Sunday, 13 November 2016

Inspiring Superheroes

I was all set to devote my blog writing time to the next segment in my quest to compare SDE, Public Education, Montessori, and Waldorf styles of learning when I got side-tracked by the US election.  I suddenly had a lot to process*.  I just needed to hold still for a moment.  Then I needed new hope, new inspiration.  Enter Sunbeam.  This past summer, my son’s dear friend who is in public school, was enrolled in a half day arts summer camp entitled Heroes and Villains.  My son is not into programs with a lot of structure but he loves his friend and in an effort to spend more time with him, he decided to take part.  He spent four days working on this creation.  When he finished the art camp, he didn’t want anyone to gush over his art as he detests insincerity and he had no interest in talking about it.  So we hung his art in his bedroom and didn’t talk about it.

Wednesday night, as I helped him get ready for bed, I asked him “Can you tell me a little bit about Sunbeam?  Is Sunbeam a superhero or a villain?”

“Sure.  She’s a hero.” 

I was surprised.  I thought Sunbeam was a boy because so many Superheroes are males and since a little boy created him, I just assumed that he would create a male character.  “She’s a girl?  And a Superhero?” 

“Yes!  Can’t you see the long green hair? And the cape?” He was annoyed that I didn’t see this.

“I guess I saw the frown and just assumed Sunbeam was an angry villain.”

“Yes, she is frowning.  Superheroes frown too you know.  When she is happy, sunbeams come out of her eyes and her light shines everywhere and everyone feels warm inside.  When she is angry, the sunbeams are like electric shocks and she shocks the bad guys.  When she is sad, it is truly sad, because the sunbeams that come from her eyes are like she is losing energy, the sunbeams are like her blood.  She is frowning because she is the only superhero and there are A LOT of bad guys that she has to fight.  And she could really use a vacation.”

Wow.  He put a lot of thought into that.  What an interesting superhero!  Suddenly I felt inspired again and here is why.  Invited Conversations is one of my favorite blog posts not because I feel proud of the writing but because I believe so strongly in the message.  It’s about how important it is to surround yourself with people that inspire you, not just for your own growth and development but for your children too.  When your kids are nearby, they soak up everything you bring in their space.  Learning about Sunbeam helped me realize that over the past two years, my son has played at Little Seeds, Learning in the Woods, and Barn School meetings with inspiring women talking nearby.  He has played in the sun as we shared our joys and struggles as mothers who are trying to do something different.  So of course Sunbeam is a woman.  Of course she is a superhero.  Of course she has a full range of emotions with the power to light up the room, shock the “bad guys”, and feel drained in her sadness.  Isn't that the description of all great mothers everywhere?

Thursday morning I woke up thinking of Sunbeam again.  I asked my son if I could have the painting when he was done with it.  He smiled and said yes, recognizing that I truly appreciated his art.  My heart swelled with love.  All superheroes have moments when they feel like the job is bigger than they are but they keep going because that is their job.  I was inspired again and if you are feeling lost or overwhelmed, I hope you find your inspiration too because, my fellow Sunbeams, the world needs us more than ever to shine our light and shock the bad guys.  

And apparently there are a lot of bad guys and no time for a vacation!   

*If you are in a place where you are processing a lot of emotions and finding it difficult to move forward, I would recommend this read by Yoga guru and Blissology creator Eion Finn.  It’s in line with what we are trying to do at We Learn Naturally; create a space where emotions are processed and expressed in their entirety without judgement or pressure to move past them in an effort to make other people more comfortable.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Comparison of Self-Directed Education (SDE), Public Schools, Montessori, and Waldorf Philosophies Part 2: How is the Day Structured? How does that reflect the purpose or philosophy?

In this series of blogs, I’ll tackle how each of these facets of SDE compare to the Ontario Public Education System (which is similar to most other state-run educational systems), Montessori Philosophy and Waldorf Philosophy. 

Self-Directed Education (SDE):  The learner has unlimited freedom to play, explore, and pursue own interests.

For SDE to work effectively, children need ample time to discover the world and their interests within it.  Although every SDE school is different, most offer large chunks of time for kids to explore, create, play, and think.  Most SDE schools aim to provide three hour chunks for their learners to pursue their interests.  Without a schedule to follow and the absence of pressure to perform, their motivation to take on a challenge is internal.  Free time affords them the ability to think things through to completion, reach greater depth in their understanding of concepts or make-believe games, experiment and make mistakes, and, most importantly, feel the frustration of a self-imposed challenge and the exhilaration of learning, creating, or achieving. With this time and freedom, they can potentially achieve “flow”. 

SDE looks to provide time to struggle with a concept, achieve the high of performing, and down time to reflect and regroup for the next round.  This is the essence of self-directed learning.  It is intrinsically motivated but it certainly isn't easy.  Perhaps this is why SDE’s place a high value on the ability of their facilitators to help kids process their feelings.  We know they are challenging themselves to do difficult things and it feels uncomfortable.  Non-judging, supportive adults can help kids reflect and find ways to work through the struggle if they need it.  (See the comparison post on community and culture, link to be added at a later date.)

