My daughter and husband are out in the forest, going on a “hike” which these days means talking with her about all the cool sticks and rocks and leaves she finds for about a half mile. I just received a text that she was pretending to be Beaver Boy (from Peep and the Big Wide World) and chop down all the trees, saying “nyah nyah nyah nyah,” which she finds hilarious. This warms my heart for multiple reasons, number one because I’m continually enchanted by her ability to create imaginary worlds and act in them. Number two because she attaches herself to a particular character type in many of her shows: goofy masculine sidekicks (Beaver Boy, T-bone in Clifford, Tiger in Kipper), something that I find intriguing and I wonder where it will lead. But of course, this is the opposite of the kind of zen, tree-sitting, nature appreciation that I envision for myself and for her. I’ve been seeking out nature-education activities, but in these moments I have to wonder how much those are for me, not for her. And whether, if they are mostly for me, they are worth driving significant distances to reach. She loves being outside in nature, and I think that’s a near-universal truth for children, but I wonder if it would really help her blossom to be instructed about nature. As she gets more into her twos, and gets goofier and goofier, delighting in entertaining us and making all sorts of faces and accents and sounds, I wonder if clown-school might be more her style. Not that, of course, she needs school at all, but I am beginning to feel the pressure, and the usefulness, of having some regularly-scheduled activity with the same large-ish group of kids so that she can negotiate different relationships and find good friends.
Trusting my daughter, and what kinds of learning she finds fun, often takes me somewhere very different then I’ve planned. We went to the library last week and I was determined to find some good Halloween book to introduce the concept of Halloween, so she could enjoy dressing up when the time comes. I picked out two Halloween books; she let me read one of them one time, and refused them entirely after that. Instead, she fell in love with Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse! and Chick and Chickie Play All Day. Being a logical adult, with the first I just shook my head, thinking, “It’s the wrong time.” But she loves mouse. Not only that, but if I’m so worried about her longterm process of making good friends, what better model could there be? Mouse makes valentines that reflect his friends’ unique qualities, and in the end they all bring him cookies.
The second book I’m more ambivalent about, but it continues to exemplify this process of trusting her to learn. In the second half of Chick and Chickie, they emotionally torment a letter A, getting it to say all manner of “Ah” sounds. Like several children’s tv shows (such as Peg and Cat, where they count 100 chickens on a farm by tossing them into too-small cages, launching them in rockets, and basically objectifying them in any way possible), this book walks a thin line between humanizing and objectifying, using the facial expressions and legs and arms drawn on the letter A to make learning interesting while using fear, intimidation, and bribery to get the letter A to do what it is supposed to do, make “Ah” sounds. But she loves that book, and so far our discussion of objectification involves me asking, “does the letter A look scared?” Still, what she loves more about the book is the beginning, when Chick and Chickie each make masks that are so frightening they scare each other. Then they take the masks off and laugh, and my daughter laughs and laughs. And when she does, I realize she is learning about dressing up for Halloween, more than any pedantic book explaining Halloween could ever teach her. Because of course she’ll need to know not only what her own costume does, but also what all those monster masks on the street mean too.
So as I fret about her social skills, exposure to the outdoors, and understanding of holidays everyone will expect her to participate in, my daughter finds the materials and the play and the learning and the knowledge that she needs. And I write about it, because as a parent exploring unschooling, I’m looking back to watch how I step along and sometimes step over this line between providing a rich environment and instructing.