Monthly Archives: January 2016

Instead of Efficiency

Instead of Efficiency

Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of our society. And, on the surface, creating more desired results from the resources available may seem benign or even beneficial, whether we’re talking agriculture, business, government, or education. However, our quest for efficiency is, increasingly, leading us to dangerous places.

A good example of this lies in the way we produce our food. Take, for instance, the highly efficient “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Critics have been warning for years that these massive, inhumane animal factories are incubators for virulent super-pathogens, and we’ve written about them in Natural Life Magazine. Knowing that their crowded and unhygienic farms put animals at risk of disease, farmers pump pigs and cattle full of antibiotics, which is the prerequisite for antibiotic-resistant organisms and a potential public health crisis. The industrial farming company finds it more efficient to give drugs to healthy animals than to grow food on small, mixed farms where conditions are humane, animals stay healthy, and customers are nearby. This efficiency serves both corporate greed and consumer desire for cheap food.

Capitalism is also, by definition and design, highly efficient as it matches resources to consumer demand. Globalization is an efficiency-driven expansion of capitalism, with its deregulation of nation-state financial and labor markets. And we are now seeing the effects of an integrated global economy on the environment and society. It is increasing the devastation of natural habitats, speeding global warming, and polluting water supplies. It has given us unsustainable development, job insecurity, and growing socio-economic inequity. It has usurped democratic control by multinational corporations and the financial institutions that support them. And it is focused on growth at all costs, irrespective of quality of life.

While we would like to agree with the promoters of these policies that they will eventually lead to democratization and freedom around the world, globalization was not chosen by voters. In fact, democracy itself is not particularly efficient. Educating people about the issues, allowing for discussion and debate, consensus-building, and implementing policies that are not in the best interests of everyone, all require time and can be messy. Dictatorship is much more efficient!

Education is one of the ways we presume to learn to live democratically. But efficiency has become a hallmark of public education too, creating large classes, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and standardized testing. Efficiency has entrenched the outmoded factory model of schooling and its pursuit of economies of scale at a time when we are long overdue for a paradigm shift instead. We are efficiently processing students along a conveyor belt of stale facts instead of helping them develop their creativity, research skills, adaptation abilities, and love of learning, all of which will help them live more democratically and productively. I’ve written about this – and the alternative – in Life Learning Magazine.

Fortunately, it seems that the issues of the day are providing us with the inspiration to embrace less efficient but more robust systems in all these aspects of life. I think we could be approaching the tipping point, where enough people recognize that efficiency is not always the most important thing and that the “experts” don’t always have our best interests at heart.

Many more of us are moving back to basics, spending less money on courses and electronic toys for our children, growing our own veggie gardens, leaving our cars at home when walking or cycling are possible, taking control over our own health and wellness, shopping less and mending more, getting to know our neighbors and enjoying time spent with family. These things aren’t necessarily efficient, but they are creating habits that will ultimately make us healthier, better governed, and more educated. I’ve seen a huge increase in interest in these topics since my partner Rolf and I started Natural Life Magazine almost forty years ago.

Hitting the ecological, economic, and ethical walls all at the same time has got our attention. It remains to be seen how we will work ourselves out of the mess. But I do know that more people than ever before have a sense of the impact their actions have on the world. So I continue to have hope for a sustainable future – where capitalism and consumerism do not cause human suffering, and where individuals take responsibility for discontinuing and cleaning up environmental and economic devastation.

The Value of Spontaneous Play

The Value of Spontaneous Play

A few days ago, I wrote about having fun with our children and not worrying about whether they’re learning anything or not. However, I don’t want to minimize the value of spontaneous play and the amount of learning that occurs through it.

The first book I ever read about homeschooling was a few years after our family began our life learning adventure in the 1970s. It was And the Children Played (Tundra, 1975), a memoir by the late Canadian playwright Patricia Joudry about her young family’s life in the UK. I was delighted to read her humorous description of a life that was very similar to ours, where the children played as the rest of family life unfolded, including mom’s writing career. Along with Joudry, we never doubted that self-directed, spontaneous play was the best way for our daughters to learn.

Of course, there are many others who understand the immense value of play. Scholar and author Joseph Chilton Pearce has said that play (and I think he meant unstructured play) is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

Sadly, spontaneous play is becoming a casualty of modern Western society’s frighteningly misguided attempt to better educate children. In spite of lots of research to the contrary – and pleas from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics – many parents and policy makers continue to believe that pressuring children to learn earlier and faster will help them succeed.

Ever-younger children are being placed in structured teaching environments in the name of future success in school (which, of course, doesn’t have much to do with real education anyway). In school – and many homes – play is what you do when the more important, adult-led things are finished, like reading readiness and math drills. That’s why, in many schools, recess is endangered. The Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (there’s a sure sign of an endangered species!) says that forty percent of elementary schools in the U.S. have reduced or eliminated recess, partially in order to make time to prepare for standardized testing (which many parents support.) I’m sure the numbers are similar in other countries.