At the Barn School, we intend to start each day with a small community check-in.  That way the group has a chance to connect, plan their activities, offer each other support or join in something that sounds interesting, and facilitators can see what kids want their support.  Announcements are made about the group activities offered that day and kids have a choice whether or not they partake in what is being offered. Then everyone disbands to do their thing.  Snacks and meals are eaten as kids get hungry.  Outdoor time is anytime as long as there is an adult outside to supervise.  At the end of the day, kids check in with their small groups to reflect on their day and the learning that took place.  Finally, everyone joins together as a large group to share, reflect, let go, or express gratitude.

Ontario Public School:  A system with schedules and structure

As I mentioned in my first blog, the schoolboard, school, and teacher all play a role in deciding what the class schedule for learning will be.  The Ministry of Education is trying to educate a vast number of children in the most efficient way possible.  Curriculum is designed to compartmentalize learning so that it can be delivered by the most qualified teachers to the greatest number of kids.  It is a system and divided and structured as such. 

The mission statement of the Ontario Ministry of Education states very clearly; “Learners in the province's education system will develop the knowledge, skills and characteristics that will lead them to become personally successful, economically productive and actively engaged citizens.” It is a system of educating and the focus is on efficiency with an end product that serves the individual, the economy and the state.  The system, in an effort to be more efficient and effective in its delivery, has some funny quirks such as class size caps that may result in a split grade with only 4 kids at one grade level or a homeroom teacher role that is split between two teachers. Some decisions are purely economic; small elementary community schools of 200 or less children are shut down in favour of mega-schools that can accommodate 1500 students.  (This is related to my comparison blog post on community, link to be added at a later date).  Although there are some exceptions, specialty programs are in place because of either consistent parent demand or because they have the ultimate goal of reintegrating students into the mainstream classroom. 

The specifics of how schools run depend on the philosophy of the superintendent at the school board, the principal, and the teacher.  Generally children start the day by listening to school announcements and some sort of routine activity.  The time is scheduled according to subject with 50 minute periods for most subjects or a double period for math or literacy.  The time spent actually learning is less than 50 minutes considering classroom management (teacher addressing needs of kids) and transition times (5 minutes to enter and settle, 5 minutes to tidy and gather materials for the next subject).  30-40 minutes of interrupted teaching and learning time is probably the ideal for a teacher in a given period.  Eating time is scheduled, exercise time in scheduled, free time is scheduled, even toileting is scheduled to happen during nutrition and movement breaks to have fewer infringements on learning time.  (I infer that the province sees the other activities as being less valuable learning opportunities.)   
All this scheduling might sound a little stiff, but thank goodness for kind and creative teachers who make the system feel more human.  Teachers in the Public system often look for ways to make learning as student centered as possible, such as giving kids choices within a particular unit but the choices are quite limited by the constraints of the curriculum and keeping the learners somewhat aligned and uniform so they can be accurately compared and assessed to other students.  So for example, a teacher may allow during the last half hour of a subject period, students can choose which game they play from a pre-selected set of activities. 

The exception to this is the play-based learning program for 4 and 5 year olds.  This age group is given chunks of time to play interspersed with scheduled eating and outdoor play time and small and large group instruction.  Every day, most kids ages 4-5years will have 1-2 50 minute chunks of time to play, often more than that depending on the teacher’s comfort level with play-based learning.  This Kindergarten program is not mandatory, meaning that parents can choose not to send their children to school until Grade 1, without having to inform the school board of their choice to do so.  (By grade 1, parents need to enroll their child in some sort of school or inform the school board of their intention to homeschool.)

As you can imagine, with this kind of scheduling and class sizes, teaching a diverse group can be a challenge.  Differentiated instruction and learning through self-discovery is encouraged (and more meaningful to the learner!) but much of the instruction is still direct instruction.  The teacher teaches and the children are meant to absorb the material, then the kids show what they have learned by applying the concept individually or in small groups.  This evidence of learning is used for teacher feedback and evaluations.  It’s a system of inputs and outputs, accountability, efficiency, and economies of scale.  The teacher is leading the learning and, given the constraints, teacher directed learning often makes the most sense in terms of efficiency and economies of scale.  Choice and individuation take time and cost more money.

Montessori:  Freedom to choose from pre-selected, independent learning activities

In a Montessori classroom, learners arrive and immediately begin their learning activities.  There is no group check in or teacher check in other than a polite hello conversation.  The intention is that children arrive ready to learn and they should not be held back from the tasks they are excited to begin.  So for example, a child may arrive at school and feel excited to do a math activity.  The philosophy is that they should be able to pursue that interest while they are feeling passionate and excited for the challenge, not forced to be take part in a group activity that may dilute their enthusiasm.

