A Love for Learning

Rion Nakaya essays

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This essay was originally published in print Issue no. 13, theme BALANCE.

I’ve always loved science and the arts. In the huge back garden of the school where my mother worked, I learned to walk among the tall grass watching the bees. We would collect wildflowers and organize them by type. There was a pottery wheel and kiln out in the open air under a large oak. I have vivid memories of spinning the wheel as fast as I could with my feet and shaping the clay in my small hands.

At 4, I attended a summer class about the planets—there were nine of them at the time— and I still remember painting the stars and black of space with thick paint, and then cutting it out for the background of my shoebox diorama. When I was 9, my mom would drive us up to the top of our local mountains to watch meteor showers. Bundled up, we’d sit on the hood of the car looking up, eager and keen-eyed.

Of course, all of these memories come rushing back when I spend time with my own kids. My 4-year-old son is ravenous for all things space, maps, music, the elements and how things are made. And I love to see my 1-year-old little girl watching hummingbirds fly in our back yard or calling out to the moon in the early evening, not yet knowing how far apart those two things in the sky actually are. It all feels so familiar.

Children are sponges—natural scientists and explorers. At this age, they have constant questions, they (hopefully) don’t mind failing into an answer, and they want to get their hands on everything. They also see everything with new eyes. My son likes to tell me how beautiful the shape of my coffee mug ring is, or how nice the dust floating in the sunlight looks, or how much he likes the black marker drawing he just scrawled on his leg. And suddenly, I can slow myself down to see the art in these things again, too.

I often have a hard time slowing down. Like many people, if my smartphone isn’t in my hand, it’s in my back pocket, and work does not end at 6 p.m. I am not the analog model of behavior that my mother or grandmother was for me as a toddler. The Internet, the great experiment I dedicate my career and hobbies to, has created a very different home from the one I grew up in. It has changed the pace of things, how we communicate and come together to take action, how we see the world and what we have access to. And it has changed how we learn.

When I was little, I remember sitting amidst a pile of dark green Encyclopedia Britannicas—pouring over details of the human circulatory system illustrations, the cellophane layers of how color separation works and the evolution of creatures from the Precambrian to Paleozoic to Mesozoic eras—for what seemed like hours. As I studied their covers, the smell of old books and exploring on my own evoked the wonder of what secrets might lay within their pages.

I’m still among those pages, but now they are within a few clicks on my phone. When my son asks questions I can’t answer—“How many moons does Jupiter have again?”—I reach for my smartphone instead of a book. And though my kids do love the books in our house (often seen in piles across our floors), their cravings for iPad time are strong. Even music leads us back online: My 1-year-old can recognize her favorite streaming playlist of songs.

Clearly technology delivers phenomenal new education tools, but I had concerns. Would my kids’ thinking process be deprived of the work that analog processes require? Would their tenacity and patience be shortchanged by easy answers? Is there too much entertainment built into these screens—the music, quick edits, wacky-sounding narrators? Am I leaving them alone to explore their world as much as I should? Are we getting outside enough? Un-ironically, I googled these questions, and found I was not the only one concerned about this balance.

And then one day, I ran into the most exquisite black and white video of Ella Fitzgerald scatting on stage in 1969, and it was really joyful and breathtaking. I showed it to my then-3-year-old. The response? He scatted all week.

That. That was even more joyful and breathtaking. And I didn’t worry as much after that.

“Your friend is taking ballet? There’s a guy named Mikhail Baryshnikov I want to show you.”

“They had drums today at school? That’s so cool! Remind me to show you Max Roach sometime!”

“Hey, did you know you can make rhythm with gravity? I have a video about that.”

Out of nowhere, he asked about gravity on the moon a few days later. At that point, I realized exposure to these moments through technology was something I wouldn’t really have had access to otherwise. It gives us a chance to engage in a discussion about where our trash goes after we throw it away, how stick bugs blend into their environments, how violins are made, why our neighbors have solar panels and how other places on earth use the sun to generate energy.

We talked. We asked questions. We guessed. We googled. We’d run into something unexpected.

And then I realized I was learning, too. learning constantly! And really loving what I was learning. There are nights where I find myself up at 1 a.m., deep into a rabbit hole about manta rays that connect to videos about the “mola mola” ocean sunfish, that take a turn toward microorganisms and a treasure trove of TED talks and TED Ed videos. I find myself super excited to share what I am learning with my kids.

It’s about balance, and because of that, we limit screen time. They’re outside in our backyard on their own more and more as they get older. There have been weeks when videos have been off the menu completely. And I’m actually trying to keep my smartphone in the other room when I’m with the kids. (Sometimes this isn’t as easy as it should be.)

But as another educational tool, finding smart science and arts videos online has been a positive influence for us. They’ve provided basic information, some inspiration, a lot of context and connections, a reinvigorated drive in my own learning experience and a starting point for talking about so many things that reflect our values as parents.

I have hope it has made a difference in my kids’ love for learning, both on and offline. Many times now, we’ll be out doing something—flying kites, making a robot costume from boxes, building a ramp for toy cars to race on—and my kid will say to me, “remember? We learned about this in that video.” And the discussion continues…

This essay was originally published in print Issue no. 13, theme BALANCE.

About the Author

Rion Nakaya

Rion Nakaya has been or currently still is a user experience designer, a photoblogger, a New Yorker, an expat and a champion of science and storytelling for all ages. In addition to finding her in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and two kids, you can find her blogging smart videos for kids at .

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