Monday, April 20, 2015

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning

It's raining as I come home. I walk in the door to encounter muddy boots and wet raincoats, bits of leaf-litter strewn about the tiles. The house looks like a tornado passed through. There are drifts of paper-clippings littering the livingroom floor, somebody's messy chemical concoction on the table, a heap of magazines barely covered by a giant blanket-fort between the couches, upon the walls of which my children and various guests are playing shadow games. I want to snap at them to clean up the mess, and I confess it's really only the presence of their friends that helps me twitter, instead, in a sing-songy voice, "Hi lovelies! Would you like a snack?" I know intrinsically that this is evidence of a few hours very-well spent, but sometimes it's just hard. Sometimes I secretly wish they went to school. I have to remind myself, during moments like these, that this is the paradise we aimed for, and I need to appreciate it!

Some days aren't as idyllic as this one. Some days my impatience and frustration gets the better of me, and some days I forget my commitment to explorative learning. Sometimes I'm afraid, and sometimes I resort to workbooks, coercion, and distraction. I have to remind myself of the good days, and of the fact that eventually the house does (sort of) return to normal, and we do (sort of) have some order in our lives. That's when we seek out the chaos again. Alix Spiegel tells us that Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, but sometimes I need to make a list to remind myself that what I'm aiming for is good and possible. Here's that list.

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning
(complete with lots of excellent links you really should check out!)

Explore. As adults we often forget to explore. So it's good to be purposeful about it. We are some of our children's greatest role models, so if they don't see us exploring, why would they explore, themselves? When my son was very young, he told me that he would grow up to work on a computer. "Why?" I asked him. "Do you like computers?" At that point, he rarely was in contact with a computer. "Because I will be a Pappa, and work on the computer like Pappa does!" He didn't see any other direction for himself, and it's hard to stray from our own expectations. This was a good reminder to us of the necessity not just to explore, ourselves, but to be seen exploring. And of course, we benefit, too, since being curious not only improves our social lives and neural function, but also makes us happy.

Get creative. Dance, sing, paint, build forts, play drums on hollow logs, and tell stories. The key here is not to learn a craft, but to explore avenues of self-expression. These activities not only help us achieve psychological and physical health, but also help us reflect and develop deeper understanding of all other activities. Creativity serves to connect and integrate our cognitive, emotional, and physical selves, so that whatever we learn through exploration can be assimilated wholly. It's important, too, not to just give our children opportunities for creativity, but to be creative, ourselves. My husband makes time to play his accordion every day, and sometimes the kids join him. None of them have had lessons; they're just exploring, and in their own unique ways, they're all growing remarkably in the process.

Be approachable. Whether your kids want to know about sex, drugs, divorce, or the details of your bodily functions, try to find it within you to share. Obviously we all have our boundaries, but exploration includes a lot of mental processing of the taboo topics that come up in life, and if there's nobody trustworthy to ask about these things, where will our kids turn? I try very hard to be open with my kids, even to their embarrassment, I confess. But in return, they seem to trust me enough to ask the big questions.

Play. Have some supplies for open-ended exploration, but be willing not to use them, too. Sometimes even the greatest microscope can take away from the experience of just watching the insects live in their natural environment, and perhaps expanding on that experience with place-based creativity and play. And yes, of course older kids can play! There seems to be a misconception that play is essential for young children, but as we grow older we need it less and less. Play is slowly replaced by didactic instruction, goal-based curriculum requirements, and eventually a conformist adult life from which many of us struggle to free ourselves with workshops and activities that seek to help us rediscover our ability to play. Our children's lives don't have to be arranged according to curriculum; there are alternatives, and alternative ways to look at it all. Some schools are dispensing with subject-areas altogether.

Be willing to go the extra mile; be extravagant. Be your own, weird self. While things like healthy meals and good sleep are indeed essential, so is a bit of crazy wild freedom. Sometimes my son reads until after midnight on school nights, and I've found that it's better to let him be than to nag him. Sometimes we suddenly pack up and go for an adventure. Sometimes it's just a good idea to do something unusual. Sometimes we make mistakes and have accidents. Sometimes we get hurt, but limits are there to be tested; rules to be broken. That's how we learn to know ourselves and to self-regulate. In a world where children's freedom has declined, we need to provide every opportunity for our children to regain that freedom, along with our trust, and their own natural abilities to explore, learn, and self-direct.