There are large blocks for work, usually 3 hours in length.  The activities are considered work, not play, as the children are not playing or using the materials in ways other than what they have been shown by the Montessori directress.  The directress slowly and deliberately shows the child each new activity from the materials prepared by the directress in advance.  Children are welcome to repeat activities as often as they wish since repetition helps to solidify the skills.  Once the directress has seen the child complete the activity perfectly, she will invite the child to observe her complete a slightly more challenging version of the activity.  Children do their work independently usually but may invite a friend to share in a specific task.  Children do not play together as they would in a play-based public school Kindergarten program for example.  Older children do engage in group lessons and work as introduced by the directress.
Children eat meals together and have outdoor time together but those are often the only scheduled activities in the day, particularly in the early years.  The schedule of a Montessori day is very much reflective of the mission of Montessori schools; emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.

Although not all Montessori Schools in Ontario are official Montessori Schools, meaning they can use the name without necessarily being affiliated with a Montessori governing body, official Montessori schools ensure the student has a range of activity choices from within a prescribed range of options, three hours of uninterrupted work time and freedom to move within the classroom (all the materials are at the appropriate height and grasp for the age group of the children).  So there is freedom of choice, for large chunks of time, but the choices are from a defined set.  

Waldorf:  Structured within natural rhythms and cycles

A day at a Waldorf school is highly structured but it’s based on rhythms and cycles rather than an outside structure that must be strictly adhered to like in a public school.  Children spend time outdoors together, eat together, and learn together in their age co-hort. 

Until age 7, kids are given large blocks of time to play freely with approved Waldorf toys and books that are reflective of Steiner’s philosophy but also the era in which his educational philosophy emerged.  Children play with objects and toys that are made of natural materials without a culturally prescribed meaning so children can apply their own story lines and imagination to the toys.  In the Waldorf philosophy, activities and toys reflect tasks and items used most often in the home.  Although children are encouraged to play freely with the toys and use their imaginations, the toys and books in classrooms are approved Waldorf materials, much like Montessori approves materials in sanctioned Montessori classrooms.  (See my blog post on comparisons of using tools of the culture in learning, link to be added at later date.)  Changes in activities are signaled by the teacher singing a song or playing a song.  Waldorf has weekly routines that do not vary, at least for younger children, because the philosophy believes that young children thrive in that predictability.  Seasonally, there are more celebrations and routines that match the natural world and changes in seasons.

Older children have traditional classroom style settings with chairs and desks and learning schedules that adhere to clearly defined curriculum but their learning often involves group songs, movement, or the arts.  They are not given time to pursue their interests or make choices of what they learn, but they may have more choice in how they can creatively express their learning. There is still a sense that adults need to play a big role in providing structure and guidance to children until they reach maturity of adulthood.  Choice and freedom is a gradual process in Waldorf philosophy, aligned with Steiner’s understanding of psychological development.

Waldorf is a philosophy that believes in nurturing the child through each stage in biological and psychological development.  As the child matures and enters a new developmental stage, routines and structures change.  It is a philosophy that sees children growing within a pattern that reflects the natural world and universe; changes in days, seasons, years, and 7-year cycles.  Steiner’s experience with schools was one of rote memorization and teacher directed lessons, not to mention physical and psychologically abusive discipline measures, so his development of a program that included songs, painting, and nurturing young people and showing sensitivity to them as learners was quite revolutionary at the time. 

I found this comparison to be kind of difficult to compare in broad terms because each classroom is so dependent on the people who run it.  Hopefully this gives you an overall sense of the daily routines and how those structures reflect the overall philosophy of each style of education.  In my next blog, I’ll compare how each style approaches culture and addresses cultural tools.  But first, did you have a strong reaction to any of the education styles?  What style would you feel most comfortable with as a parent?  What style makes you feel the least comfortable?

Thursday, 8 September 2016

My "Steve Jobs technology kids" Google Search

Since starting We Learn Naturally, I have had a lot of parents assume that we promote natural learning in the sense that we do not use technology.  Perhaps this was poor planning on my part, I actually meant "we learn naturally" in the sense that people do not have to be manipulated or forced to learn.  Learning through natural interests and non-coercive means can be just as effective, if not more.  Would “We Learn Non-coercively” have had the same appeal?  

In our family we use technology and, our kids do too, and that’s a difficult position to stand proudly behind without experiencing a certain amount of judgement.  I know it's not a position that all my friends and family share because every day in my FB newsfeed there are articles with titles such as “Steve Jobs didn’t allow technology in his home and neither should you”.  This week, I felt like I needed to think a little more critically about the articles referring to Steve Jobs and I was surprised by what I found.

After typing into Google search “Steve Jobs technology kids” I got pages of articles, some from very prominent sources, all referencing the same 1 original article.  It seems this concept started with an article written by Nick Bilton about technology executives that limit technology in their families.  However, aside from a few specific quotes, Bilton was stating that he knew of other executives who had similar philosophies but he didn’t actually say that technology was banned outright.  When I dug a little deeper, what these families do is not necessarily so radical; no devices at the dinner table, no devices in bedrooms at night, limits on time spent on devices.  Perhaps these families are focusing on connection, health, or safety?  I’m on board with those values, although it may be expressed differently in my family.  The biggest take-away for me was that all of these “news” stories and articles were actually generated from just one opinion piece article from the New York Times.

