Michele Minehart

words & yoga

Category: education (page 1 of 2)

In defense of the constant questions

A few weeks ago, I lamented on Facebook:

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My oldest seems to be particularly inclined to ask about anything and everything. Honestly, it can be exhausting, and I do have limits. However, I’m trying to maintain an openness to their curiosity.

A while back, I read that in a particular Jewish culture, mothers (and fathers) would drop off their children to Hebrew School and encourage them, not with parting words of “behave!” or “eat your lunch!” or even “have fun!” but rather they told the kids, “ask good questions.”

The point of the article which shared this tradition directed me to the benefits of raising children with a faith that is open to the questions, as opposed to a more closed system that much of contemporary Christianity tends to portray. I liked the approach, and as I often do, adopted it as one of my own. I encourage the kids to ask questions frequently and impose my Jesus-like quality of answering a question with a question to a frustrating degree.

Beyond the impact on a person’s belief system – one that is developed over time, nurtured with curiosity, comfortable with a few unknowns, rather than simply a product of indoctrination – I believe curiosity to be immensely important in the way we engage with the world. I write because I’m curious. I read because I’m insatiably curious. I spend time on Facebook because I’m curious. I’m curious to the point of nosy (which leads to a few boundary issues, but my truest friends are so very accepting. And forgiving.)

If I were to try to limit my hopes and dreams for my children to only 5, I believe “being curious about the world” would make the list. Please, don’t ask me to list the other 4, this a challenge I don’t wish upon myself. (But, now I am curious as to how I would answer.)

Now I’m backed by scientific research. Mind/shift just posted on their NPR site another article about the effects of curiosity on learning:

“There’s this basic circuit in the brain that energizes people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding,” Ranganath explains. This circuit lights up when we get money, or candy. It also lights up when we’re curious.

When the circuit is activated, our brains release a chemical called dopamine which gives us a high. “The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning.”

Indeed, when the researchers later tested participants on what they learned, those who were more curious were more likely to remember the right answers.

So, while I might be bald by the time the youngest graduates from pulling my hair out at the incessant questions, I will be proud. Those meanderings will lead to further pursuits, I believe. When the oldest wants to know why we “can’t build houses out of glass” it might lead to a lifetime of building or engineering or figuring out which materials will withstand life on Mars. Or when he wants to know how many bones are in the human body or why we can’t tie cords around our feet at night, it could lead to a future in medicine or curing the world of arthritis.

My children, ask away. Keep asking. When you get “I don’t know” keep asking around the issue.

And when mama hides in a dark room, just ask Siri.

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Currently Changing My Life: Overfield

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It’s so hard to live your values.

I want my kids to become independent and brave, willing to do what the herd may not consider. This means allowing (and even modeling) a tendency to question. Oh, the questions. If someone came up with a tax policy to compensate those who stay home with small children, a per-question rate needs to be involved. But this is how children learn, by asking  how things work, why something would react in such a way and wondering what would happen if...

I even want my children to (respectfully) question authority and systems of power in place. However, this means allowing them to question my own authority and even my intentions when I set parameters for behavior in our home. On more than one occasion, I’ve chatted with my friend Katie about these challenges, lamenting, “it’s so hard to live your values!

So when I see someone living their values, even when it’s hard, I’m inspired. I believe, again, it’s actually possible to live your ideals. I think to myself, “See! I can do it!”

Enter: The Overfield School. This is not a place where I drop my children off for a few hours and outsource my educational and parenting responsibilities. They won’t send my kids through an assembly line that magically transforms them to match an ideal prototype. That’s not what they do and that’s not what I need. Instead, the people of the Overfield community walk alongside our family in helping to develop our children into thoughtful, strong, brave and kind little humans.

Last year, and many years prior, Overfield had one of the best Fall Festival events around. Hay rides, pumpkins, face painting, games, pony rides and bounce houses. It was an all-out extravaganza which provided a fun afternoon and the lucrative raffle served as a primary source of funds for the school.

Yet the work required to host such an event required parents to burn candles at all ends. We had a few key families that put hours equivalent to a part-time (or full time!) job into the event and this year they simply could not take it on again. So, guess what Overfield leadership decided to do?

They decided to live their values.

How we spend our time and the way we marshall our energies are Reggio concepts central to the philosophy. As an organization, we believe in the power of play, the opportunity for exploration and that simple things make elaborate teachers. Our fall festival, while buckets of fun for many, contained an element of busyness and entertainment which simply isn’t a part of the Overfield DNA.

So they changed it.

