Life and Learning

I am afraid this may turn into an eclectic post, filled with my rambling thoughts on life and learning, and how we approach each in our home. I’ve written a few times that this year has been a growing and changing year in our homeschool, but the truth is when I think about it, I realize that we’ve been growing and changing the past few years in home and school alike, and that our approach to homeschooling has grown out of the changes in our home life.

I first became aware of the Waldorf approach to education a few years ago, when we started our journey with Oak Meadow. While the Waldorf approach to the 3Rs did not work well for my children, aspects of the lifestyle which I was learning more about, did. In fact, I completely fell in love with many parts of it.

Now, we are far from purists, in fact I wouldn’t even remotely claim to say that we’re living a “Waldorf lifestyle”. But rather, that we have employed elements of it in our life. For example, we watch television and the kids own and play video games, but reading more about Waldorf did make us reassess and put stricter limits on how much they were getting of each. We don’t go to the extreme of eating certain foods and wearing certain colors on certain days, but we are striving to be more intentional about bringing rhythm to our days and weeks, even if just in little ways. We don’t strictly use only natural materials in our clothing and home, but we certainly are trying to use more. As Christians, we do not believe in Anthroposophy, but we do firmly believe in a holistic approach to raising and educating children.  We believe in equal importance of the heart, head and hands. Neglect one part and the whole being suffers.

Learning more about Waldorf led us to re-evaluate our children’s toys, both the quality and quantity. I admit, I never thought that my children had “too many toys”, until I compared them against the guidelines of Waldorf-inspired simplicity. We realized that we had a lot of toys that were never or hardly used – and most of those were the plastic, battery-chugging toys, or all those action figures that the kids just “had to have!” As we observed the children, we noticed that the toys they played with the most were the ones that allowed the most creativity – cars, wooden building blocks, Lego, wooden trains and Playmobil.  In the end, we got rid of almost everything else. It was refreshing.

We also ditched the cheap Crayola crayons and paints and colored pencils, and invested in rich, aromatic beeswax crayons, true watercolor paints with quality brushes, diving into the world of wet on wet watercolor painting. We bought wool roving and needles and tried wet and needle felting, making some Christmas ornaments which we donated to a charity event. We tried weaving and knitting, and baked more together.

I knew that I wanted nature, freedom and creativity to be the dominant forces in my children’s childhoods – not video games, television or organized activities. This isn’t to say the children aren’t involved in sports and activities, they are. But we choose them carefully, limiting how many nights a week we are on the go.

My husband delights in his children, but like most working fathers, from Monday through Friday, he only sees the children for a few minutes in the morning and a couple hours in the evening. We realized that being on the go several nights a week for activities was seriously cutting into the time he got to spend with his children. And I’m sorry, but sitting on the sidelines watching your child play organized sports is not the same as being home with the children reading books, playing board games, wrestling around in the living room, or kicking the soccer ball around in the backyard. Not that there isn’t value in supporting and cheering your child on in an activity they enjoy, but sideline parenting shouldn’t make up the bulk of your time together during the week.

Those were growing years, and this year, as I’ve been reflecting on our homeschool, I’ve come to realize that I want our homeschool to blend seamlessly within our lives, not to feel like an artificial extension. And yet, I have been struggling the last couple of years to find an approach that blends our personal values and goals, with a practical application that meets the hectic demands of our family. To say nothing of matching the learning styles of our children, and the personality traits of all of us! Pure Waldorf didn’t work. Pure Charlotte Mason didn’t work. Pure traditional workbook-based didn’t work. Pure anything didn’t work.

As much as I have wanted there to be a neat and tidy, pre-packaged curriculum that is open and go, that works perfectly for both of my children, such a thing does not exist. As much as we loved the holistic, creative approach of Waldorf – it was far too much work for me to put together with our hectic lives, and their approach to reading and math was a horrible fit for my children, who thrive with workbooks.

Likewise, as much as I loved the short and sweet lessons of Charlotte Mason, the idea of narration being the only comprehension exercise necessary, and the beautiful idea of spreading a liberal arts feast before my children – the numerous short lessons drove my son up the wall, he hated narration, and try as we might, we just never could keep up to all the liberal arts studies.

While using a workbook only approach seemed like it would be the winner – after all, my children are both visual learners who love workbooks, and they are certainly an easy , open and go approach for a hectic life, workbooks for everything was just plain boring. It was also far too much writing for my son.