A related concern is children’s safety as they play. We have developed an unjustified fear that our kids will hurt themselves if allowed unlimited and unsupervised spontaneous play, disregarding the value of risk in their development.

Oddly enough, what we are denying our children is becoming more important for adults in the workplace. Many leading edge businesses are aware that creativity, innovation, and productivity are nurtured by play, and are structuring play spaces into their corporate facilities. They’re quoting people like Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget, who once said to a group of adults: “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” These corporate leaders know that spontaneous play allows the mind to flow without restrictions – to explore, to experiment, to question, to take risks, to be adventurous, to create to innovate and to accomplish – without fear of rejection or disapproval. And that is the perfect learning environment…for all ages.

So next time your child stops to play with an ant on the sidewalk, or just wants to run through some mud puddles, don’t hurry them along to an activity of your choice. Children have a lot to teach us about the best way to spend the present moment – they know about the value of spontaneous play.

Fun … For the Fun of It

Fun for the sake of having fun

Having fun with your kids? Just relax and enjoy it; it doesn’t need to be more than just fun.

One of the mainstays of the homeschooling industry is inspirational books and magazine articles describing enjoyable things to do with your kids that are also educational. This notion that we have to make learning fun by dressing it up as games or other enjoyable activities is nonsense…and, more often than not, our kids know that. And that knowledge lessens both the enjoyment and the learning.

Learning is not difficult, boring, or unpleasant. What happens in school is often difficult, boring, and unpleasant, but that’s forced memorization/regurgitation, not real learning. Real learning is either not even noticed because it’s a side effect of being deeply engaged in an activity or it’s jumping-up-and-down joyful discovery.

Fun is a valid outcome on its own, and there is no need to feel guilty about playing with no hidden agenda. In fact, telling kids that something will be enjoyable when we really want to sneak in some “serious” education is every bit as manipulative as what goes on in school.

When my kids were young and learning from life, we loved playing board games, we traveled a lot, and we often went on hikes and visits to the science museum, the zoo, and art galleries (among many other activities). Heidi and Melanie undoubtedly learned some science, math, spelling, and other academic “subjects” while engaging in those activities (as did their father and I). But that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was to enjoy life – to have fun…laughing, exploring, and enjoying each others’ company.

While we were living life and enjoying ourselves, we also got an education. But the focus was on having fun just for the fun of it. So let’s relax and let fun family activities be fun without staging them for a purpose or dissecting the learning that may have happened as a result.

You can read articles about having fun, playing with kids, and giving them the freedom to play on their own on the Child’s Play Magazine website, one of the digital publications that I edit.

Adultism: The Last Frontier of “isms”?


I want to talk about adultism. It is one of many “isms” in our vocabulary – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and so on – which address discrimination on the basis of things like ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, and physical abilities. Many of us try to overturn these “isms” in our own lives and in the broader culture. But adultism is one “ism” that isn’t so often dealt with – even by progressives. In fact, I think that it may be the last frontier of “isms.”

In our culture (and many, if not most, others in the world), adults have a special status of control over kids. Adults make decisions for children (their own and other people’s), create rules that govern children’s day-to-day lives, and generally tell kids what to do. That often manifests in ordering, yelling, directing, preaching, disciplining, demeaning, embarrassing, questioning, patting and other touching without permission, yanking, ignoring, and referring to children in the third person.

This behavior isn’t usually undertaken with abusive intent; indeed, most adults wield power over kids because they assume it’s their duty, as well as their right. Adults are thought to be entitled to these behaviors on the assumptions that they are superior to children and young people, and that they know best what’s good for the younger generation.

Scratch below the surface, and you’ll find that this sort of adult disrespect is inherited. It’s how we were treated as children by our parents and in our schools…and how our parents were treated by the generation before that. And it’s reinforced by other social institutions like churches and medical systems, as well as by laws. The context of the adult-child relationship in our society is power, hierarchy, mistrust, and coercion.

One of the places that adultism manifests itself is our education system. Most people believe that children and young people must be made to go to school or else they won’t learn. So we have created factories in which children are processed and warehouses where they are stored until it’s convenient for adults to have them around. Getting rid of the factory model of public education challenges not just our assumptions about how children learn, but a variety of agendas related to adultism and other sorts of power.

I wrote about this in the introduction to my book Challenging Assumptions in Education – From Institutionalized Education to a Learning Society:

“By our very use of words like ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling,’ we seem to accept the idea that some people at the top are doing things to other people farther down the totem pole. Public education reflects our society’s paternalistic, hierarchical worldview, which exploits children in the same way it takes the earth’s resources for granted. That is no way to help children grow up into compassionate citizens who think independently and participate in the life of their communities and countries.”

Arguing against adultism is difficult. Giving up power can make people fearful and leave them feeling threatened. They think “unschooling” means unparenting, and life learning means uneducated. But life learners are at the leading edge of an important attempt to broaden the definition of childhood, to respect children as whole people who are functioning members of society…and to improve our education system along the way.

Since we are already living the opposite of adultism, I believe that we life learners can contribute to the defeat of adultism by being conscious about how we speak to (and about) children, and by how we treat them.