Beyond School: Tips for Life AppreciationPosted: May 19, 2014
My best parenting and educating tips arose from a tragedy on a cold January night 36 years ago. Suddenly and irrevocably, I became a young widow. One moment we were planning parenthood; the next moment I was writing an obituary. Life rolled over.
When your sleeping partner and your dreams disappear together, your heart pumps hard to fill the void. You lie awake, alone, feeling each heartbeat as a testament to life, breathing each breath as holy act, a miracle.
Seasons of grief slowly yield to seasons of life. Seeds germinate, flowers bloom, even in unlikely places. I remarried, bore three children, watched them grow, became a grandmother.
But grief never completely disappears. Its silver lining––a deep appreciation of life––comforts survivors and colors their reactions, philosophies, and decisions, even decades later. My own appreciation of life, amplified recently by Stephanie Tolan’s May 7th essay No Less Than the Trees and the Stars and by young Karina Eide’s May 9th passing, inspire me to share deeply today.
Tip One: Apply Sideways
Even for families of young children, I highly recommend Chris Peterson’s brilliant MIT Admissions essay, Apply Sideway. Peterson understands the value of life and passions. He attempts to convince parents that children’s lives are for living, not postponing. He writes:
Applying sideways, as a mantra, means don’t do things because you think they will help you get into MIT (or Harvard, or CalTech, or anywhere). Instead, you should study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion, because then you will have spent high school doing all the rights things, and, as a complete side effect, you’ll be cast in the best light possible for competitive college admissions.
Peterson’s “study hard, be nice, and pursue your passion” advice is pure–untainted by mention of grades, test scores, or class rank. In regards to studying hard, he advises students: “Take tough classes. Interrogate your beliefs and presumptions. Pursue knowledge with dogged precision. Because it is better to be educated and intelligent than not.” Peterson wants students to enjoy life, not tick boxes.
Tip Two: Slow Down
My grandparents would barely recognize the hectic lives of many families today. How many children today spend long, lazy days outside making up their own games and enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of nature? How many children enjoy long, lazy hours moving their bodies in tune with their imaginations and letting their minds wander aimlessly? How many families, whether by reason of poverty or choice, spend more time surviving life than appreciating life?
Education philosopher John Dewey wrote in Art as Experience (1934): “Like the soil, mind is fertilized while it lies fallow, until a new burst of bloom ensues.” I love Dewey’s idea of allowing children’s minds to lie fallow, to wander, to imagine.
I also love the ideas expressed in Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming (2013) by Rebecca L. McMillan, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome L. Singer. This quote in particular speaks to me:
For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal reward, some immediate, some more distant. These reward include self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion [citations omitted].
In lieu of measuring children’s success primarily in terms of school-recognized criteria, why not measure children’s success in terms of their personal goals? Why not slow down the parts of life based on external criteria? Why not give our children more time to appreciate and plan their own lives?
Some children’s lives demand new paths. Benchmarks listed in baby books, state mandated curricula, and college degree programs simply do not apply to these children. For whatever reason––learning disability, intelligence level, personality, or any combination of those––some children’s lives improve when they are allowed to explore beyond traditional school paths.
I recommend Lisa Rivero’s book, The Homeschool Option: How to Decide When It’s Right for Your Family, not just for parents deciding whether to homeschool their children, but also for parents willing to learn more about the place of education in children’s lives. How well does a particular school setting meet a particular child’s educational, social, and emotional needs? What is actually happening in the child’s mind and heart during hours spent in the classroom?
All children need adults to appreciate, not denigrate, their differences. All children need recognition of their worth and dignity, no matter what life-affirming paths they choose to follow.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children plant a variety of seeds, both literal and metaphorical. Planting seeds in soil allows children to experience life in action with all their senses. Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the United Kingdom encourages schools to introduce children to gardening:
New research published by the RHS shows as well as helping children lead happier, healthier lives today, gardening helped them acquire the essential skills they need to fulfill their potential in a rapidly-changing world and make a positive contribution to society as a whole.
I recommend that parents, educators, and children check out the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and its impressive collection of online resources. By browsing those resources and lovingly planting a few seeds, children can enjoy the wonder of life.
In The Sense of Wonder (1965), Rachel Carson recounts experiencing nature with her young grandnephew on the rocky coast and in the forests and fields of Maine. Carson “reminds us that the child intuitively apprehends the truth that most adults have forgotten–that we are all part of the natural world.”¹
Carson believes that children need to feel “a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love.” That sense of wonder then creates a hunger for knowledge. She writes:
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
I recommend that parents and educators plant a wide variety of “thought seeds” in the minds of children who wish for knowledge. Children with active minds crave ideas, debates, answers. Their minds benefit from a well-balanced diet of thoughts from a variety of sources. Introduce children to popular as well as unpopular thoughts. To limit their minds is to limit their spirits.
Children naturally ask deep questions. I recommend that parents share their religious beliefs, their philosophies, and their stories. When children are sufficiently mature, I recommend that parents share their doubts and fears, and share how adults handle doubts and fears.
Why wait until the death of a family member or close friend to share the sorrow of death? Many children, even preschoolers, can benefit from stories that gently introduce them to the unknowns of death. Hoagies Gifted Education Page has an impressive list of resources on grief and mourning. Some of the resources are suitable even for very young children.
Tip Six: Examine Carefully
Encourage children to carefully examine all that life presents–textures, foods, music, plants, art, animals, arguments, authors, formulas, statistics. Careful observations lead to appreciation. Increased use of senses and reason leads to increased appreciation of life.
Children are born to carefully examine the world around them. When my son was two months old, child development experts taught him to distinguish sandpaper from velvet. He would move his tiny arm aside to avoid a touch of sandpaper, but stay still to enjoy a touch of velvet.
Far too often school curricula are unfairly squeezed into measurable formats demanded by legislators. Few of those formats honor the sensory-filled process of learning; most focus almost exclusively on content. I recommend that parents and educators choose school experiences that honor life, not inhibit life.
The more parents and educators give children time and opportunity to appreciate life, the better their lives will be. We owe children freedom to enjoy their senses, their curiosities, and their childhoods.
Notes and Credits
¹Lear, Linda. “Introduction.” Sense of Wonder. Rachel Carson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1998.
All the photographs are mine, taken in the Village of Thorpe, Surrey, United Kingdom, during the past year.
I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and elsewhere for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the May 2014 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.