Saturday, March 26, 2011

Children Can Self-Regulate

This week I've been listening to Sarah Parent's podcasts on Humans Being. She speaks about living an unschool life. She applies the principles of unschooling to eating and sleeping and television watching as well as to daily education. At the heart of these choices is the understanding that children can self-regulate when supported in doing so.

My love for unschooling has not stretched as far as eating, sleeping and screen-time yet. Parent's podcasts have helped me realise why that is. It all comes back to the 'antiquated' (in her words) notion that some things are "not learning."

While I nod along listening to Parent or reading another unschooler's reflections on their journey, agreeing with the theory, I haven't put it into practice well. I'm still clinging to my traditional upbringing and the myth that children can't self-regulate.

My stepfather spent many years drumming into me that I needed his rules and his limits and without them I would be an uncontrollable mess that no one would employ or befriend. After breaking free from his hold over my mobile phone use when I was 20 years old *gasp* I was shocked to discover that I was really great at regulating my own useage of the phone and paying my bills on time etc. I had just never been given the chance to know that about myself, and he had never imagined such a thing could be possible.

Now I face this struggle from the other side. I want to believe my daughter can self-regulate her food, sleep and screen-time intake, but I know that I'm not quite there yet. Tonight my partner and I had a chat about it and reached a breakthrough.

"Why don't I believe she can self-regulate? If we're unschooling, aren't sleep, eating and watching TV another set of subjects at our unschool. So why is it that I can so easily support her in unschooling throughout the day and know that she is going to learn everything she needs to learn by self-regulating that learning, and yet I don't trust her to self-regulate these three things?"
"Well, I think we still have quite a bit of unschooling to do of ourselves. Like last night, she was up past 11, lying on the couch watching TV in my arms. I could hear a voice from our parents generation warning me that that wasn't healthy for a little girl. But the thing is, if it wasn't healthy and she didn't get enough sleep that night, she'd just make it up during the next day or next night, so it shouldn't be a big deal. We still have these old ideas about what is and isn't healthy for a little girl."
"Yes! That's it! Like the night before when you were trying to get her to go to sleep and she was clearly not tired, happily playing. It just happened to be past 10 and we had decided that was 'too late' for her to be up. Obviously it wasn't too late for her."

We moved on to discussing television and food. If our daughter eats too much of something unhealthy (or eats too much.) she won't feel well. As parents we've tried to protect her from that, but Sarah Parent's podcast on food reminded me of something so basic that it should be obvious. Kids need to learn for themselves that eating too much will make them feel ill. That's an important lesson. It's fundamental to them learning how to regulate their food intake for the rest of their lives. Like falling down when learning to walk, or burning your hand in the kitchen when learning to cook. Humans learn by doing, we also learn through discomfort and pain. If we prevent Harri from learning that eating too much will make her ill for herself now, we run the risk of facing greater food related problems later in life.

Watching TV
Something Sarah Parent mentioned in the podcast about TV was that television can strew a child's path and I've noticed that with Harriet. Bee Movie has definitely played a part in helping her learn about bees. She loves talking about bees, spotting them, seeing honey and making the connection. Then we go to the market and eat the raw honey and talk to the bee keepers and she makes the connection back to the movie.

TV is something that is often misunderstood as a learning inhibitor, when in reality it can be a useful learning tool. In Harriet's case it has helped ignite her passion for subjects including: bees, dinosaurs, elephants, music and singing and learning about diversity of families.  

Something I find particularly interesting is what she takes away from television shows about relationships between characters. She identifies the primary attachment relationships in her favourite films and then ascribes the label "Mummy" or "Daddy" to the main character's primary attachment. In Bee Movie she calls Vanessa: "Bee's Mummy" and in Monsters Inc Sully is Boo's "Daddy" and so  on. She is also learning empathy and emotions from watching television, often identifying the different moods of the characters and telling us about it, "Oh Mr Crabs sad, need her Mummy." It's also heart-warming to know that to her all the comfort needed in life can be found in Mum or Dad :D

The result of our Sarah-Parent-podcast-inspired discussions is a commitment to try harder at facilitating our daughter's self-regulation. Once again we're reminding ourselves of Jan Hunt's wise words

Regulating her own sleeping, eating and television watching patterns is learning. Of course, right now our re-commitment to unschool living (because we had committed to it years ago but somehow ended up off track) is terribly challenging. We are living through what Parent calls "the saturation phase" where the child, used to having limits imposed upon her, enjoys rebelling and does as much as she can, as often as she can, whatever it was that previously came with limits, to make up for lost time, to get as much as she can before a limit is enforced (as it was previously). 

