By Steph W.
My three-year-old, Trishy, is constant noise and motion. Lately, she spends much of her time "writing" and drawing. Perhaps it is because she sees so much writing and art happening in the house each day. She experiments with her hand - and the pencil or marker - as her drawings become more representational and her marks look more and more like letters. She also loves imaginative play. "Experts" often call it "symbolic play." A doll becomes a living child, a remote control becomes a phone, or a block becomes a truck in the child's fertile imagination.
Trishy also talks continually, always asking questions: "What is this?" "What's that?" "What is Daddy's name?"
I have long suspected that children have an unconscious, intuitive understanding of their own developmental needs - of what they need to do to learn and grow. We have an instinctive need to eat to nourish ourselves. Similarly, toddlers have a natural drive to build their motor skills - running, jumping, climbing, and crashing into things - often attempting death-defying feats. They also ask continual "what" and "why" questions as they learn language. Speech and physical therapists spend many hours trying to replicate these processes which many small children do naturally.
In the same way, Trishy is instinctively exploring what it means to communicate in the human world: creating images and words, using symbols, and naming things and people. Like the Biblical Adam, who was instructed to name the animals in his environment, we gain strength and connection to the world through giving names to things, ourselves, and each other. Communicating with others and with ourselves (through thinking) are probably our most important abilities. I see Trishy instinctively teaching herself these skills as she experiments with drawing, writing, talking, questioning, naming, imagining and using symbols. No curriculum could accomplish all this!
A child's incredibly effective intuitive ability to learn what he needs, at each point in his development, is easy to see when a toddler is talking, climbing, and drawing. For me, it is difficult to keep this focus in the traditional "schooling" years. Perhaps it is because we have been taught, through several generations, that children over age five need professionals to guide their learning. Maybe it is because the skills children learn become more complex - more intertwined with the traditional "academic" skills of reading, writing, mathematics, and critical thinking. However, this gift of intuitive, often unconscious, self-knowledge does not evaporate. In a sense, this is what what unschoolers refer to when they talk about trusting children to learn what they need to know. As an Eclectic-Homeschooler-Leaning-Toward Unschooling*, I am training myself to notice this in my 8- and 12-year old.
My son, James, was a bit of a "late" reader. He did not really take off until he was almost 8 (though when he did, he quickly progressed to "reading at grade level.") I realize reading at 7 or 8 is only "late" by our society's developmentally inappropriate standards. Still, being a Mom on a Learning Curve, I wondered about it. After trying various "reading programs," I taught him some basic skills I felt he would need when he was ready to begin reading and writing. Then - finally - I left him to his own devices.
What I did not realize at the time is that James is a "right brained learner." He does not seem to enjoy words for their own sake, as I do, but needs for them to be connected to images and big ideas. For him, "easy readers" were about as interesting as studying a grain of dust.
Eventually he picked up our anthologies of "Calvin and Hobbes." My husband and I are inveterate "Calvin and Hobbes" fans; we had amassed his entire collection of comic strips. Here, along with the goofy, often physical humor that James' 7-year-old heart craved, were vivid images, complex words, and big ideas. When linked to interesting pictures and ideas, words began to have meaning. So James became a reader. I did not yet have the knowledge and insight to guess what he needed. Instinctively, he found it on his own.
My daughter Sarah, on the other hand, was an early and avid reader, quickly progressing to "grown up" reading skills. However, she usually gravitates toward "easy books." This used to concern me, but several on-line friends helped me see it in a different way. Sarah is an enthusiastic writer, who has already set a goal of writing for publication. Her novels are relatively short, written for middle grade readers. Following her own instincts, he has been reading books created for the audience for whom she intends to write. She has also been learning - through example - about plot, theme, character development, and other literary devices. These are probably much easier for an apprentice writer to learn when they are presented in a less "literary" form - in ways that more straightforward and obvious. Yes, I'd still like her to read some challenging books. But I can see that she intutively knows what she really needs.
After learning from experiences like these, I am striving to develop - in the words of Charlotte Mason - "the habit of attention." I am becoming more aware of the activities the kids are choosing for themselves. James is at a developmental stage in which he is growing socially. He naturally craves more playdates. He is also choosing activities, like Yu-Gi-Oh duels, that help foster social connections with other boys around his age while practicing his blossoming reading and math skills.
Sarah, who happens to have a mild disability, is almost 13. She is at a stage of development in which she is naturally driven to find issues about which she is passionate. Adolescents need a cause, something to care deeply about. They need to understand themselves and their place in the world. And they need opportunities to hone their blossoming critical thinking skills.
Right now, Sarah's focus is on learning about disabilities and becoming an advocate for people with "special needs." I never - in my wildest dreams - would have thought of this idea for a "unit study." But it fits perfectly. As she enters adolescence, she is coming to terms with her own differences and understanding how she fits in to the world. She is doing critical thinking about how people with "special needs" are treated and perceived. And she has found a passion and a cause - something that may lay the groundwork for her future plans.
I am hopeful that my kids will continue to honor their intuitive passions and desires, and that I will continue to be more attentive to these things. I think that by understanding their natural drives to learn and develop, I will be better able to offer guidance. I hope that their inner voice - and my direction - will help guide them to have broader interests, deeper passions, and a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
*Yes, I do like wordy labels. I used to be a professional counselor ... can you tell? :-D
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.