“I’m Not Giving Up on My Dream”: Kids Aspire to Help Others as Doctors

When 13-year-old Nina decided that she wanted to become a doctor, she narrowed her choices to neurosurgery or cardiothoracic surgery because, she explained, the brain and the heart are the most important organs in the body.

“If one of those goes down, you’re pretty much dead … and I like saving people,” said Nina, who has settled on neurosurgery.

Despite the many years of education and training ahead — and the fact that 95 percent of neurosurgeons are currently men — Nina is determined.

“This is definitely it, 100 percent,” she said. “I’m not giving up on my dream.”

For Nina, there’s no doubt about it. But for many kids, somewhere along the way their dreams of training for top jobs in health care get sidelined. Other kids may not even imagine those careers as possibilities.

This is definitely it, 100 percent. I’m not giving up on my dream.

Women are half the population but 19% of surgeons

Consider this: Even though women make up half the population, as of 2013 the U.S. had approximately 712,000 male physicians and about 333,000 female physicians. In the operating room, the disparity worsens. Only 19 percent of U.S. surgeons are women.

For many African-American and Latino kids, the road to medical school may end before it even begins. Indeed, fewer black students applied to and enrolled in medical school in 2014 than in 1978. At many schools, math and science classes offered to minority students begin to differ as early as third grade.

“Even if they make it to college, they may not have the preparation required to make them successful enough to meet the academic qualifications for admission to medical and graduate schools,” said Dr. Alma Littles, Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education and Academic Affairs at Florida State University.

FSU is home to a program called SSTRIDE (Science Students Together Reaching Instructional Diversity & Excellence), which supports middle- and high-school students interested in health, medicine, science, engineering and math careers.

Dr. Littles said a teacher’s supportive words made all the difference to her career choice as a young African-American girl.

“It was my second-grade teacher who first said to me, ‘Alma, I think you should be a doctor when you grow up.’ At the time, I don’t even remember if I’d ever seen a doctor, since most of my healthcare — immunizations, treatment for colds, stomachaches and toothaches — had been done by the school nurse. Her words stuck with me, and the fact that she believed in me enough to make the suggestion ultimately served as my motivation to pursue the dream.”

Girl pretending to be doctor at home

Only 15% of kids can solve the surgeon riddle

Beyond academic barriers, can kids’ perceptions of who works certain jobs affect their career aspirations? If your daughter sees only male surgeons on TV, does that impression remove surgery from her perceived career options? What if your son wants to become a nurse, but the only nurses he knows are women?

One revealing study asked 103 kids age 7 to 17 and 197 college students to solve this riddle: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — that boy is my son!” Explain.

Only 15 percent of the kids and 14 percent of college students came up with the correct answer: The boy’s mom is the surgeon.

Boston University Professor Deborah Belle, a co-author of the study, said unconscious ideas called schemas create blind spots in adults and children. In the case of the riddle, the unconscious idea is that “a surgeon is probably a man.”

While schemas can be an important tool for the brain to quickly organize ideas, they can “lead to trivial or profound errors often,” Belle said.

The landscape is changing

But there’s hope. The landscape of a more accessible path to health-care careers at all levels of education is beginning to change. Kids have more:

  • Female role models. Because more women than men are now pediatricians, more kids’ first physician role model will be a woman. Out of 87,000 pediatricians in the U.S., more than 50,000 are women.
  • Media examples. From Doc McStuffins to Sid the Science Kid, there are more diverse, science-oriented characters than ever.
  • Career support. In addition to the SSTRIDE program, there are many school-based programs around the U.S. that introduce young people to medical careers, and even more that are available to support women and minorities in college, medical school and professional life.

What do kids say about their goals?

Kids provide us the most hope of all. Toca Magazine asked six future doctors, diverse in gender and ethnicity, why and how they want to achieve this goal. Read their inspiring answers:

  • Krish, 10: “I’ve wanted to be a neurosurgeon since I was 6 or 7, because I felt bad for kids who have brain tumors or brain cancer.”
  • Kaitlyn, 10: “I want to be able to do surgery, be the head person making my decisions … I want to be able to help people and change their lives.”
  • Aarnav, 9: “I just want to give health care to poor people in other countries and here in America.”
  • Gauri, 5: “I want to be a surgeon doctor. It’s not bad to go to the doctor because doctors take care of people.”
  • Azriel, 10: “My grandma showed me medicines and what they were used for and talked to me about being a doctor. She helped raise me while my mom was at work.”
  • Gabriella, 14: “I’ve had some people say ‘That’s a lot of school, it’s not really worth it.’” But she says, “Working hard and helping people will be worth it.”

7 Ways to Empower Kids to Explore the Future Without Limits

Of course, not every kid wants to grow up to be a doctor or work in health care. Yet all kids should feel empowered to explore and work toward any career that interests them.

Medicine is one example of a field that still has a long way to go to make sure every job and rank in every one of its specialties is open to all. Until then, parents and teachers can play important roles in helping kids keep their options open when it comes to all careers, including careers in medicine. Read these tips to find out how.

