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Our new house in Glassonby gives us a front row seat to watch the sheep and their lambs. Sophia and Nico love to stand at the fence and watch the little lambs leap around and have their “boo boo”. It could be the magical air here in Glassonby, which some how reminds me of our yearly family holidays as a child in Wales (i.e beautiful views and lots of rain) or the rolling, luscious green hills, which seem to spread themselves out forever at the back of our house, but there’s something so very peaceful about watching the sheep with their little lambs. It could be that the mums aren’t constantly rushing about stressing about what is and isn’t done, or about which club or activity they need to get their kids to next, or it could be that they have completely the right idea by keeping their heads down and eating all day while the little one’s play, but they certainly have it much more peaceful than us, don’t they?
Before we moved here, I’d made the conscious decision to “do” less at home. Clearly this sounds like a very lazy plan, but it has its roots in wisdom I assure you. Then came Richard House’s article in the latest TM about doing just that ~ less with the little ones, and then there are the sheep, idly wandering around blissful all day, so my inspiration to continue is all around. Actually though I don’t need any further inspiration, because the positive effects it’s having on me and my family are more than enough.
What do I mean by doing less? Well a few months ago I’d have experienced something close to sweats of guilt and frustration if I hadn’t planned to lay on at least two different activities which might appeal to my children’s different senses, every day. This might include planned painting, craft, modelling, baking; in short I was on their cases all day long with something we needed to do next. Paradoxically, my inspiration for this came from my reading of various Steiner based books, which all talked of these kinds of activities being great for young children. I took this to mean that I needed to orchestrate a number of them every day or I’d be failing my children somehow. The truth is that I never managed this impossible goal. Either we would become too distracted by digging for worms in the garden, or Sophia would refuse to stop her games and join in the activity, so my frustration would be increased even further, and I’d feel guilty for always doing something other than we were supposed to.
My inclination has always been to do less. After all, I inherently reject the ideas of planned, formalised early years “education”, and in fact the thought of it for my children in the early years, or beyond, makes my stomach turn. Yet here I was trying to run my own little pre-school right at home. The pressure for us to teach, to encourage and to do with our children is massive. They’re compared to untold amounts of developmental literature, all of which intends to act as goal posts for what our children should and shouldn’t be doing or saying. Nobody wants to “fail” their child, or somehow prevent them from developing to their optimal potential. When my sister, a nursery worker well trained in the formalised concepts of normal development and behaviour as defined by the government, pointed out to me that Sophia didn’t hold a pencil “properly”, couldn’t recognise the first letter of her own name, and wasn’t even able to draw a circle “properly”, I was adamant with my words that it didn’t matter, but inside I did feel a pang of worry. It’s this kind of institutionalised pressure which can leave those of us choosing to avoid it, still tainted by its reaches.
But the truth is it doesn’t matter. Sophia holds her pencil exactly the way she needs to in order to make her marks, which are always beautiful and creative. She may not recognise the first letter of her name, but a few months ago she pointed out to me that Mother Earth must have woken up Spring since she’d just seen the first snowdrops. And on that day, in that moment, when being ‘tested’ by my sister she may not have joined the ends on her circle, but I’ve seen her draw circles a million times, never with direction or encouragement, and as she proudly declared to me in the car afterwards – “Mummy, I can draw a circle, I just didn’t want to”.
So off my agenda are the schedules and the lists (painful as it is, since list making is a favourite pastime of mine), and I find myself surrendering to the flow of my children’s days. They can quite remarkably spend a whole afternoon completely immersed in their own fantasy world, where Sophia is the mummy, and her doll Anna needs looking after, and Nico plays on happily nearby, listening to his sister’s narration. When we feel like it we paint, when we want to we bake, and whenever the moment takes us we take out the play dough and do some moulding, but I can see how futile it is to break them from the flow of their own imagination in order to engage them in something uninspired at that moment.
All this works out quite well. Yesterday, rather than racking myself with guilt that I hadn’t got in the 10am craft session, and clearly was nowhere near staging story time, I listened in delight as Sophia and Nico played away the day in the next room, and I even got the chance to sit down and do some writing. Fulfilling some of my own desires would have been forbidden a few months ago ~ after all, what good would that do for my children’s development? But now I’d venture to say ~ it does wonders. We’re often told that childhood is being threatened by too much ~ too much activity, too much consumption, too much expectation and even too much opportunity, and the results are being seen in children all around the world. Unhappy, and lacking direction or fulfilment, they find themselves the victims of a culture which interrupts their making mud pies and leaf quiches (both delicious, I can say from experience) to attend their weekly tennis club, or to prove they can hold a pencil in the way deemed appropriate.
It’s interesting to me that we feel we have this right over children. The intense pressure and apparent authority to test them, judge them and then improve upon what is somehow lacking is something which reaches its peak at secondary school, and then, once out of the education system nobody seems to care much about our development any more. How is it just, that my sister can stand in a room full of toddlers and mark their abilities on unnatural things, like recognising letters, before they even have control over their own bodies ~ or drawing faces in the “correct” way (when drawing should surely be a luxury of imagination, not a precise recording of a factual object), when, upon my enquiry, I learn she can’t spell the words ‘conscience’, and ‘inconvenience’? Why are we taking the most vulnerable, precious and magical time in our lives and squashing it with goals and tests and concern over such laborious details, and who should get to decide what the most important and valuable skills and abilities are in the first place?
Sometimes we worry so much over something happening without our interference, that we actually ruin what it is we’re hoping to protect. Doing all this to our children when they could be out splashing in puddles and watching sheep in the fields, is rather like enlisting a team of people to stand over a plant pot and coax a flower to grow. They might tease it upwards, prune and arrange the petals, and attempt to ensure its resulting growth is optimal and acceptable. Can you imagine it? Crushing hands with agendas focused on results and performance scores, interfering with something which clearly takes care of itself? What they would actually do is run the very real risk of damaging the flower, wilting some of its petals, and destroying the beautifully natural and inevitable course its growth would have otherwise run. As it turns out, children are indeed quite like flowers. Give them some water, some fresh air and some sunlight, and I promise you, Nature will do the rest.