Learning from Real Life

To follow up on my previous post about homework, which really got some passionate discussion going on Facebook and on West Indian Mother, I thought it might be a good idea to explore learning from real life. It's creative, fun and all parents do it, though they may not realise it. Here are just a few of the ways my son and I have learned together over the last month or so...

We had fun writing letters in flour...or baking them, for that matter...

I provide the tools, and my son jumps right in to any activity I come up with. In this case, he helped me mix and knead the dough from scratch, then cut and rolled the croissant "C" shape himself by making a triangle. And of course, he was happy to sample the result!

Science? We learned about metamorphosis as we observed the first phase of the process - caterpillars eating and eating, just like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is a book he's read a hundred times. I love that he makes those connections and ties new information back to other things that he knows and understands. As we were watching, he came across one particular caterpillar who seemed to have lost his way. We tried to get him to crawl upon sticks and large cocoa leaves, until J decided that the best way to lure him back to his feeding spot was to find him a leaf from the (Frangipani) shrub that all the others were munching from. Of course, it worked.

One day, we took a road trip and visited the Temple in the Sea. As a child who likes stories, we thought he'd love this one, so we talked about what hard work it must have been for Sewdass Sadhu to build the temple from scratch and then, when the authorities ordered it torn down because it was "on state lands", his courage and determination in rebuilding it, bucket by bucket, in the sea, where it would belong to no man. He made the observation, as I suppose most boys who love construction would, that it would have been a lot faster for Sewdass if he had a digger and a backhoe. Interestingly enough, there happened to be a funeral going on at the cremation site a short distance away, so the kid, noticing the rising flames of the pyre, also got a lesson in the different ways that people say goodbye to someone who has died.

A couple of weeks later, during one of our garden walks, we noticed that the cocoa seeds my son had been munching on the day before had started to attract tiny fruit flies (and a large beetle), so we discussed the process of decomposition. Not in so many words, but you get the idea. (We also helped the beetle get right-side-up after we took the photo).

One day, he decided he wanted to be a doctor, so I pretended to be sick while he learned about measurements...

Another time, we did some creative building with toothpicks and beans, then deconstructed everything and made "bean boats" which we raced down the drain until they got stuck. He then did a little experiment - entirely of his own accord - with water and a bowl and determined that beans sink, so they make terrible boats. After that, we found some shards of dried bamboo that floated much better and were very zippy racers.

One weekend, as I was doing some gardening, the little agriculgturalist remembered that he had come by some corn needs and that we should definitely plant them. So under his direction, I dug holes in the soil as he poured the seeds out of the bag. Then, we covered them up with dirt and watered them. Two days later, a slew of very determined seedlings greeted us. So we learned about the different parts of a seedling and how they grow into full plants, a la "The Tiny Seed", another Eric Carle book that he loves. Of course, I figure since he had to wait for the seedlings to sprout, he also learned a little lesson about the value of patience.

Parents do things like this every single day with their children and this is where some of the most meaningful learning takes place. There's factual knowledge being absorbed, but there's also emotional growth that's going along with it, because parents are spending the time - and those moments are the ones kids enjoy most; the ones that stay with them and help shape their character.

How do I know? Later that day, my son was discussing mangoes with his grandmother, who was lamenting the fact that the birds kept getting to the ripe mangoes before we did - not ideal when the kid loves mangoes. And here's how he responded: "Nana, the birds get the mangoes at the top of the tree and we get the ones at the bottom. Birds need to eat too. That's their food - and we need to share with the birds." Now, that tells me he's shaping a worldwiew that's going to serve him in good stead in life, which is just one more reason I'm so glad he's learning from it.





The Homework Question

There was a comment on my last post that I found intriguing. It deals with a challenge that I think most parents grapple with but just kind of accept as "the way things are": Homework. Not this parent,'s what Kay wrote:

"My preschooler gets way too much homework for him or I to handle. I'm a single mum, living with my mum, who insists he needs to do his homework all the time - I'm talking 2-3 pages in 2-3 textbooks each night! He is FOUR years old! I've decided to let preschool slide as he starts primary soon, however I am bluntly refusing to do homework except projects and revision in primary school...don't know how the teachers will handle it...but it's way too much...besides, what do they do all day in school that they need 3 hours additional work at home? Guess what - on one of our afternoon walks, I managed to teach my kid about photosynthesis and the food chain - and to date he can give a pretty darn good explanation of it! So advice welcomed!"

My take on the whole thing? Trust your instinct; I personally think you're on the right path and are doing right by your son. Substantial neurological research has come to reveal that too much emphasis on academics at an early age is actually harmful to children's brain development. It can do active damage. When kids are little, they need to play. A lot. That's their "work"; that's how they learn doing things they enjoy.


Many children in Scandinavian countries don't even set foot inside a school before the age of seven, which is pretty much when they're ready for a more structured/formal type of learning. It's not a coincidence that the schools in Sweden, Finland, etc. are considered to be some of the best in the world. Seven is also about the age that true independence starts to kick in - and because children are developmentally ready to be separated from their parents, there is no wailing and gnashing of teeth at drop-off time. This type of approach resonates with me.

