Educational philosophy is big in home ed circles. It can be reassuring to hear ‘unschooling’, ‘Charlotte Mason’ or ‘Classical’ and feel like you have some idea where the friend you’ve just met is coming from and what their days look like. The truth is, of course, that we all make our own adjustments and few of us have days that pan out how we’d planned in advance anyway; so those quick descriptions are less helpful than you might hope.
Back when we were first considering home education, I did some reading around early years philosophies. I read about Waldorf education; it seemed wonderful, full of natural, child-led exploration. I read about Montessori education; fantastic – children freely choosing challenging tasks (and tidying up afterwards!). I read John Holt; of course, children will naturally learn, and prodding and poking them only gets in the way! I was drawn to each of these approaches, but looked at objectively they were quite different.
Looking for the common themes, it was the idea of children directing their own time and attention and pursuing their own, freely chosen goals, within an environment carefully chosen to support them, that most appealed to me. I believed the unschooling dictum that we – children and adults – are always learning; but left to chance it wasn’t clear that the lessons learnt would always – or at least mostly – be positive ones. If our everyday experience shapes us, then what those experiences are matter.
The next step was to consider what qualities we wanted to encourage in our children, and what experiences would help with that aim. Qualities like an active engagement with the world around them; confidence to try new approaches and solve problems; kindness, compassion, and the ability to see beyond the obvious to a deeper understanding of people and situations.
Ultimately, those qualities seemed most likely to come about through large doses of open-ended play. Collaborative play involves negotiation, flexibility, creativity, an understanding of other’s motives and innovative ways to keep everyone involved. Individual play involves setting challenges, focus and imagination. Complimenting play would be stories and art – good books and storytelling, offering a wealth of experiences to extend the playground of the mind; and freeform art supplies to create and explore.
We decided to consciously build an environment to focus on supporting active engagement and play. We discarded the TV, chose open-ended, good quality building and imaginative toys (Lego, blocks, magnatiles, wooden play food, cars, train track, doll’s houses, dressing up clothes), attractive, quality art supplies and oodles of books, from classics to the best modern options, both fiction and non-fiction. The aim was to control the environment, not the child; and to confidently allow free choice, knowing that all the options available were ones likely to help achieve our aims.
This wasn’t a once-and-done process. It came about through lots of individual conversations, articles and books; a lot of observing what worked for our family and making changes here and there. It’s not a process that ever finishes. As children grow and needs change then what we need to provide for them changes too; ‘play’ can look very different at ten than it does at four (though it can look pretty much the same, too!).
As with many of our parenting choices, what began with instinct and common sense was later backed up by my research into the science behind it. Our lives – our thoughts, feelings, experiences, actions and choices – are all the result of the communication of the billions of neurons spread throughout our brain and body. Those neurons connect and grow – growing axons towards other neurons and firing signals across connecting synapses – in a unique pattern, based on a combination of genetics and experience (both external and internal). As neurons communicate, their pathways strengthen, until firing one neuron automatically causes the linked ones to fire – ‘what fires together, wires together’. Our experience physically shapes our brain, which in turn influences both what experiences we seek out and how we interpret them, creating the incredibly complex multi-layered interpretation of every single moment of our lives.
I think of this as like walking through a field of long grass. When you first choose a new route, it’s hard work. As you walk that route again it becomes more defined, until over time you’ll walk it unconciously and easily with nothing in your way. In fact, if you try and walk just a little way off the path, you’ll find yourself pulled back into the way you normally go. If you need to go somewhere else, you have to break a path again, and compared to your normal route it’s difficult and feels like you’re getting nowhere. But over time that route will be just as easy for you. If you don’t walk a route for a long time, it gradually gets harder to use again – but probably never quite goes back to its untouched state.
You’ll use paths more if they’re around the area you prefer to spend time in; the network of paths near the playground may be busier for one person; near the quiet and peaceful pond for another. A path out on its own, leading nowhere very interesting, probably won’t get walked very much (until, perhaps, you realise that just over there is exactly where you want to go next, and then the path breaking has a purpose). The network of paths we already have, and the landscape of where we want to go, affects which paths we’re likely to choose next.
*This* is learning. Learning isn’t a once-and-done process. You don’t get told a fact and it’s there, accessible for ever. There’s not really a single time when you ‘learn something new’. You may break that path for the first time, but unless you walk it, and, crucially, connect it up to the rest of the paths that you regularly walk, it will be lost again. Where we go – what we choose to do – will always be strengthening some of those paths. We will learn what we live.
The opposite is also true. If we want to learn something, then we need to live it. It’s not enough to go there once, or be told about it, or know that it’s just over there on the map. You have to link it up to the paths you already have, the routes you need or want to travel. You have to enjoy spending time there – or if you never get to the point of enjoying that path, you have to at least want to get to the end of it (and maybe there’s a different path you could find, that gets to the same place). You have to choose that area, at least for a while, over all the other places you could be going to, and all the other routes you could be using; and there needs to be a reason for that.
We’re naturally going to choose to extend around the area we enjoy, or to work towards a specific end goal that’s important to us. The paths that we’re forced down won’t be used again and will have simply wasted time we could have spent strengthening other paths. Worse, those paths will now be associated with the negative feelings that put us there when we didn’t want to be. The vast majority of what we learn is not what we can demonstrate on an exam; it’s the feelings and associations and relationships that colour our internal world and implicitly drive us for the rest of our lives. These, also, wire together, and powerfully so for strong emotions, both positive and negative (in fact we are predisposed to pay more attention to negative emotions, so these associations can be harder to break). Enjoying a bedtime story together can help a child associate reading with pleasure; berating him for a spelling mistake may teach that technique, but may also teach that making your best effort leads to feeling like you’re not good enough – a far more lasting lesson. This doesn’t mean never giving feedback; it means doing so in a way that helps the learner, not satisfies our desire for things to be ‘done right’.
We also can’t possibly do everything; we may choose a lighter exploration of lots of different areas, or we may choose to concentrate on a place we know we enjoy. Whatever we do will leave a thousand other choices undone (right now); that’s inevitable. What matters, particularly in these early years, is that the paths we weave – the brain we build – forms a strong, secure base of confident, interested, active exploration of the world. And that’s my educational philosophy – that we learn what we live; so I want the life we live – all of us – to be one filled with strong relationships, openness and curiosity.