This Saturday, Overfield families past and present are inviting the community to join us on the hill for an evening of what we do best: art in the meadow, songs around the campfire and hikes around the woods. It’s simple, it’s scaled-back and it’s Overfield. It’s an act of making space to savor the simple joys of childhood – as a family and as a group of families. Families will come to enjoy the evening together, sharing small shifts of work rather than being pulled into long commitments to make the festival happen. The sense of excitement around the campus for the event is electric, not exhausted. It feeds us rather than draining us.

Yes, Overfiled will have to make up the fundraising portion of the night in another way. From my view, leadership taking these steps of faith gives me courage to do the same. Most families that spend money on preschool have to rearrange the budget to do so, but we do it because we believe it’s worth it. We value it, so we’re trying to live like we do. No one promised it’s easy to live our values, only that it’s good. And when leadership puts its money where its mouth is, I’ll fall in line, wave a flag and become a cheerleader for the cause. These are the places that make me a better mom because they’re the places that teach my kids to be brave and make hard, but good, decisions, based on what we believe and not just what works or is easiest.

Often people wonder why we put our limited funds into something like preschool. But in the past few years, Overfield is much more than where my kids learn their letters. It’s a community of people who value certain things – like critical thinking, cooperative engagement and a lifelong love of learning – and we’re trying to instill them into our children the best we can. The communal aspect can’t be understated: when we do it together, and when we live our values as an organization, our families return home empowered to do the same.

In many ways, these preschool years have probably taught me the most of any of my educational experiences.

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The Play Behind Closed Doors

A frustrating morning this week rendered my children to a “different room, anywhere other than right beside Mr. M,” who was being suffocated by sibling presence. Soon I heard them skitter upstairs. Then silence. A worrisome silence.

I finished my task and opted to sort laundry on my bed so I could spy prevent disaster. What I found changed the pace of the morning from monstrous to magical. They had shut the bedroom door. They shut me out. closed door

When they came out, unknowing of my presence, they donned bath towels as raincoats, pushing a stroller to take Lady C “to a friend’s house.” Then they dropped Miss M off at “school.” When I peeked into H Boy’s room, they had made a bed on the floor with the girls’ blankets and he had been “reading” to them before bed.

Soon they returned “home.” The next time they emerged, Miss M had a baby stuffed under her dress. “Bye grandma and papa, we’re going to the hospital!” I hear them say. Apparently Lady C was stuck at home with the grandparents because I heard H & M go into another room and then an uproar of laughter: “I pooped it out!” I hear. And then there was a baby. (So. That’s how it happens.)

I kept folding, trying to remain invisible because the truth of the situation rose to the top: while I should be intentional about playing and interacting with my kids at home (and I’m trying to do a better job of this), in their time without me my kids become more imaginative and cooperative. They stick with their play for much longer spans of time when I’m not involved. They try new things, find creative props and tell their stories of life using lenses I simply don’t know how to operate.

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This is such a good thing.

I half-jokingly say that the best thing I could offer my kids in life is siblings. On this morning, it was simply a true statement.  At one point I told myself, “this is the childhood I dreamed for my children. Right here.” Because it is. When I look back at my early years, I see my sister and I lining the staircase with stuffed animals to play school and getting out our Barbies to live in their piano home with my dad’s basketball trophies serving as doors, beds and furniture. We ventured outside on rusty grain augers and “shredded” snow in the winter. We climbed a dirt hill where one of our cats hid her kittens and affectionately and appropriately called it Kitty Peak. Our industrial-sized gas tanks became horses named Silver and Goldie (which, ironically, were both silver).

Play, play, play, my children. Go. Create. Do. Find the ordinary and discover it with new ideas, see it with imagination goggles.

They rarely do this in my presence, just as my parents were mostly absent from my own adventurous memories (though I can look back to plenty of examples of quality time filled with love and play). I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the responsibilities we carry as adults and our inability to set that down at the door. We’re always thinking of the pick up involved after or the unlikelihood that this could actually work. We feel the need to correct and make everything into a teachable moment. I wonder if sometimes our teaching results in less learning than these episodes of creativity the kids embark upon by themselves.

I just read a fascinating article on children’s learning styles around the world and literacy, but what jumped out at me was the author mentioning how often kids want to learn in private: “When I entered the room they looked up like kids who were caught doing something illicit. This is another thing you learn about kids when they don’t go to school. They don’t want to be watched all the time. They don’t want to be scrutinized and measured. They often don’t even want to be praised or encouraged. They have a remarkable sense of dignity and autonomy, and they defend it fiercely. They want their learning to be their own.” 

So while JJ and I converse about my participation and engagement with our kids (as opposed to work, which I am prone), I agree. Treasure these days with them, sit at the table and make a mess.

And yet.

Send them to the basement. Direct them upstairs. Shut the door. See what magic they come up with on their own.

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