I got an email from a friend recently asking about unschooling. Her concern was whether it was really possible that her 2-3 year old would ever become interested in all the amazing things there are in the world (besides the current interest: animals). For parents of two-year olds, it may indeed be hard to imagine how a child can move on to naturally becoming curious about the all the wonderfully complex things in the world, especially when we are used to the idea that most children go to school and are fed the information, all in huge chunks, by planned instruction and textbooks. So I related, to my friend, just a few of the conversations I had had with M in the last few days. As I wrote out the email, even I was amazed at all the wonderful things we had discussed, and all coming from M’s interests and everyday life. It didn’t come in the form of a unit plan, but I’d bet it was more meaningful than most of the “learning” going on in little desks in school buildings across the world. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to my friend:
But M (now age 5) has made some amazing leaps in the last year, and he is starting to ask all sorts of complicated questions. Just this morning he asked about how electricity is made. I can’t remember how that came up. But I was doing the laundry and he asked that, and we moved on to talking about hydroelectric power in both Costa Rica and Niagra Falls. He wanted to know how they could put a spinning thing at the bottom of a waterfall and make it not flow away, and how it could make electricity. So then I started talking about dams. But then he had had enough. When I suggested going to the computer to look at a picture of Niagra Falls, he asked that we do that some other time. (which really means, I’ve come to know about him, “that’s enough mom. I’ve learned enough about that for now”). So I dropped it. But we learned a lot. Now, if I was a typical homeschooling parent, I might have made a big mistake. I might have gone to the computer anyway and printed out a whole unit plan about electricity and shoved it down his throat. He might have learned more, true. But it would not have meant as much, and it could have backfired by really turning him off, or making him think that I wouldn’t accept him if he didn’t learn this, or that he was stupid if it was over his head. So I took his lead. Next time we go to the library, though, I might just happily ask him if he wants me to find him a book on hydroelectric power. He might say yes or he might say no, but I’ll make no judgment.
The other week we were sitting in the yard looking at the clouds on a rather warm day and noticing the different shapes. I told him how each kind of cloud has a name, but that I had forgotten which one is which. I also told him that certain kinds of clouds make thunderstorms, and some don’t. We both agreed that we’d like to know which ones. We went to the library the next day and got out several books on the weather. We both learned a lot. We even read a book that described how to make a home-made barometer, and M was fascinated by how that could predict the weather. So we spent the next 3 days gathering the bottles to make it, and we made one and observed it for a few days. I’m not sure if it is actually working, or if the results are just confusing me, but we tried. He always looks with me at the radar maps on the computer when I check the weather too. He’s been interested in that for the last year, as am I. I never trust the weather report unless I actually see the radar and view whether the rain clouds are heading our way.
And then that very same night that I wrote the above letter, M and I were talking about the planets and the universe, and he asked how big the universe is. And so I explained that we really don’t know. In fact, it could go on forever. He was fascinated by that. So I explained about how we could travel in a spaceship, in one direction, or any direction, and we might just be able to keep going for ever without the universe ever ending. I’m reaching my arms up and out further from my body, and saying that we are coming upon a planet, and now maybe a star, and then another planet, and then a comet, and we just keep going….forever. And then I remembered how he is always quoting Buzz lightyear: “To infinity, and beyond!” So told him that there is a special word we use for things that keep going, without an end. Infinity. And I reminded him about Buzz Lightyear and his quote. So there, in 10 minutes, we learned infinity. And he was riveted the whole time. Can this compare to what goes on at a desk?
And even later that night: M was doing his typical thing at bedtime where he wildly leaps across the bed, throwing himself in the air and landing on his stomach with arms out. In our bedroom, we have a toddler bed next to a queen-size. He was jumping across both the toddler and the queen, cross-wise. Then he would go from different directions. I wasn’t even really paying attention, just changing and getting ready for bedtime. But he suddenly says:
M: “Hey Trish! I learned something!”
Me: “What honey?”
M: “If I jump from here to here (showing me the path across both beds together) it is the same distance as when I jump from here to here (showing me one corner of the queen going to the opposite corner).”
Me: (Doing a quick estimate in my brain) “I think you are right!”
M: “I know it’s the same!”
Me: “I’m sure you do!”
Me: (Ok, here’s where I get a little heavy handed…but not too heavy, IMO). “Hey M….I think I have another idea. I think if you jumped from here to here (corner to opposite corner of queen again) it would be the same distance as if you jumped from here to here (the other set of opposite corners of the queen).”
M: “Hmmmm…I think you’re right!”
And he tries it.
So there you go. Geometry at bedtime from jumping on the bed. And I meet parents all the time who refuse to let their kids jump on the bed. And to those parents, I say: Bedtime jumping teaches geometry!