Steve Jobs did, in fact, allow his kids to use technology but he greatly limited the amount of technology his kids used in the home.  It’s unclear whether that decision was based on some sort of research, his understanding of the manipulation behind some apps or if it was simply in line with his own value-system and parenting style.  Did you know that Steve Jobs was a very difficult, exacting bossHe was hot and cold with his children also and I wonder if this was just his personality?  His style in business was to use shame and belittlement to motivate people and promote the kind of perfection that he envisioned.  I wonder if his parenting style was also a bit controlling (at least by my unschooling standards) with his children in all areas, technology being one of them?

I see the irony of some of the biggest technology execs limiting electronic usage in their homes. It is that irony that made this one opinion column by Nick Bilton a spin off for so many other articles, feeding fear among parents who assume a technology guru would have the inside scoop on children and technology.  Perhaps technology execs, at the front of the change pendulum, are feeling scared of some of the changes they see?  Perhaps they are just reacting to their own fears the way many parents in our culture do - in the face of change they are exerting tighter control over the only area they can, their children?  

After giving it a lot of thought, I just can’t use Steve Jobs or any other technology executive as someone to model my decisions after.  I have to find what works best for my kids and my family.  The research is still so new and contradictory about technology use and kids.  There truly are positive and negatives to technology, and I think our outlook on life paints our perception.  If you come from a place of fear, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of humanity, then you will probably see the negatives of technology as a stronger influence in your thinking. 

I would love to see less fear-based FB posts and judgements towards parents who use technology and more reflective conversation.  I’m really interested in connection.  With a strong connection to our children they are less susceptible to making choices that are bad for their mental health, such as pursuing pornography or violence online.  We know that if we give our kids lots of meaningful in-person interactions with friends, peers, and their community, they become better able to read social cues.  With that, they are better able to identify and navigate instances of online bullying.  We also know that kids who have deep connections to others often use technology in positive ways; ways that enhance creativity, relationships, and strengthen interests.  If children are given space and time to develop self-awareness, and that becomes their compass from which they live, they can become better monitors of what they need.  One of the biggest questions/fears is that electronics have an addictive quality.  If technology has the potential to create addiction, the best way to prevent kids from addiction is to offer an environment that offers strong, positive bonding opportunities. (Check out this video on addiction.)  The bottom line, I am not fearful about technology because I believe so strongly that our connection to our kids will serve us as we help them to navigate the world around them, including technology. 

In a world that is becoming increasingly technology-based, the Steve Jobs’ approach to prepare his children was to greatly limit their exposure to screen time in an effort to protect them.  That is very much the cultural norm.  My approach to helping kids in a technology-based world is the opposite.  When possible, I try to include my kids in decisions that affect them, so that I can respectfully share my values and be respectful of their pursuits in the world.  I expect mistakes to happen and I don’t intend to protect them from the world so much as I intend to help them to find ways to navigate it.  So, I am not jumping on the “Steve Jobs’ doesn’t let his kids use technology and neither should you” train.  I guess I just think differently.  

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Diversity Bridge to Empathy by Chelsea Bohnert

Since my 5000 km move across the country from Ontario to British Columbia, I have experienced a significant amount of turbulence as we attempt to lay down fresh roots so far away from all that we know and love. There have been times where I have literally cried out as I questioned what my husband and I have done, as the immense fear of “messing up our kids” overcame me. How could we believe that uprooting all of the loving and secure connections we have made back home to make this great quest to the West was actually the right thing to do? Thankfully, I have been here before and was able to tenderly remind myself of exactly why we did this. I walked right into these challenges wholeheartedly. A clearer minded me, embraces the challenges that arise from different, unknown and difficult. Because something I believe to be true with all of my heart is that, compassion, acceptance and love for all people is fostered out of diverse interactions and tough situations.
You see, one of the primary struggles I have with our family being alternatively educated is the potential risk it has for lacking diversity in the experiences we encounter with other people in the community. Now, hold on. I know some of you will instantly think “Here we go again. Don’t you bother starting with the socialization debate!” However, I have to stop you mid thought because I am not talking about socialization at all. In fact, I am very well aware of the ample opportunities available for socialization for home learners/alternative students through independent schools, co-ops, extracurricular activities and more.

No, I am not talking about that at all. I am speaking more specifically about the diversity within these activities instead. When I made the decision for our family to become unschoolers, I went through so many layers of consideration on the matter. As we begin our sixth year with the decision, I am quite aware of the factors that have given me comfort and those I have struggled with. One really big struggle I have had often is with regards to diversity and I’ll tell you why. When I first began to consider home learning I think I was mostly operating from a place a fear, which I am certain others can relate to. Fear that my children would encounter any of the experiences that caused me pain or discomfort during my childhood and like most people, many of those took place at school.
But as I settled in to our decision, the fears I carried took a shift. As I began relationships with other home learning families, and visited the alternative education options in my community I noticed some things to be true. What I noticed is that the broad scope of the alternative education community appeared to be predominantly made up of families with high socioeconomic status (SES). So, while back when I was a new momma this was precisely what I was seeking, it is an area of discomfort for me now and I’ll tell you why.

