On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, September 21, 2007

Of Indian Huts and Operation Dolls

When my children were growing up, I'm not sure I always noticed some of the places where the important stuff was going on. We had our curriculum, we had the read aloud books, we had 4-H, and Sunday School, the sheep, the horses, cooking in the kitchen, learning to make things, etc. Those things I noticed. But on the periphery were other things, things that they initiated themselves, things they sometimes got outside assistance with, but not things that I thought up, or even really thought about. However, it turns out some of those were most important in their lives.

My daughter and her friend Merry had an Indian hut in our front yard for a year or two. They were even allowed to have a fire (supervised from a distance by her father, but which the girls themselves were really in charge of). That experience in independence and creative play is always one of the things that my Abby mentions to people when they ask her what homeschooling was like. The interesting thing is that the Indian hut didn't cost a penny to us. It was made out of pallets that we got for free and other scrap material that was just lying around. They had vegetables out of the garden to cook or make into some mysterious Indian medicine, they had scraps of wood to burn, but no one went out and bought an Indian hut kit. It was an example of a lifestyle where you weren't dependent on the big corporations for everything. They weren't dependent on Mattel for fun.

My son was an inveterate encyclopedia reader. We had the set of encyclopedias from the 1950's that I grew up with as well as an almost complete set of the Americana that I bought for $10 at a library discard sale (did I ever mention that I'm extremely frugal!). Anyway, he learned a lot from the encyclopedia, but what I didn't know was that part of his bedtime reading was articles on theology and the Catholic Church written by Bishop Fulton Sheen. Is it any wonder when he was in eighth grade he announced he was going to become a Catholic when he turned 18. It obviously wasn't a wonder to the Holy Spirit, but it was some surprise to his mother, who hadn't been noticing that particular learning going on.

My daughter and her cousin spent one summer's visit playing with operation dolls that they made at their grandmother's with supportive assistance in providing materials and books by Grammy. I was vaguely aware it was going on, but had no inkling of how detailed they got in their research. My daughter said that what she learned really helped in animal anatomy and physiology in college. My niece announced this summer that it had really helped her in her EMT class (she just passed her EMT boards, YAY!).

My son spent many hours tracing maps at his grandmother's. She provided the atlas and tracing paper, he provided all the interest. When he took geography in college it was a total breeze, he'd already learned the basic material. Today his knowledge of geography surpasses anyone else I know. I, however, never would have thought to give him maps to trace.

When my daughter was 13 she began training her own horse. I told a woman at camp about this adventure and she was utterly appalled. Didn't I know that she could get badly hurt in the process. Well, I can report that she didn't get hurt at 13. As a matter of fact she never took a bad spill off Eclipse until after she was pretty much fully trained and that one was due to the fact that Eclipse got spooked by a sheep (Abby was 22 at the time). She did train her own horse (with careful supervision and a bit of paid instruction later on) and now she's training Eclipse's daughter. You can believe that experience helped when she took horse training in college.

Does this mean we were total unschoolers? It doesn't mean that at all. I gave careful thought to curriculum, I selected read-alouds not only that were delightful and of good literary value, but ones which supported our curriculum as well. Some of those things clearly impacted their lives too. However, perhaps the biggest thing that impacted their lives was being rooted in a family where books, learning, and even adventures (with some discrete supervision) were encouraged.

My daughter has had some people tell her that her parents were irresponsible to let her have a fire. I'm sure those same people would have looked askance at the fact that I made her as about a 13 year old pack her sheep's vaginal prolapse in repeatedly instead of just doing it myself. She learned by experience why you select against that particular genetic trait, and I don't apologize for it. They also would have been appalled to see her as a 6 year old wielding sheep shears at a point where most kids are only handling round ended kindergarten scissors .That adventure was with her father's discrete supervision - I almost freaked out about it because I thought she was going to put gouges in the sheep's fleece, in fact she became by the time she graduated from 4-H one of the best wool sheep fitters in New England (brag, brag, brag, but it happens to be true).

Now not every kid is going to grow up with sheep and horses, or even where they can have an Indian hut in the front yard. Not every family is going to have access to real syringes for the operation dolls (that one got probably also got raised eyebrows from those college friends of my daughter's). However, any family can provide an atmosphere where children can choose things to learn, can have discretely supervised adventures, can be allowed, nay, even encouraged to play creatively without the plastic, battery operated inventions of the big toy makers. Don't get me wrong, my kids had toys, but the ways in which they used them also leaned towards the creative. Abby was making saddles for her My Little Ponies out of various scrap materials before she was 4. My son's Lego creations were never simply what was on the box. The log trucks he was creating out of blocks when he was under 3 were nothing anyone showed him how to do.

Perhaps the fact that we didn't have video games until the kids were well into their elementary school years and that we always had both a limited selection and a very limited tolerance for playing time made a difference. I honestly don't know. What I do know is that living with supportive family around made a big difference. We wouldn't have started with either sheep or horses if my sister-in-law hadn't started us down those paths. The kids wouldn't know how to play poker if their grandfather hadn't taught them. Now this last may not seem like an important skill (they didn't grow up to be card sharks!). It was the relationship it helped cement with their grandfather that was important.

What's really significant to me is that, other than the sheep and the horses (which admittedly aren't cheap to raise) none of the other experiences cost much in the way of money. What they cost was someone's being there, frequently in the background to supply tracing paper, scraps out of a rag bag, wooden pallets, an old kettle, encyclopedias, hypodermic syringes etc. What they cost was a father who was willing to supervise a fire from a far, a mother who sat on a log and watched while a 14 year old rode a horse whom other people thought she shouldn't be riding. In short, it cost time, a willingness to be somewhat inconvenienced, and sometimes a little bit of heart in your throat courage. Maybe today those are the biggest expenses of all, but it was worth it.


At 7:03 PM, Blogger Liz said...



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