Our challenge now is to stick to it, wait out the saturation phase, trusting that once out of her system, Harriet will come to self-regulate. She will eventually come to listen to her body, understand its cues, what makes it feel more healthy and what makes it feel less healthy and make choices that support her own well-being. This part is hard. The urge to step in is huge. The doubt that this self-regulation BS will work out is huge. The lack of trust in the process, my daughter, and life more generally is pretty darn huge

To survive the saturation phase I will need to lean on my friends who have been there, and on my partner who shares my parenting values and goals. Finally, bringing my thoughts back to "everything is educational" when they start to stray to "Aaah! She's watching too much TV! She asks for fries all the time and rarely for apples! I need a break, GO TO SLEEP ALREADY!" On the plus side better we go through this now, at three years, with one child, rather than a few more years down the track.

ETA: With this post completely written (in dribs and drabs over the course of a few days), ready to hit publish, my friend Jess published a post on children self-regulating TV watching and eating and had this to say:
"I have no doubt that children can self-regulate their food intake when faced with those foods that are found in nature and that our bodies would have specific body memory of. Where this falls down for me though, is that so many new and artificial substances have been created in the past 50 years that our bodies just haven't caught up. That and the fact that know one knows exactly what affect these chemicals are/will have on the make up of our bodies...

And it is not only the man-made things that worry me. Highly processed sugars and flours are a worry as well. Children have an inbuilt system which predisposes them to eating sweet foods. Back in the day this was to guard against eating poisonous foods (unripe fruit is very bitter for example), however this now makes sugary food very hard for them to regulate.

My children self regulate their own food intake. We have no restrictions when it comes to what (or when) the children eat. But, we also do not have anything that is very high in food additives, chemicals, artificialness or anything too sweet (they don't call sugar the white mans cocaine for nothing!) in the house (not where they can find it anyway ;P). In this way we can do the whole self-regulation thing, but within appropriately guided parameters."

Jess's point about man-made/unnatural substances is a good one, and one that came up on our Facebook page when I raised the topic of unfooding in a status. Friends mentioned the addictive qualities found in many snack foods that can appeal to impressionable young minds. My own experience with these "foods" is evidence enough to be concerned about Harriet's intake of them.

It's hard for a young bodymind to self-regulate when suffering addiction. Addiction is physical as well as psychological. That means her body will tell her she wants more of the highly processed, chemically-enhanced, junk and will not reach the point of "I've had enough now." 

In the time it has taken to write this blog post my partner and I have to-ed and fro-ed on the topic of self-regulation. There is no tidy way to wrap up this post because this is going to be such a journey for us. Instead, I'll leave you with:
Stay tuned...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Our Classrooms

As natural learners we understand that the whole world is a classroom ;) Here are some of the spaces Harriet transformed into her personal classrooms this week.

Abandoned tire
Bottom of the shower

If you share pics of your childrens' classrooms this week, be sure to leave a link in the comments section so we can come check it out and say hi :)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Unschool Monday: The Label

We refer to our style of home educating as "unschooling" because it is the popular term used to describe what most closely resembles our approach to the girls learning. But in truth I really don't like the term. For one thing, how can our girls be UNschooled when they've never been schooled?

My understanding of unschooling is that it refers to an approach to educating that nurtures natural learning. It is how people learn in the absence of an institution, when left to their own devices. While people are sometimes put off by the label, the reality is that everyone learns to walk and talk this way;  we wanted to, so we figured out how. 

Unschooling involves children leading the learning process, with parents playing a supporting role. Interests and passions take the place of formal curriculum. But that doesn't mean worksheets and textbooks are out of the question, they can be very much a part of the journey if the child wants them to be.

Given there is no teacher/student as such, no structured curriculum, or timetable, having the word "schooling" in the title is inappropriate. Furthermore, I object to "schooling" being the norm, which every educating style is defined against. UN-schooling/not schooling makes it sound as if our children are being denied something, and I'm sure some people hold this opinion. But it has been our observation that they're being denied a lot of psychological damage which is defined as "character building," "normal," and "necessary" within the school system.

Some more appropriate labels include:
  • Natural learning
  • Child-lead learning
  • Organic learning
  • Learning! 