As I have grown as a parent and began to heal parts of myself that were wounded from my childhood, I have developed a great deal of tenderness and self-love for not only myself but my mom as well. Even as I began my journey as a mother I was more certain than ever that my duty was to give my children everything I never had. They wouldn’t be poor, they wouldn’t go to school and if they did it had to be private, and they must never struggle. However, through the healing I’ve received from watching my children grow and being a part of their experiences of life, I have come to realize how much I actually like myself and who I’ve become. So as this became increasingly apparent to me, I started to question what things I might duplicate from my childhood rather than avoid.

The thing that stands out the most to me is the richness of diversity in my life, most of which came from the decisions and risks that my own mother made as she parented myself and my three sisters. We were poor, my sisters and I were mixed race, my mom was a single parent and we were a household of five women. We certainly did not fit the mould of a traditional family by any means.  Perhaps this was because mom has always been the kind of person who rooted for the underdog and taught us to do the same. Even when it was to her own demise at times, she gave everything she had to anyone who needed it. My mother modelled empathy and compassion in everything that she did and even though at times I didn’t understand it in my youth, I am so grateful that she was my teacher.
When I consider the reasons that my mom is the way that she is, as with myself I do not believe it is because of the lack of struggle and diverse experiences in her life. No, in fact, it is very much the opposite. Raised in an upper middle-class family in Ancaster ON, probably not one of the most SES diverse places in the world, my mom was also adopted. Being adopted has caused her a great deal of pain and discomfort however it is probably one of the single and most important pieces to consider in how my mother was gifted with the incredible ability to empathize and have compassion the way she does. The unique experience of adoption and feeling different opened her empathic ability to a much larger group outside of her tribe of origin.

I want to clarify that I am in no way suggesting that anyone who does not experience great hardship or pain will be lacking in empathy, but I think I am making some valuable connections here. I recently enjoyed an article titled “The Limits of Empathy” published by Uplift Connect on Facebook, that really hammered home some solid findings on empathy and the biological science behind it. Without getting too technical, and I do highly recommend reading it yourself, the author basically explains that ancestrally, we as a species are more capable of providing empathy to people who are similar to ourselves. You can probably relate this to your own experiences and feelings on any of the leading issues of controversy in the world today. It has been discovered that oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” also acts as a driving force behind empathic ability. While it strengthens feelings of love amongst people within your circle, it can reinforce a tribal mentality and evoke fear and mistrust towards those who come from outside of our social circles.

It is for these reasons that I am contending for diversity as a catalyst for empathy in our lives. If we actually have a biological predisposition to dislike, avoid and disagree with those who are different from ourselves yet empathy and compassion are essential to the vitality of our society, the only apparent solution is to encounter as many diverse experiences with as many different types of people, as often as we can. This way, we will have more similarities woven into our connections and our tribal instincts will adapt to them instead. Mix things up. Befriend opposites and work through the challenges that arise from it. Talk to your kids about how different can be uncomfortable and why it is important to embrace differences anyways. Model this in every way that you can.  Fear is what prevents people from connection but if we can consciously walk through the unknown in order to reap the reward of acceptance and love on the other side, the risk is SO worth it.

In the traditional school system children from all walks of life are grouped together in classrooms upwards of 30 or more children. And while at times, the differences may lead to bullying, exclusion and intolerance, diversities in class, race, gender, learning abilities, sexuality and religious beliefs are certainly encountered daily by children attending school, which does offer increased opportunities for learning empathy. As alternative families on the other hand, the goal of diversity as a bridge to empathy is one that needs to be much more intentional. What we do have working to our advantage though, is that choosing the path less travelled with alternative educations means that we are already intentional by nature. So it’s simple. All we need to do is add diversity to the top of our priority lists, and the rest will fall into place on its own. Goodbye fear, exclusion, and intolerance. Hello empathy, compassion and love!

Smiles and Love.

 Here is the link to the article on empathy I mentioned:

Chelsea Bohnert is a We Learn Naturally Blog contributor and advisor for We Learn Naturally.  She unschools her children, thinks critically, learns constantly, and creates strong communities everywhere she goes (including coastal B.C. where she currently resides.)  Thanks for the blog Chelsea!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Trust and Creativity

This week I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca and Dave Zak.  They are artists and entrepreneurs, and I got to see their studio, geek out about self-directed education.

