Sunday, 22 January 2017

Simplifying childhood and natural learning

Sometimes, especially during hot afternoons, I love watching my children play. Our garden has several palm trees which regularly provide us with large, flat pieces of wood and long thin leaves which are perfect for weaving. I am amazed by the variety of different adventures the boys have with these. They have built yurts in Siberia, rafts to float down the Nile, tee-pees and Masai warrior shelters, great ships and tiny canoes. They each have a square blanket (which are actually Masai blankets) that are transformed into all kinds of different outfits, are used as parts of tents or as sails. One is currently in use as a hammock. Often the adventures they embark upon have been influenced by something we have recently read - and the Sonlight curriculum we follow is rich in 'living books' - true to life stories of people who actually lived in an era together with a selection of inspiring biographies. It is good to stop and watch them growing, learning, exploring and developing. Sometimes I feel that they haven't listened 'well' to a particular story or lesson, only to see them acting it out later on (often a week or two later); this is something I have been noticing with the boys for quite a few years, but which I often forget. It is too easy to look for instant 'results' or measurable attainments and lose sight of the bigger picture (at least it is with my kind of goal-directed, problem solving, systematic approach to situations!)

But it does sometimes require taking a step back! We need to provide them with enough space and time for this creativity to develop. We need to allow them to work at a challenge and find a solution. It is quite impressive to watch the visuo-spatial skills of my seven year olds, as they work out the best way to hoist a sail using a home-made pulley slung over a branch on the avocado tree. They have figured out quite a lot about what makes a structure stable and rainproof. The develop ingenious ways of lashing pieces of wood together using palm leaves. It can be very tempting as a parent to watch them working at something and want to jump in, show them what they should do, and launch into a mini-lecture, embracing this as a 'teachable moment'. There may be a time and place for that, but there is also a place in creative play where the parent's role is to step back. Charlotte Mason wrote quite a bit about that - a kind of watchful attention, but giving the children freedom and space.

I had to laugh when reading this article about how we 'protect' our children to the point of depriving them of physical exercise, exposure to nature and many extremely valuable opportunities. It made me laugh because, sadly, this is something we see so often, and I was quite relieved to hear this voice of reason. Our neighbours really worry about having our children play with sticks, and completely miss the fact that they are building and being constructive with these and rarely have even a minor injury. Back home, I remember being astonished on a snowy Saturday when we were alone in our local park, but being told that it was too cold for children to play (it was above zero!). Whenever we return to developed countries, we are often shocked at the rising rates of childhood obesity and how few children seem to play outside. Parents seem to utterly miss the point that by protecting their children from perceived harms now is storing up for them a whole raft of future harms, in terms of their health but also their emotional and psychological (and one might argue even spiritual) development.

Giving the children the space and time they need for creativity, perhaps especially outdoor creativity, also takes an intentional choice in terms of schedule. We are slightly protected from this where we are currently living, but there is an increasing tendency to fill every spare moment with some kind of 'extracurricular' activity. Sports, music, dancing, choir, drama, structured field trips with other children, the list could go on. I've read some very interesting articles on this topic lately. For example, this one describes how the behaviours identified among children who are overstimulated with too much 'stuff' and too much exposure to excessive stimulation and entertainment can actually resemble that of children who have been exposed to real trauma; the children become restless, unsettled, anxious and unable to concentrate. It makes a lot of sense. I have friends back home who seem to have whole rooms overflowing with brightly coloured plastic toys, and yet the children never seem to play with any one thing. Some parents see this as an indication that the children are 'bored' with what they have and need more, but in fact the opposite is likely to be true. I see that in my own children; in how they can be perfectly fulfilled with pieced of wood and leaves and the time and space to really play. Some other suggestions on how you could simplify and unclutter your life are here. Sometimes, as an expatriate living overseas, one can hear a little voice of untruth, telling us that our children are missing out on some of the things they would have at home; however, I need to see the lack of exposure to 'stuff' as an advantage, not something to lament.

Homeschooling provides the perfect way to step off the treadmill of constant activity, but even here there can be a temptation to 'achieve' and to 'give your child every opportunity'. There can also be a temptation to feel the need to 'prove ourselves' academically to those who are unsupportive of our choices. On that note, I was very encouraged to read this article describing an American college Professor's impression of homeschooled students. That particular blog contains links to other studies providing clear data that homeschooled children excel in their early years at college and are more capable of independent, enquiring learning. (There are also some hints as to areas that we might need to work a little on - note taking and timed assignments under 'exam' conditions as the children get towards college age, for example). This didn't really surprise me. When I went to University to study medicine in a different country to where I had attended secondary school, I was quite shocked by students who had apparently 'excelled' in secondary school but who seemed to really struggle with the materials we encountered in first year. I came to appreciate that some of those who had been to the more prestigious secondary schools had been taught how to pass the relevant examinations, rather than having really been taught how to learn. Homeschooling takes that to a different level: we actively encourage our students to pursue their areas of curiosity and to find answers and solutions to their questions from the earliest years; I can fully see how this would prepare them better for life-long learning, and indeed it is maintaining and building upon that natural love of learning which was a major factor motivating us to homeschool in the first place.

Often I read blogs of women (as it is usually the women who write on this topic, not because the dads don't feel the same too!) who remind us that these early years, although intense and at times exhausting, are actually blissful days with unique opportunities that will not come again. I had a recent conversation in the canteen at work about the merits of putting primary school and pre-school aged children into boarding schools; it was quite shocking to hear some of the arguments. Some people are very keen to push their children out of the door, and then lament about the fact they don't know or understand their adolescent. Again, I was thankful for the choices that we have made, and that although tiring, we can enjoy this time with our family. This was reinforced when we found some old short videos made at the time when I had three children aged under three. It feels like yesterday, and yet when I look at them now, I realise just how much they have grown and changed, and how we probably won't play some of those games again.

I have friends in different places of the world who are going through real trial at the moment. Bereavement, illness, separation from loved ones because of visa issues, political instability, discouragement. And as I pray for my friends, I take time to thank God for the simple blessings in day to day life.


  1. You touch on one of my favorite parts of homeschooling: time. Time to play, learn, explore, develop skills, find passions. Thank you for sharing your experience; great reminder!


    1. Thanks. It IS one of the best parts, but I sometimes need to remind myself of this truth! It can be easy to listen to competing voices and pressures from outside and from within myself. I particularly like the Sonlight blog posts which pop up on my Facebook feed and into my email, as these often remind me of the bigger picture and the things which matter most.