I was feeling pressure this year – after all, this was my son’s grade 4 year. He only had one more year of “elementary school” before he would be considered “middle school” – the years when one was supposed to start getting more serious about education. The years that prepare students for the academically challenging years of high school, which prepare them for college, their career, their life. Suddenly the distant future felt like it was looming on the horizon, and here we were, only managing to get the 3Rs done with any amount of formality or consistency.

Art and music lessons were non-existent, the only social studies my children had really learned was the names of the provinces – no ancient history other than some reading about Egypt and China, two countries that interested my son. As for science… well, I actually felt okay about science, because my son is a born naturalist who devours bird and animal encyclopedias. He is currently reading cover to cover, a 750+ paged encyclopedia on the birds of North America. Every day we were being told a new and interesting fact about some species. But outside of his self-directed learning, the most we did for science was the occasional Magic School Bus science kit or tv episode. Forget about learning a foreign language of any kind, let alone Latin. I felt like a homeschooling failure.

But why?

By whose standards was I a failure? The public education system we have chosen to eschew? By the standards of Rudolph Steiner? Or Charlotte Mason? Or the fellow homeschool Moms who used very heavy academic, traditional approaches full of textbooks and workbooks? It dawned on me that I have spent years believing others when they tell me that my children have to read “x” book or study “y” subject at “z” time, in order to have a successful education. That without these things I am somehow failing my children.

I’ve been waking up to the lie this year, and slowly taking a stand against it. In fact, I am now at the place where I refuse to believe it. Following some other person’s academic ideals with rigidity is not what makes me a success as a homeschool teacher. Teaching my 6 year old about Ancient Rome & Greece does not make me a success. Nor does doing picture study, composer study, hymn study or reading Shakespeare to a 9 year old.

What makes me a success is acknowledging  and respecting my children’s individual areas of strength and challenge, their learning styles, and their areas of interest – and then building their education around them. What makes me a success is realizing that by following their interests now, I am opening the door to future learning. I am helping them learn how to love learning, now, rather than burn them out with drudgery and required work that in no way applies to their lives.

As I sat reflecting on all that we haven’t accomplished in the past 5 years of learning, I decided to shift my thoughts, and instead think of all that we have accomplished:

  • I have taught one child to read well ahead of his years, and another is in the process of learning. What’s more – my children love to be read to. We have spent countless hours reading through storybooks, poetry, classic literature and the silly stories of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Consequently they have impressive imaginations and excellent vocabularies.
  • Both children are proficient in math. My youngest is extremely skilled in math facts and my oldest is showing real aptitude in the visual realm of mathematics, such as geometry.
  • They both have excellent penmanship, and are learning cursive.
  • They enjoy writing stories and letters to their pen pals.
  • They have picked up computer skills naturally on their own, without it having to be a forced subject in school at the expense of others.
  • They have taken countless nature walks, learning the art of observation, and have an excellent awareness of and love for, the natural world.
  • They are both talented artists, with my son being skilled at drawing, and my daughter developing a penchant for painting. They enjoy going to art galleries, examining various styles of art.
  • They both are natural musicians who love to sing, and enjoy listening to all forms of music including classical. My son can accurately identify Vivaldi’s Seasons and some of Beethovens work as well.
  • Enjoying poetry, both children have now memorized several poems for fun, and have even given recitations at our homeschool Christmas party. This has helped with the skills of elocution, public speaking and has helped my daughter with her speech errors.
  • My son, we refer to as our is “amateur ornithologist”, not only capable of accurately identifying dozens and dozens of species of birds from across the globe, but he can also tell you their habitats, eating habits, if they’re endangered, protected and more.
  • My daughter has a love for homemaking and handicraft skills, and at only 6 years old, is quite a talented baker, enjoys cooking breakfast for the family, loves to help with sewing, and is learning how to knit.
  • They have helped every year with the garden – from rock picking to snapping beans, and everything in between. They also help with the grocery shopping, and are fully capable of making purchases themselves. They help with household chores and maintenance. Our daughter (out of her own free will) helped her father build our new deck at 6 years of age – skillfully using the tools alongside her father. One of our strongest desires is to raise children who are perfectly capable of running a household.
  • We have done financial math projects, where they are given a budget and have to manage a “store” – purchasing stock and supplies, dealing with unexpected expenses, paying employees etc…
  • They have learned numerous Bible stories and have already memorized several prayers of our Catholic faith. They have a love for the Lord that astounds me sometimes.
  • We have done countless field trips to a historical settlement village where they have milked a cow, fed pigs, washed horses, threshed flax, spun wool, baked using a wood stove, played antique games and been witness to a different era of living. On other field trips, they have learned how pizzas are made and how dairy farms work – they were even privy to watch a calf being born. They have been to one of the largest green houses in North America to learn about their operations, they have been to art museums, science museums, aquariums, zoos, general historical museums, and a planetarium. They have been to an apple orchard where they not only picked apples and made fresh pressed cider, but learned all about the workings of commercial apple growing. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting.
  • They have participated in science and social studies project fairs, presenting their projects on Ancient Egypt, Canada, the Canada Goose, and Volcanoes.
  • They have watched countless hours of Dr. Quinn, which has led to discussions on women’s rights, the historical treatment of Native Americans and African Americans, slavery, prejudice, and much more.
  • And during our trips to our daughter’s hospital, they have learned patience, tolerance, compassion and understanding, the reality of disease and disability and respecting others who look, speak and act different from us, and they have learned to appreciate the many blessings that they have in life.