  • 1. Start early. “The earlier, the better,” said Dr. Alma Littles. “Parents can start the conversation and the process even earlier. Helping promote the habits of reading and exploring their curiosity will help create interest in developing analytical skills early. Introducing children to math and science concepts even before they start school will help nurture those interests, which means they will not be as intimidated by those subjects when they start school.”
  • 2. Choose toys carefully. “Girls who played with a Barbie doll — irrespective of whether it was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor — saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys,” according to a 2014 UC Santa Cruz/Oregon State study. “Girls who played with a Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys.”
  • 3. Watch your language. “Children are always listening,” said Meredith Magee Donnelly, M.S., Ed., creator of the curriculum Exploring Gender Stereotypes with Children. “As adults I think it is incredibly important to take time to reflect on our own biases. We all have them! Do a self-audit of the language you use with children.
  • 4. Advocate academics. Ask what math and science classes are available at your kid’s school. Support your kid’s academic growth. Aspiring neurosurgeon Krish says he already studies every day in third grade and he’s ready for the tough years of academic study ahead.
  • 5. Change schemas. Give kids images and experiences that counter schemas based on gender or race. “Schemas over time are malleable,” Belle said. “We can change our own and affect others’.”
  • 6. Share stories. Kids are often inspired by stories of struggle and hope. Aarnav, who had a heart defect as a baby, wants to be a doctor in part because of the surgeon who saved his life. Gabriella’s science teacher is sharing his pancreatic cancer battle with his students. His positive attitude through treatment motives her even more to pursue studying to become a medical researcher to prevent or cure illnesses like his.
  • 7. Encourage experiences. Let your kid play with the idea of medical careers through apps like Toca: Life Hospital. Attend science-oriented camps. Look for support and exposure programs like SSTRIDE. “You should see the faces of these kids when they get the opportunity to come to the medical school and see medical students and faculty or take tours of hospital facilities and surgery centers,” said Dr. Littles.

Little girl is patient in emergency room with broken arm

10 Awesome Apps and Websites for Kids Who Love Science

Young kids are born scientists. Exploring and experimenting is just what they do naturally. We hope all kids build on that desire to discover the world and how it works through preschool and beyond.

Supporting your kid’s natural love of science and nature is easy, and it can be fun for you, too. Introduce them to lots of new experiences in a wide range of subjects – plants and animals, chemistry, weather, simple physics, the solar system and more. Follow an interest for as long as they’re interested. Kids can switch from collecting bugs one week to making slime the next … there’s a whole universe to understand!

Check out these apps and websites that can help your kid tap into their inner scientist with images, ideas and DIY experiments.


  • 1. Science360. View stunning nature and tech photos, videos, and stories on this app created by the National Science Foundation. Kids can watch videos about everything from “cheeseburger chemistry” to the ecological role of wolves. Parents may need to read the text-based stories to younger kids. There’s also a Science360 Radio app so kids can listen to science-related stories. Best for kids age 8 and up. (iPad only)
  • sid_science_fair_icon2. Sid’s Science Fair. Explore an interactive science fair with adorable PBS Kids star Sid and his friends. Kids can play simple, engaging science-related games that involve collecting, charting, and sequencing. Best for kids age 4 to 7. (iOS and Android devices)
  • 3. DIY Nano. Watch funny videos and try at-home experiments to discover nanotechnology. Adults will need to help kids collect supplies and set up most of these awesome DIY activities. Check out the app’s companion website Whatisnano.org for more information. Best for kids age 8 and up. (iOS devices)
  • 4. Bloom by Megalearn. Learn about seed dispersal on this deceptively simple yet beautiful app. Kid can make coconuts float, birds poop seeds, and dandelion seeds blow in the wind, then watch as the seeds grow into plants again on this highly engaging interactive app. Best for kids age 5 and up. (iOS devices)
  • 5. Bobo Explores Light. Meet Bobo the Robot who leads kids through 21 interactive lessons about forms of light, including photosynthesis, sunlight, lasers, electricity and more. Younger kids will enjoy the app’s free-play aspects, while older kids can dig into reading about scientists like Thomas Edison and finding out details of how light works. Best for kids ages 7 and up. (iPad only)


  • 1. Lawrence Hall of Science24/7 Science: Created by University of California Berkeley, this site is a treasure trove of science games and activities. There are games and activities for biology, nanotechnology, weather, electricity, and a galaxy of earth- and space-related learning. Best for kids ages 7 and up.
  • 2. DragonflyTV Science Fair. Get inspired for the next science fair by watching the dozens of science “investigations” from PBS’s Dragonfly TV show. Kids can also watch scientist profiles, solve science-related riddles, and play simple games. Parents: Read the site’s “Simple Steps to Science Fair Success” tip sheet. Best for kids age 6 and up.
  • 3. ExploratoriumIf you can’t get to the San Francisco-based Exploratorium in person, the next best thing to visiting this incredible learning lab is browsing its website. Kids can get ideas for experiments, links to more science-related websites and videos. Search by dozens of alphabetized science topics — from Arts to Waves – or just click what looks interesting. Best for kids age 8 and up.
  • 4. NASA Kids’ Club. Young astronaut wannabes will love this website. NASA created the games with young kids in mind, but the Images of the Day, NASA TV, pages specific to major missions (for example, the Hubble Telescope and International Space Station) are incredible for the entire family to explore together. Best for kids age 7 and up.
  • 5. BrainPOP Jr. The free Movie of the Week and “free stuff” sections on this subscription-based learning site give kids terrific five-minute introductions into many science topics, including ocean habitats, classifying animals, and more. Best for kids ages 5 to 9; Check out BrainPOP for ages 6 to 17. (Access to the full BrainPOP Jr. site is $9.45/mo. or $99/year.)

