Learning, Naturally

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I have
spent the last three months trying to get my nine-year old daughter to memorize
her multiplication facts (through twelve). 
This has been one of the more tortuous and humbling experiences of my
life as a parent, and has added another few inches to the height of the
pedestal on which I place teachers. Teachers, amazingly enough, willingly spend
entire days inside classrooms with large groups of children.  My daughter’s teacher is actually
enthusiastic about teaching multiplication facts.  Thank goodness.

psychologists write about childhood as an ongoing process of weaning: first
from the breast, of course, but then from the cradle, from the night light, and
onto bigger “weanings.” The first time I dropped my daughter at the sidewalk
instead of walking her into school, the first time she walked by herself to the
park after school instead of having me pick her up and drive her ...

been a whole series of weanings for me, too, as a mom: from the idea that I
will always stay calm, from the assumption that my daughter’s personality will
be like mine, from my glossy recollection of school.  My eyes have been opened to a whole new universe
of things to worry about. 

biggest thing I never thought I would have to worry about is school, or rather,
learning.  Confession: I was a nerdy kid,
in the classic sense of the adjective.  I
showed up half an hour early to elementary school because I liked hanging out
in the classroom.  I even wore brown
plaid dresses and pigtails.  I was invariably
the last one picked when my classmates chose teams in P.E.  I was a little bit socially awkward, too. I
remember my first taste of utter mortification, which occurred in third grade.
Whilst studying Paul Revere, I raised my hand at the teacher’s request for a
definition of a minuteman.  I said (I kid
you not):  “a minuteman is somebody who
is ready to fart at a minute’s notice.” 
Sadly, the trapdoor in the linoleum squares of my classroom floor did
not appear and swallow me up whole.

it to say that I liked school, at least up until I discovered Metallica and
hairspray. I have always assumed that the fact that school was easy for me had
to do with luck, or genetics. A parallel strand of the story of my childhood is
that I spent copious quantities of time outside.  As an only child, living in the foothills
without many other children as neighbors, I invented a whole clan of imaginary
friends who accompanied me on explorations of the undeveloped acres around my
house.  Potion-making and fort-building
were our primary diversions.

night I watched a documentary entitled When Learning Comes Naturally.  The basic premise of the show is that

learning comes naturally when children are thoroughly engaged in the process,
and that there is nothing more engaging for children than outdoor places.  In the outdoors, children’s natural curiosity
is activated, and the result is a spontaneous excitement about creative
exploration that can resonate for a lifetime.

heroines and heroes of this documentary are, not surprisingly, teachers.  In particular, we get to visit with teachers
at four schools which have integrated outdoor education into all aspects of the
curriculum.  A priceless moment is
captured on video when a second grader, studying slugs in the garden, discovers
a slug habitat that his teacher had overlooked. 
“It’s all mucous-y and stuff!” he shouts from underneath the hedge. 

Is it
possible that all that time wandering around outside talking to myself had
something to do with my aptitude at school? 
Boredom, which was the thing that drove me outside, is an art lost to
contemporary childhood.  A British
psychology researcher set out, some time in 2006, to prove that boredom is actually
good for kids.  I can’t find any
references to his study after the initial launch. Maybe he got bored with the subject.  But David Sobel, a teacher who sits atop an
extra-tall pedestal in my mind for being the teacher of teachers most vocal
about the need for environmental education says: kids need “moments of
unscheduled outdoor time when unexpected bits of life can unfold.”

I had
lots of moments of unscheduled time. I also read piles of science fiction, which
had its pros and cons. On one hand, I certainly had more than my fair share of
curiosity, but on the other hand there was a fairly long period during late
adolescence during which I whiled away my boring afternoons and summer breaks
wondering why the heck the mother ship was taking so long to return for me.

I can’t
say for sure that I learned my memorization facts and aced standardized tests
because I had lots of time to wander around in the field with made-up friends
from other planets… but who knows?  When
my daughter’s kindergarten teacher told me, at the end of the year, that she
wasn’t up to “grade level standards” in the subject of ABCs, I went through the
conventional stages of grief, moving quickly through “shock and denial” and lingering
in stage 2: “pain and guilt.” 

Surely it
was all my fault for failing to play the “Baby Needs Bach” CD frequently
through headphones clamped to my torso while she was still in utero. My
daughter, now in fourth grade, is perfectly good at her ABCs. In fact, she
reads like a champ.  After Kindergarten she
was old enough (and had the good sense to be the daughter of someone who worked
there) to start at Wilderness Youth Project.  We switched to a school (Goleta Family School) with a
focus on “environmentality,” where the kids go outside to the garden, an old
fashioned term for what is now an “outdoor classroom.” They go on hikes and
camping trips, and take field trips outside.  Every
time they do this the district requires that we parents sign an “inherently
dangerous” form, which the sixth graders have dubbed the “death form.” 

Maybe we
have it backwards.  Maybe the inherently
dangerous part is keeping the kids inside.