As I reflect on this much lengthier list, I can now see that my earlier assessment was wrong. My children have been learning much in the way of science and social studies, as well as home economics, arts and more, despite the lack of formal teaching thereof. I can also see now that perhaps while I thought I was searching for our “niche”, I had already found it. It would appear that our rather “unschooling” approach to “Everything Else”, has not been failing us, but rather, has given our children thus far a rich and varied education, one that is developing not just their minds, but their hearts and hands as well. Perhaps the traditionalists, Rudolph and Charlotte would be proud after all.

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Tiny Houses, Rice and Poverty Appropriation

Am I the only one that thinks we seem to be a society obsessed with finding things to get offended and upset about? Every day my newsfeed is filling with people debating over this or that, or ranting about how they were offended by Joe Blow’s opinion which really has nothing to do with them.  Today, however, I saw a new one. I came across an article from a woman who is upset over, get this – tiny houses. Yup. She is claiming that those living in tiny houses are engaging in “Poverty Appropriation”. Don’t believe me? Read the article here.  Meanwhile, I feel like I must *sigh*. Surely, we have hit a new low in the list of Things to Get Offended About. 

Now, before we go any farther, I’ll  just stop right here and say that yes, I realize that her article is actually about more than tiny houses, and that yes, she does have a point – sort of. I also want to say that in absolutely no way  am I diminishing the experiences of those who live in poverty.  Poverty in today’s day and age is unacceptable, and something that I think we should be doing more to work towards ending, especially poverty caused by systemic oppression.

That said – while the author may have had a point, she lost credibility when she completely misinterpreted what cultural appropriation is by accusing things of being appropriation, when they really aren’t; when she decided to belittle people for their personal lifestyle choices, just because essentially, she’s upset that they have a choice.

So, to start with, to appropriate something means to take something that doesn’t belong to you. Cultural appropriation in it’s most stripped down version is when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own. But it’s actually not that cut and dried, because we live in a culturally diverse country.

In Canada and the United States, our population is made up of hundreds of different ethnicities.  Save for the Native Americans, we all immigrated from other cultures and countries. We became a cultural melting pot, and when that happens, you will naturally have happen what is called cultural exchange – all the various dialects, customs, skills, and religious traditions rub off on each other.  This happens as a result of natural sharing.

The North American traditional celebrations of Halloween and Christmas are excellent examples of this – how we celebrate these holidays today, is really just a mix of centuries old traditions that were brought overseas by immigrants of different countries. We all eat corn today thanks to the Native Americans. We have our current English language thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, Germans, French, Greeks and so forth. We drink coffee today thanks to Ethiopians. The list goes on and on…

Cultural appropriation on the other hand has it’s roots in exploitation. Instead of merely exchanging information, sharing knowledge for survival, picking up on sayings or dialects just through general exposure, eating something because it was shared with you and you enjoy it, cultural appropriation is taking something for the purpose of gain, which isn’t always financial. An example would be white people using “black slang” (more appropriately known as African American Vernacular English) phrases and sayings that they have no knowledge and understanding of, just to sound “cool”.

But really, we need to take it even a step further, and to do so I’ll share a good description of cultural appropriation, which I found online: “Cultural appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of  a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systemically oppressed by that dominant group.”

So basically, cultural appropriation happens when those in power use a minority culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols etc…  for the purpose of personal gain, or in a way that misrepresents the culture in such a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes about that culture. An example would be Katy Perry dressing as a geisha during the 2013 American Music Awards.

