Tag Archives: independence

Experiential Learning is Children’s Work

Experiential Learning is Children's Work by Wendy PriesnitzChildren’s ability to practice experiential learning through day-to-day living is the foundation of what happens in democratic schools and unschooling homes alike. Part of that experiential learning is kids doing real work in the real world, motivated by their own real interests and goals. It is not pseudo work where kids are “allowed” to “help” adults or where they pretend to do real work with the aid of toy tools.

Unfortunately, there are few places where children can experience the adult world in that way. Most children – and even many homeschooled ones – don’t have nearly enough opportunities to be with adults who are doing their own thing in the real world and not, as John Holt once put it, “just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children.”

The working world of adults is not very accessible to children because we fear they will get hurt, get in the way of or slow down production, or abuse or break the equipment. But in my experience, that has not been the case. Take my own family as an example.

Our unschooled daughters Melanie and Heidi (now in their forties) grew up living, learning and working in the midst of our busy home-based publishing business. They had access to all the tools of that business and never abused them. They mimicked the careful manner in which we used those tools and respected them as necessary for making our family’s living. More importantly, they used those tools in creating their own businesses, which we respected in return.

There are many opportunities for children and young people to learn in and be of service to the real world and, at the same time, participate in experiential learning. These include volunteering with community organizations, participating in their parents’ businesses or at their workplaces, working for pay or as apprentices at neighborhood businesses and running their own enterprises.

Although I don’t want to romanticize the past or ignore abuses against children, at other times and in other places, children had or are given the opportunity to do real work at their parents’ side, as well as on their own accord, and to be involved in the life of their communities. In our more complex society, this same type of opportunity and respect for children’s abilities is still possible if we all share a sense of responsibility for helping develop the minds and attitudes that will lead us into the future. Today, no one has all the experience and information necessary to prepare young people for a rapidly developing future. But we can share our skills and experiences with our children or take on other people’s kids as apprentices in order to pass along our knowledge and attitudes.

That sometimes may involve the adults sorting out the mindless bureaucratic requirements from the necessary safety concerns. Kids need the sense of accomplishment that comes from being trusted with a real job to do in the real world. They benefit from the increased self-esteem that comes from participating – at whatever level – in a functioning group.

Everyone benefits when kids develop the confidence that accompanies being in control of themselves and of their surroundings. And they don’t need the sort of “protection” that results from lack of adult trust and preparation and that keeps them sitting on the sidelines and away from meaningful work.

Aside from safety, there are other reasons for sidelining children and preventing experiential learning from happening. Showing respect for a child’s developing skills takes patience. Doing a task ourselves is usually easier and more efficient than allowing the time needed for a child to do it. Children’s results might be not good enough for the satisfaction of perfectionist adults. And some people just underestimate what a child can do.

However, personal empowerment begins with realizing the value of our own life experience and potential to affect the world. Our children deserve the opportunity to be part of – and learn from – the daily lives of their families and communities.

Portions of this post are based on an essay that appears in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.






Why We Should Protect Spontaneous, Unstructured Play

Preserving spontaneous, unstructured playSpontaneity is one of the great strengths of little children; they live in the moment, following their curiosity, darting here and there, picking things up and putting them down, trying, exploring, laughing, playing. Spontaneous, unstructured play is something that children know how to do very well. If only adults who have forgotten all about the fun and benefits of spontaneous play could get out of their children’s way!

Many parents are scared of spontaneity. It can lead to a child wandering off, or taking a risk that could lead them into danger. And we’re really fearful of danger these days – for many justified and many more unjustified reasons. Honoring spontaneous, unstructured play requires trust in children’s ability to regulate their own time, and our society doesn’t trust children much in general. And how will our children ever prepare for college and the working world if they are allowed to play all day?! School definitely frowns on spontaneity and lack of structure, as do many recreational pursuits – especially those of the organized team variety.

Spontaneity also dies when we develop the compulsion to do things perfectly. Although some people are less spontaneous than others (and prefer more structure in their lives), I think results-based schooling and parenting can kill both the spark of spontaneity and the ability to create our own structure. We destroy the ability to be spontaneous when we ask our children to be quiet and “well-behaved,” and when, in school, we impose our own structure on them, and require order and good test results. In these ways, we teach our children not to take chances, only to do things they can do well, and to look to others for approval.

