Autonomy

In the 1960s, ‘parenting’ gained traction as a distinct concept rather than just a way to describe our progenitors. At that time various ‘styles’ of parenting were theorised including: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Though in the 80s we had ‘neglectful’ added to that list, it’s not until fairly recently that a fifth option has begun to gain traction: autonomy. For many years, authoritarian parenting – not too tough, not too soft, but just right -was  seen as the gold standard in the quest to become the perfect parent (and in truth, it still largely is within most mainstream parenting approaches).  

Autonomy, as opposed to these other approaches, centres on a child’s right to have control over their own body and mind based on the simple precept that they are a human being of equal worth to any other human being on the planet. A family who believes in autonomy will generally believe that children, like adults, have a right to liberty and opinions which extends exactly as far as the moment when another person’s liberty could be infringed. 

An adult who commits to allowing their children to develop autonomy in their lives is not, as per the earlier definition of permissiveness, letting a child do whatever they want whenever they want. Rather, parenting for autonomy is about allowing children to feel comfortable in themselves , to have the space necessary to experience their own feelings and to know that they have the ultimate authority to decide what is right for them. Rather than crafting their child in an image of what the parent believes a child should be, the child is given the freedom to explore their own thoughts and ambitions so that they can develop into the person that they feel they’re meant to be.

Accepting children for who they are and offering unconditional love, providing an environment that allows children to gain competency and providing clear and rational guidelines for the rules or expectations that children must adhere to are all key components of a household aimed at developing autonomy.  Encouraging autonomy is not just about removing parental judgement and control, but about ensuring that the controls that are in place are rational, equitable and understood by all.

A child with a strong sense of autonomy will know that they have the right to make many decisions on their own: choosing their own clothes, choosing how to spend their free time, choosing whether or not to allow another person to kiss or hug them or not being coerced into eating ‘one more bite’ when they’re already full. A parent who is comfortable with their child’s autonomy will trust that their child will develop without force, will consider things from their child’s perspective and will stand back rather than jumping in to help – even if it would save time to just put the darn jacket on for them.

Despite how elegantly rational this style of parenting sounds, it is frequently derided in both the popular press and in the vast majority of mainstream parenting books and methods, being frequently linked to the concept of ‘permissiveness’, whereby children are basically given no boundaries and expectations are not set.  Despite its lack of popular traction, an autonomous child will find contentment and fulfillment through the pursuit of their own interests. 

The link between adults’ sense of autonomy and their overall life satisfaction is indisputable.  Studies have repeatedly shown that adults who have a strong sense of autonomy at work have higher job satisfaction, are less likely to change jobs and are more likely to attempt to solve problems within their organisations.  And if we are willing to accept that childhood is the ‘work’ of the child, then the happiness of a child at work will also depend on their levels of autonomy.

20% time, also sometimes referred to as ‘passion projects’,  is a system whereby employers allocate a percentage of time every week for employees to pursue their own interests. Even though we think it was the mighty Google who invented the concept of granting workers autonomy in their careers, it actually dates back to the 1940s when manufacturing giant 3M granted their employees this same autonomy in an effort to boost innovation and dynamism in the company.

Employers who provide staff with time to pursue their passion projects report increases in innovation, greater levels of employee fulfilment, higher productivity during the rest of the week and an overall culture of satisfaction which is sometimes even described as happiness at work.  Interestingly, it has even been shown that employees don’t even necessarily need to take the full amount of time allocated for such pursuits – simply knowing that they could take the time to follow their heart makes them happier and more productive at work.

Imagine a child that is able to pursue their own interests, feels that they are responsible for their own decision-making and takes comfort in knowing that they are valued and respected regardless of the outcomes of their explorations.  This is a child who will not be afraid to take risks. This will be a child who knows that things not turning out the way they were planned is not a reason to throw in the towel.  This will be a child that will be willing to invest their energy into solving problems because they will know that eventually they’ll come up with a solution that satisfies their own demanding expectations for themselves.

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!

How to Develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Problem Solving (pt2)

(or for those of you who need a jazzier title:)

How to encourage your kids to sort out their own junk so that you can drink your coffee in peace

Nothing is filling my every waking thought like quite like problem solving is these days. Everywhere I look I’m seeing opportunities to encourage problem solving, every interaction I have with my children ends with me raising my eyebrows and saying something to the effect of ‘do you feel like you really problem solved that before you brought it to me?’ Have I mentioned that I’m writing a book about this very subject?

Problem solving is pretty much the most fundamental component of forest school that no one talks about. We spend ages thinking about free-play, self-direction, teamwork and communication strategies but we don’t really spend a huge amount of time talking about what is actually going on during all of this enforced freedom.