So, with that, let’s go back and take a look at the article in question, and it’s claims of appropriation:

  1. The Tiny House MovementFor starters, the author didn’t even get her facts straight – while the latest movement started in the 90’s, tiny houses have been a thing off and on for many decades, well before the most recent movement began. But regardless, in no way, shape or form, is this poverty appropriation. Again, the definition of appropriation is to steal something from a typically oppressed culture for personal gain at the expense of said culture, or in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes.

    “Tiny Homes” are not a poverty “thing”. While yes, when it comes to poverty, there can be (it’s not inherent) a stereotypical image of a run down trailer with corrugated sides and a trailer hitch, anyone who has seen the modern tiny homes, with their modern conveniences, lavish interiors and attractive exteriors, knows that these are in no way modeled off “trailer park” homes. In no way are these perpetuating the stereotypical poverty-stricken trailer park home image. As an aside, not everyone, or even the majority of people living in poverty live in mobiles. They can live in apartments, small homes, large homes, cars, under bridges etc…

    Secondly,  those choosing to live in tiny homes are in no way experiencing personal gain at the expense of those living in poverty. They are not exploiting anyone, in any way. They are simply making a personal choice on where they want to live, and how they want to spend their money.

    Lastly, and most importantly, those choosing to live in tiny homes come from a myriad of cultural and financial backgrounds.  This means that the power dynamic mentioned earlier, which is key in cultural appropriation, is missing.

    Those who choose to live in tiny homes due so for a wide variety of reasons, including people recovering from financial setbacks, young couples and students who want to save money, retired couples who no longer need as much space, people who want to live greener, those who recognize the current trend of having “too much” and want to simplify, or those who just like the houses themselves.

    Yes, the key here is that these people have made the choice to live in a small home, with less material possessions. No, not everyone has that choice. No, it’s not fair, but it is life.

    However, just because someone has the ability to own a larger home, yet chooses the same size home as someone living in poverty, doesn’t make them guilty of appropriation. Likewise, just because someone can afford to own more material possessions, does not mean that they are required to. If they want to choose to live simply, without multitudes of furniture, toys, books, electronics etc… that is their business. It is their own path to peace and satisfaction, and again, is not in any way cultural appropriation.

  2. “Trailer Park” themed restaurants and bars 

    Now yes, this one is cultural appropriation. Why? Because privileged people are essentially making money by mocking the circumstances of others. They are also perpetuating negative stereotypes, and yet at the same time, are also glossing over the harsh realities of the life of poverty.  It’s wrong and offensive.

  3. White people living on welfare/Food Not Bombs 

    Now, I’ll admit, I’m not actually sure if the author was trying to give this as an example of poverty appropriation, but considering she included it in her article we can assume so. Once again, she is wrong. Are these issues? Yes, for sure. But not ones of appropriation.The fact that the FNB donations were going to white people, instead of those of other races, in my opinion, was a prejudice issue.

    Now, as for her claim that white people “praise” other white people for living off the system, that’s far from reality. Are there some radical anarchists who would praise mooching off the very government they despise? Yes. And I’m sorry that was her experience. But, I want to point out that  those people are far from the majority. They are in fact the rare exception.

    Most of us “white” people criticize all people, of all color who abuse the system. Since our hard-earned tax dollars are going to pay for the system, we want to see our money go to the people who truly need it – regardless of race, creed or orientation.

  4. Poor People Food?

    Once again, this is not poverty appropriation. For starters, there is no set-in-stone, cultural food for poverty. Those living in poverty eat whatever is available. It might be pasta, it might be foraged greens, beans, rice, eggs from the chicken they own, bread etc… It will vary with whatever is available.I have family members that grew up in poverty. They ate a lot of liver because at that time it was a cheaply available meat. When my husband and I were broke and living paycheck to paycheck, barely above the poverty threshold, we lived on pasta – so. much. pasta. However, you do not hear us, nor my other family members complaining or being offended when restaurants serve liver or pasta. Why? Because there is nothing offensive about it. They are foods that millions of people across the globe enjoy.

    People of all races, from all financial backgrounds have been eating pickles, rice, beans, foraged and stewed greens, bone broth soups, bread, pasta etc… for thousands of years. In no way, is it poverty appropriation for a restaurant to serve these items. Just because someone living in poverty eats rice, does not mean that others can’t.

    Now, once again, I understand that these people have the choice to eat these foods, when other people don’t. But once again – just because someone has a choice that you don’t, doesn’t make them guilty of appropriation.

