Saturday, January 28, 2012

Natural Learning - FAQs 1

At home, she gets very bored with nothing to do. I don’t know how to keep her sufficiently engaged.

Quite obviously! If we sow seeds on a piece of land where the fertile top soil has been completely eroded, we cannot expect to sit back and expect 'natural farming' to happen. Similarly, we cannot expect ‘natural learning’ to happen while living in nuclear families and unnatural apartment environments, which offer very little that is meaningful for our children to draw inspiration and learn from. If you think about it, this is the first time in known human history that humans are living in pairs boxed up in concrete houses, without an apparent need to know their neighbours even!

How about entertainment? Of course we are not talking about mindless TV programs. How about educational cartoons, books, the discovery channel, etc.?

What would happen if we start correcting the problem of infertile soil by feeding the plants with chemical fertilizer? The soil’s fertility will reduce even further. The plants too will get bloated with salts and water, and become more prone to disease and pest attack. (Applying organic fertilizer is definitely better than this, but again unsustainable and expensive if bought from outside the farm.)

In the same way, to kill our children’s boredom, we have invented entertainment of different kinds. Like junk food cannot satisfy the nutritional needs of the body, entertainment cannot satisfy the learning needs of the mind. But both junk food and entertainment (like chemical fertilizer) are addictive by nature, producing sick and obese people, who are prone to physical and psychological diseases and disorders. 

Yes, this includes even educational entertainment or ‘edutainment’ as it is called these days. Irrespective of the content of the cartoons, books or other TV programs, the mind is passively processing images and information given to it, without any kind of active participation. That is the last thing that the mind is seeking. It craves for real contexts, real experiences and sensorial interactive learning, which is quite the opposite of what even edutainment can provide. Carefully chosen educational programs can be used sparingly to supplement real learning. But without exception, it can never be a substitute for natural learning.

Certain toys like building blocks are definitely much better. But even they come next only to ordinary articles of daily use and ordinary materials like containers, sheets, stones, twigs, etc. that they learn to use creatively. Books may be good for older children. It is best to keep books and images away from young children and help them experience everything with their five senses. Even stories that are told orally rather than shown with pictures are better for the child to develop her imagination.

A more sensible approach with plants, then, is to build the soil with organic matter, which will make it come alive with microorganisms, insects, reptiles and eventually birds. Soon a rich and thriving ecosystem will evolve where the plants can then live and grow naturally. Likewise, in the case of children, we need to create vibrant and diverse ecosystems, which will enable natural learning.

How do we go about creating these ‘vibrant and diverse’ ecosystems living in the cities?  

One thing is to dream up ideal living and learning environments for our children and for ourselves, which will amount to dreaming up another world. This is an important task in our hands, but we’ll save this for later. Fortunately, unlike plants, we are mobile. So, creating ‘natural learning’ environments for children can be achieved with some amount of mobility and traveling to many existing spaces. But even within our own homes, there are so many possibilities and opportunities for natural learning that we could pay more attention to. Yes, without TVs, computers and toys. Let's start with those!

What kinds of spaces and activities are you talking about, inside and outside home?

I am not yet ready to start making a list of spaces and activities for our children at home and outside. I will, in a bit. But there is a more important and challenging step to be followed even before that. And that is to ‘step back’. My teacher Fukuoka called it ‘Do-nothing’. ‘Stop doing.’  

Stop doing what?
Stop coming in the way of life! Stop the voice in our heads that does that!! Something that happened yesterday will help me explain this.

Isha carefully walked up to one corner of our living room and sat down on the floor. This was a relatively unswept area of the room and had a few cob-webs too. The voice in my head immediately said 'Isha, don't go sit in that corner. It is dirty. Come here!' with a disgusted look on my face. Thankfully, I caught the voice before the words were uttered and asked Isha 'What are you doing sitting in that corner?' genuinely interested in knowing what it was that took her there! Isha said, 'Amma, look at this spider!' with an excitement that was really contagious. I started looking with fascination at this otherwise ordinary everyday creature! The shared experience was something special. I gently left Isha alone with her spider and got on with my work. She spent a good half-hour watching it and following it wherever it went. Of course, her hair had to be cleaned and her clothes changed for they were full of dust and cobwebs. But hey, it was well worth it! :)

(You can read another related story about getting wet in the rain here!)