I want to share with you this video featuring Rebecca Zak.  I especially like the creative process visual that I included at the top of this page.  As Rebecca explains, the creative process isn’t a timeline or necessarily ordered in a direction.  The starting point is arbitrary and people move to or remain engaged in any portion of the process for as long as they wish.  How a person engages in the creative process is probably related to each idea or project as it is personal preferences and strengths.  Learning at the Barn School is based upon this fluid concept of creativity.  Free play or freedom to choose your activities can be an organic gathering of information, an incubation period, part of the critique, or production.  Sometimes it might make sense to have learners plan their ideas and project management techniques can to help them do that but learners can always break from the process when they need to.  Forcing a project or idea along a timeline to completion is the fastest way to remove creativity, innovation, and learning for those engaged.  

Right now, I am also re-reading The Conscious Parent; Transforming Ourselves, Empowering our Children by Shefali Tsabary.  There are lots of great tidbits in there but reading a book a second time is always eye-opening to me.  The second time through I am always surprised at my own growth since the first read-through and there are aspects of the book that I relate to and incorporate into my thinking in novel ways.  (If you want to read more about the power of re-reading a book, check out this article written for parents by Virginia Zimmerman.)  When I first read the book, I was not at the application part of We Learn Naturally philosophy.  Upon starting Learning in the Woods and applying self-directed education on a larger scale, I quickly realized the importance of holding a trusting mindset about the world.  Reading Dr. Shefali now, the section on trusting the wisdom of life has new meaning for me.

She mentions that “because so few of us trust the wisdom of life, people tend to project their lack of trust onto their children.”  Our society has an idea, based in fear and fragile egos, that trust, especially for children, must be earned.  Conversely, a trust in life and a broad sense of trust towards our children creates an environment that allows for growth, learning, mistakes, and ultimately creativity.  If we trust our children to know themselves (or are capable of discovering themselves) we can let go of our worries and allow them to spend their time as they wish and learn in their own directions.  Their minds can pursue thoughts and activities that help them grow in ways that we could never fathom.  If we want creativity, first we must trust.

I’d like to share with you an observation about my son.  He’s 6 and he has never been in a formal learning environment, including daycare.  As his mom, I have a lot of trust about his place in the world, his understanding of what his needs are, his ability to communicate them, and find ways to have those needs met.  I trust that he will learn because that is what humans do.  He is introverted, so for the most part, I am not privy to what is going on in his brain.  But every once in a while he asks some questions or shares his thoughts and I get a quick glimpse inside. In those moments, I realize how limitless his capacity for learning and creating really is.  Here is an example of my son playing with the creative process of information gathering, incubation, and critique over the course of a day.

Yesterday, we visited a theme park that we have a season’s pass to.  It was a day of busy playing in a familiar setting.  We had lunch where many other young families were congregating and the noise was like sensory overload for me, so I didn’t try to initiate conversation at all.  After about 30 minutes of eating in this setting he said, “I’ve got a really tough question for you.  Is gravity constantly moving or does it not move.”  We talked about gravity for a bit, building on previous conversations we’ve had about forces and gravity and the earth and the moon.  We didn’t come to an answer to his question, but we talked enough so that there was more to consider.  Then he ate his pizza without saying a word and we continued on with our day.  As we were leaving the theme park, I was collapsing the stroller his sister was using and he was lying on the ground under a tree and asked “how do you know you are at the end of the earth?”  We talked about how we know the earth is round and that like all spheres, there’s really no start or stop to it, or if there is one, it’s probably arbitrary.  This is another favorite thought for him, the concept of infinity, no start or stop.  Then he said “Lying here, I can’t feel that I’m moving.  I can’t feel gravity.”  We talked about how he can feel the earth underneath his back and how that is a force pushing against the pull of gravity.  We talked about how the earth is moving and we know this because of day and night and the seasons.  Then he asked “If our sun is a star and every star we see at night is a sun with gravity, are all the stars everywhere also moving and working with forces that we can’t feel even more than we can’t feel gravity on earth?” 

He returns to these thoughts of forces and gravity and infinity and the universe often.  I think all kids are capable of these sorts of profoundly interesting thoughts.  The difference is, my son has been given trust in the form of time and freedom to engage his mind in the creative process on his own terms.  He may incubate and gather information about forces and gravity and the universe like this for years and never move onto the production side.  Or maybe his ideas *are* the product?  Who knows?  It's really up to him how his learning evolves. 

I should mention that my son is not interested in reading or writing at this point in time and occasionally that plays on my ego as I watch friends and family with similarly-aged kids “learn” those skills.  When that insecurity creeps in, I ask myself, “Am I doing this right?” but when he shares these interesting questions, suddenly I am reminded of the ideas that are bursting in his head like fireworks.  His mind is his own and if I want to facilitate his learning, creativity, and innovation, I need to trust *HIS* process and keep my ego in check.  Our relationship and his learning depend on it.  We live in a culture of mistrust, fear, ego, and comparison.  It is a difficult paradigm to shift in our heads, let alone on a societal level, but I’m up for the challenge.  Let’s see what we can do, shall we?

