This morning our farm is covered in white. The snow is coming down hard and it is lovely. The fire in the living room is bright and hot and the dog and cat have wisely sidled up together beside the hearth. A fresh pot of coffee is on and its rich aroma is calling, but I’m too busy to stop and enjoy it. I’m too busy, in fact, to enjoy any of the cozy scene that is unfolding in my home this morning.
Our homeschooler’s co-op has awesome plans to visit the planetarium today and it promises to be a great event. Except that no one in my family wants to get dressed. Or eat breakfast. Or do anything but cut out felt dolls they’ve made to look like Frankenstein, Dracula and a motley assortment of ghosts and ghouls.
Over breakfast (still not dressed) my oldest tells me, “Sunday will be a lot of fun because we will probably not be busy.” Except we will be; we will be out all day in fact, and as I remind him of this I watch his earnest face fall. I pause for a moment. I realize that this is my signal to propose the unexpected. “What if we just stay home today? I know we were very much looking forward to the field trip, but you’ve been awfully busy lately. What would you guys do if we stayed home instead?” JoJo drops his spoon. “MAKE STUFF” he shouts out. “Sit still and use my brain” says my oldest. “Make an igloo” little Walden cheers. I imagine myself actually drinking my mug full of coffee and possibly getting some writing done. It becomes abundantly clear, we need a day off.
Interestingly, however, once given a day to do with as they please, the boys don’t remain in their pajamas for long. There will be, I realize, no lounging about. Immediately, my oldest retrieves his Snap Circuits kit. “Finally I have time to catch up on my work for the President.” (Elias has an ongoing game that he is an elite scientist commissioned to make a series of alarms and light switches for President Obama. It’s great fun to watch.) He races past me with his arms full of circuit boards and wires. “I need scissors and more felt, more felt, more felt” JoJo sings out and in seconds he’s gone, transported to Transylvania, where he crafts yet another Count Dracula and three companion wolves. Walden, who is enamored with complex puzzles, begins crafting his own out of scrap paper and leftover felt. By mid-morning, the house is an absolute blur of industry, design and innovation.
Oh and did I mention that no one needed me for any of it? I’m at my computer writing. And my coffee tastes so good.
A quick online search will yield article after article by Slow Movement proponents proclaiming the benefits of streamlining schedules, chewing our food carefully and taking time to smell the roses. These acts, they advise, can improve our health and foster stronger connection with our families, friends and communities. And all of this is, of course, exactly right.
However, slower, quieter living impacts far more than the mental health of an individual. As history shows, individual acts of ground breaking innovation and discovery rely on extended periods of unfettered time for thought and reflection. Many of our greatest scientists, artists and writers were bestowed not only with raw talent, but also with the critical gift of free time.
As a young man studying at Cambridge, Isaac Newton and his classmates were sent home for a season to avoid the plague. There it was expected that Newton would help out on the family’s large farm; he was responsible for tending the sheep in the fields. The young scholar thought this work was tiring and dull and yet it is believed that during this time of quiet he began to develop his ideas and theories. It is noteworthy that it was in the field, not the halls of Cambridge, that Newton first sowed seeds that would grow into ideas that changed science. When danger of the plague had passed, Newton returned to Cambridge and once there was able to share aloud his ideas with other intelligent thinkers. It is this magic mixture of solitary introspection and time spent in a stimulating environment that ignites deep learning.
Beloved author and illustrator Beatrix Potter was educated at home by a governess and credits her success to her own self-study rather than to time spent with textbooks. Left mostly to her own devises, Potter’s early interest in plants and small animals was easily indulged. During the long hours she spent in solitude, Potter sketched and studied the natural world. Holidays spent in Scotland and the Lake District inspired her love of landscape painting. Like Newton, Beatrix Potter enjoyed freedom and also benefited from a rich environment from which to draw inspiration and knowledge.
Children aren’t designed for speed. They simply aren’t built for it. They linger and they lollygag. These tendencies afford kids their deepest joys and their most exquisite moments of learning. The child that dawdles spots the best puddles to stomp in and at the same time begins to understand the scientific concept of displacement. While cloud spotting, that same child notes his preference for cumulus clouds—they make the best dinosaur shapes. Children know all of this intuitively and when we stuff their life and learning into too many 45 minute increments they will revolt. And they should! Children recognize that original art, stirring poetry, cures for disease and moving sonatas are not created in 45 minute blocks of time. Like all important work, a child’s activities require time and a great amount of exploratory freedom.
If we wish to promote innovation and new discoveries, as educators we must devote ourselves to cultivating quiet spaces and unhurried stretches of time for our learners. We must squelch our impatience and instead applaud childhood tendencies to dawdle.
As a bit of an overachiever myself, I want to connect my kids with all of the amazing happenings our vibrant community offers. I don’t want them to miss a thing. But it is essential that each activity selected is balanced with time to linger in a thought or grab a snuggle with the dog and to do so with time to spare.
What amazing pursuits do your own kids (or you for that matter!) pursue when given the time and space to do so?
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