If someone wanted to see what learning looks like in our family, I would have to take them to the farmers' market. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they're smallish, "please pick me up a head of lettuce on the way home" kind of affairs. But the Saturday Berkeley Farmers' Market is a sight to behold. Snuggled up alongside a large park, the Saturday event takes up two full blocks, and you can find things there you can't find anywhere else. Stalls of fruit and vegetables side by side with meat vendors and raw food stalls, flower booths, prepared food, coffee drinks, pastries, fresh cheeses, honey straight off the comb.
And that doesn't even begin to address the wonder of the people. Kaleidoscopic. 60s burnouts, modern activists, families, local color of every size, variety, and description. The boys and I adore our Saturdays at the market.
We arrive around 10 AM, which is the civilized hour at which this particular market opens. Sometimes we find parking, sometimes it takes a few circlings of the block, with Rowan and Kestrel in the back, singsonging "parking fairies parking fairies parking fairies!" to help me out. Space found, we grab our cloth bags, Kestrel hops into the Ergo, and away we go.
We stop at the end of the market closest to the police station. There are several bright road cones there, and every week, Rowan and I discuss that if we get separated, he's to make his way there, and wait for me, and not allow anyone he doesn't know to tell him I'm somewhere else, that I will come there for him no matter what. And then we stand there for a minute, while he orients himself. Once that's accomplished, I open my wallet, and we discuss how much money we have, and how many things we need to get, versus how many things we want to get.
From there, we meander up the market, tacking wildly from side to side to watch the buskers, smell the fruit, admire the sales pitch. We talk about which stands have the best persimmons, which farmers met our eye, which booths are new. Before we know it, we're at the other end. And this is where the serious strategizing comes in. We discuss what we want to buy. Kestrel chimes in with whatever he's decided is best. And then I hand the cash over; Rowan gets 1/4 of the money in my wallet, to spend in whatever way seems best to him.
It is absolutely fascinating watching Rowan do his thing. Sometimes, he spends every penny on apple juice. Sometimes, he zigzags through the stalls, buying one of these and one of those. Sometimes he buys me flowers. Sometimes he buys cookies for the family. One week he divided his money (with my help; he's not doing division in his head yet, although he clearly understands the concept) between the five buskers along the route, because the music made him happy. I never quite know what he's going to buy, or what's motivating him this week, and I'm glad there's no reason for me to try. I can just enjoy it as it unfolds.
Once our money is spent and our gastronomic imperatives indulged, we head over to the park for the boys to run off some energy. I usually sit on tree stump and dole out snacks to boys who are bouncing between energetic and hungry. And sometimes, I muse about what we're doing.
At this age and stage in their lives, I'm most concerned about teaching them personal safety and awareness. According to Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift, and my all-time hero, I'm teaching Rowan to be safe in public. I'm teaching him about finding safe places, and talking to safe people. We are exploring his intuition when it comes to assessing the motives of people, in the safe context of who he's willing to give money to and why, and that is helping him to become more confident in his ability to trust his instincts. He's also learning about the value of customer service, and the lesson that people spend money with people who have time for them, and they don't with people who are rude, abrupt, or condescending. He is learning that he is no less a customer because he's five, and that he has as much right to the vendor's attention as anyone else. He is learning to vote with his feet and with his dollars.
He's learning about economic value. In the knowledge of finite (financial) resource, he is learning that he could buy one cookie, or he could buy six apples, and he's learning about the consequences to himself of making those choices, from lessons of instant gratification ("but I want the cookie *now*), to lessons of economy ("but if I buy these apples and take them home, we can make them into something yummy for days!"). Implicit here is the concept of budget, and a general sense of family finance.
He's learning math. He's reading prices, he's receiving change and counting it, he's dividing his money between desires, he's learning when he has enough or does not have enough, he's checking to make sure that if he has ten dollars and the softball-sized avocados with silken flesh and divine taste are two dollars each, and there are four in the bag, yes he can get another, or he could put one back and still have enough for the tub of pumpkin quark he was drooling at on the way up. But which would he rather have, the extra avocado, or the quark? And if he gave the farmer a twenty dollar bill, how much should he get back? Better than worksheets, this is math-on-your-feet, with real consequences.
He's learning nutrition. He's learning agriculture. He's learning about seasonal food, about buying locally from the people that grow or make the food, and about how things like weather affect what he's able to buy. He's learned about beekeeping, about what an early frost or unseasonable rain do to the crops, he's learned that the best tomatoes are in summer, and that the beginning of colder weather is when all the "orange fruits" (pumpkins and persimmons) become available.
He's learning art, and music. He's learning about street theater and about street music, he's learning that music is made by real people who you can talk to and ask questions of (between sets), and that patronizing artists in every form is a high social calling. And he's also learning that personal expression for the sheer joy of it is a potential source of delight.
Who needs classrooms? We have markets.
Laureen is a writer, a professional editor, a scuba instructor, a beginning sailor, a traveler, and an obsessive researcher who's chiefly focused on, and delighted with, her husband Jason and her sons Rowan and Kestrel. She's a lifelong Californian, which lends a very distinctive spin to both her ideas and her politics, and she's discovered, in her peregrinations, that the world is far smaller yet far more fascinating than anyone gives it credit for being. She holds forth her opinions on that in her blog, The ElementalMom.