Monday, March 5, 2012

Childhood's nest of gladness

The little warrior has done it again. Caused a little storm in our little teacup of existence, and when things settled down I found myself with changed perceptions and an altered world-view, soaring fearless and free from the shackles of convention.

I'd always had misgivings about turning him over to the tender mercies of the mainstream education system, but the Inner Compliant Student in me fondly hoped that things had changed now from when my generation went to school, and it mightn't be so bad after all. After changing three schools I was forced to conclude that nothing has changed - if anything, the accelerated pace of today's world might have made it worse. As John Taylor Gatto pungently remarks, "The old system where every child was locked away and set into nonstop, daily cut throat competition with every other child for silly prizes called grades is broken beyond repair. If it could be fixed it could have been fixed by now. Good riddance."

Things seemed to be going well at his latest school until they decided that he was ready to learn to write when he turned four. In the beginning, writing was a novelty - it was exciting to have homework just like the older kids. But it quickly turned into a regimental drilling of being made to practice pages and pages of cursive alphabets and numbers - complete with coercion, punishment and scolding if he didn't co-operate or do his homework. This certainly didn't go down well with the little warrior, spirited as he is, and he fought them every step of the way. He came home with clouded brow and sad eyes and threw tantrums out of the blue to release the stress. He who had considered the whole world and all the people in it his own started to look cowed and shied away when people he didn't know addressed him. He no longer had perfect confidence in his world.

Was I sending him to school to have his love for learning snuffed out and his whole creative being reduced to producing mechanistic output according to adult agendas? Could any true learning happen without a foundation of love and respect? The other parents seemed to think this par for the course and a necessary part of early schooling to prepare them for the "real world". Well, not this mama!

The need for movement, interaction with other children, free play, curiosity and experimentation are developmental nature-driven imperatives for which the child is routinely penalized in school. He is made to sit in one place, forbidden to talk or interact with other children, allowed only structured monitored "play" in the form of songs with actions and other adult-driven activities, subjected to a strict disciplinary atmosphere where scolding and shaming are common AND a manic cramming of reading and writing and math down his throat as fast and furious as possible. What a sacrilege on early childhood!

Joseph Chilton Pearce notes, "From all standpoints we find that this period, from ages four to seven, is designed for that one purpose to which the child is compulsively driven - play. Over the past fifty years, however, this is the age at which we have insisted on putting the child into a school desk, restricting his movement (and we know learning takes place only through movement at this age), and forcing that dreamer into into abstract pursuits suitable to pre-adolescence at best. Combined with the effects of hospital delivery, daycare, television, the collapse of family, and so on, the collapse of childhood itself has been accelarating."

He says further, "Children are driven by millions of years of genetic encoding to follow intuitively their only road to survival and intelligence - which is play." The discoveries of modern neuroscience are just starting to bear up this truth.

My vague memories of early childhood seem to recall that period as a state of homogenous grace. Innocent precious beingness. Dreamy wonder.

"Without, the frost, the binding snow,
The storm-wind's moody madness -
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow
And childhood's nest of gladness."
(Lewis Carroll)

"Childhood's nest of gladness" - a phrase so perfectly evocative of that time! Why rob that nest of its gladness by forcing abstract academic knowledge and adult notions too soon? Why this rabid urgency to hurry the child into learning faster and younger? Why this kolavari di?

I met the director of the school to tell her that I was moving my boy to an alternative play-based Waldorf school where academics would only be introduced in first standard.
"Of course children like that sort of thing - but what about your son's future?" she demanded. "What if he grows up and wants to be an artist or worse...a - a...photographer? (the horror!) How will he support himself? These alternative education options may seem romantic and appealing, but ultimately reality has to be faced!"
And there it is. It all comes down to fear. Fear that keeps us imprisoned in status quo in environments that don't serve our children in any way. Do we really want our kids to sell their lives to the highest bidder and enslave themselves to big corporations for the rest of their lives? "The spirit of Life that is always speaking to our souls" would have us do better.

The little warrior comes home from school now with the sparkle in his eyes undimmed. He is perfectly equal to addressing a stranger, a bee, a grown-up, a flower, a baby or an old person with his old confidence. The whole world is his own once again.