5 Great YouTube Channels for Fun with Science

Kids love experimenting with stuff. And kids are crazy about YouTube. So what could be a better combo than science experiments on YouTube?

The smart kids, science teachers and comedians we’ve included on this list of YouTube channels make science look as fun, cool and surprising as it is.

(Parents note: As with all YouTube channels, watch these videos with your kids. Some contain experiments that use fire, liquid nitrogen and other adults-only materials. Others may include suggested videos that aren’t appropriate for kids.)


  • 2. Raising da Vinci. From “10 Magic Tricks That Are Really Just Science” to “Rainbow Science,” this YouTube channel creates fun categories to help viewers find their favorite types of experiments. A homeschooling mom created Raising da Vinci to share ideas and activities that she’s road tested with her own kids. Next time your kid hosts a sleepover, check out 10 Science Activities for Slumber Parties or Sleepovers.


  • 3. WhizKidScience. The great thing about this YouTube channel is that a kid conducts all the experiments, and his younger brother and sister sometimes help, too. It has the most kid-friendly experiments of all the YouTube channels on this list. Even very young kids can help with many of the experiments, including this Easy Play Doh project.



  • 5. Crash Course Kids. There’s an entire school year (or more) filled with science learning on this YouTube channel. The energetic host clearly explains concepts like bodies of water, engineering and the food chain while cute animations play on screen. Watch Dinosaur Pee? for a silly yet serious take on the water cycle.


BONUS: Food experiments! If your kid loves experimenting with food, the food-based experiments in the video 14 DIY Science Experiments on the YouTube channel SaraBeautyCorner are colorful, candy-full, and kid-crowd pleasers; popular YouTuber Marlin makes Edible Candy Plants; and check out HooplakidzLab’s Eat Your Science Experiments.

Should Kids Be Able to Choose Their Own Hairstyle?

Rockin’ a new hairstyle can be fun for anyone. But if a kid wants a unique ‘do, they may get tangled up in tensions with parents, school rules or the social norms in their community.

There’s a lot of ways to wear hair, from an array of colors to an asymmetric cut to a shaved design to dreadlocks and more. But are all of them OK for kids?

shane_blueWhen Shane, age 10, asked his mom if he could dye his hair back when he was 8, he didn’t get the reaction he wanted.

“She said no,” said the sixth-grader from New York.

By Shane’s 9th birthday, his mom changed her mind.

“Originally, I dyed it with highlights in blond,” Shane said, “then green, then blue and now it’s blond again.”

Shane’s mom said she changed her mind when he settled on a streak of highlights, and when she realized that her son was trying to express himself through his hair.

“If you tell somebody ‘You can’t express yourself,’ they’re suppressed,” she said. “That’s like telling someone ‘Don’t talk about your art.’”

Even preschoolers have opinions about their appearance

Many parents have a fond attachment to their young kid’s hair. Brushing, braiding and fixing your kid’s hair can be meaningful, consistent bonding time. How many of us have a photo or a lock of hair from a little one’s first haircut?

But don’t be surprised if your kid wants to take charge of their hairstyle decisions far sooner than the teen years. Child development experts say most kids preschool-age and older have an opinion about how they look, including how they want their hair to be styled. Some kids have very strong hair opinions.

“In the old days, boys were not allowed to dye their hair at all,” said Shane. “I felt I could express myself through hair dye.”

Here’s what more kids say about their hair:

  • Elly, age 6: “My hair is cool, awesome, REALLY cool … and pretty.”


  • Avery, age 6: “It feels good…I’m going to keep it like this forever.” Avery’s dad said he shaves the lines in the side of his head to replicate Javier Baez from the Cubs, and the “W” represents the team’s World Series win.


  • Jahaad, age 7: “They look nice, and my uncle has them, too,” he said about his dreadlocks.


  • Wyatt, age 5: “People were calling me girl, I got hot from the sun and it bothered me from the wind.” Wyatt said he likes his shorter hair “‘cause it’s lighter.”


Wyatt’s parents had to grapple with letting go of his never-before-cut, gorgeous locks.

“He was very persistent,” said his mom. “When we decided okay, let’s go, he walked in and said, ‘This is what I want,’ and he smiled the whole time.”

Wyatt’s dad is still not completely at peace with their son’s decision.

“(Wyatt’s dad) doesn’t understand why it has to be the norm that boys have short hair,” Wyatt’s mom said. “It seems to be OK for men to have longer hair, but if a boy has longer hair it’s like a huge deal.”

