Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Early Childhood Education - First Do No Harm

Welcome to the September Carnival of Natural Parenting: We're all home schoolers
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how their children learn at home as a natural part of their day. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

I have wanted to write a post about this for a while because I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how my children learn and how I can educate them.  I love learning, researching, debating, reading, and problem solving and I want my children to love and be good at these things as well.  So how do I encourage a love of learning?  I've basically decided that children are already born with the desire, so basically I just need to not quash it.  

So, of course, I’ve read lots of books on the subject and there are two books I really like.  The first book is by John Holt called How Children Learn.  I was fairly skeptical of the book at first because Holt is an author lauded by homeschoolers, specifically unschoolers, and I had never really understood the arguments for homeschooling, but I was reading the book to get some more insight.  When I started the book I didn’t get it, but by the end of the book I thought Holt was brilliant.  One of the main reasons I ended up convinced was because I’m fairly sure my third grade teacher employed Holt’s philosophy and I have so many memories of that year of school.  It was by far my favorite grade.  I have virtually no memories of second or fourth grade, let alone what I learned those years, but I remember third grade and all the things I learned very well.  Also many of the things he talks about, I was already doing intuitively, but reading his book gave me more intent in how I teach my children.

The second book I like is called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.   This book isn’t about education.  It is about how people become an expert, and some of the chemistry in the brain that goes into this.  While people may use the information in the book to come up with a completely opposite educational philosophy than mine I thought it added more authority to many of my practices. 

Ironically, all the time I spend thinking and studying about how to educate my children results in me not doing much of anything.  I consciously step out of the way and try to let my kids do their thing.  Yet this doesn’t just mean I get to sit and read a book in the corner while my children become brilliant, because I act as the facilitator, and question answerer.  So here are the things I aim for in educating my children:

Self-direction-  I let the girls pick what they want to do and what they want to learn about.  If inspiration strikes for Selena to cook a pie, I figure out how she can do it.  If I am cooking dinner and Allie wants to help, I pull up a chair and try to figure out a way she can be involved.  If Selena wants to go for a run in the pouring rain, off we go.  

If my knee-jerk reaction is to say no to something they want to do, I figure out why.  Usually it is because it is too messy, or it is too dangerous.  If it is because of the mess I usually overcome the urge to say no and let them do it.  If it is because it is dangerous, I reevaluate and decide if it really is remotely likely that serious injury could occur.  If it isn’t, I let them do it.  So things like scissors and staplers aren’t necessary off limits.  I try not to underestimate their abilities. I try not to hinder their independence even though doing so is a hindrance to me. 

I am letting their own natural curiosity dictate what they learn and in doing so they are not turned off by learning because nothing is being forced.  Unfortunately one of the vagaries of psychology is that many times when someone is forced, bribed, cajoled, paid, to do something, even if it is fun, it no longer becomes fun.  Which is why, Holt argues, that the desire to learn, which is so abundant among young children, diminishes the longer they are in school.  It is not until they are adults and out of school for a while that they begin to take up hobbies and enjoy learning again. 

This wasn’t the case for me.  I always enjoyed school.  However, I do feel that I learned more in college when I had more choice in my coursework and that I have learned even more since being out of school.  I had to do a lot of learning on my own for my job and that has given me confidence in my ability to teach myself anything.  I used to wish to go back to school for fun, but now I wonder why I would pay anyone to explain stuff to me that I can learn on my own.

Not interjecting with corrections- This one takes patience because it is so much more efficient to do something myself, but if the girls are doing something, and they are doing it wrong, I let them do it and let them figure it out themselves. However, if they ever ask questions, or ask for help I will do whatever they ask.  Holt addresses this fiddling around and said that it was necessary in order to learn something.  In the book The Talent Code the author, Daniel Coyle, talks about how messing up while learning something actually creates the neural pathways for a skill more efficiently than any other method of learning.  Coyle calls this deep practice.  There is also the psychological aspect that many people will lose interest in something when they are told they are doing it wrong, or when someone is there to do it for them.   Holt has many examples of where he observed children becoming demoralized and playing dumb after being corrected, and opposite examples of children figuring out on their own that they had been doing something incorrectly without ever being corrected.  

Letting the activity lead to its natural conclusion – Many times Selena will want to do something over and over and over and honestly it gets boring.  But repetition is a key part of learning a skill.  In The Talent Code Coyle talks about how a skill is developed when the neural pathways for that skill become thickly lined with myelin.  The way you create myelin is to do the skill.  The more you do it, the more myelin lines the pathway and the better you get.  Meaning anyone can get good at something if they practice enough. 

