By Jennifer De La Haye
“The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin ‘educere’= e (out of) + ducere (to draw). Education is not just about putting information in. We have forgotten that it, in fact, begins in the child’s heart.” -Vince Gowmon
Wonderful things happen when educators employ child-led learning in their classrooms. My own children are not quite school age; Claire is 4, so my personal experience pertains to preschool. While searching for options, I visited a preschool where the teachers take cues from their students and help them navigate their interests, explore their creativity, and critically think about their ideas. One class was particularly interested in writing and storytelling, so the students, ages 2 to 6, contributed to a short story they worked on daily. Each child had a journal, and even though many of them couldn’t write yet, the teachers were of the mindset that all markings are important. Another class at the same school was interested in “how to get wood to stick together,” and after working through a couple hypotheses – tape and glue – one child returned to school after a weekend with a new idea. He informed the class that as his family was driving, he saw houses being built, and his parents told him they used nails to get the wood to stick. In this particular classroom, the teacher created a station with a framed sign that read, “Julian’s theory on how to get wood to stick together.” The station was equipped with wood, hammers, and nails, and even the two-year-old students participated in the project. This preschool had a two-year waitlist.
I also visited a preschool where the teachers insisted that each child participate in a craft project, whether or not they wanted to. The crafts were primarily completed by the teachers, and I watched them coax children (who were immersed in imaginative play) into participation. The crafts felt forced – they seemed to function as keepsakes for parents rather than as tools to help students unfold. I’m sure many of you have experienced frustration with teachers and school systems that lacked the training and resources to help your children move beyond the standard subject material.
During the COVID quarantine, I somehow lost sight of my own educational philosophy for a moment. The internet has been brimming with all the creative things everyone is doing with their kids, and I have felt paralyzed and inadequate through it all. When my daughter’s preschool started sending home packets of worksheets and day-to-day ideas for activities, I clutched those scraps of paper and marched straight to the kitchen table with my child. Finally, I had found the structure I needed to conquer at-home preschool and live up to, well, everyone on the internet. Claire would emerge from her quarantine chrysalis as a polished and refined, well-educated preschool butterfly. I posted the calendar on the wall and announced that we would mark off each activity with a special sticker, and we sat down to conquer preschool. I pulled a worksheet out of the manila envelope. It was packed with bunnies and eggs and flowers and other spring-type shapes, and its instructions said to find six bunnies, nine eggs, eight flowers, and so on. I didn’t feel any measure of zen looking at it, and Claire didn’t hesitate before scribbling frantically while I tried to block her pencil, shouting, “NO! We have to find six bunnies!” She also refused to rhyme three words with “bee” or find four objects in the house shaped like rectangles. She wouldn’t count to 20 three times, either.
I despaired. My Instagram feed was brimming with watercolors of irises and stained-glass mandalas, and I couldn’t even get my kid to rhyme with “bee.”
As I bemoaned my lack of creativity and inability to create structured learning during a phone call with a friend, she pointed out that Claire doesn’t like activities that are presented to her in a structured way. She might run around the house, singing an original song about unicorns, but the moment you tell her to sit down and rhyme with “horn,” she will respond by blowing raspberries and falling off her chair. The activities her preschool sent were probably fun for some of her classmates, but they didn’t work for Claire’s style of learning. I only wanted to check them off my list because of my own insecurity.
I want to help Claire dive deeper into her interests, especially now that I’ve scrapped the picture searches and worksheets. In order to move forward, I had to experience an important epiphany: by putting pressure on myself to approach at-home learning with perfectionism, I subjected Claire to undue pressure and perfectionism. We made a few shifts. Instead of following the preschool calendar, we created a new calendar one week – she picked a subject she wanted to learn about and drew a picture of that subject for each day of the week. One day, we learned about flowers and embarked on a nature walk to find flowers to examine. The next day, we learned about mermaids, which led to many discussions about ocean creatures and life under the sea.
Child-led learning is especially important for gifted kids, whose basic education should include the type of acceleration that nurtures their particular gifts and interests. This is why Academy is so important – it allows gifted children to go as deep as they want into dynamic subjects that excite them. It places them among experts who encourage their excitement for a subject while helping them cultivate a mastery of it. Academy students have the space to think deeply about their subjects and discuss ideas with their fellow students and teachers. I have been inspired and impressed by my colleagues, who have transformed Academy into an engaging distance-learning platform. They have adapted quickly and efficiently to the needs of our community. Academy has been described as a “lifeline” for some IEA families, and I imagine that it is even more so now, as families strive to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of their children while balancing their own work.
I hope that IEA’s year-round resources – Academy, LABS, Gifted Support Groups – are a source of support for you right now. Parents, please have grace for yourselves. We are all doing our best.
“To take children seriously is to value them for who they are right now rather than adults-in-the-making.” -Alfie Kohn