The next time you visit the mall, pay special attention to where the shoppers have stopped, perhaps to rearrange their packages, get their bearings, or use their cellphone. Then look directly above them and note whether the height of the ceiling has changed. It’s like that for a reason – mall developers carefully designed it that way.

According to John Stilgoe, author, historian, and Harvard professor of visual and environmental studies, mall designers deliberately change the ceiling height where they want people to congregate – typically near the high-end anchor stores, jewelry, or boutique stores.

"If you look up you’ll notice the walls above the signs are painted garishly," explains Stilgoe, "causing you to automatically turn your eyes back down to the storefronts."

On Thursday, November 17, at the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Arts Center, Stilgoe will give a lecture, "Just Looking Around: Visual Acuity and 21st Century Power," about how adults and children are affected by messages hidden in their everyday environment. The free lecture is presented by CommonGround, a series of free parenting lectures presented by a consortium of private schools and open to the public.

"Little kids learn a lesson every time they eat a McDonald’s Happy Meal in a highly-crafted environment," says Stilgoe, an author of four books who has appeared on 60 Minutes and is a guest columnist with the Boston Globe. "It’s often the second most important environment a preschooler is exposed to – the first being home. When you start watching children develop, you have to ask what the formative influences are, and you seldom hear anything about fast-food restaurants – where they spend a tremendous amount of time. The lesson is not a negative one, but it has a major impact. Happy places are very powerful."

So what do kids learn at McDonald’s? Stilgoe says the lesson children absorb early from fast food experiences is that restaurants should be quick to serve, well-lit, and entertaining.

There are other everyday environments that greatly affect children, common places – the edges of backyards, the playground, and the shortcuts leading to home – that are ripe with learning experiences, places where children learn important life lessons. "These areas mean a great deal to kids because they are not adult-created and adult-ruled. Parent don’t maintain those places, and kids know that they belong to them. The schoolyard, on the other hand, is a safe environment with lots of rules that is created for children by adults. But, on the way home from school, there may be a path through the woods, and kids make it their own."

These are extremely positive places, says Stilgoe, because children can be on their own, learning how to function in the greater world. "We have become a nation that is so anxious to prevent children from danger, we may actually be raising young adults who can’t identify danger and can’t deal with it when they encounter it. Unfortunately, you can’t make the whole world child-friendly. This is particularly important when young men serve in the military overseas. They’re almost certainly going to an area that is not person-friendly, U.S. friendly, or anything else."

Stilgoe asserts that children who are allowed to roam free and experiment are less likely to be put off by the unexpected later in life. "I now teach some students for whom a flat tire is a tragedy. Not only do they not know how to change a tire, they are even somewhat frightened of the person who comes out with the tow truck to change it for them. A child who is exposed to the unexpected will show more resiliency to the unknown in adulthood."

Raised by a professional boat builder and homemaker, Stilgoe earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and a master’s at Purdue. In 1977, he received a PhD in American studies from Harvard, where he was immediately appointed to the faculty. Stilgoe lives on a farm with his wife, Debra, in Norwell, Massachusetts. They have two grown sons.

Stilgoe advises parents who want to nurture resiliency in their children to let them experiment with the unknown – within reason; fail as well as succeed; and suffer the unpleasant consequences that sometimes occur in life. "Let them discover, that the fluffy chick at the petting zoo delivers a painful peck," Stilgoe says.

Not only does a child’s daily exposure to their surroundings set preferences and life-long consumer habits (say, for cheeseburgers and fries), it also may subtly prepare for – or hinder – their future success. "Children who may be sensitive, inventive, creative, contrary and intent on personal and intellectual freedom may not do well on standardized tests. Furthermore, because there is no agreed upon method for identifying their intellectual gifts, there’s been very little shift in formal education for kids who don’t excel in the traditional subjects," says Stilgoe.

Take for instance, a child who is more interested in collecting swords than reading the latest Harry Potter novel. Stilgoe says: "A child who likes to collect swords may give his parents some sleepless nights. But that child is learning, through the visual and tactical experience, that three-dimensional objects extend his reach. He can probably articulate that a rapier provides a totally different way of projecting power than a cutlass."

Stilgoe says that some children who may be diagnosed as having a learning disability, may actually have "a learning super-ability. It’s just that no one has focused extensively on what he might learn and how. If many intelligent children learn visually, and the way to get into a good university is to do well on the SATs, then why isn’t there a visual component to standardized testing? In a nutshell, it’s because most public schools lack the funds to introduce a new curriculum."

Stilgoe says the environment in which kids grow up today sends distinct messages to children. "Today’s young people begin to realize around seventh grade that there are other routes to power and wealth than doing well on tests. This was made clear during the run-up to the dot-com boom. People who went to state schools, or dropped out of the best schools, made hundreds of millions of dollars, pursuing interests beyond what they’d been told they should."

Harvard created the field of environmental and visual studies in the 1960s, says Stilgoe, so that its students would understand the power of television. Today graduates of the field go into police work, entertainment, and the investment industry. "Many of them," says Stilgoe, "are successful entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re in the business of giving money to people with creative ideas for visual things, like Microsoft Windows or hypertext language."

"Just Looking Around: Visual Acuity and the 21st Century," a parenting lecture by John Stilgoe of Harvard University, Thursday, November 17, 7:30 p.m., Kirby Arts Center, Lawrenceville School, Route 206, Lawrenceville. Sponsored by CommonGround. 609-896-0400.

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