The wonderful thing about working with young children is getting to be a witness to their boundless learning. For example, scissors. There is a moment in time for many of the children I work with when they pick up the scissors and start learning to cut. Once a child can hold the scissors and successfully cut a teeny triangle of paper on her own, watch out! Everything is fair game for those scissors. Art projects become little piles of jagged triangular papers, coloring pages have the same fate, and all of these teeny tiny products of the child’s brand new scissor skills are swept into a bag or backpack to take home, of course. (Families love taking home piles of tiny cut papers made by their children’s eager hands, I am certain!) The child then begins cutting long strips of paper (when she is ready), and long strips come home in the backpack as well. This leads to cutting out other shapes, etc., until scissors are once again no big deal and used by the child on an as-needed basis. This is what it looks like when you are lucky enough to work with a young child who is just learning to use scissors. Learning goes viral.
When I was a young child, I was really interested in kangaroos. So of course, I got every book I could find out of the library (with adult support) and learned all I could about them, and played kangaroo and asked for a kangaroo stuffed animal and drew kangaroos and thought about kangaroos. When I was a little older, I was interested in manatees. I got out every book from the library about manatees and started a Save the Manatee Club and created a slide show presentation (with adult support) about manatees and drew manatees and thought about being a manatee and hoped I could help the manatee that I “adopted” to be safe from boat motors with my contribution to the cause. Later, I learned about the Oregon Trail and read all of the Little House Books and Orphan Train and begged my mom to make me a prairie dress (which she did) and wore my prairie dress with an apron and bonnet and wrote and illustrated my own children’s book about a girl moving across the prairie which I entered into a national contest (with adult support).
(That’s me in my prairie dress, with my apron, holding my American Girl Doll, Kirsten.)
Learning has always been a “viral” thing for me.
That’s the thing. We are hardwired, as human beings, to learn. And once we want a new skill, as Carol Black so eloquently states in “A Thousand Rivers” (a MUST read!), “When people really want a skill, it goes viral. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.” If the children (and adults!) around you are not “virally” learning–if they are not passionately interested in what they are doing–it’s quite likely that they did not have the freedom to choose the activity and it is even likelier that whatever they are learning through the process will not be very well retained.
Supporting children in directing their own learning is effective, fun, and just makes sense. They are busily learning all of the time–why interrupt this “viral” process with our own agendas when we could assist them in following their passions in that moment? As John Holt said, “When a child is doing something she’s passionately interested in, she grows like a tree—in all directions.” Being able to witness and support a child growing in this manner is a blessing, and one that we all can experience if we begin to trust children and follow their lead.