Like good old Maria Montessori said,

“The exercises of practical life are formative activities, a work of adaptation to the environment. Such adaptation to the environment and efficient functioning therein is the very essence of a useful education.”

I just told you it was Maria Montessori.

This is a fundamental understanding that a person must possess if they are going to create a forest school environment in their own home. Because, if you forget about the trees and the insects and the mud and all of the heart-achingly beautiful beauty of the world around you, what you are left with is the ethos of forest school and for that you’re going to need to understand the nature of children and the nature of education.

(Wow, how am I going to fit all of that into a blog post?)

Here goes…. Children, when left to their own devices (and NO I do not mean their own electronic devices – I mean exactly what they get up to when they haven’t got their devices – wow, paradox… anyway) they will almost always choose to engage in a task which is both meaningful and challenging appropriate to their own understanding of the world and their developmental readiness to attack such concepts.

That is to say, when you give a child all the freedom in the world they don’t choose to sit around doing worksheets about the times tables. They may hover around for ages telling you they’re bored (good!) and they may use that super-annoying-whingey-tone of voice that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. But if you leave (ignore) them for long enough, inspiration will strike.

Once that inspiration strikes, in my family it almost always involves bits of rope but clearly all children will find different things inspirational, a keen observer will notice that the children somehow always manage to create a scenario which needs fixing, dealing with or modifying almost before they know what they’re doing.

What they do is create scenarios in which they are intrinsically required to apply their own problem solving strategies in order to address a perceived issue that is infringing on their ability to complete some other task. That task, as Montessori would tell you, will be a type of ‘work’ which feels essential to that particular child at that stage in their life. (Remember that it is not up to you to try to place value on that ‘task’ – just because we know the laundry needs doing does not mean that the stream does not also need damming.)

So children are both natural problem creators and problem solvers. I could just stop writing right here and tell you to stay out of it and they’ll all be just fine. And if you were to talk to people that see me at work, they may agree that this is indeed exactly what I do. However, I know that not all children have been raised within this ethos and so what I will do here is try to point you towards some strategies you can use to foster this mindset within your own family, no matter how structured life to this point has been.

First of all, you need to get some rope. Really. I mean, you also need to put loads of toys away (because your kids probably don’t use them anyway), because the key to a life of free exploration and expression is to not be encumbered by loads of stuff. Now go find some rope – and some pulleys and carabiners and blue-tac and string and a few safety pins and basically whatever stuff you can find out in the garage or in the backs of your drawers.

The average child will look on at this process with something akin to horror (why are you stealing my toys?) and fascination (mmmmm, ropes and pulleys….). Try to get them to focus on the fascination bit and promise them that their toys are just going to wherever they’re going temporarily. Set down this really amazing box full of stuff – then go make yourself a coffee.

You’re off the clock.

Except that you are going to get asked a million questions, you’re going to be asked to tie knots, you’re going to be asked to attach two objects which simply cannot be attached without a welder’s blowtorch. Which leads us nicely into the first most important strategy in encouraging problem solving mindsets: observe and deflect.

‘Oh, you’re having a hard time getting that string attached to that bit of plastic tube. How frustrating. I wonder what other strategies you could use to get them attached?’ Now drink your coffee.

This will seem very unnatural for a parent who is used to helping their child out of difficult situations, but trust me, you’re not going to be there when they’ve come out of a festival at midnight to discover that their car tyres are flat – so they might as well start learning to problem solve their own issues when the stakes are low.

If they’re not happy with this strategy (more honestly referred to as basically just ignoring their problem until they go away and solve it themselves) you’ll need to unleash the next weapon in your arsenal. The bit where you get them to say what it is that they need you to do.

Seriously, I’m fairly certain this is pretty much the most challenging thing about being a child. They come running to you, ‘I’m hungry!’, ‘Betty won’t play with me!’, ‘I just pushed Charlie down the stairs!’ Whatever. But they don’t ever come running to you with the solution already formed in their minds. Imagine this alternate universe, ‘Mum, is it alright if I have a snack or is it too close to dinner?’ ‘Please can you help me speak to Betty to explain to her that she is making me feel ostracised?’ or ‘Mummy, grab the first aid kit, Charlie is bleeding from his eyes and needs medical attention.’

But seriously. If you want to encourage a problem solving mindset, then you need to reinforce this strategy every single day, sometimes 10 or 15 times a day (even more now that we’re together every single livelong hour of the blessed day… no really I’m loving lockdown). The point is, they will come to you with their problems, it is your job to point this out and explain that they need to come to you with a solution. If I had a dime for every time I’ve said ‘That sounds like a problem. What is your solution?’ to my children then, rather than writing this I’d probably be sunning myself on a tropical island whilst swimming in a shiny silver pool of dimes. Probably.

