One of the things I like about approaching parenting from an unschooling perspective is that there are so many places to play and learn other than the park. But the park has its appeal–climbing structures, swings, and slides!–and if I ask my daughter what she wants to do today, its “Par-k, Par-k?!?”
When I was pregnant, I went to the park in an urban, hip area with my nephew. I realized there were many rules at the park, especially a crowded one like this. I’m always looking for the rules in a new situation–deschooling is definitely something I’m working on–and this was overwhelming. For example, my nephew was small and timid compared to most of the kids teeming on the play structures and swings. He wanted to climb up to the slide and think about it for a while. I suppose I could have let him get pushed out of the way, but I felt compelled to help him get out of the way first, and help him find something his size to do. At the same time I was trying to follow the rules–wait in line for the crowded swings, keep him from getting hit by the swings, to talk or not to talk with other parents?
My daughter is more of a daredevil. She’s been climbing stairs by herself and going down slides since before she could walk. This results in me getting told by other parents that things are too big for her. Indeed, they are too big for her according to the insurance-mandated signs. But I’m right there with her, and there is something in her spirit that makes her unafraid to tackle physical obstacles. Of course, if there’s another kid on the stairs, she’ll freeze and say “No! No!”, not moving until they go their way.
Part of the reason she can do this is because I stay right with her, and hardly ever take my eyes off of her to make sure she’s safe. I don’t know if this is a reason or result of her daredevil climbs, but either way it’s our dynamic at the park. It is at least partially a result of verbal disciplining I’ve had from other parents; being right there with her keeps the comments on what she should and shouldn’t be doing at bay.
My husband takes an opposite approach, and at first I thought this was “better” unschooling. He’ll bring a book to the park, something I can’t imagine. He tells me he’s never been scolded by other parents; I tell him this is because he’s a dad and he automatically gets credit just for showing up, whereas mothers must live up to several contradictory ideals at once. Too attentive, not attentive enough. Whatever the criteria, mothers are open to judgment.
Many of my friends take this approach also. They make friends with other moms who sit on the bench, and I can relate. Kids do sometimes need to figure out their own rules, be independent, and understand their own limits. Parents also might be pouring out energy in other places: reading stories and doing housework and doing paid work. The park is a place to once in a while get a chance to read, talk on the phone, or just be in your own head for a few minutes. The park can be all of these things, but when I focus on how unschooling will work for my daughter it is primarily a place to learn, and for me to learn about her interests and what she can or cannot do.
Whatever the rules are, I like the idea of breaking them with a safety net. And with a toddler at the park, that safety net is me. As an undergraduate I went to a college where you could take upper division courses from the start, with the safety net of opting for pass/fail grades up until the end of the course. For the few classes I took early, this allowed me to explore and learn for learning’s sake, without the weeding and multiple-choice-based testing of lower division. It allowed me to play with the core questions of a discipline, rather than memorizing its formal structure and key terms first. With prep on my own, I could take these without asking the instructor to do extra work preparing me. I believe in reaching however far your curiosity takes you, and that if you’re curious you’ll find a way to do it. I believe that I help my daughter do this by standing under her while she climbs on a ladder with bars 1.5′ apart, when she’s only about 2′ tall. Her curiosity is something I want to fuel, even if another toddler wants to follow her up the ladder and forces her dad to get up from the bench to help her.