At the end of the day, aside from the Butter Bar, or whatever that place wants to call itself, there was absolutely nothing that the author talked about that even remotely fell under the definition of cultural appropriation. Sadly, her only legitimate complaint was that other people have/had choices that she didn’t. Which sucks. I get that, I really do. And I can appreciate how it can be hard for her to understand other people’s decisions when she comes from such a different background.

But therein lies the problem. Because, despite her claim that she wasn’t trying to “throw them under the bus”, the author of this article threw around some very real and serious accusations at people/situations that did not warrant them in the least. And we as a society need to stop doing that.

On one hand people today are saying we need to be more open and have discussions on the numerous issues at hand, including appropriation; and yet on the other hand, just like this author, these same people are refusing to try and understand the other points of view.  Instead, they shut down discussion by slapping powerful labels where they don’t belong – calling Christians who oppose gay marriage homophobes, calling people who have legitimate concerns on immigration policies xenophobes, calling people who choose to live in tiny homes poverty appropriationists.

You can’t have it both ways – you can’t claim to want to openly discuss issues, while shaming and erroneously name-calling those with different view points, or who make different choices than you feel they should.  When you do so, all you succeed in doing is shutting down communication and the chance for real education. And when that happens, change can not happen.

A Photo Essay of Spring

As a parent, I have snapped thousands of photos of my children, mostly for the sake of superficially capturing memories of the things we did – we came, we saw, we did this. But sometimes, it goes deeper than that. Sometimes, a photo becomes more than just a reminder that you were there and did this, instead, it captures the emotions of the moment, and you find yourself truly able to feel and live the experience with the subject.

I love to write, and yet, sometimes words fail to adequately express the emotion of a moment.  How to begin to describe a child’s face, when the expression thereupon is one of sheer joy and excitement and freedom? What words does one use to accurately paint the image in one’s mind of the exhilaration a child experiences when jumping into a puddle?

And so, I am going to let the pictures do the talking; I will let them tell you the story of a boy and a girl outside on a warm, sunny, April afternoon.

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Nature Study 101

We love nature here, and I have always loved the Charlotte Mason idea of Nature Study. Yet, it is something that I confess, rarely ever seems to happen in our home. Even though the concept is simple, I (like so many others), felt like I would benefit from a guide; something to walk me through the process.

So, I decided to give a program that I had been eyeballing for a few months, a chance. It is called Exploring Nature with Children, and it’s a year-long nature study curriculum. I might call it “Nature Study for Dummies” or “Nature Study 101”. It is a very comprehensive, yet easy to follow and very flexible program that makes nature study (and journaling) easy, for anyone. Even beginners like me.

Each month is broken down into four topics, and includes a nature walk idea, a book list, a poem and piece of art work that relates to the topic and a selection of engaging and educational extension activities – no busy work craft ideas in this program! It is easy to use this for a wide range of ages, and I can definitely see how this could be used for multiple years.

So, I bought the book and we dived right in with the April study on trees. Since spring is just starting here in Atlantic Canada, we had to don our rubbers, parkas, hats and mittens for our nature walk. We roamed the back yard, studying the various trees and comparing the differing buds.  We gently took a few samples home with us.

When we got home, we did our first ever “real” nature journal entry, in our newly purchased journals. We sketched in pencil, then filled in the color using watercolor crayons and paintbrushes, replicating (or attempting to!) the trees and buds that we saw.

The next day, we revisited the journals and added some information, and we also dissected the leaf buds that we had found, examining them for signs of baby leaves. The following day we drew a diagram of a tree, with all it’s parts labelled – from the roots up. Each day we read beautiful books such as Sky Tree, Planting the Trees of Kenya and A Log’s Life.

We are only two weeks into the program, and thus far the lesson on trees is the only one we have completed since we had some unforseen interruptions. We will start lesson two next week (Plant Life Cycles), but in the mean time, one thing I have noticed is we are already being more intentional about observing when we are outdoors. Yesterday we took a bike ride and stopped several times to watch the small swollen brooks and streams – we noted the color of the water, the sound, even just the little tiny trickles along the side of the road. At one brook my son spotted a mallard taking off.

Today, despite the cool rain, we bundled up and hiked down to the stream that runs behind our house, eager to observe it in it’s flooded state. It had risen 2-3′ overnight, and the children loved seeing “their island” where we go fishing, pick fiddleheads and go wading, completely covered in water. We enjoyed the spring-sweet smell of the cedars, and the squelching sound of the mud. We compared how it looked today, to how it looked other times. We noticed that the buds on the trees are getting bigger, thanks to the mild days we’ve been having.

