Bin the covid-19 lock-down learning schedules and embrace your opportunity to find freedom
I’ve been told by many friends over the years that I’m a ‘do-er’. Sometimes this is presented as a criticism by someone highly sceptical of the wisdom of always doing things. Sometimes it is said with wonder, and a bit of uncertainty, about how I manage to fit it all in. The upshot though, is that they’re right, I am a do-er.
Sometimes my do-ing is necessitated by life: laundry, cleaning toilets, making a million packed lunches. But usually my do-ing is something that I bring on myself because I want to do whatever it is that I’m doing. I want to write this blog so I choose to sit down and write. I want to learn to play the piano so I sit down and practise. I want to make sure that my co-workers have a chocolatey treat to eat on Monday so I set about baking it.
I relish the opportunity to do all of the things that I do because I want to spend my life engaged in activities that fill me, and the people around me, with joy. And that is the gross domestic product of a life spent doing what I want – joy and satisfaction in my life. My schedule is my own, my doing is my choice, I am free to develop my passions and to quit when I’ve had enough.
So, permit me to take a moment to evaluate these timetables, schedules, lists and suggestions that are flooding social media in the wake of the corona virus we’re all self-isolating with our children off school social shift. Plenty of people seem to think that the answer to the question that every home educator has been asked a hundred times, ‘but how do you spend all day together and not get sick of them?’ is by creating a military-style schedule where free play is slotted in between 4:00 and 5:00 pm and later bedtimes are promised for children who don’t fight.
Home education looks very different from one home to the next and nobody can say what’s right or wrong for one family will be right or wrong for another. We home educators all know this and respect these differences, and as such we’re a pretty diverse community who somehow manage to treat each other’s points of view with respect (for the most part).
But one thing I think most of us would agree on is that a period of de-schooling is necessary for any family before they can develop and modify their own routines to suit their own needs. De-schooling, despite its reliance on the word school, is actually a term which suggests a process of shedding the institutionally-bred characteristics of adhering to routine, following orders and completing tasks which have been designed and dictated by others.
Deschooling, a term rooted in the beliefs of Ivan Illich, is the shift from a traditional, government-influenced institution of schooling to a less-restricted method of learning that focuses on being educated by one’s natural curiosities. (OED – because I had a late night last night and they’ve pretty much said everything I was trying to anyway)
To be honest, I think our entire society needs a bit of deschooling; from the person who spends their life working a job they don’t like so that they can pay the mortgage on a house they don’t need and afford a car they only drive to get to the job they don’t like, to the person who tells me that my kids ought to learn to do what they don’t like when they’re young because one day they’re going to have a job where they work for a person they don’t like who makes them do things they don’t like.
The freedom and autonomy that comes from a life where children are given the opportunity to choose how they spend their time is an essential life-force to which every child should be entitled. Not just the privileged ones like mine, whose parents have the wherewithal, the finances and the social capital to make the decision to home educate. Children who are bestowed with those gifts will not grow into a life of drudgery – they will use their compassion and creativity to carve a life for themselves which brings them joy and satisfaction.
And please don’t tell me that your children need the structure or that they will fall behind or that it’s different for you Jenni because you guys are used to it. It’s not. They don’t. They won’t.
Trust me, I was just as schooled – and probably more so – than most of you. I went from pre-school, to school, to university, to grad school, to being a teacher. For 35 years I lived and breathed the school system. Until the day when I decided to stop.
And what a beautiful thing it is to watch children who are fundamentally free of the rigid constraints of the timetables and expectations of the school system. When they want to think deep thoughts, they do – for as long as they want. When they want to play board games with their friends, they go call on some friends and play board games until they’ve had enough (which around here seems to be somewhere between 3 and 5 hours!). When they want to learn to tell the time, they sit and study a watch for 3 or 4 days until they completely understand it. They allocate precisely the exact amount of time that is necessary for them to learn, achieve and enjoy whatever task they’re involved in.
A schedule means doing maths when you might want to be drawing, being told it’s time to finish when you’ve only just got started or having to switch your brain into play mode when actually you really want to go eat your lunch (even if it is 9:30 but this is a whole other issue). Drawing up a timetable where creativity is slotted in between lunch and walking the dog is not going to make children creative. Setting up a craft at night so that children can start being productive first thing in the morning doesn’t take into consideration that actually, they’d like to lay on the sofa and daydream for an hour when they wake.
School closures, lockdowns, isolation, whatever situation you find yourself in, take this opportunity to create something beautiful for your family. Allow them the freedom to choose how they spend their time. By all means, put limits on screentime if that’s what you need to do (I am very rigid about screens and they feature very little in our lives because of that. And no, I don’t believe for even one fraction of one second that I am restricting my children’s freedom by not allowing unfettered screen access – but that’s also a different conversation for a different time.)
You are going to argue with your kids. You are going to watch them arguing with each other. You cannot stop this from happening and nor is it a sign that you are doing something wrong as a parent if your children spend the whole day bickering with each other. They just do that sometimes. Because, you know, they’re human beings.
But setting an expectation that children won’t argue is bound to set everybody up for disappointment. Just like setting up expectations for learning maths between 9:00 and 10:00 is not going to help anyone who just happens to be thinking about dragons and fairies at 9:00.
The most important tool you need at this time of social flux and uncertainty, is the ability to trust in your children. In trusting in the natural curiosity to learn we have watched children in our forest school discover and grow from the most unexpected places, and your children will too.
Trust that they will fill their days with creativity and expression and ideas and inventions without you dictating what they should be doing every hour of the day. Of course you will need to facilitate those opportunities, but for the most part that will mean tearing off bits of tape when requested and being willing to look the other way when they’re attaching toilet paper rolls to the ceiling, not making ‘suggestions’ or directing their play.
Trust that they will learn the things they need to learn to get themselves through the day, whether that’s learning to count change so that they can play Monopoly or learning to multiply fractions so that they can make a triple batch of brownies. So much of what is ‘taught’ in school (particularly when it’s taught to a schedule and not revisited except on one end of unit test and anyway, how many kids do you know that can’t actually tell the time or count back change even though they’ve been going to school for 5 days a week for literally YEARS) can be learned simply by taking part in life; it truly isn’t necessary to force this stuff into their heads.
Trust that they are learning even when they are bickering. They’re learning to explore the boundaries of other people’s tolerance, they’re learning to negotiate and they’re learning about the consequences of one person refusing to compromise. And maybe they’re learning what happens when you hit someone in the top of the head with the claw of a hammer. Take the opportunity, even right in the middle of the storm, to try to see what they are going to learn from that disagreement and then talk about that with them later. Children don’t need to be told not to fight – they need to be helped to see how to fight better so that, as they age, they can focus their frustrations on sensible things like climate change and social justice.
Trust that your children will flourish and grow in an environment filled with trust. Know that your child is an innately creative and imaginative creature who will, when given the space and time, put their powers to use to be creative and imaginative with their time. Believe that all that is good and necessary in this world will come from modelling kindness, patience, passion and empathy.
Trust that if you invest in freedom and trust over the next few months, you will have taught your kids far more of value than you ever would have by sitting them in front of an educational computer game.
Ditch the schedules and give your children the gift of freedom for the coming months. They deserve it. You deserve it. And you’ll all be a lot happier in the end.