Several years ago, when our two sons were in elementary school, I insisted they learn piano. I wanted the boys to have a rewarding and lifelong appreciation of music. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Piano lessons for me became an expensive Wednesday afternoon nap while they diligently hammered out scales, and suffered. I suspect their teacher suffered, too.
I’m a career teacher, but becoming a grandparent has helped me to become a better parent as far as education is concerned. I realize now that forcing your kids to learn something usually doesn’t work, but allowing your child to learn while they’re experiencing life encourages them to be curious, passionate — and to develop a natural love of learning.
Our oldest granddaughter is six. During her frequent visits she enjoys a ritual of activities that coincidentally include many academic disciplines. I never intended that our time together would be learning-intensive; it just happened. Typically, we visit the neighbors’ goldfish pond. Their yard is a giant wildlife park for her. She looks forward to feeding the fish (biology). The lily pads in the pond are especially fascinating to her (botany). She has no fear of snakes and bugs because our neighbor has always shown her where to look for specimens and how to catch them in her plastic bug jar (entomology, or as she says ‘antimology’). The neighbors also built a special hideout in the trees for their daughter when she was little, and now my granddaughter treats me to “elf food” that she makes from leaves and foliage as she describes elf folklore (creative writing).
Back at our house, she has a twilight ritual that includes visiting each tree and landmark to say “goodnight” to the world. This was inspired by Margaret Wise Brown’s classic, Good Night Moon. And on the bridge at the park we play a game adapted from Winnie the Pooh called “Pooh Sticks” (literature). She guesses the amount of time it will take for pieces of wood to reappear on the opposite side of the bridge once they are dropped (physics and mathematics).
In summer, we visit the superintendent’s house at the fish hatchery. She is interested in the children’s toys, especially the dolls (history). We make friends with other kids at the playground (sociology) and often take a bike ride (physical education).
Watching her play and learn has brought John Dewey’s complex philosophy of learning into clear focus for me. Throughout his writings in the early 1900s, Dewey argues that education and learning are both social and interactive processes. According to him, students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum. And, of course, all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning.
Dewey was convinced that learning could best take place in an environment where people are treated with kindness, and when the curriculum is matched to the learner’s interests. The ideas of democracy and social reform are continually discussed in Dewey’s writings on education. He makes a strong case for the importance of education, not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live.
My granddaughter demonstrates that she can consume a lot of curriculum in a few hours, and her curriculum is all around us. Colleges may not be interested in her transcripts from “Grandma’s Backyard School of General Knowledge,” but ironically, she has gained learning skills that will improve her chances of success in anything she chooses to do.
Learning doesn’t need to be painful. Wise teachers and administrators can help, but grandparents aren’t a bad idea, either.
P.S. Neither her father nor her uncle learned to play the piano very well, although both went on to discover other talents.