In the new book "Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun," two chapters deal with the game Foursquare. That emphasis reflects how effectively this new book encourages kids ages 8 to 13 to immerse themselves in activities from both the past and the present. One chapter is all about the playground game, played with a rubber ball and a chalk-drawn grid, and the other chapter focuses on the popular social media app that can help kids and parents explore the grid of their own hometown together.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen, a Minneapolis writer and editor, and Boston-based writer Joshua Glenn have created the quintessential guide for today's tech-savvy and socially engaged kids. The book never loses sight of the many ways kids can and should make time for some honest-to-goodness fun.
"When Josh and I first started this project, we realized there are a lot of fantastic activity books for kids, but a lot of them are nostalgic," Larsen said. "They don't reflect what kids and families are like today. So, we wanted to combine the best of the old with the best of the new."
At a time when both kids and adults are "disappearing into our screens," as Larsen says, one of the goals of this book is to encourage kids "to be active participants in their own lives."
Set for activity
"Unbored" is divided into four main chapters -- You, Home, Society and Adventure -- with almost 50 individual topics, stories and projects per section. For instance, the Home chapter includes "The Secret (Gross) History of Bedrooms" (fun fact: Mattresses have historically contained everything from horse hair to sea moss); a guide to making different types of back-yard forts and shelters; high- and low-tech ways to find a lost pet; and a section about experimenting in the kitchen, including "Toaster Science."
DIY (do-it-yourself) projects are also plentiful in the book -- everything from making a secret book safe to decorating sneakers to constructing a remote-controlled water blaster.
"The time is really right for the makers and the DIY enthusiasts," Larsen said. "These are the kinds of projects that parents can do with their kids, not in a helicopter-y way, but by prioritizing the process over the end product. Kids can discover that the art of doing something is what's really cool."
The authors sought out a variety of expert contributors to help them delve into the vast array of topics, relying on their mutual network of interesting friends and colleagues to promote their own areas of expertise. That includes Ginia Bellafante, a writer for the New York Times, who contributes an essay on "How to Criticize Everything," and Colin Beavan, executive director of the No Impact Project, who writes about ways to "train your grownup to save the planet."
Larsen, who frequently writes on parenting and child development, said topics like Beavan's and her own essay on "How to Train Your Grownup to Stop Saying You're Awesome" (complete with an A-Z list of synonyms for this frequently overused word) enhance the potential of "Unbored" as a parenting guide.
"In this case, the topic is really about over-praising kids," said Larsen, who opens her essay with this line: "If you're like my kids, you're probably used to hearing your grownups tell you that you're fantastic at everything you try."
The harshest critics
While writing the book, Larsen was surrounded by what she referred to as "a brutally honest focus group" -- her children Peter, 13; Henrik, 10, and Luisa, 8 -- who occasionally pointed out what they saw as her less than fantastic missteps.
"My 10-year-old son helped me with the writing, in the sense that I read chapters to him to make sure I had the correct voice," said Larsen, who had never written a book for kids before. "After one section in particular, he said, 'I thought this was going to be a fun book,' so I knew the tone needed work."
Both Peter and Henrik contributed to "Unbored." One of Peter's essays is about a day he spent visiting a Minneapolis architecture firm, and how he had the chance to try out the AutoCAD computer drawing program. Henrik's contribution features tips on how to make family portraits fun, including this nugget of wisdom: "Bring candy -- it helps to have a little reward. My mom says to make sure the candy isn't blue in case you want to take a few more photos after the reward time."
Many options for kids
The book also features several "best of" lists compiled by her co-author on topics such as animal movies, clean hip-hop songs and science fiction; excerpts from classics such as "Anne of Green Gables" and "Around the World in 80 Days," and interviews with author Kate DiCamillo and explorer Ann Bancroft.
Larsen and co-author Glenn are currently working on a U.K. version of "Unbored" with modifications to the text to make British kids feel that the book was written for them. For instance, a chapter on de-skunking a pet was removed -- no skunks in England -- and a chapter on attending music festivals -- a popular family activity there -- was added.
No matter their location, Larsen hopes kids and parents will dip into the subjects in "Unbored" any way they like. Reader feedback on their website (which is updated daily) has been very positive.
"Parents have commented that they appreciate the fact that we have provided so many ideas that can get kids to walk away from the screen," Larsen said. "We've also gotten several photos from kids showing us the projects they have done. To me, that's thrilling."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.