Anyway, this leads us nicely onto the next trickiest part of being a parent and last vital skill I’m going to add to this little collection of problem solving strategies – the saying of ‘yes’. I once read some smart person or other talking about parenting and they said something like ‘it’s just as easy to say yes as it is to say no’. Well, technically this may be true (although ‘yes’ has three letters and ‘no’ only has two so this may not even technically be true), but in practise it is very hard to say yes when you come across your child straddling their window ledge holding a stick with a rope tied around it which is hanging over the brand new glass roof of the conservatory (yes, that happened).

But if you’re going to really encourage problem solving and not just let it happen when it’s inconsequential (would you like the blue socks or the red ones?), then you need to become a yes-(wo)man. Count to three silently in your head, try to think of a way to say yes to what they’re planning and then work from there.

Children really are extraordinarily good at working out whether something is within their skill-level and whether they’re going to get hurt pursuing a line of action. If you don’t believe me, go back to my blog post about risk assessing and re-read the bit about how children hardly ever die whilst engaged in such pursuits).

You are responsible however, as the facilitator and chief grown-up, for encouraging the children to explore all of the potential problems and solutions to their ideas before they proceed any further. For example: ‘What might happen to that stick you’ve got extended over the roof?’ – ‘Well I guess I could drop it.’ – ‘Oh right. And what might happen if you drop it?’ etc.

Good problem solvers will not only think about the things that could go wrong, they will also think about the things that will go right. An ability to think in a 360 degree fashion about any given situation is the hallmark of a good problem solver. Parents can encourage this by asking lots of ‘yes, and’ style questions as well as encouraging a ‘how is that going to end’ approach to thinking through every possible scenario.

If these suggestions all sound too far outside of your comfort zone, then you are the perfect candidate for embracing them. I’m sure I’ve heard some other smart person say something about how nothing that is worth doing is easy, and never is that more true than it is with letting your children loose with ropes and heights.

But it is true that it is worth it – because children need one thing more than any other if they are going to grow into really good problem solvers. They need problems. And they need to be left to solve them on their own.

So go on, find some stuff, give it to your kids and then go make a cup of coffee. That’s where I’m going.

Join me at some point in the near future, where I will discuss parts three of How to develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Conflict Management (3).

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!

Ground Ivy Vedgeree

What are all of these words typed in close succession? I hear you ask. I get it. You’ve never heard of ground ivy and you’ve never heard of vedgeree, so how on earth can I reasonably expect you to eat either one of them.

Let me start with the least contentious of the two: vedgeree is simply the non-fish version of Kedgeree, that good old Scottish breakfast (which was actually an Indian dish appropriated by repatriated colonialists) of rice, spices, boiled eggs and smoked haddock.

When we went vegetarian, my whole family were in agreement that the only meat-related meal that we missed was kedgeree so many attempts to vegi-ify it were made. I’ll save you the £4.50 and tell you that the vegan smoked salmon was so foul that even I (Queen of the ‘eat it or wear it’ school of dinner management) did not eat it. Ditto a few other attempts.

Let’s suffice it to say that what happened in the kitchen last night was nothing short of a revelation. Get this, it was even wolfed down by my 7 year old, who has, in our uncertain lives of lockdown, decided that the only control he can exert in this crazy world is to proclaim he has a ‘texture issue’ with Every Single Thing I feed him (that is not chocolate cereal).

Ground ivy has small, heart shaped leaves which grow straight out from the tall single stalks at random intervals. Right about now (unless you live in Michigan, where it is apparently still snowing, or Florida, where nothing this delicate could survive the April sun) you will find the top of each stalk bearing a beautiful little purple flower, the exact size and shape of a fairy trumpet.

To make the vedgeree, I cooked 400 grams of rice in a pot of boiling water with a stock cube dissolved in it. While that was cooking I boiled 6 eggs (no, I will not tell you the best way to boil eggs, I’ve learned my lesson on that one) and removed the leaves from the stalks of ground ivy until I had a pile of leaves which fit nicely into the palm of my hand.

Then I went and made a Zoom call. I don’t recommend you do this in the middle of cooking – unless it’s your dad’s birthday. Which it was. So I did.