So when we are out at a child centered activity like the park, or the zoo I don’t hurry the girls to the next activity or exhibit because I’m bored, or I think they’ll like it, or I want them to learn something new.  I want them to get as much exposure as they feel they need.  Obviously when other people are around, orAllie needs a nap, or I need lunch, or we are meeting someone somewhere, or the place is closing, I have to interrupt, but if I don’t have to, I won’t.   Conversely I’m not going to make them stay somewhere when they no longer want to. 

Unstructured Activities – I try to seek out activities that are relatively unstructured for all of the above reasons.  In free play environments my children can choose what they want to and do it for as long as they want to and I believe get the most out of the experience. 

Providing Inspiration – While I don’t like to direct the activities that they are doing I do direct the activities I am doing, and sometimes I choose activities on things I’d like them to learn.  For instance many children learn to write before they read, so I write things, like thank you letters, or grocery lists.  What often happens is Selena comes up and asks to write her own letter or her own list.  She might ask me how to spell a word or draw some letters and I show her, or make some dots for her to trace, or if she asks me to, I will write it for her.  Sometimes she just scribbles and tells me what it says.  All of these responses are great.  I don’t try to quiz or cajole her into writing something specific.  So far she has learned a lot of writing and reading skills this way.  She can write lots of letters and has even written some words all on her own. 

This subtle introduction of “learning materials” was a key revelation to me when I read Holt’s book.  I didn’t understand why sometimes Selena became so interested in a subject and other times she didn’t.  After reading How Children Learn, I realized that most of the times she wasn’t interested was when I had “pushed” something too hard like saying, “Ooh this is really cool Selena do you want to come and see it?”  She can tell when I’m faking interest.  Usually only things I’m legitimately doing will pique her curiosity. 

Inspiration works even better when it comes from other, usually slightly older children.  I have seen this especially with Allie.  She picks up on things Selena does immediately.  Unfortunately it also works the opposite way too.  I have noticed that Selena will be climbing on the playground and some kids will come who can’t climb as well as she, and she will stop doing what she was doing before, seemingly because she isn’t supposed to know how. 

Observation: Along with the inspiration comes observation.  It is much easier to learn something if you watch someone do it, and then try it yourself, than if someone tries to explain it to you or makes you figure it out on your own in a vacuum.  While fiddling around and making mistakes is important, that step doesn’t come until after you’ve watched someone do it. 

For example if we are at an activity that involves an art project, I will let Selena either watch the other parents (who are usually doing the project for their child) or I will do the project myself.  Then if she chooses she can do the project the way she observed, or if she isn’t interested, she can do it however she wants to.  Either way is fine.  Another example is how Selena learned to do puzzles.  She was fairly young when she went through a puzzle phase.  But she learned to do puzzles by watching me do them.  Instead of telling her to try to do it herself I did the puzzles over and over again whenever she told me to.  Then after watching me do them enough times she was ready to try them herself.  Then she entered the fiddling/making mistake stage and I gave her the space she needed to do that.  I only offered input or help when she asked. 

Avoiding quizzing – I try not to quiz the girls and ask them whether they can do something.  This is something Holt emphasizes.  I’m not completely convinced on this one, but it does seem that when other people put Selena on the spot, and ask her if she can do something, she sometimes freezes up and gets embarrassed.   There really isn’t much point in shaming her, so I try to avoid it.  

Books – I love books and think there isn’t such a thing as too many books.  So much can be learned from them and stories are fun.  So we have lots of books in the house.  We go to the library often.  It was more often (once a week) when it was just Selena, but we still go about every two or three weeks now, and we check out a LOT of books.  I try to be a bit discerning on what books I pick out for them, but I do let them pull books off the shelf and dump them in the basket.  I am not going to limit how many free books they can borrow from the library.   If we get books that they don’t like, or are too long, or are too simple the only thing it cost us was a little extra muscle lugging them back and forth. 

Well Roundedness- I like to include all aspects of learning into our daily routines.  Behavior, cooking, cleaning (this one I haven’t been too successful with), running, climbing, singing, dancing, art, sewing, etc are all part of the education I try to provide my children.  I believe that all areas of learning are integral in the process of learning more abstract topics, like reading, writing, and math.

