Springtime has sprung in our neck of the woods, and it is a beautiful thing! This time of year I’m especially grateful for my patch of land in the country. A couple of weeks back we set our lambs out on new pasture. Just like those seen in storybooks, these animals really do leap through the air with what looks to be pure joy.
As the week goes on, I am watching our youngest sheep grow accustomed to their new home. They are comfortable and have established favorite shade spots and hills to rest upon. At first they were quite content exploring this spot. However, as they grow more comfortable, they are becoming increasingly keen on exploring the fence line as well. Often, when the boys and I visit, they are already at the fence with their little pink noses poking through square panels. They seem to be waiting for an invitation to step outside their confines.
Last weekend my husband announced plans to fence more pasture for our wooly friends. Since he was going to be nearby, I suggested we let the sheep free range a bit while he worked. We have a small flock and they are easily rounded, and he agreed this would be nice.
The boys and I watched as the sheep were released from their fenced area. Predictably, the lambs ran to where the grass was greenest and exactly the height they like best. For ten minutes they devoured the bounty appearing dazed by this fortuitous turn of fate. Soon, the flock began making noises indicating mild distress. 87 acres of green grass and sunshine, and suddenly all they wanted was the shortest path back to home. We tried to keep them outside, luring them with grain and kind words. It was of no avail; they soon found their way back into the barn and eventually to the very fenced area they’d been trying to escape.
The lambs’ unexpected resistances to a shot at sweet freedom made me think of my children. I believe passionately in a child’s right to problem solve independently and to navigate freely within most any learning environment. In my last blog post, Process Over Product, I explored the value of providing children with resources and then stepping aside to let free exploration begin. And yet, as a parent, I am reminded that nothing is simple; nothing is absolute. There are many truths. Absolute freedom does not always feel liberating; structure and boundaries are not always confining.
Don’t get me wrong. Children are nothing like my flock of sheep. In fact, most kids are more like the beloved goats on our farm; smart, spirited, stubborn, and sure footed. They thrive in open settings and with each new discovery grow more curious. However, some formal input from a significant someone is also critical. Lacking all perimeters and guidance, like our sheep, children can begin to feel less confident; once-fearless exploration becomes inhibited.
Like so many things concerning parenting, there must be a delicate balance between letting children lead, while simultaneously providing a detailed enough roadmap for them to follow. My middle son, for whom the student-led learning model is especially important, is generally resistant to all forms of traditional teaching. He is an avid reader and learner, but resists adults’ attempts to lecture or formally demonstrate skills. In general, he thrives under a model in which he is empowered with abundant visual and literary resources, creative materials, and ample free time in which to explore his interests.
My son rarely asks for assistance, and I am confident in his ability to extract meaning in all manner of ways. However, while riding in the car the other day, we were chatting casually when out of the blue he announced solemnly, “I can do some things well, but not handwriting. I’m a really, really, really bad handwriter.” My five-year-old’s eyes looked sad. His posture was slumped and he looked to be carrying enormous weight. I assured Jo Jo that his writing was on target for a boy his age, but it was painfully obvious that my words were of no comfort.
Normally, I might respond by leaving out some fun writing workbooks that he could stumble upon and explore if interested. I would ask him to make our shopping list and work on other such real life tasks. Usually he leads the way coming up with all sorts of goofy plans to master concepts of interest. Speaking from experience, these are techniques that work—magnificently! But just then I saw that my son was feeling deep despair. At that moment he was not feeling like a leader. I imagine he was wondering if he’d ever write like his big brother. As someone who prides himself on his drawing skills, I’m certain he was chastising himself for the difficulty he has holding a pen properly.
At that moment, like the farmer with the fencing, it was time for me to step up and bring my little guy home.
It was my turn and responsibility to lead. Instead of hollow compliments about the letters he did well, I validated his concerns about his sloppy lines. I told him I would help. We laid out a comprehensive learning plan, and my plan-hating son appeared grateful.
As his confidence builds, Jo Jo will again resist my formal instruction. He will figure out how to get where he’s going and he’ll be fine. Likewise, ours lambs will become emboldened once more. They’ll test fences and sometimes get out. And this, most likely, is how it all should be. But in the meantime, the lambs are safely secured and Jo Jo will spend next week cuddling on my lap while I show him how to master those pesky lower case letters.
I remain, foremost, a believer in self-determined learning and free-range everything! But I also believe that as educators, we must also watch closely and note when a child needs to follow and not lead, if only for a short while.
As always, I’d love to hear your stories. When do you decide to take a turn at leading? What have been the outcomes of these decisions?
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