Giving children a shove

Every time I write here about a curriculum or indeed any sort of planned structure for a child's education, I am sure to be told of the innate curiosity which children exhibit. This sense of wonder and longing to find out about the world is portrayed by autonomous educators and unschoolers as a holy thing, a spark which must be carefully fanned into flame rather than being smothered beneath the dead weight of a formal curriculum. This is all fair enough and there is a good deal in it. Children are inherently curious and do have a huge desire to explore the world and discover things about it. What is less certain is if this wish to explore their environment and find out about things would be enough in itself to lead them to discover Shakespeare and Milton, calculus and the lives of the Tudors, photosynthesis and the nature of radioactive decay. I don't want to go into the question of whether it is desirable for children to be offered a 'broad and balanced curriculum'; I am aware that for many unschoolers and autonomous educators, the very idea is little more than a sinister and coercive tool of central government. The very idea of prescribing a body of knowledge is, for some of these parents, anathema. I am just thinking for now about the child's chance of stumbling across these various topics by accident while she is exploring her own interests.

While it is true that children are by nature curious about the world around them, many have another characteristic, one which is seldom even mentioned by autonomously educating parents. This is a desire for the same thing regularly, a wish for the familiar rather than the strange. This can manifest itself in a conservative attitude to food; many children will only eat certain foods, sometimes only if prepared in a particular way. It can also be seen in children who only want to do the same things every day. Perhaps they prefer to learn only from the Internet rather than books or maybe they dislike leaving the house to visit museums and want to stay in their own home and garden. One of the great things about school of course is that children are, often against their will, obliged to join in activities which they feel that they will not enjoy. These can range from playing teams games to reading poetry, from studying the Romans to moulding clay, learning about the planets to discovering other religions. Why should this be a good thing? Because often a child finds that she actually enjoys some of these things, even though she was at first reluctant to become involved in them. By giving the children a gentle shove, they are given the oportunity to get to know about things in which they not only have no interest, but might actively dislike.

The suggestion above that children should be compelled to take part in learning and other activities against their will probably go against the grain for many home educating parents. After all, their whole theory of education is predicated upon children not being pushed to do things that they don't want to do. Sometimes though, we need to look beyond the wishes of a child and consider his ultimate welfare, think about a future which he may not be able to visualise himself. Just as a small child might not be able to foresee the consequences of not brushing his teeth, so too he may be quite unable to realise that his lack of interest in physical activity may harm his body in the future. He might not be able to see that it is necessary to know about geography and percentages in order to make sense of his world in the future. More to the point, he may miss out on some things which he would very much enjoy. Unless an effort is made to insist that he listen to poetry and plays, he may reject these out of hand and characterise himself as somebody who does not like poetry. This can mean that he will end up missing out on a lot in later life.

For many children embracing the familiar and rejecting the strange and new is a way of life. They may well be curious about the world, but they are also a little nervous and prefer to play safe and stick to what they know. Sometimes they need to be encouraged, even forced to join in things and at least get a taste of something which they do not like. Bad habits can grow stronger if left unchecked and while it is quite true that the habit of curiosity and wonder can grow as a child develops, so to is it the case that some children can become less willing to try new things and new ideas as they grow older. It is part of our duties as parents to see that they do, for their own sake.