Learning at biltmore: issue 5
"A choice is another benign thing, just sitting there as a single option unless acted upon. Choice doesn't harm natural learning; it doesn't cause my children to have less trust in their own ability to learn. It's just another choice."
"Yes, I believe that our children guide us quite readily into that which interests them. Yes, I believe that natural learning happens all the time. At the same time I don't believe that a parent-initiated activities or information takes away from natural learning. In fact, I find that people with more experience, more years, and a wide array of experiences to pull from usually expand our own pool of information."
Learning at Biltmore
There was a big discussion recently at one of the email lists about parent vs. child-initiated activities and whether anything parent-initiated was helpful. I cringe when I read these kind of posts because I think debating parent or child-initiated is setting up a false dichotomy. In a family where interests and ideas are freely shared, without coercion and without any agenda, in a family where trust is high and relationships are healthy, I don't think one needs even consider who "initiated" an idea, conversation, fun activity or outing. I don't believe WHERE the information started is nearly as important as how it's being tossed around.
In our family, ideas and thoughts begin with every one of us. Sometimes we take great pleasure in sharing those thoughts or ideas with other members and sometimes not. Most of the time, if something excites any one of us, we love sharing it. We enjoy hearing other perspectives or add-ons to things we've been mulling about. We seek out other family members for activities and talk as a natural by-product to our own interests and learning. Trying to figure out whether it was "child-initiated" or "parent-initiated" would be pointless except for the sake of theoretical discussion on an email list! Parents without any attachment to what and when their children learn can easily share information and be perfectly comfortable if that information is unwanted. Without an agenda of any kind, without any ideas of "should" or some time limit on our unique journeys, these parents aren't going to feel any sense of failure when a child isn't interested in something offered.
More often than not, anything I offer up is either welcomed or expanded upon. I think that comes from being in tune with where my children are at today, and what items, places, ideas and events interest each of them. I know that Trevor and Jared are probably not going to be terribly excited about "First Friday" where we peruse art galleries, listen to local music and enjoy the atmosphere of downtown, but I make sure to let them know I'm going anyway. The door is always open, whether it's their own idea that initiated an activity or one of the adults in the house.
This idea that parents shouldn't offer, shouldn't share information or activities seems to imply that the parents are far too clueless to offer anything of value. Yes, I believe that our children guide us quite readily into that which interests them. Yes, I believe that natural learning happens all the time. At the same time I don't believe that a parent-initiated activities or information takes away from natural learning. In fact, I find that people with more experience, more years, and a wide array of experiences to pull from usually expand our own pool of information.
My own experiences and information are valuable to me and occasionally valuable to other people that want to hear my point of view. My children are no different than other people I come into contact with. If parents worry that their own input is somehow detracting from the natural learning experience, are they withholding information or ideas their child might actually desire? Is there some feeling that children are so fragile that they would be inhibited by honest sharing, even if that sharing could comfortably be rejected by the child at any time?
I think back over our day-to-day interactions lately, and I see where all of us are "initiating" learning experiences. Because learning is happening in the mundane everyday tasks, in the games, in the driving and walking, in the day and night, in the travel and exploration, in the conversations and celebrations we all choose to embrace, each of us sparks some beginning to these activities as naturally as the ocean ebbs and flows. We all have worthy contributions; we all share excitement and information; we all share in each others interests to some degree small as it may be at times.
Just the other day, I came home from work and had two very excited children shouting, "Mom, come see this show with us, it's REALLY cool! It's talking about what the world might be like in 200 million years...." and on it went. They shared all about what they'd seen so far and practically dragged me into the room to watch with them. Was my own learning process somehow thwarted by having them share that information with me, rather than finding it on my own? Of course not. It expanded my world; it brought joy to share something that excited them so much and we all learned from it. A child's learning process is not thwarted by an honest parent openly sharing information any more than my own was in that moment, as long as there is no attachment to any particular outcome. In fact, sharing information and ideas freely enriches and expands our world.
I am thinking specifically of a day we all spent last month in which I initiated the entire activity, yet we all got something different and enjoyable out of that activity....each of us learning and sharing in our own way.
Let me back up a bit....
When we moved up here to Tennessee, there was a whole new range of activities, people, and places to choose from. I took it upon myself to research the local home/unschooling support group (something I knew my children valued and would appreciate), to find out a variety of resources that our family might enjoy. Being the parent that typically provides transportation to a variety of venues and typically gets the information for everyone (to do with exactly as they choose), I didn't question whether my initiating that information has some ill-effect on anyone. Information is just that, information.
Without coercion, "teacherly" agenda or other influencing factor, everyone in the household can do what they choose with information. I would personally like more choices rather than less. My children do too. A choice is another benign thing, just sitting there as a single option unless acted upon. Choice doesn't harm natural learning; it doesn't cause my children to have less trust in their own ability to learn. It's just another choice.
Another place I had wanted to visit after moving here was Biltmore Estate. I had taken the boys and Sierra when they were very little many years ago, but mostly they couldn't remember it at all. I told my kids about it, asked if they wanted to join me in a visit, and in the end I had not only my four children interested in spending the day at Biltmore, but an extra one as well. One of our close friends has a son that spends a lot of time at our house, and he was very excited about visiting Biltmore with us.
My children (at this point) didn't know anything about Biltmore, where it was, or that we lived within an hour of the estate. They wouldn't have thought to research about it yet, or ask if we could go. Should I have waited until they found it on their own? They may have been in their 20's before that happened (maybe not), and I'm not a big believer in waiting around for things to happen; I ENJOY swirling new things into our days as much as my kids do! If Biltmore hadn't interested them, I knew I'd get a very honest "no thanks Mom," and I would have been fine with that too.