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Connections Triad; reflections of camp

Whether it’s a 10 week session throughout a season or a 1 week summer camp, when we reach the end of our scheduled time at Learning in the Woods, everyone experiences a bit of a “high”.  When it’s time to say good-bye, connections are at their strongest, so it’s only natural to look back at our time together and reflect.

Despite being very pregnant, I happened to be on site for the first morning of camp.  It’s such a vulnerable time and not just for the kids!  Facilitators want to help bridge the gap between home and camp but with no prior connection, they really don’t have a choice but to be patient, grounded, and present.  Parents have signed their children up for this nature camp thing but suddenly, uncertainty lingers in the air.  I think the strongest impression for me was witnessing how brave the kids were, venturing into the unknown!  It reminds me of the first days of school as a kindergarten teacher.  With no solid prior connections to draw on, everyone digs deep and pulls from within the best they can. I have so much love for these brave little souls!

Even kids who know what to expect, still have butterflies because they know the dynamics have changed.  My son, who is certainly a regular at Learning in the Woods, was feeling anxious Monday afternoon when we arrived for his session.  While sitting with him as he rode out his nerves, some of the kids who participated in the July camp arrived.  They were excited to be back to their familiar space again, flying down the hill, backpacks bouncing on their backs.  Can you picture it?  Read that line again, if you need to because it was that excited energy bouncing past, that lifted my son from his nerves and carried him down to camp.  And that’s sometimes that's just how it goes.  You spend time building a connection to yourself, so that you can build a connection to others, and somewhere along the way there is a connection to nature too.  There is an ebb and flow that works in this triad and we don’t really think much about it unless we give ourselves time to reflect.  

Tanya, the Learning in the Woods Director, and our facilitators Claudia, Soren, and Laura all did an outstanding job this week, keeping themselves grounded and present so that the kids could walk away with deeper connections.  It was a challenging week though.  To start off it was HOT.  Morning temperatures in our city were often hotter than correlating morning temperatures in Mumbai.  Plus, we ended the week with thunder and rain.  With any kind of intense weather, the facilitators feel pressure to keep kids safe and to fully consider parental concerns.  It’s always a challenge to balance those concerns with what we know of nature connection.  You see, most forest schools do not make weather cancellations and we understand why.  In those weather challenges, the possibility for connection intensifies.  

In the heat we can observe how nature adapts; the bugs burrow into the moist soil to stay cool and hydrated.  Small creatures and birds conserve their energy for cooler times of the day and spend the hottest times in the shade or in the spot in the forest that catches a breeze.  As we observe and connect to nature, we can apply that learning to ourselves.  My son arrived home yesterday after a week in the heat and didn’t feel a need to come into our air conditioned house.  His sister and I retreated after 20 minutes of playing outside but he continued to play and create in our backyard, soaked in humidity.  He had adapted, he had overcome.  He learned to take his cues from nature, listen to his body, adapt, and in the end, he found a new sense of peace in the challenging heat. What a gift!

And it’s not just the physical stamina that grows.  We talk about how when we are experiencing discomfort with our feelings, we don’t actually want to hide them, change them, or rush past them.  The feelings are there for a reason and if we can sit with them, they bring us depth of understanding.  The same is true when experiencing nature. To get a depth of understanding, it really is best to stay with nature.  That means visiting the same location in different seasons and weather conditions so that you can truly understand how it flows and your fit in the natural world.  We looked into making our last day of camp at a location that had something new to explore and some water to splash in (our little stream was completely dry with this drought) but we were so glad that we stayed put!  By staying put, the kids were able to reflect on how comfortable they felt in the forest, even exploring the familiar paths “alone”, thus raising their confidence and their sense of inner peace.  They were also rewarded with RAIN!  With water gushing up to the kids’ ankles, our little stream had the appeal of an exciting new toy!  The played and rejoiced in their new wet forest and their new friendships.  It was the kind of ending that we could not have predicted but we’re so thankful to have received.  By staying put, we are able to experience the complete triad of joyful connection to nature, self, and others.

It was tempting to alter our location or respond to the elements by retreating somehow but we are really glad that we didn’t.  We don’t want to be fearful of nature or the elements because we know that our fear can be passed onto our kids.  We want to instill a respect and appreciation for nature, not a rejection of it when the elements bring us discomfort or don’t fit our vision of the experience.  The human oneness with nature is so ingrained in our very core that sometimes it seems our connection with nature can mirror our comfort level with our own feelings.  We are a culture of of people who often resort to retreating or displacing.  But if we sit with ourselves, find peace in ourselves and in our environment, then, with enough practice, it becomes possible to find peace with others.  And that is the motivation behind this whole thing, the possibilities that come with connection.  We don't want to reject that which feels uncomfortable; those are actually the moments we want to dig deep and connect.  So, that’s how it goes at Learning in the Woods.  There is an ebb and flow to all things and as we finish up our camp season, we are left feeling really thankful for the experience and for this time to reflect.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Guns and Play Themes that Make Adults Uncomfortable

The irony of our outdoor program “Learning in the Woods” is that sometimes the most valuable learning is done by the adults involved; parents and facilitators.  The program is child-lead and sometimes the themes and topics that arise challenge the adults to reconsider some of the ideas they hold dear.  This week’s theme was pretend play with guns. 

