Setting the Educational Bar
It’s everywhere we turn. The idea that certain toys are educational, certain experiences are educational, particular places are educational. I have items in my home that supposedly hold more value than others because they have been branded as ‘educational’. They have lists on the side of them that outline the skills that can be developed when you play this game. They are divided up into categories such as literacy, numeracy, social skills, fine motor skills, cognitive development and more. I own a science kit that has been approved by the Science Museum, a telescope sponsored by an Astronomy Society, jigsaw puzzles that improve my spatial awareness, and games that teach shapes and colours in a fun and exciting way.
When marketing to parents the aim is always to highlight the items educational value. Toys, books, games, places, clubs, events, groups, and classes. Children must be learning something and it must be made explicit. Groups are marketed on the skills and knowledge that will be gained under their instruction. Classes are organised with this in mind, taught skills, routinely practiced, and predominantly evaluated through levels, performances, certificates, and competitions. It implies that goods not marked or marketed this way are therefore not educational. No one joins clubs for fun anymore, certainly not children. It’s all about what they could learn.
Prescribed Learning and Curriculums
But what if that box didn’t have the word ‘Educational’ on it? Or that club was purely for fun? Can something be educational if no-one in authority has given it a seal of approval or told you how to use it to learn things? If we remove the endorsement of the Science Museum from the science kit, can we still use it? Let’s take a closer look:
The kit in question consists of: safety googles, beakers with lids, test tubes with stoppers, bottle brush, stirrer, pipette, straws, balloons, test tube safety key, elastic bands, funnels, test tube rack, spatula, filter paper, tweezers, bubble blowing tool, electrical components, chemical substances, and an instruction manual outlining 180 “great experiments.” (we’ll get to those in a minute)
(photo Alex Kondratiev via Unsplash)
Actually, we won’t, we’ll get to those now. The first “great experiment” in the book is pouring water from one beaker to another, the next is then doing the same but with different sized beakers. It’s a fantastic place for us to start our discussion because its simplicity demonstrates that activities don’t have to be ground breaking for our children to be learning something; that we don’t have to artificially set up learning opportunities for our children. Children happily pour water from one thing to another in the bath/ paddling pool/ sink without any instruction; I have witnessed this myself with my own four children as well as with countless others in my ten-year teaching career.
Having the science museums seal of approval has not changed the activity, only our perception of the activity. It also changes who is controlling the activity. When we use the kit, follow the instructions and listen to the experts, we are guiding our young people through an approved activity.
I can attest to the fact that when you sit children down and require them to do this, perhaps with a worksheet next to them for results to be recorded on, it sucks the joy out the activity. Within the home environment, this has an impact on the atmosphere, relational tensions and resentment often arise, and what has been missed is an opportunity to do things better. To join in with our children on their terms, when they initiate pouring liquid between various vessels, in a relaxed way, that naturally arises through their play. Our children are still learning these same skills, but doing it in a way that suits them, at a time that suits them, and for as long as suits them.
(photo: Andrew Seaman via UnSplash)
Organic Learning, and Self Directed Enquiry
My children live entire days that are unapproved educationally. No official anywhere has recommended their activities or set out their learning. Everything that they have chose to do has been because they wanted to, it is fun, they enjoy what they are doing. Does that mean that they didn’t learn anything? Let’s take a closer look:
We headed out today because my 14 year old (we call him Bean) had a Dungeons and Dragons campaign booked. I don’t know of anywhere that markets D and D as educational but I could most definitely write you an entire essay on the enormous amount of learning that takes place within this role play game. It so happens that I don’t stay for this session, so that analysis will have to wait. I take my 6 year old (Pippin) and 9 year old (Plum) to the seafront, specifically we are heading to the arcade. The arcade? Yes, I hear you. Surely that is only for fun, there is no learning there, that is a break in your day from serious learning. No, my friends. You heard me correctly. We went to the arcade and we learnt something whilst we were there.
Before we got there though, we talked about road systems and road layouts, mostly grid formations and how they work. We also travelled along a freshly laid dual carriageway and recalled some of the information that we know about road building from our trips to a local working museum. We discussed fears throughout our day as Pippin was unsure of the big wheel that we passed on the seafront (several times) and as we walked on a path a little away from it, Plum independently walked past it. We read the instructions together on the parking machine and I showed them how to use the debit card as a method of payment.
On the way to the arcade we passed by three art exhibitions. The first was a painting exhibition of close up wildlife. We discussed our favourites and how detailed they each were. The second was a photography exhibition depicting people enjoying themselves on the beach and we came up with ideas for our own photos and what we would be doing in them. The third was a studio, where we went in and met one of the artists. The studio was jointly owned by five artists including furniture renovation, glass work, needlework, and painting. Plum was fascinated by the space and everything in it and chatted with the lady about her plans to open an art café.
(Photo: Gary Stearman via UnSplash)
Further along the pavement we passed a Town Crier. Neither Plum or Pippin had seen one before so we talked at length about the costume, bell, and role that they had.
Finally we reached the arcade. We only have money for the 2p slots today. We identified all the games that we could play, recognising and matching coins, reading signs and spending time watching how the machines work. We divided up our money equally and worked out how we were going to carry our own coins, and when we won, we sat and counted how much there was.
We didn’t do any of this because it was on a plan for the day, or I had worked in an educational angle. We did it as part of the organic learning process. We asked questions, and then we answered them. We gave something a try, and then we tried a different technique, or simply tried again. We pondered, and wondered, and marvelled together. And maybe those wonderings will spark an activity tomorrow, maybe they will be filed somewhere for another time, or maybe they will be submerged entirely.
Trusting the Unique Path of Discovery
It’s true that I can’t map out in advance what I plan for my children to learn, or how they will learn it. We don’t set out to do things because they are educational. We set out to do things because they interest us and we enjoy them. I don’t select and buy toys/ apps/ games/ kits because they are educational but because we are interested in what’s inside. We don’t disregard activities because no one has pre approved them or set out a plan/ schedule/ curriculum. Everything we do, we do because we want to, because we choose to, because it ignites a flame, because it has us curious. We are happy being, in this moment, doing what we are doing. That is unschooling. It is not what we do, but why we do it, and how we do it. We are learning all the time. Life offers us opportunities to learn everywhere and our innate curiosity sets us on a path of discovery. Everything is approved educational.