My boys, particularly my three year old, have taken a real liking to some books about a little boy named Alfie. If you are not familiar with these, they are written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes, and tell stories of the adventures of this little boy, which often involve very ‘normal’, everyday activities, seen through a child’s eyes with a vast imagination.
This week, a visitor in my home commented on how unusual it was for parents these days to do ‘old fashioned’ activities such as painting, baking and craft in their homes. Through her work, she visits many homes with young children and remarked that many parents are too worried about mess or inconvenience, and prefer to send their children to toddler groups and nurseries to do the messy activities.
Meanwhile, most children where I live have returned to school, and as is typical of the UK, we are now enjoying some glorious sunshine. Our days have been packed with adventure. This week, we have seen oak trees and acorns with squirrels dancing and playing. There were sycamore trees, with their ‘helicopter’ seeds, beech trees with their beechnuts, and perhaps most fun of all, the horse chestnut trees with their conkers of different stages and sizes. In the lakes, there are many different types of duck, and we can see the changes in their feathers as they reach maturity. A walk along the river led us to discover wild apples and damsons. As we passed through arable land, we saw the ripe ears of corn on one side of the track, and the combine-harvester and bales of hay on the other; this led to discussions on the ‘wheat and the chaff’ as described in the Bible and about the parable of the sower and what that means. Even my two year old is mastering all of these ‘lessons’ with ease as they flow naturally from the excited discoveries of two small boys on an adventure.
And all of this has led me to reflect. What is a childhood? What is important? What is learning? These past few days have been a real blessing and encouragement to me, the type of days which make me remember exactly why we have made some of the choices which we have done as a family. I still sometimes have days when I question whether we are doing what is really right and best, especially when it so often seems that we are swimming against the tide, doing things differently to the majority, and often being misunderstood. In these past days, I have considered how my eldest could have started nursery for three hours every morning this week. I have also reflected on how so many parents construct a really hectic timetable of ferrying their children to one external activity after another in order to keep them entertained or to provide them with opportunities to develop in one area or another. Are my children missing out through not doing these things?
But join with me in an adventure. We set off to go exploring. Before we leave the house, we make sure that we have packed our rucksacks (the boys have had ones similar to these since they started walking: http://www.littlelife.co.uk/html/toddler_daysacks/index.html). What might we need for our adventure? We better take some provisions, so we make sandwiches with the rhubarb and ginger jam that we made with daddy last week. It might rain, but equally the sun might shine so we make sure we have waterproofs and suncream too. We consider which wild animals we might see along the way (these days, the adventure is often ‘going to Africa’). And so we set out. As we walk along the roads, we see many different types of vehicle. Particularly exciting are the 4 wheel drives, especially those which have a wheel on the back in case they sustain a puncture whilst crossing the dessert (my eldest astonished the owner of a Toyota Landcruiser the other day, by discussing the need to be prepared for crossing the dessert in his vehicle!). We walk over or under the railway, where we often see a range of ‘people berries’ (blackberries) or ‘bird berries’ (those which we must not eat). Trains pass, full of other people off on different adventures. And finally, we reach the grasslands (the park). We see the range of trees, birds and flowers which is typical of an English park in autumn, but have you ever noticed the small dirt track which meanders through the long waving grass? That is where the lions roam, and where we need to take care. In the midst of the grass are some beautiful, delicate wildflowers, and a selection of beetles and ladybirds. We marvel at how God gave attention to such tiny details as He created the universe. It’s been a long, dusty journey now, so we find a suitable spot and have our picnic. (If it is raining, we sometimes ‘go to Africa’ and sit under a banana tree in the Palmhouse.) It’s good that we were prepared! After we have rested for a little while, the adventure continues... But to another person, this might just be a walk down the road to a nearby park for a short walk. I know that before I had children, I would miss the tiny details, the excitement of seeing a grasshopper, the delight in understanding more about nature, the fascination with worms, and slugs and snails...
Childhood can be an adventure. I would go as far as to say it SHOULD be. Like Alfie, the simplest of things can be filled with opportunity and excitement. One activity can lead seamlessly on to the next – we often return home and paint or draw things which we have seen in the morning, or read about them and look at pictures in books. Today, we are going to bake with the apples and blackberries which are the fruit of the last two days of exploring. (And elsewhere I have reflected on the multitude of learning opportunities inherent in cooking).
Do today’s children have the opportunity to develop this sense of imagination? I know it is easy to stereotype, and that one must be careful not to do so. But I see many children who simply seem bored without a flurry of colourful, noisy entertainment, in the form of toys, television (or other things involving computers and screens) or the larger scale activities offered in groups and nurseries. And I feel sad that they are not enjoying the beautiful freedom of a childhood which now seems to be considered ‘old fashioned’.
This post is not intended as a rant against mainstream choices, or in any way to be self-congratulatory. Rather, I simply want to share the encouragement I have increasingly known through the most simple, daily activities. When Shirley Hughes writes and draws about Alfie, she captures the essence of this, and paints the childhood that many of us wished we had.
Sometimes people think that home education must be very daunting, and say that they don’t think they could do it. Sometimes I hear phrases like, ‘I struggle to keep my children occupied’. Others think that teaching your children must require a huge investment in terms of curricula and resources, lesson planning and formalised teaching structures. I would like to encourage you to slow down and reflect on your life today. See it through the eyes of a child. Involve them in everything you do, talking to them, including them, explaining things to them. Yes, things may take longer, sometimes much longer! But what is the aim of it all? Is the aim to work through a checklist of tasks and chores before you can move on to the ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ parts? Or can the routine and necessary parts of daily life be incorporated into the teaching? We don’t need to occupy our children or have them entertained to allow space for the chores, but rather we can teach through them. It involves a paradigm shift, yes. It is a new way of thinking and living, true. But every day can be filled with childhood delight, innocent discovery, imaginative play and true learning. Go for it!