So, in our Thursday morning session this past week, we had a beautiful example of why I believe, as adults, we would want to refrain from intervening in a game that involves imaginary guns.  After our check in meeting, Claudia and I watched as the kids negotiated teams and rules for their game.  It involved protecting and raiding the forts they had been working on the past several weeks.  Once the starting signal for the game was called out, the kids excitedly began to invade and defend – with sticks as guns.  While the point of the game was about invasions, the kids spent most of their time negotiating the rules.  Fairness, keeping the flow of the game interesting and exciting, and creating a believable storyline were the main topics of discussion.  Despite the gun props, the action that took place wasn’t gruesome or violent.  For the kids, thinking about those realities of guns was not the focus of the game.  They decided that it was going to be more fun if getting “shot” meant they were frozen for 30 seconds, then continued playing.  This 30 second freeze rule seemed to create more action and encouraged more risk-taking among the kids.  It was also a multi-age game that involved an age range of 2 years old to 12 years old.  As they played I heard “Are you coming little guy?”  “Are you Ok little guy?”  “Wait, little guy needs longer because he can’t run as fast!” and other concerns for the youngest member of the group.  After playing for about 20 minutes, the game dismantled and the kids moved onto other things. 

I think that had we stopped the gun aspect of the game, the game would have dismantled altogether; the kids would have felt their world of make-believe had been invaded…and the kids would have missed out on other aspects of the game like building empathy, negotiation, and some intense exercise.  If Claudia and I had let our preconceived ideas that “guns are bad and should not be a part of our society” ruled the children’s play, we would have pushed our meaning, our reality into the front and center of their world.

Knowing that I was going to write a blog post about this, I asked my son, who was playing Thursday morning, for his input.  His initial response was so telling;

“These adults know we’re just playing right?  They know it’s just pretend, right?”

“Yes, but some adults think that even playing with pretend guns shouldn’t be allowed because they know what real guns do.  Do you know what real guns do?” 

“Yes they scare and hurt and kill people.  I’d never play with a real gun.  This is just pretend.  It’s not a big deal.  I play cars and crash them and I play zombies and dragons and none of it is real.  It’s all just pretend.” 

“Some adults worry that by playing pretend games with guns.  They want their kids to be safe and so the adults make a rule that kids can’t play with pretend guns to try to keep them safe in real life.  Why do kids want to play games with pretend guns anyway?  (I was curious!)” 

“It’s just what’s in their head.  It doesn’t mean anything.  It’s just what’s in their head, so they play that and then it’s out of their head.  That’s it.” 

Ah, I love kid wisdom. 

At Learning in the Woods we have a strong belief in providing the opportunity for free play.  Therefore, we don’t discourage the kids from playing make-believe games that involve guns, swords, or cannon balls (which is a popular choice among the pirate-loving 3 and 4 year olds).  It’s easier for adults to accept play that involves swords, arrows, and cannon balls because we don’t often come across stories of violence in our society that involve these weapons.  However, a lot of adults feel really uncomfortable with the idea of imaginary games involving guns.  Our children have fewer opportunities to experience free play without adult involvement and interruption than previous generations; their play has never been this closely observed or monitored.  Peter Grey has done extensive research into children’s play and his work shows that children have always played games with dark, powerful themes and exploring those ideas are necessary for children’s development.  With children often playing in supervised playdates, it is now harder than ever for children to explore those themes without adults intervening in an effort to influence their play. 

Sometime gun play emerges in superhero play.  Children in our culture live in a world where superheroes have been icons for several generations.  As Teacher Tom says in this blog post; we may not personally see the appeal of playing a game with light sabers and Darth Vader, but as adults, we have already had our chance to explore themes of power and justice that emerge in superhero storylines.  Giving kids the space to forge their own path within the context of the culture they find themselves in and come to their own conclusions around these themes is important.  This is especially true, perhaps even necessary, if you want to evoke a community of trust.

I know I used to feel very strongly about no gunplay, especially when I taught kindergarten.  I still believe very much in promoting non-violence, but instead of telling children how to think and how to play, I am trying to model it through positive parenting techniques and I’m learning about Nonviolent Communication.  Since having my son, I have done a lot of reading about the importance of play.  I think differently now about the value of unstructured play in terms of learning about the world and developing empathy.  I’m now at a point in my understanding where I feel comfortable allowing children the space to explore themes that are important to them, even if they sometimes make me uncomfortable.  If you are interested in exploring the benefits of gun play, Heather Shumaker’s Huff Post article “Why Gun Play is Still OK” is a great play to start.  As she says in her final paragraph, we live in a world that has guns both in fiction and non-fictional culture settings and as long as we have these themes in our society, children will need to use play to make sense of these powerful objects in their world.