When I was a child, my family couldn’t afford to give me lessons outside of school; that worked in my favor. Because nobody expected competency in what I did on my own time, I was able to engage in spontaneous, unstructured play, to explore and to experiment with various creative pursuits. There was no pressure or even, for the most part, any time constraints. And that’s how I became a writer.

A friend of mine, on the other hand, learned how the road to perfection is littered with landmines waiting to kill the joy of creativity and spontaneity. As a young child, he had fun noodling around on the piano. Somebody thought he might “make something” of his apparent talent if he was “serious enough” about doing so. So he had to stop playing, get a teacher, and start practicing. A rigorous schedule was followed and there were competitions to take part in, always on the road to the holy grail of perfection. He turned out not to be one of those talented exceptions eager to hone their special skills. The joy and spontaneity of play fled as quickly as playing the piano became goal-oriented. And he doesn’t even “play” the piano now.

How sad to be taught that spontaneity and joyful, unstructured play are not important, that learning is work, that trial and error is inefficient, that there is something wrong with the joy of discovery and creation, that the only valid pursuits in life are those done on a schedule, for reward, or for other people’s reactions.

Like anything else that is feared, mistrusted, structured, avoided, or underused, the ability to engage in spontaneity and spontaneous, unstructured play withers away. We become unimaginative and inhibited about trying new things, and shy about expressing ourselves in new ways. And that is unfortunate, since spontaneity is one of the components of creativity, something that we can all use more of in our personal and working lives.

In fact, says the late child development specialist, experimental educator, and author James L. Hymes Jr, “Play builds the kind of free-and-easy, try-it-out, do-it-yourself character that our future needs.”

Join me at Child’s Play Magazine to explore this topic, and everything related to play, in more depth.

Unschoolers Modeling Independent Thinking and Behavior

Unschoolers Modeling Independent Thinking & BehaviorI was talking with a couple of unschoolers about modeling independent thinking and behavior. The dad told me that he and his wife do not control their young children’s thinking or their learning, but they do find it necessary to occasionally control their behavior, because it is their duty to nourish and protect their children. I shared with these unschoolers that my husband and I found that precisely because we didn´t try to control our (now adult) daughters´ thinking, we seldom needed to control their behavior. They usually knew what was appropriate, safe, and healthy for themselves. Sure, when they were very young, they sometimes followed their curiosity into potentially dangerous situations, but we were there to abort or rescue if necessary. And sure, when they were little and I was doing the grocery shopping, their choice of food was limited by my selections – something that changed as they grew older, learned about healthy eating, and had input into our family food purchasing.

Mostly, we simply tried not to intentionally put our young daughters into situations they were not yet able to handle, because those were usually the ones that resulted in emotional or physical danger. (Admittedly, making those decisions wasn’t easy because we tried to err on the side of their autonomous decision-making, as well as exploration and learning, rather than being biased by our own overly-cautious comfort levels.) Meanwhile, we communicated with them about life and its many daily choices and possibilities. So, in a modified free-range manner (before that term was commonly used in relation to kids), we allowed them as many opportunities as possible to learn to balance danger and risk.

Just as importantly, we tried to model that balance for them. Learning to think for ourselves – and to act accordingly – is supposedly a big component of education. But much of what passes for an education works against that and actually trains children to pay attention to what others think and say. The education industry promotes the thinking of experts and doses out information from governments, corporations, and various adults who often put their own interests first. The internalizing of the notion that others know best what is good for us results in what the late sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, called “other-directed” people.

Looking to one’s peers for direction is an inauthentic way to live. And it is one that I think many who consider themselves to be unschoolers want their children to avoid. Instead, they hope to raise self-directed, free thinkers. But peer pressure is a huge part of modern living, and it is easy to get caught up in it. So, as parents, we should be vigilant about our own self-directedness. As I wrote in this article for Life Learning Magazine in 2004, “Ultimately, I think, the limits of our children’s freedom can only be decided by individual parents who have carefully considered each child’s developmental abilities, and who have examined their own biases.” Then, when we are confident in our own thinking and decisions, and can control our own behavior mindfully rather than relying on what others think, we will set a good example for our children.