Parent concerns

Regardless of how a kid wants to change their hair, there may be some concerns beyond parent approval. Does their school have rules banning certain styles? How do you safely dye kids’ hair? How much upkeep will it require?

Whether a kid makes their own hair decisions often ultimately depends on the preferred parenting style in the family and the individual parent-child relationship, according to Dr. Sarah Bauer, assistant professor of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Bauer suggests that parents ask themselves three questions when hair issues arise:

  • Enough time? “Be sure you’re spending enough time with your child.” Then you’ll know what’s contributing to your kid’s desire for a hair change. Is it a passing whim, or a real desire that sticks? Also, give the hairstyle request itself enough time. Take time to listen, ask questions, and consider all factors before saying yes or no.
  • Are you afraid? “Parents should consider their own fears about what their child’s hairstyle represents.” Parents may worry that their child will be unfairly judged by adults or kids based on the hairstyle.
  • What does it mean for your kid? “What’s manifesting in a haircut might be different for each child.” Dig into the reasons behind your kid’s interest.

Kids have many reasons for their hair preferences

Some kids, like Shane, are searching for ways to express their identity, and hair is one way to do that. Others have big-time sensory discomfort during haircuts, which is one reason Jahaad is growing dreadlocks. A kid may want to emulate the style they see on a favorite YouTuber, pop star, or, like Avery, a star athlete. Many kids just want to have some creative fun with hair.

For outsiders looking in on a kid with a unique ‘do, Bauer said keep an open mind, and don’t make assumptions about the kid, or about the parent.

“I think culturally there’s been a shift … but there’s still judgment there,” she said.

For Shane’s mom, shifting from a no to a yes has been positive for him and for her, as she’s watched his confidence blossom.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t get a vote on many things,” she said. “So the things they can have a say about, it’s nice to give them that opportunity for expression.”

Should kids be able to choose whatever hairstyle they want, no matter how unconventional it may be? Who says what happens on a kid’s head, the kid, their parents, their school?

You Want to Do WHAT with Your Hair?

Three things to know if you say yes:

  • 1. It may be more meaningful than you expect. But you won’t know that until you let them do it. For kids who hate haircuts, they may stress far less with longer hair or dreadlocks, knowing the next cut won’t be anytime soon. For kids who crave a way to self-express, the sense of agency that comes from choosing their own unique hairstyle can be a huge confidence boost.
  • 2. Mistakes happen. But hair grows. Dyes fade. And professional stylists can do a lot to make even the worst mistakes look better.
  • 3. Some people will judge. Well-meaning (or not) acquaintances, teachers, grandmas and grandpas, and even other kids will comment. Have some comebacks — or at least a polite reply — prepared. As Shane’s mom said: “People should be worried about heroin, not hair.”

Three things to know if you say no:

  • 1. Consider alternatives. Offer something more temporary than a permanent color or cut. Try hair extensions, clip-ins or one-wash dyes. If the “no” is due to a school rule, ask your kid if they want to write a letter to the school to suggest changing the rule. Empowering them to voice their desire for a change can turn the “no” into a lesson in civil discourse, even if the rule stands.
  • 2. Discover the depth of their request. Once you’ve said no, some kids will just shrug and move on. If they keep bugging you, you’ll know it’s more important to them than a passing whim. Apply a challenge to uncover their level of commitment. When 13-year-old Nick wanted a Mohawk at age 9, his parents used his request as an incentive for him to work hard in school. All A’s? The Mohawk was his.
  • 3. Keep talking. If your kid is super-attached to changing their hairstyle and you’re uber-attached to the “no,” offer to revisit the discussion after an agreed upon time, say in six months, the next grade level or middle school. There’s always potential for change — on both sides — of almost any issue. Even if you never change your mind, your kid will feel heard and understood.

Kids in the Kitchen: 5 Skills Kids Can Learn While Cooking Up Some Fun

Kitchen play can be fun and empowering for kids, and you don’t have to wait until they’re old enough to be on MasterChef Junior to get them cooking. Once kids can understand basic safety rules, they’re ready to have some fun and grow some food-based independence. Along with cooking skills, kitchen play can help kids learn lessons applicable to academics and life.

Problem solving

Recipes are a lot like puzzles. Every ingredient and process fits into a sequence. Food prep requires kids to think about that sequence, assess how it’s progressing throughout the process and evaluate (taste test!) the end result. If something’s gone wrong (too much flour), troubleshooting (a little more liquid?) can open possibilities and help kids develop flexibility.

  • Preschoolers: Sequencing is an important concept at this stage. Integral to problem solving in many academic and social skills — including storytelling, math and practical life tasks — sequencing helps kids know and explain what comes next. Check out this young kid Making Coffee for Dad and notice the look of confidence on his face as he moves from one step to another in an excellent show of sequencing skills.
  • Grade schoolers: Now problem-solving practice becomes more independent, as many kids will be able to begin reading and executing recipes by themselves. Challenge more practiced young cooks to cut a recipe in half or make a double batch so they practice concrete math skills like fractions, multiplication and division.