It is a process. Our journals are far from the prize-worthy specimens I have seen online on Pinterest and other nature journaling websites, including a wonderful Facebook group called Charlotte Mason Nature Journaling. But we will learn and grow together, and what’s more, we are loving the process.

 

My first ever attempt at nature journaling.

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I couldn’t quite figure out at first what my 9 year old son was trying to depict, until I looked at the stem he was using as inspiration. Then I was pleased with his attention to detail.

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My 6 year old daughter’s entry (I helped with labeling the buds). 20170404_155746~2_resized

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Time to Play

Back in October, I had the privilege of attending a film screening, which was showing Waldorf-educator Kim Hunter’s film, “A Time to Play”. Kim Hunter, a Canadian native, became a Waldorf early childhood educator in 1996, teaching at the Vancouver Waldorf School. She then went on to start a new program at her home on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia in 1999. During her teaching career, Ms. Hunter has been a strong advocate for freedom in the early childhood years, “I have a strong conviction that children should be at home as much as possible when they’re young. Children need time to just ‘be’, to discover out of their own experiences who they are, what they like and what they can do.”

This desire for advocacy for the early childhood years led Ms. Hunter to produce a short documentary film, outlining the need for more freedom in the early years for today’s children. After 20 years in the classroom, she took a year’s sabbatical to tour North America, presenting her film. Ms. Hunter’s passion and advocacy for early childhood recently earned her the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, which she received from Prime Minister Trudeau on May 12th, 2016. She was one of five early childhood educators from across Canada to receive a certificate of excellence, recognizing their dedication and achievements.

Ms. Hunter’s film talks about the developmental need for allowing young children ample time for unstructured play, and how we need to work as a society at bringing this back as an early childhood priority. “I think the two biggest factors working against our children in today’s world are technology and time.” Kim speaks about the excess amount of time all children, but especially young children (those under the age of 7) are spending not just in school, but also in structured, organized classes and sports. “If we always put children into classes and groups then they never have the opportunity to figure things out on their own. They never have the chance to learn something out of their own curiosity or interest. Many parents in our time feel (consciously or unconsciously) a sense of competitiveness about what their children are doing or learning. In trying to bring our children a wealth of opportunity, we are instead overwhelming them.”

What’s more, we may actually be stifling them – studies have shown that the time children spend playing in organized sports significantly reduces their creativity as young adults. Since the ability to think creatively is considered the best predictor of future achievements, and an excellent indicator of intelligence, this has professionals concerned. On the other hand, time spent playing unstructured sports activities (like pick up hockey or a neighborhood ball game) was actually shown to boost creativity. The proposed reasoning for this is that informal sports offers children the freedom to self-govern, create rules, problem solve and learn to resolve conflicts on their own.

Psychologist Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn”, is especially concerned about the loss of free play in early childhood. In an article titled, “The Play Deficit”, he opens with a memory of his own childhood, one familiar to many of us over the age of 30, but foreign to many of today’s young adults and children, “When I was a child in the 1950’s, we played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than books assigned to us. What I learned in [my play] has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learned in school.”

It is unquestionable that children’s opportunities for free play has been declining – developmental psychologist David Elkind reports that children have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week, just in the last 20 years. This is largely due to an increase in the amount of time children spend in school and on homework, and also being increasingly enrolled in adult-directed sports and activities. Unfortunately, the negative consequences go past reduced creativity.

As children’s play has been declining, there has also been a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism – claims which are backed up by analyzing the results of clinical and standardized questionnaires that have been in use for over 40 years. A study presented at the Association for Psychological Science in 2010 included data from over 14,000 students which showed that students who started college after the year 2000 had empathy levels that were 40% lower than their predecessors.

Maia Szalavtiz, M.D., Ph. D, a neuroscience journalist for TIME Magazine, reflected on the study in an online article, stating that while she felt there were multiple reasons for this decline, one of those reasons is that children today do not spend enough time in free play: “Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don’t get to know each other very well. And you can’t learn to connect and care if you don’t practice these things. Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003 – right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.”

In his article, Dr. Gray states, “Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting.”

He goes on to say, “The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will. Every player knows that, and so the goal for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires, while also satisfying those of the other players. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise.”

These lessons in independent negotiation and compromise are lost however in school and organized activities, where adults are in charge, where they make decisions for children, problem solve for the children, and have overall control of the setting. Dr. Gray stresses this by saying, “We think of play as childish, but to the child, [free] play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practice adulthood.”

