even though my son has two years of Minecraft skills under his belt, he still learned something from this book:

“I learned that sheep and other animals can breed. I also learned what all the animals eat.”

He also said that the pictures are easy to follow, and I agree with him on that one.

The Redstone Handbook is my son’s favorite because,

“It has electricity and a lot more stuff, like automatic doors, electrical lights, and canons. The canon didn’t go very well. It only blasted about a block and a half away. So, I built a new canon and it worked.”

A few of the things Minecraft lovers can learn in this title include:

  • Redstone Essentials
  • Power Sources
  • Clock Circuits
  • Laur Pit Trap
  • Deluxe Lighting Systems

And several community creations.

In the back of The Redstone Handbook, it says that there are two more books coming for the Minecraft world: The Combat Handbook (August 26, 2014) and The Construction Handbook (September 30, 2014). To say that my son is excited to add these books to his Minecraft shelf would be an understatement. I’m equally excited to buy them for him because of how much fun he’s had with the first two books in the series.

The Minecraft Essential Handbook and The Redstone Handbook are must haves for any family with Minecraft-obsessed kids. With the exception of The Fanastic Mr. Fox, my son has never picked up and read a book so fast in his life. And in the words of my son,

“The book belongs to people who play Minecraft, because if they don’t read it, they won’t learn more about Minecraft. If they do pick it up, they will learn more.”

GeekMom received these items for review purposes. 

Russian Caravan Fantasy

Image By Lilianna Maxwell
Image By Lilianna Maxwell

I fondly remember being with my nephew, sitting around a campfire under the stars on a Russian plain with colorful people singing songs, sipping dark tea…

…in our imaginations, of course. We were actually sitting in a comfortable booth at a local tea shop inhaling the deep intoxication of Russian Caravan tea.

My nephew is an adult, and one of my favorite people to hang out with. We both find it all too easy to let reality become a backdrop to more exciting pursuits that exist in our minds. Together, we can get carried away. One day, the smell of smokey tea took us to another dimension.

It all started innocently enough: my kids had an event far from home, and I decided I would hang out in the little town of Ballston Spa while waiting. I asked my nephew if he was free to keep me company for the afternoon. He was, we dropped the kids off, and parked the car near a little stream.

There was a splash and we jumped.  Something swam in the water, but we couldn’t make it out.

“A fish?”




We yelled and ran away into the parking lot of an old, crumbling, brick factory. Exploring the outside with rusted doors, strange windows, and odd metal lying about made my nephew think of post-apocalyptic video games. The more he described what could be lurking, the more jittery we became. A siren wailed and we freaked and bolting across the street into a small bowling alley.

Unfortunately, he said there is always a bowling alley in zombie games. We didn’t last long with suspicious looks from the locals. Back on the sidewalk, my nephew and I continued our search for a safe haven from impending doom, and found The Whistling Kettle. Cute, warm shops apparently don’t fit into shooting games, so our imaginations took a pleasant turn into the world of tea.

It was a busy place and we wouldn’t be seated for a bit. They had a sniffing bar with dozens of little jars to smell their vast selection. We opened them, inhaled, had strong opinions, comparing and exclaiming over the variety. And then I found Russian Caravan. It hit my nose like a movie trailer, encompassing my attention.

“Peter, check this one out…it’s…it’s like a…”

“Whoa. I’m suddenly around a campfire!”


We grinned and couldn’t stop taking strong whiffs, happy drug addicts. Finally seated, we ordered a pot of the stuff. Strong! Smokey! In the words of my dad, “It’ll put hair on your chest!” Every sip added to our excitement and the shop faded into a Russian night sky, campfire smoke around us and our fellow travelers.

When was the last time you spent time changing the real world into something from your imagination? Were you six? I highly recommend you try it again. It’s better than a book, movie, or video game, especially when shared with someone equally willing to go along for the ride.

Grab a friend, spouse, kids, and take a whiff of something new, floating into your own collective fantasy escape.

Confessions of a Loser

Image By Luke Maxwell


I learned early on not to play games of chance. My name was never picked from the hat, the dice never rolled in my favor, I rarely picked the good cards. I wasn’t oddly unlucky; I didn’t have random horrible things happen to me, but I was not a winner.

At eighteen I went with a group to Atlantic City. Unfortunately, you have to be twenty-one before you can be on the gambling floor. I spent the time looking into the casino shop windows instead of playing. I suppose that was lucky for my wallet.

Games of skill weren’t my forte either. My father and sister were my most often partners, whether it was Monopoly or HORSE on the basketball court. I would get out early in the game and sit around waiting for the winners to finish. This is how I came to learn completely useless skills like braiding intricate patterns into rug tassels, blowing spit bubbles, how low can I keep the basketball to the ground while still dribbling, etc.

I was a practiced loser, and would smile and shrug, despite the lump in my throat at yet another defeat. I tried to steer play-dates towards creative pursuits like putting on a show in the backyard. But if everyone wanted to play Parcheesi, I never put up a fight since that would be a form of competition, but instead spent my energy making jokes and trying to enjoy game time in a different way. I do remember winning a few rounds of “Dinosaurs Alive!,” a board game with cool figurines and volcanic tile pieces. Amazingly, I couldn’t find it on the web. My sister and I used to play a no-mercy version with our friends, Leon and Jason, where the object was to take every opportunity to crush your opponents.