And it's not just me. Waldorf education, for example, which is based on the philopsopy of Rudolf Steiner, is growing worldwide. This is just one school of thought that takes a gentle approach with small children because it is sensitive to the various stages of a child's brain development - what Steiner calls "the stages of unfoldment". Maria Montessori understood this as well; unfortunately, her method has been bastardized over the years, with many facilities claiming to use the Montessori method, but in practice, failing to use her philopsophy.

That said, what works for one family isn't necessarily going to work for another. I know parents who are high achievers and already expect the same of their chidlren. I've heard of kids who are in extra lessons at four years old. To a large degree, though, our system sets the pace and we play along. Parents have been complaining about the Secondary Entrance Assessment examination since it was called Common Entrance and nothing has changed except its moniker. In fact, talking to parents whose kids have been through the SEA mill, it's actually managed to get worse - more stressful, more high-pressure and less and less about the joy of learning. I personally find "2-3 pages in 2-3 textbooks each night" is overkill and I agree with your question about what they do in school all day, but it's how our mainstream eduation functions. Parents - and by extension their kids - are simply required to fit in.

If you want something different for your child, but still want to keep him in mainstream school - and there are benefits to that - I'd suggest approaching the principal/teachers up front and discussing your expectations. They should apprecicate your honesty and respect your concerns as a parent. In an ideal situation, you will be able to find some middle ground. If not, perhaps that particular school may not be the right fit for you and your son.

But here are a few things I've learned about learning:


  • You won't learn from someone you don't like

  • You won't learn if the atmosphere is not supportive

  • You won't learn if you don't have a voice

  • You won't learn if you're pressured, threatened or made to feel bad about it

  • You won't learn if it's not fun



But, some might argue, kids learn in those types of environments every day. Well, not quite. They learn to regurgitate facts. They learn to comply. They learn to play by someone else's rules. I would argue that that's not real learning.

Learning comes from life and involves freedom, responsibility, curiosity, and the knowledge that it's okay to ask questions and make mistakes. And preferably, have a lot of free time for creative thinking and imagination. So at four years old, you bet I'm all for ditching the homework and going on a nature walk where real learning can happen with his first and best teacher of all: YOU.






Can You Read the Signs?

Tomorrow's the start of a long weekend, so I thought I'd better have some activities planned so that the four days seem to fly rather than drag on. The key to that happening? One word. FUN. So I popped in to a craft supply store today to buy some materials...watercolour pad, collage paper, glue, paint, you name it. After all, the rainy season has started, so outdoor play isn't necessarily a given. En route to the store, I walked past a clothing boutique that posted the sign below on its door:

(Forgive the photo quality...I took it from a distance with my phone so as not to be chased out of the mall by suspicious security personnel.) Now, let me just preface what I am about to say with this: I get it. You operate what you think is a high-end clothing store and kids can be disruptive. But I'd wager that most responsible parents know how to handle their children and understand the social constructs of taking them into a store where things can so easily be torn, soiled or thrown down.

But I think you've pretty much outlined your expecations in the "Children Must be Supervised" portion of your notice. You could have stopped there. The all-caps "NO PLAYING", complete with exclamation point, sets an entirely different tone. It's almost as if playing is a bad thing, when really...that's how children learn. Through play. And play doesn't automatically mean wildness. Granted, your store is not a playground, but it just seems like as a mother, I'm not particularly welcome. And as a clothes wearer, it makes me wonder if their garments are as uncomfortable as their sign is intended to make me feel.

And what about the kids? Do they feel like second-class citizens? I mean, most of them can read, I'm guessing. Seeing something so blatantly child unfriendly makes me wonder if we're becoming a child-intolerant society. In many ways, w're already there. Many West Indian adults already speak to children any way they please, slap them, humiliate them, threaten them...all "for their own good" or "to teach them a lesson"...and now there are actual printed signs that preface the societal attitude towards children.

Yeah, take a chill pill you might think. It's a sign, not a law infringing upon the Rights of the Child. To tell you the truth, it may not have even made an impression on me before I had children. But it certainly strikes me now. Besides, rights don't get stomped upon all at once, do they? They get eroded bit by surreptitious bit, and it all starts with an attitude. Next thing you know we're following in the footsteps of the "developed" world where there are restaurants that refuse to serve children, mothers with strollers are glared at for occupying too much of the pavement and there's a separate section for families in churches in case - God forbid - they cry or make noise. Come on. Consideration works both ways. Children are people. They're not in some kind of limbo, waiting for childhood to be over so that real life can start. They're living now and deserve to be treated with the same regard as any other citizen..even moreso, in fact, by dint of their being dependent on us bigger folks. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who's mantra that "a person's a person, no matter how small." If that sign had been racist or sexist or ageist, there would immediately have been an outcry. Just sayin'.