Kim Hunter mentions that loss of free play has other negative outcomes as well, “If we don’t have time and space to digest our experiences – which is what unstructured free play offers for children, we become anxious, nervous, stressed and depressed.” We have certainly seen a rise in childhood mental disorders in recent years. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicide are all climbing in our youth. In Canada, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths in ages 15-24, making it one of the leading causes of death. And while there may be multiple factors, there is a definite correlation between the loss of free play and the rise in mental illness which cannot be discredited. If nothing else, given the rate at which mental illness is occuring in today’s youth, one could argue that we should be striving to increase the amount of free play our children have available as a coping mechanism, instead of decreasing it.

Kim also mentions the importance of free play and sensory and gross motor development. “Playing outside is truly the quintessential childhood experience, and nothing provides more opportunities for gross-motor activity.” In Kim’s school she has a goal of having the children outside for 4-5 hours every day, playing freely. She laughed, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Today, researchers are increasingly understanding the role that gross motor activity has on a child’s brain development. Likewise, they are also learning how the lack of gross motor activity affects a child. Ms. Hunter states that when young children do not receive enough active play – whether because of being in school, technology use or not having sufficient time for free play, it is actually impairing their development.

“Studies, one dating back to the 1980s, show a relationship between a lack of gross motor skills and dyslexia/impaired reading.” Ms. Hunter explained that reading is a complex, bi-lateral brain activity, meaning both hemispheres of the brain must be engaged at the same time. Researchers now realize that certain gross motor activities which commonly occur in play, actually help children develop this crucial skill.

Ms. Hunter went on to say that, “Too little movement in the first seven years is often seen in the history of children with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. Toddlers and young children shouldn’t sit still! Children need to move their body in order for their brain to develop optimally. If children do not get enough movement when they are young, it’s hard for them to come to stillness later on when we want them to, or when we need them to – such as when they’re in a class of 30 students and they are expected to pay attention and learn.”

In Ms. Hunter’s film, Joy Winchell, a retired teacher, states that ideally children should have blocks of at least 1.5 hours of uninterrupted play. This extended period of time allows play to become more complex and innovative, allowing for more problem solving and creativity. “We have to remember that play is not a break from learning, but rather the very foundation for academic learning.”

Ultimately, what Kim Hunter, and others, want us to learn is – free play is crucial to a child’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive well being, and yet we are increasingly taking it away by keeping our children in school longer, enrolling them in more organized activities and also allowing more screen time. Kim finished by saying, “It is time to create a new paradigm of understanding of this developmental need, and to start creating the time and space for deep, meaningful play for our children.” Their future depends on it.

Remembrance Day… Shaming?

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Like the flick of a switch, Halloween is over and poppies are on every counter across Canada. Almost everyone drops a few coins in the bucket and pins on a poppy, in remembrance of our veterans.  Sounds just like Canadians – the bunch of polite, caring, respectful people that we are, right?  If only that were true. If only we could choose to live up to our reputation.

Poppies unfortunately aren’t the only thing popping up these days. In the media world, what I like to call Remembrance Day Shaming posts –  memes, polls, comments and articles, are being spread like wildfire, telling stores and people alike that they should wait until November 12th to start decorating for Christmas. To do anything else is, disrespectful, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

And this is what we Canadians have turned Remembrance Day into – another online media debate over personal choices and opinions, each trying to prove who is right or wrong, who is the most respectful. Am I the only one who sees the hypocrisy in this?

Here’s my wild and crazy idea – maybe we could just stop all the shaming and finger pointing over who is doing it right or wrong. Maybe we could stop sharing judgemental posts and memes that accomplish absolutely nothing, and instead we could respect the fact that everyone remembers, supports, sorrows and grieves for our veterans in different ways.

Maybe we should respect people’s rights to celebrate a holiday season when they want and how they want. Perhaps we should try to understand that just because someone has decorations up, or are listening to carols, doesn’t mean they aren’t remembering the veterans who risked and gave their lives, to allow them that very freedom! Maybe we should stop and realize that turning a day of solemnity into a debate over right or wrong, is the disrespectful thing.

Maybe we should worry less about what others are doing and when they are doing it, and worry more about our own hearts. Maybe we should take a long and hard, honest look at whether we are truly concerned about respect for veterans, or are we just getting caught up in the latest online debate?

Do you actually remember our veterans the other 364 days of the year? Do you pray for our men and women serving overseas in July? Do you take the time to go visit our veterans in the nursing homes in March? Do you write soldiers overseas a letter in August? Do you lobby for better treatment of our veterans in January? Do you donate financially to their support in April? Do you stop at a memorial for a moment of reflection in September? Do you talk to your children throughout the year about the freedoms of our country, what they mean and why we have them?