Nutrition- In the Talent Code Coyle talks of how the neural pathways of learned skills are surrounded by myelin.  Myelin is mostly made up of fat.  The food that has the most brain building fats is human milk.  This is one reason why I believe that the longer my children nurse the better.  Other foods that have important fatty acids in them are fish, chia and flax seeds, nuts, avacado (there is some dispute over whether plant based omega-3 fats are as beneficial as animal based).  Furthermore foods that contain trans-fats are anti-productive to forming myelin.  I have no qualms about fattening food (except for trans fats) and try to feed these foods to my children.  Sometimes I also supplement fish oil in our diet as that is one supplement where I have noticed a difference when I take it .

So that is most of the things I try to do to educate my children.  It is an ideal that doesn’t always happen, but I do my best.  I also have to admit that I worry and agonize about when they start school.  Most teachers and classrooms are not set up in a way that aligns with this philosophy.  Selena started preschool last week and while the school is not very many hours a week and is mostly play based I still cringe at the lesson time planned where they have an “educational curriculum” that consists of the letter of the day.  Floyd is a former public school teacher and does not want to home school, and honestly I don’t really want to either for purely selfish reasons.  However I do daydream about starting a one room schoolhouse with kids from 5 – 18 where the kids decide what they learn and study, and where the teachers are mostly there as facilitators and resources

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
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(This list will be updated September 14 with all the carnival links.)


Deb Chitwood said...

Great post! John Holt’s book was the first homeschooling book I read. I haven’t read Daniel Coyle’s book, but I plan to. Interestingly, so much of what you wrote about sums up many Montessori principles – self direction, allowing self-correction, encouraging repetition and completion of an activity, and writing before reading!


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Laura - I *love* this post. There are so many tidbits of wisdom here! Thank you for compiling them - I have already reserved the books at the library and am bookmarking this post.

Laura said...

Deb- Yes! I've read up on Montessori as well, but forgot to include that evidence as well.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the book suggestions! Your parenting/teaching style resonates with me. I really like the practice of allowing things to happen organically, and not stepping in to "correct" or interfere too much. Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

"I've basically decided that children are already born with the desire, so basically I just need to not quash it"

Love this!

The ArtsyMama said...

Wow- there is just so many little gems of knowledge packed into this post. I am so glad I had the opportunity to visit your blog. I will have to work on not saying no immediately because working in a public school we are expected to say no a lot for safety and I'm just so used to saying it without thinking if it is really necessary for my own child.

Lauren Wayne said...

Oh, my goodness, I need to bookmark this post and come back to it again and again. Everything you say I resonate with, and yet so much of it I forget in the day to day. I need to remind myself of all these wonderful little tips. Also, I read part of How Children Learn, so I appreciate your summarizing some of the parts I didn't get to! :)

I really love it when Mikko proves that he's competent and able to learn without my input. I just have to remember to butt out! Your mentioning scissors, for instance — he's been fascinated with scissors since about 10 months old, and they have to be "real" scissors, adult ones. He loves them and is so skillful with them, which would never have happened if we'd denied him access. But I find myself still shying away from certain things — as you say, danger or mess, and also inconvenience. I want to say yes more.

Marita said...

A wonderful, well thought out and thought provoking post.

"Not interjecting with corrections" This is the area I struggle with the most. It drove me crazy as a child that mum was always correcting me and taking over. To the point that I refused to cook if she was in the kitchen, would lock my bedroom door when I tried to do homework and just stopped sewing altogether. Yet every so often I catch myself starting to correct my daughters and have to remind myself how very much I hated it so I shouldn't do it to them.

I'm working with Annie on building her self confidence by showing my trust in her to complete the task without adult input. We teach her how to do something like put bread in the toaster and then just supervise from a distance without seeming to supervise. So while she is making toast I might be in the kitchen making a cup of tea. It is great to see Annie's confidence growing as she realises she can do these things for herself.

Luschka @ Diary of a First Child said...

This is such an interesting post. Its really struck me as having so many valuable insights that I think 'ooh, i must remember that'. My little girl is 11 months and she is walking and trying to talk and is so involved in everything, so I'm really conscious of how I am parenting her.

I will buy those books I think. They sound really interesting! Thank you so much for sharing!

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Lady Rhona said...

Love your post!

As far as schools...I decided when I was 11 to homeschool my children. I've been researching it for years now, and leaned more and more towards the unschooling side of the continuum.

I was very excited last week to discover Sudbury Valley School, which is basically exactly what you describe--unschooling in a a community of learners with the adults being there for support and facilitation.

I am a professional teacher librarian at the moment, with no children, but sometimes I dream of starting my own school. It is definitely a thought.