Recipes are a lot like puzzles.

Responsibility and independence

Most kids sense the importance of kitchen safety from the first time they get too close to the oven and you say “Hot!” When kids begin to prepare food in the kitchen, it’s important to impart simple but important rules like washing hands before food prep, keeping sharp things away from fingers and wearing an apron. Review some basic safety guidelines with your kids and assess their current ability to reliably abide by rules before you set them loose. A fun way to help your kids remember to wear an apron is to buy an inexpensive white apron and let them decorate it with fabric paint.

  • Preschoolers: The kitchen is a natural place for preschoolers to take steps toward independence in concrete, creative and fun ways. Provide some ingredients — graham crackers, peanut butter, bananas, raisins, trail mix, to name a few — on a kid-level shelf where they can mix and match to create unique DIY snacks whenever they’re hungry. They will feel so proud eating their self-made snack.
  • Grade schoolers: Kids now have watched you create in the kitchen for a while and have taken mini-forays into kitchen play with you in the preschool years, so they’re probably ready to put that know-how to use. Set a ground rule that they ask permission and let you know what they’re doing before they start a project in the kitchen. Consider posting kitchen safety reminders for kids to read. Through these basic steps, kids learn the importance of communication and responsibility when it comes to creating anything safely in and out of the kitchen.

The kitchen is a natural place for preschoolers to take steps toward independence in concrete, creative and fun ways.

Body awareness

The kitchen provides kids with ample opportunities for practicing hand-eye coordination and using all five senses. Pouring from a measuring cup into a bowl, cracking an egg, kneading dough to discern its proper consistency and seeing the amount of cinnamon in the palm of your hand that equals a “dash” are just a few of the endless examples of how kitchen play promotes body and sense awareness.

  • Preschoolers: Don’t be afraid to give your preschoolers breakable bowls or glasses when you’re working together in the kitchen. Using breakable items helps kids grow confidence — and shows you trust their budding skills. As long as they know the rules if something breaks — don’t touch broken glass, get an adult — using fragile (not heirloom) items can help kids feel the importance of their task. Watch a kid move more carefully carrying a fragile thing and you will feel the sense of responsibility that they’re internalizing.
  • Grade schoolers: This can be a fun time to encourage kids to try some real precision. Kids this age have tons of fun decorating cupcakes with piping tips, using cookie cutters and trying their hand at many forms of food art, which can refine hand-eye coordination and help them to slow way down — a much-needed skill for today’s rushed schoolkids.

Pouring from a measuring cup into a bowl and cracking an egg are examples of how kitchen play promotes body and sense awareness.

Social skills

Kids can practice an astonishing amount of social skills through food. Collaborating on recipes, preparing and serving meals for others to enjoy, and sitting down to food with pleasant conversation and good table manners all involve learning and practicing skills central to a happy social life.

  • Preschoolers: Practice manners at a self-created tea party, where kids learn the fine art of saying please and thank you and serving others before themselves. Also, there’s no better time than early to start the habit of cleaning after kitchen fun. Make sure your preschooler helps clean every time they play with you in the kitchen. They can learn to clean up spills with a sponge, wash dishes, sweep or mop floors (with kid-size brooms and mops), and return ingredients and tools to their proper spots. Teamwork and orderliness will make everything better for everyone who works and plays in the kitchen.
  • Grade schoolers: For your next holiday gathering, give grade school-age kids the option to make an appetizer, dessert or side — whatever they want. Encourage them to look for a recipe in a book or online that piques their interest, make a grocery list, go shopping together, make their creation solo and serve it to those gathered.

Kids can practice an astonishing amount of social skills through food.


Kids can think outside the box and use kitchen play to make things for reasons other than eating. Help your kid find recipes for homemade play dough or play clay, holiday ornaments, dog treats, bird food and more.

  • Preschoolers: Make a batch of homemade play dough with your kid and they can prepare pretend food nearby with some safe, real kitchen tools during times when you are quickly trying to get food on the table and don’t have the extra time to involve them in dinnertime prep.
  • Grade schoolers: Encourage kids to make their own recipes and in the process practice good old-fashioned kitchen creativity, experimentation and trial and error. It may take a few tries before they make a new recipe worth repeating, but they will learn a lot in the process.

Encourage kids to make their own recipes and in the process practice good old-fashioned kitchen creativity, experimentation and trial and error.

Who knows? With all of this creative and productive playtime in the kitchen, maybe your kid will invent the next great family cookie recipe, be the next MasterChef Junior … or at least make you a really good cup of coffee in the morning.



6 Ways to Get Kids Excited About Eating Their Veggies

When I was a kid, my walking route to and from school passed by my grandma’s garden. This meant every day for weeks in the fall, I detoured through the garden for my after-school snack: crunchy sounding, sunny tasting snap beans right from the vine. I’ve loved green beans ever since.

Many kids today, including my own, aren’t walking home from school or living close enough to grandparents with gardens to experience that sort of everyday, fresh-picked treat, and canned green beans just don’t have the same fall-in-love effect.