Anyway, then you may need to send one of your children into the freezer to scrabble around for all of the peas that may have fallen out of their plastic bags over the years if, like me, you realised a bit late in the game that you only had 1/2 a cup of peas left. You’d really need a cup for correct pea to rice ratio but these are crazy times. Next stir in 3/4 teaspoon of turmeric, and/or 1 teaspoon of curry powder and/or none of those if you don’t like spices, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 cup of milk. Chop your boiled eggs into about 12 pieces each (oh dear, I didn’t tell you to peel them…), mince your ground ivy into little tiny pieces and stir the whole shebang together.

What you will find is what the vedgeree loses by not having the smoked haddock flavours woven through it is entirely made up for (and even surpassed) by the fragrant yet delicate hint of spiciness imparted by the ground ivy.

 

Nettle & Noodle Miso Soup

‘What’s a nettle?’ I hear half of you all ask. And that is fine, because if you live on the west side of the pond, you won’t have spent your entire childhood being haunted by the dastardly things. Whilst those of us on the east side can’t even conceive it would be possible to not know what a nettle is. Funny, huh?

Anyway – for you west siders (and yes, you do have nettles) the nettle is a tall, hairy leaved bounty of stinging joy, which, although incredibly nutritious and widely available, does feel like you’ve been spiked by fiberglass if you even so much as dare to look at it sideways.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I’ll stop rambling here and present you with this:

(For anyone who hasn’t had the full lecture, this is just one of the many beautiful illustrations from my forthcoming book, 100 Things to do in the Forest, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor. Available to pre-order on Amazon and Amazon.co.uk )

Right. Where was I? Ah yes, nettles. So, you’ll want to wear some gloves when you’re picking nettles (or pull your sleeve down over your hands) as novices will almost certainly get stung. If you’re feeling cocksure and fancy-free, or you’ve spent so many years being stung that you don’t mind them anymore, you can just grab with wild abandon. Or you could use the tried and tested grasp them from the underside method which should allow you to pick without incident. (as demonstrated here by Jake)

Once you’ve got your nettles home, strip them from the stalks, put them in a bowl and pour some boiling water over them. Wait two minutes……. Now the stingers are dead.

To make your lovely SUPER EASY dinner, all you need to do is dig around in the bottom of your fridge and throw whatever veg you can find into a bowl. Cook some noodles (we used udon but since they “taste like worms” you might want to use a different noodle/pasta/rice to suit the tastes of your particular audience.

There’s no need to cook your veg – just slice it super thinly and distribute evenly amongst your bowls. Pour some miso broth on top – or really any broth you’ve got at this stage, pop in your noodles and then thinly slice the nettle leaves and stir them all in. We used half an orange pepper, 3 spring onions, 5 mushrooms, 400 grams of noodles and 2 heaped teaspoons of miso paste. But honestly, just use whatever you’ve got and you know your kids will eat.

What you will be asking – and I know this to be true because I happened to be sharing this self-same recipe with a gaggle of Americans last night who all had the same look on their face – why on earth would I go through all this trouble and potential personal injury just to eat a few leaves?

And now I will tell you. Because they’re free. And they are growing right outside your door. And they don’t have ANY food miles on them. And they are free (did I mention that already?). Also, they are way healthier than spinach: they contain 4 times the calcium(!); are composed of 25% protein(!); and are higher in iron and fibre! Did I already point out that they’re free? Or that they don’t come in a plastic bag like your spinach does? Also, they taste like spinach but they’re nicer than spinach because they don’t get that metallic tang that cooked spinach does – so your kids will eat them. You’re welcome.

Did I mention they’re free?

If you are enjoying my recipes and would like to donate, please do. If you would rather not, please don’t. But I’d be grateful if you could share on social media – getting the word out to the world about the possibilities for free, fresh and local produce is easier if we’re all talking about it!

Obvs if you haven’t got purple gloves you can use a lesser alternative.

How to Develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: Risk Assessment (pt1)

(or for those of you who need a jazzier title:)

How to let your kids decide for themselves if they’re going to die

Plenty of you will be aware that your children have been attending forest school as part of their daily life in school. You may think it’s great or you may wonder what all the fuss is about. You may think it’s nothing more than a pile of muddy waterproofs to deal with once a week.

Those of you who home educate will be more familiar with the concept as you’ve probably attended alongside your kids, but you may well find that the following is helpful in illuminating some of the pedagogy behind the forest school ethos.

Forest School is a concept which is applied differently in a lot of settings, and unfortunately too many schools have lately turned it into an opportunity to deliver curriculum outside rather than sticking to the true motivators. Let me lay out some of the principles for you so that you can start along the road of turning your home into a forest school.

First and foremost, Forest School must be an opportunity for children to do what they want and how they want it. This means you cannot suggest craft activities, you cannot helpfully guide them towards an activity and you mustn’t stop them from doing what they’re doing!

