When our children are younger, their energy levels are often breathtaking! They seem to go nonstop all day, jumping from activity to activity, leaving toys, games, crafts, and experiments in their wake. But as they get older, we start to glimpse quieter moments. Often just as focused, but less physical swirl, more internal contemplation.
These moments are so valuable.
They needn’t be sitting still, staring off into space. It can be a soothing, repetitive activity that doesn’t take a lot of concentration. In our house, sometimes it looked like hours on the swing listening to music. A long walk in the forest with a stick. An afternoon on the couch watching old episodes of a favourite TV show. Something relaxing and familiar, where their mind can wander. If you ask what they’re up to, maybe they say, “just thinking.” But they’re just as apt to say “nothing.”
And our society doesn’t look kindly upon those moments. They use words like lazy and apathetic.
Again, they’re seeing the surface, not the rich soil being cultivated underneath.
This time to be still is very important time. It’s where creative connections are born. This is a quote from Steve Jobs from a 1996 WIRED magazine interview:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that it’s rare. But it’s one of the many benefits of the unschooling lifestyle: our children have the time and space to think more about their experiences (not to mention more free time to have interesting experiences in the first place).
Through this time they also come to more deeply understand themselves and their world. Their minds wander around why they like what they like, why they got frustrated last week, why their friend reacted that way yesterday, why the majority of posters in their favourite forum have a certain opinion about that thing that happened. Their self-awareness grows.
Now, that all sounds good. And makes sense. But it can be hard to trust that it’s happening in our own lives when our child seems to be doing “nothing” for days on end.
How do we start to see the learning in this quiet space?
Because yes, this learning is less noticeable. But if we are patient and pay attention over time, we can see the connections they are making.
I expect that, over time, you’ll begin to notice a pattern. After a period of quieter time, they’ll say or do unexpected things. They’ll make a comment and you’ll be struck by the depth of understanding behind it. They’ll act or react in a new way, a way that seems a bit more mature than before. They’ll add something to a conversation and you’ll wonder where they learned it.
In my experience, these bursts of growth often follow a time of pulling inward, sometimes even outright cocooning.
Even my kids themselves have noticed the pattern. I remember a time, after Lissy’s first 365 project, when she put her camera down for about six months. When she eventually picked it up again, she was expecting to pick up her skills where she left off, but soon discovered that her eye, her sense of composition and style had continued to grow during that time. She realized that the “time off” she had spent decompressing—looking at photos in magazines, books, online—had given her mind the time and space to synthesize and connect many of the pieces of knowledge and experience she had gathered over the previous year. She discovered she had continued to learn and grow, even in the quiet time. I remember that conversation well.
But it takes work on our part to allow these moment to unfold. Patience during the quiet times to give them space. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean hands off. You can bring them food or drinks or comfy blankets. Hang out and watch with them for a while. Be available if they want to chat. About whatever. Even without words you can be supportive, by being around and receptive.
The other piece is attentive observation. Noticing what is going on in their lives before, during, and after these times helps you make the connections that show you the learning and growth that is happening. That is how you can really see the immense value of these moments. And build even more trust in unschooling.
This depth of understanding, especially during the teen years, helps you deeply connect with them, maintaining the strong relationships you’ve built. Eventually it becomes even more clear that your relationships—your trust and connection—are key to living and learning joyfully together. And it occurs to you that your relationships will outlast their childhood, their compulsory school years.
And your understanding and appreciation will grow even deeper as it hits you, again, that unschooling is about learning how to live in the world, by really living in the world.
It doesn’t end. It’s life.