But it’s more important than ever in our fast-food culture to introduce our kids to the joys of fruits and veggies. Use these six tips to make it more likely that your kid will see that eating healthy can be fun.

C: Cook and eat together. If your kid can help you cook with fresh produce and see you enjoying eating it, they likely will, too. Fresh produce not available? Frozen usually beats canned in retaining nutrients.

R: Read. Share cookbooks and children’s books about gardens and food with your kid. Check out Growing Minds searchable database of food-related children’s literature.

E: Explore. Find ways to explore how food is grown. Garden together at home, in a community garden, or help your kid’s school start a garden. At home, indoor herb gardens are a good start, and you can grow them year-round.

A: Allow. Empower kids to make some of their own food choices. Once they’re old enough, encourage them to make their own school lunch (from a range of choices that’s acceptable to you both).

T: Talk. Explain how natural foods help your kid grow and stay healthy. Talk about how food choices impact the environment. Michael Pollan’s young reader edition of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a great place to dig into this issue with older elementary and middle school-age kids.

E: Eat together. Even if life is too busy for family dinners every night, gathering just a few times a week gives parents and kids the opportunity to check in with each other and eat mindfully.

Header photo courtesy of National Farm to School Network.

Does Your Kid’s School Have One of These Amazing Learning Labs?

Imagine a futuristic classroom that connects kids with what they’re learning through all five human senses — bright colors, bold smells, rich touch sensations, calming sounds, distinct tastes.

That classroom already exists. It’s called a school garden. If your kid’s school doesn’t have one of these incredible learning labs yet, it may be time to help them start one.

Gardens are springing up in schools across the nation, as educators and parents look for ways to connect kids with natural, healthy, local food. More than 7,000 school districts are now gardening, according to the 2013-2014 USDA Farm to School Census. That’s a 42 percent increase from previous census reports.

Emma Cassidy, National Farm to School Network

Veggie love

Kids love to dig in the dirt, and school garden enthusiasts say most kids will try all kinds of fruits and veggies when they get to see them planted, grown and freshly picked.

When Emily Jackson taught second- and third-graders and brought her students into the garden, she saw firsthand kids’ unbridled enthusiasm for natural foods.

“We had to make a rule, you could only ‘pick-and-pluck’ in the last five minutes, or the kids would spend their time eating so much,” she said. “It was a great problem to have.”

National Farm to School Network

National Farm to School Network

Jackson, who established and now directs the Growing Minds: Farm to School program based in Asheville, N.C., said she’s convinced that adult assumptions that kids won’t eat fruits and veggies are wrong.

“Time and time again, children have shown me that they will,” she said.

Jackson said parents at schools where Growing Minds supports garden programs are amazed by kids’ positive responses to gardening. She said one parent wrote: “He comes home and he talks about the joys of spinach with his little brother.”

Whoa. The joys of spinach?

Good for kids’ bodies and minds

Experts say that gardening is good for kids in ways far beyond eating more veggies and fruits. It helps develop social skills such as teamwork, patience and consistency.

“The cycle of nature has a lot that kids can learn from. It’s not just snap your fingers and it’s done,” said Anupama Joshi, co-founder and executive director of the National Farm to School Network, an advocacy group for school gardens, student farm visits and farm-to-school cafeteria initiatives.

Research has also shown that gardening has emotional benefits.

“Gardens are a healing space, they’re a place where people can go and get some calm,” Joshi said. “Kids have better achievement, better behavior, less problems when they come back into the classroom … gardens provide an energy outlet for kids.”

Beyond health, school gardens help kids learn across the school curriculum — math, language arts, science, geography, economics and more — in a multisensory, immersive way. Organizations such as Growing Minds have ready-made curricula available to help educators use gardening to teach school subjects.

Let’s do this! (How?)

It’s clear: School gardens help kids learn healthy habits and core school subjects. What may not be so clear is how to start one, which can seem like an overwhelming task for one interested teacher or parent who wants to get their school growing.

Jackson suggests that parents contact their kid’s teacher and say, “I’d like to help you do this, we can start really small.”

Go with one simple idea, like a literacy bed. To make a literacy bed, plant one garden bed based on a children’s book, such as “Tops and Bottoms.” Or consider a small section of edible landscaping as part of the school’s overall landscape.  Try herbs or other easy-to-grow plants with short growing times, such as the watermelon radish, which can be harvested in as soon as 25 days.

Emma Cassidy, National Farm to School Network

Emma Cassidy, National Farm to School Network

Still, there may be challenges to overcome, such as finding volunteers to care for the garden during the times school is not in session, or finding time in the busy school day to get kids into the garden regularly. But once you get your gardening groove, the possibilities grow. There’s hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical gardens and classroom-to-classroom mobile container gardens. Some schools even build greenhouses. Some schools partner with the organization FoodCorps, similar to AmeriCorps, which sends staff into schools to help create and maintain gardens and incorporate healthy, fresh foods into school lunches.

Joshi said that adults “need to be thinking about how those garden products are being incorporated into the school cafeteria, or tasted in the classroom, or taken into families so kids really are getting to eat it, not just experience it.”