Or do you just spend a few days a year sharing a couple of memes telling others how you think they should choose to show their respect?

The greatest way to show respect for our veterans is to show respect for each other, and to stop turning a day of solemnity into a debate over personal opinions. To truly be united in remembering the men and women who served, and continue to serve our great country, without pointing fingers over who is doing it right or wrong. Then, we will live up to our Canadian reputation.

 

 

 

Simplicity Childhood

Last night I had a freelance assignment of covering a screening of Waldorf-educator Kim Hunter’s film, “Time to Play”. The film talks about the developmental need for allowing young children ample time for unstructured play, and how we need to work as a society at bringing this back as an early childhood priority. The screening was presented by our local Waldorf school, and the “assignment” to attend the event was truly a joy.

I have long been interested in Waldorf education. Now, as a Christian I certainly do not agree with many elements of anthroposophy. However, while I disagree with their spiritual beliefs, I agree with many aspects of Rudolph Steiner’s recommendations for early childhood: plenty of unstructured play, especially outdoors; as well as minimal electronics, minimizing toys and only using those which allow for open imagination, and are made of natural materials, keeping a rhythm and structure within the home, striving for a warm and harmonious atmosphere within the home, delaying academics until children have reached certain developmental milestones, a focus on proper sensory development, allowing children to make their own discoveries instead of always guiding them to reach conclusions and much more. Again, while I may not agree with their spiritual beliefs, much of Steiner’s research on developmental needs and milestones in children have been studied, and were found to be solid.

While at the screening, I struck up a conversation with the director of the Waldorf school, which led to an invitation for my children and I to attend their “Family Day”, which was being held this morning. So on this chilly October morning, I bundled my children and I up, and we drove out to the school.

It was an extraordinary day – because it was so ordinary. To me, the best way to describe it would be to call it an organic, tribal experience: it was a time of children of all ages coming together. Bundled up in hats and mittens and winter jackets they played the way children used to play for thousands of years – they played independently as a group, without guidance or interference or hovering from the “elders”.

It was so refreshing to see what happens creatively among children, when simplicity is allowed; when they are allowed to use their imaginations and nature. Blocks of wood became cannons and forts, birds and squirrels were spotted, games of tag were played, sticks became swords, a simple walk along a forest path became a grand adventure.

Inside the school there were minimal, simple toys – a basket of plain wooden blocks, a wooden kitchen and enamel tea set, a basket of small rocks and gems, some play silks, some books, among a few other things. Once again, the children’s imaginations came to life – and one of the most popular items? The basket of rocks, which I heard one child describe as “fairy crystals”.  Children had tea parties, built block towers and castles, several curled up on the couch together, enjoying a book. Despite the simplicity of the toys, or the lack of electronics, not a complaint of boredom was uttered.

Snack time was a delightful experience. For starters, the children were involved in the food preparation. Even the littlest toddlers helped by washing apples, while the older children sliced the apples for homemade apple sauce. Each child kneaded and formed their own miniature loaf of bread. The transition to the snack time was preceded by a gentle song, then a beeswax candle was lit, bringing light and warmth to the table, as a blessing was said over the food.

While the school is equipped with electricity, it’s presence was negligible: light was provided by ample windows letting in the sun, heat provided by a wood cook stove, water provided by a system of rooftop resevoirs and piping. It was remarkable the sense of quiet peace that pervaded (despite the chatter of children), without the harshness of overhead lights or the constant hum of appliances and electronics that fill our homes.  It brought to mind a quote from Kim Hunter, “Today, we have to intentionally teach our children how to listen, because of the constant noise we live with.” Surrounded by silence, I realized just how noisy our homes, work and school environments truly have become.

My takeaway from the film, from the experience this morning, was a feeling of, “I want that!” And so, I hope to strive to make our home, our school, a little more “Waldorf”. You don’t have to believe in anthroposophy, to incorporate Waldorf ideas in your home, indeed, I think it would serve us all well to strive to reduce the noise, the clutter, the toys, the electronics; to allow children more freedom in play and time, while also involving them in the work of the home more (which gives them a feeling of connection), to enjoy nature a little more, to be intentional at trying to create a warm and relaxed atmosphere within our home, to give our children a predictable rhythm. Essentially, to give our children simplicity.

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The children enjoy an outdoor snack of fresh baked sourdough bread – each child created their own small loaf. My daughter shows off her “crystals” – the children took turns hammering a geode, opening it to discover the gem inside. 

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