I know right? You have to just let them?

Yes. Yes you do. You have to let them get muddy. You have to let them tie ropes around themselves and haul each other into trees. You have to let them try to rig up contraptions, repurpose furniture and generally do things that your inner-worrier is absolutely certain is a Very Bad Idea.

If you can’t do that, you can’t give them an authentic forest school experience.

Secondly, (or maybe this is firstly, but honestly if you can’t do the first thing you won’t still be reading), you have to give them the tools to do this. And by tools I do not mean axes and knives, (though you will need to give them those too eventually), I mean the risk assessment strategies needed to make good decisions – so that parents don’t have to be in control.

Sorry if this bit is a bit nerdy, but you need to understand the importance so here goes. It is really important, when raising children, that you allow them to develop a really strong internal locus of control. All of these catch-phrasey concepts we hear bandied about lately ‘mindfulness’, ‘growth-mindset’ or ‘autonomy’ all rely on this very principle. This is that a person needs to feel that they have the authority and capacity to make decisions about their own life and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. That is the way that good mental health lies.

People who have been mithered, supervised within an inch of their lives and generally ‘helicoptered’ throughout their childhoods have a very strong external locus of control. They look for permission to do things before deciding, they seek praise when they’ve accomplished something and they point fingers when something doesn’t go their way. When they’ve become used to other people making decisions for them – they become incapable of holding themselves responsible for their decisions and therefore helpless to make changes that are needed as they move through the world. Roll on anxiety, self-doubt and a feeling of victim-hood.

So, why is this the most important bit of forest school? Because this is where we help children to decide for themselves what is a good idea and what is likely to lead to someone losing an eye. This begins by coaching them through risk assessing as a part of their daily lives.

Step One: How’s that going to end?

This is a risk assessment strategy that you can employ all the time, not just when your three year old is hanging upside down from a tree by a not-very-well-knotted rope. When you’re out and about, look at things that are going on and ask them to predict how that’s going to end. Builder on a bit of scaffolding? Someone changing an electric wire? A person standing at the stove-top?

All of these situations have the capacity to go wrong (and more people burn themselves on hot stoves every year than die falling out of trees, so actually if you’re worried about injury then definitely start in the kitchen!). So try to stretch your young person’s mind to get them thinking about all of the possible ways that a situation can turn out badly.

That way, when they’re standing 12 feet up on a stone wall, you can remind them to employ this strategy. They will work out for themselves, based on their own understanding of their own competence and the current environment they’re working in, how the situation is likely to pan out. Usually if they can foretell certain doom, they stop what they’re doing.

Step Two: Do you remember when?

If you’ve asked them to look to the future and they don’t see any problem with what they’re doing and you are still convinced that they’re about to die (they probably aren’t – they hardly ever do) then the next step is to try and get them to draw some relationships between their current situation and something that happened in the past. The brain is mighty powerful and the vast majority of its power comes from the ways in which it lays down and stores information – and it does this by drawing connections. Usually a little reminder of that time when they nailed a hole in their finger nail is enough to get them to take the hammer away from their brother’s head.

Again, this is not an activity that you need to reserve when death is on the line. Try encouraging children to think about other situations and their current situation when they’re doing all manner of things. This is a creative thinking strategy that will not only make them better at assessing risk, it will just make them a better thinker, full stop.

Step Three: Close your eyes

Seriously. Like I said, they hardly ever die. I mean that. I’ve been watching (or not watching as the case may be) children do Really Dangerous Stuff for 7 years now and I’m delighted to be able to say that my track record for injury is way lower than the local playground’s where all manor of bones have been broken during the same time frame.

So, if you feel like you’ve reminded them to assess their own risk and they are still intent on pursuing their plans, you need to walk away. Or close your eyes. In other words, you need to let them get on with it.

Allowing children to risk assess their play helps them to feel in control and always leads to more responsible behaviour and decision making. I know this is probably waaaaay outside of a lot of people’s comfort zones and I don’t think you’re going to be able to change over night. But I promise you, if you embrace the need to let children assess their own risk they will become more responsible than you ever thought possible.

Join me at some point in the near future, where I will discuss parts two and three of How to develop a Forest School Mindset at Home: planning and problem solving (2) and tools to be a better facilitator (3).

(The content of this article is drawn from my latest work How to Nurture a Problem Solver which currently does not have a publisher. So if you’re a publisher or agent who likes my work, feel free to get in touch!)

These blogs are being written and are free for you to enjoy, read and share. If you feel that you can donate please do, but if not please don’t feel obliged. A simple share on social media is great for getting the word out!