The resources for practical gardening help and curriculum choices continue to grow online and locally. Local cooperative extension agencies often give free gardening advice. Grants are becoming ever more available for school gardens, too, as government and nonprofit organizations realize the amazing benefits of school-based gardening.

“I really do believe children can be change makers,” Jackson said. “If they come home and they’re excited about tasting that beet in the garden or cooking with fresh broccoli … I think it can change the family dynamic around food.”

Header photo courtesy of National Farm to School Network.

The Identity Issue: I Gotta Be Me

Part of growing up is learning who you are, and sometimes that’s not easy. Kids often face pressure to conform, and it can be really hard to stay true to their own identity. There’s social pressure, media pressure, peer pressure and maybe parent pressure, too. Kids must learn where they fit in and where they stand out. Especially when one or more aspects of their identity aren’t the norm (whatever that is), this can mean tough social and emotional work.

Identity can include many things, including gender, sexual, religious, racial, ethnic, national, generational and political identity, and one or more aspects of a person’s identity may change over time, according to ACT for Youth Center of Excellence, a New York-based center focused on positive youth development and adolescent sexual health.

The road to self-knowledge can be difficult, but identity development for kids and adolescents is essential to building a fundamental confidence and inner peace.

Toca Magazine interviewed six kids who are passionate about an aspect of their identity to find out why they want to tell the world, “This is who I am.”

Name it and claim it.

Laye, 12

laye_farmLaye lives in rural California, where she’s a self-directed, adult-assisted unschooler and raises goats, chickens and sheep with her parents. Laye is a “Luna’s Team” member for New Moon Girls magazine, which means she selects editorial content and art for the magazine and its online community. Laye tells Toca Magazine why it’s been important to her sense of identity to choose her own name.

What’s the story behind your name change?
“I never really liked my given name (Lily). Around age 5, I asked to be called Snowball, but my parents didn’t agree to that.” (Laye said she’s thankful to her parents for that decision now.)

“My parents still call me Lily, but most of my friends and the other people who know me call me Laye, which was a name I made up, so it was totally me.” Laye said she would like to legally change her name to Laye someday and add Lily to her middle name. “It has special meaning to my parents,” she acknowledged. Then her name would be meaningful to her and her parents. “Kind of like a compromise,” she said.

Do you have any role models?
“Both of my parents are strong, amazing people who have overcome a lot in life.” Laye’s other role models are fictional characters, including Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series and Lyra Silvertongue, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. “She doesn’t allow other people to put her down,” Laye said of Lyra Silvertongue. “She just keeps doing what she thinks is right for her to do.”

Have your parents given you any advice on identity?
“They think it’s important for me to be myself … even if it means not being exactly like them,” she said.

Do you have any advice for kids about being true to their own identity?

“Follow your own interests and let your imagination lead you,” Laye said. Since she’s very opinionated, Laye often finds herself in debates, which she loves. Laye said she’s learned the art of being sensitive to others’ views while staying true to her own opinions. “It’s OK to be different from other people as long as you accept them, as long as you’re diplomatic. You can still be happy and get along with people.”

I am an artist.

Dylan, 11

dylan_2_meltingpeopleDylan is a kid with lots of interests, but drawing is something he strongly identifies as an essential part of who he is. He’s loved creating art for as long as he can remember. As he gets older, he’s focusing more on drawing and sketching. Now he spends lots of time and effort honing his skills. “Recently, I’ve gotten really good at drawing realistic hands and faces,” he said.

How does drawing contribute to your identity?
“When I draw, I don’t think about my own being. I just put my pencil down on the paper and it just starts moving.” But sometimes, “about 25 percent of the time,” his drawings are planned, he said. Those come from real experiences he’s had, like what he sees in nature, such as a beautiful waterfall, or other artists’ work in cartoons, books and movies.

Anytime he’s sketching, Dylan said, “I think I’m an artist then.”

What are some other aspects of your identity not related to drawing?
“I really like to swim. I’m on a competitive swim team and a competitive soccer team, and I love reading,” said Dylan. “Reading is sort of like drawing. When I read … I sort of become one with the story.”

Do you have any role models related to your drawing?
Along with an art teacher he’s had since preschool, Dylan lists cartoonists Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening as his role models. Dylan’s mom is also an artist, so they’ve done some projects together, and she gives him advice on technical skills. “A couple of lines can make it look so much better,” he said.

Any advice for other kids who see their creativity as part of their identity?
“When you have unique abilities—such as drawing, like me— don’t constrain yourself. Try new things,” Dylan said. He’s tried his hand at other visual arts, such as sculpture, in art class at school. Sometimes his friends will tell other classmates to check out what Dylan’s creating in class.

“I’m sort of proud of that,” he said. “It feels good.”


I can be whoever I want.

Zadie, 11

zadie_identityZadie began acting in third grade. Now she identifies herself as an actress and has already been in the cast of 11 performances. The middle school she attends includes two hours of performing arts classes each day, and she hopes to attend The Julliard School in New York City for college.

How does acting impact your identity?
“Acting shows that I’m very confident when I’m on stage. It makes me a really happy person,” said Zadie. “Without acting, I think I would be more shy, I wouldn’t be as outgoing.”

