The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
—Peter Gray, “The Play Deficit”
It started in middle August. There on the garage floor was a dead butterfly. We collected him and put him in a plastic container with a paper towel damp with vinegar and water– in the hopes of loosening him up so he could be pinned. A few days later we found another and pinned them to a single board. We observed them and drew pictures of them. We researched and explored images of other butterflies that we liked. We hung them up so we could see them every day.
About a week later we discovered our first caterpillar at the community garden. It was so lovely, so soft, so colorful and so hungry! During our first encounter we put him back on the parsley and left him, fearing that by bringing him home we might deprive someone else of the pleasure of discovering him. But over night I started to worry that a bird might find him. We decided to go collect him and bring him home. Upon our return, we found him pretty easily then decided to look for more. We found that several locations with parsley and dill all had swallowtail caterpillars! And a friend of ours even found a monarch caterpillar on some milkweed. Joy.
We brought home our new caterpillar and set him up in an old aquarium with a bouquet of parsley and some sticks to attach to once he was ready to form a chrysalis. After about 3 days of chowing and resting he set off to explore a little. He settled onto the bottom side of a stick and became very still. Then slowly he shrunk a bit and 2 tethers developed which allow his upper body to hang away from the stick.
After being so slow and so still, he finally started to wiggle like crazy. We missed most of the shedding, but did catch the final moment of his skin falling away as he wriggled it free. He was green and leafy looking with fine ridges. After another day he turned more brown and sharp in his form. He is still hanging there today. And since that we’ve adopted to more caterpillars who have yet to transform.
We were also able to find a great book at the library about moths and butterflies that has been really useful. We decided to put together our own book of all the drawings and observations we’ve been doing.
A few weeks ago, Dashiell and I had one of those serendipitous afternoons that captures so much of the pleasure and value of unstructured time — the time that allows us to explore whatever the kids’ interests are. While Dashiell and I were “working” side by side in the third floor studio — he on his drawings, me on email no doubt — I noticed that the toilet was acting strangely in the adjacent bathroom so I removed the lid to the tank to investigate. Dashiell was at my side and immediately curious about the toilet’s inner workings; he announced: “I want to learn about toilets!”
Back at the desk and the computer, we made a quick search for toilet diagrams and looked at several to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of how toilets work, both as singular units but also as a part of the larger waster system in the house. Along the way we watched a few videos explaining in more detail various toilet repair procedures, and we both learned about house waste systems that use collected rainwater and graywater.
Later on, Dashiell made his own diagram of the toilet based on what he had just discovered.
In many ways, this is not an extraordinary occurrence. But it contains within it many of the elements of the unschooling approach: paying attention to what your children are curious about, facilitating further exploration and research, activating different modes of inquiry and expression, finding ways to channel that investigation in meaningful ways towards longer-term, sustained projects. The challenge moving forward is to know when to nudge such encounters toward these more sustained, ongoing projects, to connect them with a chain of experiences that encourage a certain depth of engagement. This last point is really well addressed in Lori Pickert’s Project-Based Homeschooling.
Norristown Farm Park— a new discovery!
This clip from the West Wing follows a group of kids who come to the White House to lobby for children’s suffrage. I loved some of the points that are made– how children have no voice in our political culture and no one to represent them.
Paine’s park for skateboarding has become a favorite spot for us in Philly. We’ll pack a dinner and just go watch all the skateboarders. Recently D finally asked for a skateboard and we brought it along.
We’ve done drips and drabs of work to rethink our home work space this fall. The most dramatic addition was the table that J and D built and painted. D was so serious about his work, so engaged. The notion of meaningful work really resonates with us. He was engage in the work because it provided a real and serious value to our home.