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Local Column

Akst: Flat Stanley is simple, fun

Classroom learning is crucial. As a teacher, I’m not aware of any really effective substitute or replacement for it.

But as our son’s education progresses (he’s in second grade), I have begun to realize that learning should occur in as many ways and places as possible, and that whenever possible, it should be fun.

Flat Stanley helped me realize this. Flat Stanley is a little paper boy who travels all over with the help of human friends and relatives, having adventures and teaching kids.

Flat Stanley is thought to have come from the mind of a dad, Jeff Brown.

One night, one of Brown’s two kids was stalling about going to bed (a phenomenon with which I’m oh-so-familiar). The child was nervous that the large bulletin board his dad had installed above his bed would fall on him.

Brown assured the child he would be fine, but joked that if it did fall, the boy would probably wake up in the morning a little flat.

The children thought that was hilarious. They began making up stories about places they’d go and things they’d do if they were flat.

A friend who worked in publishing heard about the flat stories. He suggested that Brown write a book about them, and that’s how the Flat Stanley series originated.

Later, Dale Hubert, a Canadian schoolteacher, created the Flat Stanley Project, which links students and encourages communication. Now, Flat Stanleys (and Flat Stephanies) travel all over the world, making new friends and having great adventures with human hosts.

Our son’s second-grade class sent two Flat Stanleys per student to friends and relatives. They came back, and now the paper dolls are teaching children.

One of our son’s Flat Stanleys visited my sister in Amarillo, Texas. Flat Stanley came back and taught about:

• Route 66, the enormously significant “mother road” between Chicago and Los Angeles;

• Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a gorgeous geographic feature that’s the second largest canyon in North America;

• Cadillac Ranch, the famous modern art piece famed in song and movie scene;

• The American Quarter Horse Museum, where famous race horses are celebrated and documented.

All that knowledge courtesy of a paper doll and a kindly aunt.

On Wednesday night, I was thinking about this at the Sycamore Public Library. Our son was in a nearby room reading aloud … to a dog.

Reading to dogs is part of the library’s “Books and Barks” program. Books and Barks fosters a love of reading in children (in second through fifth grades) because they get to read to furry friends.

According to the library’s website, the program provides kids “an opportunity to practice their reading skills by reading aloud to a dog. The goal of Books and Barks is to create a positive, nonthreatening, and fun environment for independent reading.”

That’s the whole program, and like many great ideas, the genius is its simplicity.

Anyway, our son is one of my best sources for column ideas. He often suggests that I write about how people need to take better care of the environment.

But Wednesday, I told him I was thinking about writing about Flat Stanley.

He said, “You mean how it’s not just about a flat kid, but that it’s fun for learning?”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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