Who are some of your biggest supporters and role models?
Zadie said her parents are very supportive of her acting. “They love to see me perform,” she said. The director of the youth theater company that she’s been involved with since third grade has also been one of her greatest cheerleaders. “My director, Tyler, has made a really big impact on me. He’s a great actor and he’s really nice. He’s so encouraging,” she said. Audrey Hepburn is her favorite actress.

In addition to acting, what is another aspect of your identity that you’re proud of?
“I’m African-American, German-Jewish, Italian-Sicilian, and Lebanese,” said Zadie. “I really just like learning about my background.” Zadie said her diverse ethnic and cultural heritage helps her in theater. “In acting, I feel like I can be whoever I want,” she said.

The whole world is a classroom.

Bryce, 12

Bryce has been a homeschooler his entire life. He’s proud of his identity as a homeschooler and wants to change misperceptions about homeschooled kids.

What do you say to people who ask you about being a homeschooler?
”I tell them it’s pretty awesome, and they tell me I’m very lucky,” said Bryce, who would be in seventh grade in a traditional school but doesn’t usually label himself as being in a specific grade. One of the big benefits of homeschooling for Bryce is not being limited to spending the day with only people of the same age: ”People of all ages get to meet, and we get to meet all sorts of people,” he said.

What are some of the best things about being a homeschooler?
”I get to do different things every day,” Bryce said. ”I just love everything about it. It’s great.” Bryce said he learns in many ways, including with his mom, on the computer, and in workbooks. He said his mom “definitely helps me keep my self-esteem high” by supporting him in trying new things. As part of a local homeschool co-op, he takes break-dancing classes and participates in Roots & Shoots, the Jane Goodall Institute’s youth-led program for environmental and animal activism.

What are some other parts of your identity that you love that aren’t related to being a homeschooler?
“I really like my hair,” Bryce said. “It’s big and puffy. It just happens naturally.” He also loves jet skiing in Florida’s coastal waters. “I see tarpons, dolphins, manatees and sharks. I love living in Florida.”

Anything else you want people to know about your identity as a homeschooler?
Bryce tells a story about a time he and a friend were at a playground and another kid started asking them critical questions about homeschooling. “I think he thought we were dumb,” Bryce said. “I want people to know that’s totally not true.”


To label or not to label.

Ruby, 15

RubyRuby wanted to be interviewed for this article to support her friends in the LGBT community who feel pressure to label their sexuality, even if they’re still working it out within themselves. “A lot of kids struggle with coming out, and then they think they have to figure this out,” she said. “It’s a struggle for people not in the LGBT community to understand.”

How do you explain your sexual identity when people ask you to explain?

“I use the term ‘queer’ when people ask for labels because it’s the most general possible term. However, bisexual can also be used as an umbrella term, as can gay. I tend to use queer because there’s essentially zero stigma around it, and I have seen other people use this term to identify themselves.”

Do you have any role models for this aspect of your identity?

“I really admire (actor) Ruby Rose. She’s a public figure and she’s comfortable and confident with her sexuality.”

As you’ve grown up, how did your parents help you be comfortable with who you are? Have they given you any advice on this topic? “My parents have been really supportive, but I understand that a lot of people haven’t had constant support. On the advice front, they’re both straight, so it’s harder for them to give advice, but luckily I’ve got lots of that from my friends.”

What’s another aspect of your identity that you’d like people to know about?

“Books. Reading is a large part of my identity.” Ruby said other aspects of her identity are still developing. “When you’re a teen, you’re still figuring out your identity. I’m still figuring out what parts of myself I most want to present to people.”

Any advice on sexual identity for other teens?

“Don’t feel pressure to come out to anyone unless you feel safe with that person.” And if they’re not supportive? “Dump them.”

I am who I say I am.

Justin, 14

Justin wanted to participate in this article to speak out against negative stereotyping of young African-American men. Since age 10, he’s been part of the group Young Gifted and Black in Oakland, California, which teaches kids and teens about black history and how to express themselves through performance art. Justin recently traveled to Ghana to learn more about his heritage.

What is the most important thing for people to know about your identity as an African-American teen male?
“I’m not what the media thinks I am.” Justin said he feels that some people automatically make assumptions that he’s uneducated because of media portrayals of young black men, and that they’re too quick to stereotype.

“People say, ‘Do you play basketball, do you listen to rap music?’” Even though he does play basketball, there’s far more to Justin’s identity that he’d like people to know about.

“I’m a musician and a poet. That shows a lot about my identity and my creativity,” he said. Justin said he takes a “social justice mindset” to his creative work, focusing on issues that are happening in his community.

Do you have any role models related to your racial and gender identity?
“Kendrick Lamar and Common.” These rapper/poets “talk about meaningful things, they talk about social justice,” Justin said.

Have your parents given you any advice on this aspect of your identity?
“They’ve always taught me to love myself and love who I am, to be proud of my history and my ancestry.” His parents encouraged him to apply to Oakland School for the Arts for high school, where he will focus on literary arts.