Yet I still find myself using the label. I use it because it is well-known (amongst home educating folk) and it is less misleading than if I were to say we homeschool, which conjures images of a classroom in the home, parent as teacher, textbooks and curriculum. Also, my friends who are taking the same approach to educating their children use the term, like Owlet, who I'm joining in Unschool Monday.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Our Classrooms

As natural learners we understand that the whole world is a classroom ;) Here are some of the spaces Harriet has transformed into her personal classrooms this week.
Dining table

If you share pics of your childrens' classrooms this week, be sure to leave a link in the comments section so we can come check it out and say hi :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Unschool Monday: Control & Curriculum

One of the things I love about unschool life is the spontaneity it brings to every day, which is not something I expected to love. Originally I was drawn to home educating because I liked the idea of me being the one to control my children's learning, as opposed to a stranger (this was before I was a parent). The more hours I rack up parenting the less I like the idea of control (and the more I come to understand that it is an illusion). 

Children are growing humans, they come with their own wills and ideas. Fighting that dooms my children and I to misery and disappointment. If I had a curriculum that I stuck to and tried to make Harriet adhere to, gorgeous days like today wouldn't happen.

This morning, as Harri approached the breakfast table she announced that she wanted to go to the beach and build castles. We ate, dressed, packed water, apples, shovel and bucket and wandered to the beach. There the sea set our curriculum.
Harri learned about temperatures, textures, wet and dry,  what happens to sand depending on how much water touches it. The coolest lesson the sea had for us was what jellyfish look like on the top and bottom. And she had a great time ferrying buckets of water to a hole she dug, filling it, stirring and pretending to sip "soup" from her shovel :)

I am at heart a control freak, despite my love for unschooling. I often fall into the trap of worrying that my girls won't learn without someone enforcing a 9am to 3pm curriculum of predominantly textbook work on them. I also worry about life without school (and kindergarten and childcare) denying them joy that our society presents as essential for growing children. Then a day like today happens and reminds me of the bigger picture.

What is it I want for my children? Health and happiness. Check and check. I should know from experience that institutional schooling, university degrees and "real" jobs do not equal happiness. But it's easy to forget when working against the cultural grain.

I need to remember how utterly unhappy life would be if I made myself adhere to the curriculum I set to ensure my own health and happiness. Where would I be if I controlled my own life like I sometimes want to control my children? Well, for one,  I wouldn't have children! Children were not on the curriculum. Therefore, neither was birth or breastfeeding, two passions that fill my life with joy. Most of the friends I hold dear to my heart now I would never have met, because it has all been because of childbirth that these women are in my life.

As John Lennon said: "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans", learning is what happens to children when their parents are busy worrying about their education ;)
I'm joining in with Owlet's Unschool Monday.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Unschool Monday: Mess

Before I had children I was a neat-freak. Everything had its place, civilisation would crumble if an item was not in its place while not in use. These days civilization is lucky if it doesn't crumble a few times a day. But it's not just that mess bothers me, mess prevents her from learning, right? It's unattractive, disorganised, makes daily business harder to go about, makes tasks take longer. How can she learn when she has to navigate a minefield of toys or clothes on the floor? Well, this weekend my big girl taught me a lesson: she learns just fine amidst mess *shudder*

Thursday our house could have been out of a magazine. So clean, my soul was at peace. Friday I got sick. Saturday I was still sick and Ealesy joined me. Sunday I was feeling well, but lethargic, Ealesy was still sick. Hurricane Harriet had spent three straight days making uninhibited mess while her parents were powerless to keep up with her.
bubble wrap pants
In my fragile little mind this meant that no learning, no fun, nothing productive or positive could happen on Sunday night. But, for the first time in her life, Harriet spent three straight hours amusing herself, while her parents lay lifeless on the couch.

Mess facilitated great play. She was immersed in her games, it was a rare moment when she wanted to include us. Usually she's not interested in any activity unless one of her parents is by her side, joining in. 

cup of dough
She entertained herself with bubble wrap, chalk drawing, an imaginary game where she was taking a baby to unschool group. Another imaginary game where she "cooked wainbow ass cweam" for our "dinna." She pulled apart the long string of band aids joint together in their wrapping, and after Ealesy made a pie for dinner, she spent ages playing with the left over dough. And everything that grabbed her attention did so from the floor (err, except the dough lol).

Turns out what I see as mess on the floor, Harriet sees as a great big activity table. I was reminded of something Owlet Mumma wrote about "strewing the path" for our children's learning.  On Sandra Dodd's unschooling website "strewing" is defined as: "leaving material of interest around for our children to discover."  As it was, Harri strew her own path over the weekend. And in so doing taught Mumma a thing or two.

I'm joining in with Owlet's Unschool Monday.