Of course, you have the right to post your sign. And I have the right to notice. And maybe shop somewhere else.


Letting Kids Lead

I've always thought that if our world were run by children, we'd be in a much better position. But of course, we always think we know better. Its been a re-education for me to let my child lead...and if I'm honest with myself, I realise that he's never led me astray. This morning, I happened to see this quotation, by John Holt:

It set the tone for the day. That and of course, the fact that today appears to be the magnificent start of the rainy season, so we've been restricted to indoor activities. But in that "restriction", creativity blossomed. First, my son announced that under his feet were dirty from all the fun he had yesterday (he was so tired that he fell asleep without taking his usual bath) and that he needed to go in the tub. Which he did. And there he stayed for over an hour, playing with his toys, building things with bubble foam and constructing fasntastic storylines in his ever-fertile imagination. When it was time to come out, we went into his room and read a story. I suggested we try to write some of the letters we noticed in the story illustrations, but he preferred to play with numbers. Which he did, identifying them all and lining them up in the correct order. Then, he caught a glimpse of his scissors and announced that he wanted to wrap a present (he'd been to a birthday party over the weekend, so I guess it was top of mind). I grabbed a box of crayons, got some wrapping paper and he cut it into the perfect size, placed the box in the middle of the rectangle and proceeded to wrap the present.

I helped, but only minimally, holding things taut and showing him how to fold the corners. After we tied the ribbon into a bow, the little tyke asked, "Do we have any more brownies?" "No," I responded. He looked disappointed, but only for a second - because he had already found a solution. "Well, we need to make some, Mum. A present deserves a cake with a candle...let's make brownies!"

Let me preface this by saying I am not a baker. But instead of denying my son's request and squelching his idea, I checked online for an easy brownie recipe and checked to see whether we had all the ingredients. We did. And we proceeded to make brownies. They're baking as I write this. When they're ready, we'll stick a few candles in them and have some fun singing the Happy Birthday song, blowing out the candles and making a few wishes. And then we'll go do some more creative stuff...whatever he comes up with. This is how he learns to love learning and I'm privileged to be along for the ride.

Of course, I have a few ideas about stuff we can do for the rest of the day, but before I suggest anything, I'll see if he wants to lead the way.



I look at the generations that preceeded us and marvel at the quality of citizen our forefathers (and no doubt mothers) were able to produce in this country.  Thinkers, theologians, visionaries.  And I wonder why my generation and the ones that have been coming after it are producing fewer critical thinkers - but then I notice the little things, the minutiae - the stuff we overlook because they are so much a part of the prevailing culture.

A "for instance": last week, my son's babysitter was out in the front yard playing football with him.  All of a sudden, my child runs in with a big grin on his face and says, "We're playing Cheating!"  He obviously thinks it's a new game - or a new method of playing ball.  I was not happy.  I called her aside and asked her why she was putting labels on my son.  "He has no guile in him, no concept of what cheating means," I told her.  "He's kicking a ball.  He's not yet at the stage where there are rules and competition.  He's having fun.  Please let him play without judging how he does it." She was taken aback, but admitted that she was wrong to have said it; that there was really no fair context to her statement.  More credit to her.  Many people would not have seen the problem.

The problem, as it were, reared its head a few days later when a pal came over to play.  They were playing "catch" (the local equivalent of "tag") and my son's friend, who is a tad older, was running around and around one of our trees, trying not to be caught.  Finally, my son changed direction and caught him.  "You can't do that," said his friend, complete with the requisite disapproving tone, "that's cheating."  "Actually, it isn't," I said.  "It's a perfectly acceptable way of trying to catch you...and you shouldn't make up rules as you go along." His mother agreed; more power to her.

I think about how cavalierly this term is bandied about to children and I understand why.  We want our kids to grow up to be honest; to play by the rules.  But sometimes they're made to follow these often-arbitrary codes (let's face it, sometimes there are rules for the sake of them) to their detriment.  For instance, a teacher poses a question to a class and asks the students to solve it.  In most cases, if the kids talk to one another about it, it's labelled "cheating".  In the real world, it's brainstorming.  No wonder kids are grappling with an alternate reality when they emerge from the cocoon of "education".  

I remember being very disillusioned after I graduated from secondary school and took a year off to work before going to university: contrary to the "work hard, play fair and you will be rewarded" ethic that I was taught - and that I still believe holds water, by the way - I was exposed to adults, veritable "captains of industry", who were quite prepared to take credit for my good ideas, sometimes even outright stealing them.  That's what cheating is - a deliberate attempt to deceive and to gain advantage by it.  

In neither of the scenarios above was my child doing that.  What he was doing was effective problem-solving. He was coming up with solutions to challenges and thinking independently.  In my humble opinion, that's the kind of thing that should be encouraged rather than mislabelled.  When children understand how to think and are invigorated and inspired by it, they have no interest in taking the easy way out.  Cheating holds no charm because it's beneath their capabilities.  That's the kind of citizen I want to raise.