The moment children are born, we see that they have already learnt to do so many things. Like breathing, for instance. And they continue to learn so many things everyday. They shake their arms and legs, they learn to turn over, to sit, to crawl, to stand up, to walk, etc. All of this learning is completely biologically driven.

We never tell babies “Ok, now shake your legs and arms.” We know they won’t unless they decide to. We never tell them “Now, don’t shake your arms and legs! Be still.” We just let them be. Have you noticed that babies can laugh more joyfully and effortlessly, (even when compared to a three-year old) because they are allowed to ‘just be’? Now, might there be a connection between their sense of freedom, their joy and their learning?

Children are effortlessly ‘learning naturally’, just like they are breathing. But as they grow older, when they are ‘just being’ curious, expressive, participatory, exploratory, we thwart their freedom - life and learning - with the one word ‘No!’ that we repeat so many times every day in so many different ways. We need to stop that!

I want to share two more stories here.

Sometime last month, I was waiting with Isha for a doctor's appointment (for my sister's leg fracture). The wait was in an outdoor garden. An old lady had come with her grandson. He picked up an interesting looking pod that had fallen on the ground and began to examine it. The grandmother immediately shouted at him and said 'Chee, Chee! Drop that now! It's dirty.' A few seconds later, Isha went and picked it up and the lady told Isha the same thing. I stepped in and told her 'It's really okay for her to keep it and play with it. It is just soil, after all!' The lady did back off on hearing that. A few moments later, the boy hesitantly picked up another pod from the soil and saw that the grandmother didn't say anything this time. After a few moments, the old lady asked her grandson 'Can you give it to me for a second? I'd like to see what it is!' with a childlike curiosity and a smile on her face! 

It is quite something to watch what happens when someone gives us (young and old) the license to be curious and explore. Everybody is waiting to be given the license to be a child, and 'learn naturally'. :) This is what I mean by 'the flow of life'.

This morning, Manish, Isha's 6 year old friend and Isha were playing at home. A few pieces of ice that had been removed from the freezer were kept in a large container. Isha went to it and picked it up in her hands. Manish went to Isha and said in a big-brotherly tone "Isha, drop it. Don't touch it. It's not good for you." Isha refused to listen to him. I told Manish, 'It's ok for her to play with it. Nothing will happen.' In a few seconds, Manish started playing with the ice saying 'Isha, jolly-a irukku ille? (Isn't this a lot of fun?)' and inventing cute ice-games between each other. They both spent about five to ten minutes with the ice and had had a new experience with it. Every new experience of a fresh and free mind is learning. With our limited minds, we adults may not be able to understand and measure these 'learnings', however hard we try to.

Yes, as the first step, even before we start thinking about‘what we should be doing to enable natural learning’, we need to understand ‘what we should stop doing to allow natural learning’.


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Radhika said...

Love the Natural farming metaphor. Go Sangee!

Sangeetha Sriram said...

Thanks Radhika. Being into 'natural farming' myself, I can't not talk about plants when I talk about children. In the previous post 'Vivekananda on Education', you can read a quote by him on this as well. And Fukuoka himself has talked a lot about children, unschooling and natural learning.

Shama Kamat said...

Hey Sangeetha its so true wish I could have learned all these things when my son was a kid. He is 18 now and yes I am learning to stop myself from saying NO at this late age...but I agree its so much more fun when you let them be curious the interaction is more lively :).

Devi Yogha said...

Hi Sangeetha, ur blog is too good. I need a help from you. I am a mother of 2 girls :5 n 1 yr old. I am working for an IT company n caught up in pressurized project. I have a full time baby sitter at home for past 4 yrs. My mil is also staying with us. Coming to my problem, my daughters esp elder one does not ever listen to my words, nor obeys me. She does like me a lot and play a lot with me, but never takes my words seriously. But she obeys her father well. I get angry bcoz of her this behaviour n hit her at times. (after saying softly n pleading her ). Plz tell me some ways to make her take my words seriously n obey my words. Thank you. Devi