Oops! This fall left Uncle Adrian muddy for the next few hours!
Get out in the wilderness. The recent popularity of Nature Schools is no fluke -- as our entanglement with technology increases we're becoming more and more aware of our psychological and cognitive need to explore the wilderness, as Richard Louv elaborates on, frequently. The wilderness does present some of the most basic threats and fears we face as humans. It is the place of woodcutters and witches, and more realistically, predators and precipices and ...epically deep mud. But these are just the most extreme of the many small challenges the wilderness presents to us, and each one of them is an opportunity for growth and discovery. Further, as we explore and learn to understand our wilderness, we develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecosystem we're a part of, of our own bodies, and of our own intellect. We develop instinct, skills, confidence, and roots.

Develop roots. Carol Black says that "Every ecosystem in the world at one time had a people who knew it with the knowledge that only comes with thousands of years of living in place." And that knowledge takes time. It takes boredom. It takes getting out in the same old bit of forest that you got out in last week and the week before, and taking time just to climb a new tree; look at a new branch; hear a new character in the voice of the wind. This is how we develop deep connection and understanding. Obviously, frequent moving during childhood can not only cause significant health problems, but would also disrupt the process of developing a deep connection with a particular place.

Make time. A study out of the Universities of Boulder and Denver, Colorado has concluded that less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. I know many people who speak delightedly of their annual summer cottage adventures; the little fish that swam off the dock just outside the camp they attended every year. Summer seems to be the time we allow our children to explore, and for many it is the time of greatest connection; greatest memory-building. As kids, we were given time to explore, during the summer, and often taken to wilderness locations to do so, unlimited, and unguided. This was the time of building forts and escaping wild animals. This was the time of falling in love, deepening friendships, and writing in journals. During most of the rest of the year, school and extra-curriculars are so taxing on our free time, that summer becomes a beacon of hope for explorative learning. How can we expand on that, then? Wouldn't it be wonderful to explore all year? For my family, this means unschooling, and also limiting the activities we enroll the kids in, to ensure that at least a couple of days every week are free for completely free-range exploration time. It also means letting go of our own parental fears of missing out.

Give freedom. Let go of fear, and fear-based control! It's so important. Not much can be accomplished as long as we're harnessed by the fear of not-measuring-up, or of ((gulp!)) failing as parents. Most of us have ingrained in us a litany of must-haves and musn't-do's, not to mention the ever-present threat of losing our children to any number of academic, social or physical disasters. But if life wasn't full of danger, we'd have little need to learn. I would rather my children climb trees and fall a few times, than that they never learned to climb or to fall safely. We all fall. Let's do it well!

Accept. And learn to appreciate. Our kids are not going to embody the perfection we might have hoped they would. We won't create little geniuses by showing them Baby Einstein or even by following suggestions like those in this article; we won't have stress-free relationships with our teens no matter how hard we try, and we can't even protect them enough to save their lives, when it really comes down to it. Of course we should try - because we want them to know that we will always be there for them. That's the kind of security they need in order to flexibly explore their environments. But then, when they back off of the interests we thought we were nurturing; when they go to school and come back with seemingly new personalities attached... we have to accept them. After all, that is part of the security they need, too. Every day when my teenage son comes home from school I snuggle him. I find a time during the afternoon or evening to cuddle up close and listen to his stories. Sometimes he creates those times, himself. And he tells me things I didn't want to know. Sometimes I think he's testing me, so I'm careful to pass the acceptance test. Sometimes I think he just genuinely needs a sounding board, and I'm exceedingly grateful to still be that person, after all these years. That gratitude gives me the security I need to accept his developing personality, and for him to accept mine.

Let go of fear. The more we experience, the more precautions we learn to take; the more fear we develop and the more our actions are defined by potential unwanted outcomes instead of by curiosity. Kids don't have that safety net, but they also don't have that inhibition, and it allows them to explore more deeply, and in directions we adults may not otherwise go. Encouraging explorative learning is about getting down and dirty (often literally!) with whatever situation is at hand. Whether it's an unknowably deep muddy bog, a disturbingly dark cave, or a terribly upsetting subject of conversation, I try to be the safety net for my children and for the children I teach. I keep reminding myself that it's most likely going to be OK. I let go of my own fear on a continual basis, and try to keep the level of danger to what I feel in the moment is an acceptable level, knowing that they might fall, but that the experience will have been worth the fall. 

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