BEING OPEN TO OUR CHILD’S WONDER
by Pam Laricchia
In a formal learning environment, curriculum dictates what the student is expected to learn. With unschooling, curiosity drives what the child chooses to learn. What’s the advantage? Free to follow their curiosity, the child is interested and engaged in whatever they are doing. When their mind is actively engaged, it is making observations, analyzing options, making connections, and figuring things out. In other words, learning.
Human beings are wired to be curious. From the youngest age, children are driven to explore the world around them and figure out how it works. As parents, we marvel at their single-minded determination: their obvious joy when they figure out how to communicate that they want something; the countless times they try to pick up that toy; the tenacity with which they practice standing up and taking those first few steps. We constantly encourage them as they learn so many new skills in their first year.
And then they can walk. They can get into cupboards and drawers. They can pick up things in one spot and drop them in another. They can reach new things and press new buttons. Life starts to get messier than just a dirty diaper. A child’s insatiable curiosity to engage with life doesn’t fade, unless the adults in the child’s life actively discourage it.
“No! That’s not a toy.”
“No! Don’t make a mess.”
“No! Don’t touch that.”
Apparently there’s a UCLA study that found the average toddler hears the word “no” 400-odd times a day. The average toddler is determined to explore! And the adults in their lives seem determined to stop them.
The message we’re really sending our children is to stop being curious. Ignore the things in the cupboard. Don’t wonder how far across the room the stuffed animal will fly. Forget about experimenting to see what will happen when things hit the ground after being dropped from table height.
We rationalize it, “I don’t have time to clean that up.” “They might hurt themselves.” Exploring and learning about the world takes a back seat to order and convention.
Our children pass through the toddler years, yet our justifications for shutting down their exploration continue.
“No, you can’t watch another episode, it’s bedtime.”
“No, don’t bring out that craft, you’ll make a mess.”
“No, you can’t play that game, I’ve heard it’s violent.”
Now, imagine instead, spending that time and energy nurturing their curiosity. How can we do that?
We can ensure cupboard contents are safe; find a room, or yard, where throwing things around is less risky; and gather all sorts of things that won’t break when dropped, from feathers to balls to wood blocks.
We can consider staying up later and sleeping in; find a better place to set up the craft; and check out the game ourselves, rather than relying on hearsay.
In the bigger picture, it’s really about being open to our child’s wonder.
Being open means not presuming where things will go. Almost the opposite of curriculum, where the next step is not only already defined but so is the next one, and the next. Being march-stepped down a pre-determined path leaves little room for wonder, for exploration, for experiencing the joy of an unexpected discovery.
Because their curiosity isn’t constantly being restrained, one of the refreshing traits of unschooling children is their enthusiasm for life. What might life with inquisitive and engaged children look like?
It can look like a huge Lego town, days or weeks spent building a contemporary community with stores and parks and homes and citizens, or a futuristic base with a control room and sleeping quarters and spaceships and aliens, or a medieval castle with an armory and a mill and dragons and townsfolk.
It can look like one child concentrating hard on playing a video game, while you read the guide out loud for tips and tricks, in between your turns of the board game you’re playing with your other children, everyone taking a moment to cheer when a boss is beat, or someone rolls a six, or lands at the bottom of the longest ladder.
It can look like a puppet show, put on from behind the couch, full of dialog and sound effects and giggles, with you recording it and everyone watching it immediately after. More giggling ensues.
It can look like a weekday afternoon at the practically deserted park, winding the tire swing up countless times, with its passengers laughing maniacally as you release it, eventually their boundless energy spurring them to explore the play structure and escape from pirates down the tunnel slide.
It can look like each child in their room, one reading and writing on an online forum, one setting up props for a photo shoot, one playing a computer game. Each wandering out once in a while to chat and grab a snack, you calling down the hallway to ask if anyone would like a cup of the tea you’re brewing.
In each of those little snapshots, can you picture the intense engagement with the activity? Envision what is happening beneath the surface? The learning is rampant. Because each child is following their own curiosity, they dive into their interests as deeply as they want—maybe the Lego town lasts a day, or a week, or a month; maybe they take 100 photos, then play with perspective and take 100 more, then rearrange the set and take another 200. Creativity thrives.
The days themselves can look very different, but the curiosity that drives them is the same: What do they love? What questions do they ask? What would they like to try? Who do they want to become? Unschooling is about helping them as they explore the questions that drive them. Exploring the world becomes something enjoyable in its own right. Lifelong learning becomes as natural as breathing.
Nurturing their curiosity is about being open to the possibilities, giving opportunities the potential to bloom.
If we decide on our boundaries ahead of time and hold on to them tightly, our lives might not be as magical as they could be. And it may be harder for our children to discover the joy and learning that being curious can bring them over their lifetime.
Be open to the ripples, the connections. Be curious.
You never know where it may lead.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine, Issue 18, Fall 2015.