Wait, you are wondering, isn’t that the object of most games? Yes, but in my house, people’s feelings got hurt if you were “mean” in a game. It was only when we made a pact to all be equally mean, that it was fiercely and entertainingly competitive. We laughed a lot. Maybe that’s why I had a shot in that game, I wasn’t afraid of winning.

Being a life long loser and a psychology major at one point, I started wondering when I not just accepted my loser status, but was comfortable in it. Perhaps it all started with my older sister. I adored her as a child, but she cried a lot. I wanted her to be happy. Winning made her happy. Did I not want to compete and possibly make her cry? Maybe.

Or maybe it started when I was around six and a family member caught me cheating at a card game (hey, maybe I could win) and then way until my teen years would inform everyone I ever sat down to play a game, “Watch out! She’s a cheater!” And not in a kidding way. Perhaps it was easier to lose than to win under suspicion? Maybe.

I do know my comfort with losing escalated to a fear of winning the first year of high school. There was an end of year ceremony where they awarded those who had the top grades in each subject. Unfortunately, I had the highest score in every subject, so I had to keep going up on that stage, cross it, take my award, go down the steps, sit down, hear my name, and go through the process again. After the third award, my sister and her friends started teasing me every time I walked past. I fully understood how ridiculous it all was, and they were having fun with it, but I was humiliated and vowed to never be in that position again.

I was able to keep that vow because the one game I was good at was The Game of School. I kept my average high enough to get into college, but never enough for unwanted attention. I knew how to be on good terms with my teachers, but never teacher’s pet. Not especially popular, yet avoided any negative labels. However, I was known as someone who hated competition. I refused to do my best when a prize was on the line, would bow out quickly if any kind of debate came up, and avoided people who took anything seriously. At graduation I was shocked to hear my name called for the Theology award (’cause I’m so deep, yo). I raced up the steps, grabbed the thing and went back to my seat, confused and embarrassed.

This continued into adulthood. My fencing instructor (a great way to relieve the stress of new motherhood) quickly understood that she could never point out I was winning, “because if I mention you are winning, you lose.” If I focused on the bout without keeping track, I often trounced my opponent with my gorilla-reach arms and quick foot work. But then they would take off their mask and look sad, or mad, or in the case of one person, would illegally stab me after the bout when the coach looked away—to purposely leave a bruise. The competitiveness made me quit the sport.

Then I met my friend Tim. He’s a gamer. He is the one who pleaded with me for two years to try RPGs until I finally tried a game and loved it. Cooperative play! Everyone won or lost together! I found other Cooperative Games to play with my kids and started really enjoying games for the first time in my life.

Strangely, this led to play other games—ones of skill and complexity from obscure companies gamers found at conventions. I realized that I learned by doing. My first time playing a game would be how I learned the rules. The second time I would figure out strategy. The third time, I might even win. And I was proud of it because, like “Dinosaurs Alive!,” everyone was both trying their best, and having a good time.

I learned that gamers are thrilled to teach a newbie games they love. And they will play it many times until you are up to a level to really have a healthy competition, where even if you lose, it was a good time. My odds of winning started going up in life.

Perhaps it’s not coincidence that this is also around the time I started performing music by myself. I had to get over my fear of attention, of getting praise. I learned how to look someone in the eye and say, “Thank you.”

I recently won my first ever Monopoly game. I posted it on Facebook with many exclamation points!!! When I received that Theology award, I threw it out the same day. Two years ago I won second place in a Chili Cook-Off competition. I still have my trophy in the kitchen.

I still lose a lot. But I try my best, and sometimes I win.

I thought of this post while playing Munchkin with my family. I won.


A version of this article originally appeared on GeekMom in 2011. 

Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft
My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft

As someone who makes games for kids to play on screens, I’m not a fan of the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week, which begins today. I’m all for kids getting more unstructured play, more time outdoors, more time reading, and other good stuff, but the label “Screen-Free Week” forces the wrong conversation that lasts all year long.

The Center for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has found receptive ears here in New York City and elsewhere. I know many parents who have thrown out their TVs and heavily restrict other screens in the house. I’m on the tech committee at my daughter’s elementary school, and there are parents who are outraged at having computers in the classroom. Computers! Just wait until we can afford iPads! The parent association and the principal enlisted me to talk to other parents to try to change some hearts and minds. Continue reading Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

Education Week: Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

kids don't move enough, reading skills based on movement,
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Flickr Joe Shlabotnik


Today’s children sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They snuggle. They climb, dig and run. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

reading readiness,
CC BY-SA 3.0 terren in Virginia Flickr

We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. In fact, academics are pushed on preschoolers with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary. It may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.

Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes (the alphabet) into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. In contrast, teaching children to read early, between four and seven years, is often stressful. Why?

early academics, what's missing in reading readiness,
CC BY-SA 3.0 kaylhew Flickr

Children pushed to read young tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.

However children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.

CC BY-SA 3.0 hoyasmeg Flickr

In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many more years. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work. This includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. It also includes fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, using scissors, and playing in sand. And it includes the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes, playing rhyming and clapping games, enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.

movement for brainpower,
CC BY-SA 3.0 stevendepolo Flickr

These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.

There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where reading and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.