But because they were interested, we picked a day, and over the mountains we drove, five kids and an adult eager to see Biltmore, excited about being together and traveling away from home for that day (with the promise that we'd be home by 6:30 for two
From the moment we stepped foot on Biltmore Estate, the children were all full of exclamations of awe. Each of them noticed different things, all of them were completely enchanted, from my 6'3" 17 year old right down to my 5 year old ball of energy that ran circles around us. They all wanted to go inside the house first, so a self-guided tour began our Biltmore experience. We traipsed through lavish room after lavish room (all of them decorated with live Christmas trees) with conversation spilling forth about turn of the century customs and style, excessive wealth, philanthropy, humanitarian efforts, architecture, ecology and conservation, environmental concerns and the fact that every one of us decided the servants rooms were FAR nicer than any of our own rooms! Each person had different ideas and thoughts, each person shared them freely. Nobody felt coerced or "taught" because someone else was thinking aloud or asking a question. The conversations weren't steered or guided; they were honest and natural....as conversations are around here.
When we got to the end, all of the kids were disappointed. They wanted to see MORE! I was more than done with the whole tour, but they were wishing we could go look at some of the off-limit areas. Unfortunately for them, they were truly off-limits. We headed over to the Carriage House and all the shops. Ice cream was first; discussions about flavors, making homemade ice cream and how to stay warm when eating cold items on a cold day quickly followed. I chose a cuppa hot coffee thank you.
Next stop was at the sweet shop where Sierra and I took great pleasure in selecting handmade truffles to share. It was a fine art, selecting exactly the perfect flavors and deciding how many of each would satisfy. After that, the old-fashioned toy shop sucked us in. A trip down nostalgia lane was in store, as I found toys that were replicas of many items I used to find in my grandparent's farmhouse attic. Items that would have been the childhood toys of my father and aunties who were children in the 40s and 50s. The kids thought it was pretty cool that I actually remembered playing with those old-style toys. We left with some miniature knights and a buzzing bumblebee.
The gardens are pretty bare this time of year, so we talked about how fun it would be to try and visit each month (something now possible thanks to a yearly membership I chose to purchase) and watch the seasonal changes. In the arboretum, Jared asked, "Wouldn't the air in here be really rich with oxygen?" Well yes, it would. And off we went into environmental changes, plants, and air quality. Jared happens to be fascinated with global warming and a variety of green issues.
Jalen, Sierra and Jared were especially fascinated with one plant that had "ginormous" (Jared's word) leaves. During the time they were checking out that particular plant, Jalen had happily skipped off ahead of us and was back outside balancing himself on brick walls. Trevor and John were comfortably esconced on a bench discussing
On we traveled to the winery. The boys weren't very interested in wine making as a whole, but decided to join us for the tour anyway. Sierra was the one pushing for the tour at this point as she wanted to know "how they got all that yucky taste into the bottle." After a brief movie on the Biltmore wine making experience, we walked through the equipment area. Suddenly everyone was interested again. Huge vats where the wine ferments sent off a yeasty, fruity fermenting smell. Jalen talked non-stop through the fermentation, extraction, and aging areas asking a million questions and wanting to get up higher to see it all. Sierra was SO excited about knowing how wine was made, and she found it magical how the grapes gather in the sun's energy then release it in the form of juice put through a lengthy process almost as ancient as the grape itself.
Jalen had opened one of the informational displays to discover a lightbulb beneath. He was more interested in the electronic set up and how the lightboxes worked for a while. Learning takes all forms, and it's often not about what the other members are absorbing. In the wine-tasting area, the kids got to sample some grape juice and demanded that we take some home because "it's the best grape juice ever." Once in the wine shop, the older boys had all gotten their fill and headed out for the van (giant jawbreakers in tow) while we made our selections and gawked at the lovely Christmas ornaments.
Upon stepping outside, we noticed a few delicate flakes of snow drifting gently down. Talk about excitement! By the time we'd situated ourselves in the van and began the drive towards the estate exit, snow was coming down in a dramatic flurry. All the way home, white surrounded us and began covering the ground to the side of the freeway. Driving over the mountain pass during a snowstorm was a bit unnerving, but beautiful and ethereal all the same. Our excitement was compounded by the fact that we knew friends were heading up over the mountains behind us, to come stay the night. Kelly and Duncan Lovejoy had visited the site for next year's Live and Learn (right outside of Asheville), and we talked them into heading over the mountains for one evening.
The gamers all got home in time, Kelly and Duncan arrived ("frozen Southern popsicles" in their words), and the day's adventures tumbled out as we ate hot lasagne and bread. It was a wonderful day. I have moments of the day stored in my mind: the image of the kids looking out the upper windows at the beautiful architecture spread below us, everyone laughing insanely and spitting over the edge of a pavillion because the wind was so strong it made everything fly sideways (no other people were around for that part, thankfully), the kids dancing in the first flurry of snow, watching them shiver as they ate ice cream in the cool winter air. There were so many perfect moments—one of those days we've all talked about and enjoyed on many different levels.
Did it have more value because a parent initiated it? Of course not. It WAS a most valuable day to all of us though, and by sharing something that interested me, we all gained something. I believe in bringing bits and pieces of the world to my children. I believe in taking them out into the world to make their own connections as much as they choose to join me.
My children have also brought bits and pieces of the world to me. They have made connections that took us to different places, events, and people than what I would have on my own. That's the flow of connections. That's the flow of natural learning in our home. All of us have unique and worthy bits to share. All of us learn from each other, from the world around us, and from other people. We learn from television, video games, books, cooking, talking, and a million other things we all enjoy. No man is an island. We are all connected. And in the world of unschooling, a family sharing those rich connections is going to expand their opportunties, learning, and joy.