Life is the Curriculum by Sally Erickson

Life is the Curriculum

By Sally Erickson, Pathfinder board member

This week during our Staff Training, Board member Sally asked how Pathfinder kids will know what’s available if there aren’t lots of things on the “menu” of choices for them. Menu items would come from, for example, the materials we provide and the passions and interests that staff members and other adults share.  The conversation inspired a blog post, below. - Hope Wilder

The question is, how will kids “know” what they want to pursue if they’ve never seen it, either in their lives, or at Pathfinder? It’s a question that comes out of fear for me, I suppose. I have a fear that kids WON’T find their way. Fear that families are too busy to notice, that the world is too full of mindless distraction, that American culture is not rich and open but shallow and closed and bent on creating consumers rather than creators. And that somehow I... we... Pathfinder... are responsible for making up for all of that by making sure kids are exposed to every possible interest or potential passion by creating a "menu" of choices.

This question wasn’t resolved to me until I was talking through the idea of “exposure” for kids at lunch with another staff member. I was relating to her how my grown son’s interests had started and developed during his formative years of homeschooling. And I realized: kids casually get exposed to all kinds of things. We aren’t in control of whether they get exposed to the “right” things or not. Even experts can’t guarantee that children are “exposed” to the subjects that will be relevant and interesting for any one child’s present, or that they will need it in their future.

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At a young age Andy spent several years fascinated by magic: sleight of hand and stage magic. This interest developed randomly at a birthday party where one of his friends got a magic kit for a present. Andy was instantly hooked. I could never have predicted it. Not in a million years. I could never have put it on his menu because it was never a passion of mine or anyone I knew. But there it was. For Andy, magic became a passion. Several years later he turned on a dime and got into computers. And then after doing computers for a few years he got fascinated by fixing cars and got a job.. And then, and then, and then. And then he built an addition on his house and taught himself electrical wiring and plumbing.  And I realized as I was talking to Amanda that what Andy learned in homeschooling was one very simple thing: he learned that he could LEARN, on his own, without anyone figuring it out for him. He could learn about different ways of looking at the world by listening to the radio. He could learn by reading software manuals. He could learn by just doing stuff. Any kind of stuff. Whatever. And if he really wanted something, and it was a lasting interest, he could get his very frugal mom to spring for materials: $25 for professional magic books, magic paraphernalia, etc. on a monthly basis.

So the question of what’s needs to be on the menu dissolved for me. Because kids are learning machines. They can’t help it.

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I went on a hike yesterday with my almost five-year old grandson, Blake. We came across a tree that had recently come down. He climbed up on it and asked if he could remove one of the small branches that was in his way.  I said, “Sure, it’s going to be dead anyway. Go ahead!” And he started working on it. How was he going to get that branch off? He worked for longer than I would have expected. He made some progress on it, but it was pretty hard. And then he asked “Can you help me?”  And I did. But just enough so that he could finish the job. And then the next one. And the next one.

I could see his nervous system engaged in this very important work of figuring it out:

“Does it work to try this?”

“Am I strong enough to do that?”

“Is this to the point that I’m going to be so frustrated that I will be grumpy and want to quit so I should ask Nana for help?”

“Can I trust Nana to just help enough and not too much?“ (The answer: Yes.)

“Is this a meaningful activity?” (His answer: “We’ve made a climbing log for children!”)

I didn’t go out there and put a log in his path to make sure he was "exposed" to it. The learning opportunity presented itself, and he chose to challenge himself to learn what he was ready to. 

Life and the world are everywhere.  When I think about it, the menu really only has one thing on it: “Life” and how we choose to deal with it. If there are art supplies then we’ll learn how to learn by playing with art supplies. If there are iron filings and magnets then we will learn how to learn by playing with those. If there are sweet cool adults around we’ll learn how to learn by interacting with them. If there are conflicts with other children,  we’ll learn how to deal with those. The materials we have available at Pathfinder are really incidental. We can and will support our kids to a certain extent by taking their desires and interests seriously, but we can’t cater to every desire or whim or even passion. Because we offer them the freedom to explore the kids are learning is what is most important to them, and how they are going to go after those things themselves, with or without the powers that be.

The experts who plan curriculum have no better clue what one person in their particular life will need any more than does the staff at Pathfinder, or anyone else. Whatever our kids are “exposed” to, we will let them run with it as far as they want to go. Mostly they just need us to pay attention, care about them, and witness their own work, the work that they are doing because they are who they are.