Hi friends! I’ve been thinking more than ever recently about society’s expectations of children and I wanted to share with you a very average home educating (specifically unschooling) day in our lives, and then my thoughts on the huge and often missed value of “faffing around” or “mooching”.
So, our day. This was an average weekday; we are in lockdown but this would be normal for us on any day that we don’t have homeschool groups or playdates in usual circumstances.
In the morning the girls woke up slowly, had breakfast, played with our cat and rabbit (not together) and did some of their new Hama beads- an interesting product of me not reading the small print on eBay and accidentally ordering microscopic beads instead of our usual ones.
They then played Minecraft with their friends who they would usually see at least twice a week; I believe they have been building several houses, a theme park with rollercoasters, some secret bases and other things that I don’t fully understand (something about a rainbow sheep?).
The girls then asked me for a potato each and spent some time cutting faces into these potatoes (inspired by Wilson on the Castaway memes). They attempted to make paper hats for their ‘potato friends’ and watched a YouTube tutorial on origami boats, which they then used to make the hats. Then they chopped up the potatoes and decided to paint with them.
After the potato-and-paint-based carnage I made us all hot chocolate with marshmallows, and I suggested that we do a read-aloud (I usually suggest this when they have hot chocolate as it’s both a nice thing to do, and I have a captive audience, mwahaha). I read around 40 minutes of The Secret Seven to them which was enough time to finish the whole book.
Then the girls wandered around the house for a bit and sort of melted into a game that they kept up for well over an hour, where one of them had the TV remote and could mute, pause, rewind or fast forward the others. In between housework I played “the floor is lava” with them, scattering cushions on the floor as ‘safe’ islands, and we made up some new rules to make it harder to win.
Both Eira and Esmae wanted to make something in the kitchen so I suggested that we use the leftover chocolate eggs from Easter to make krispy treats. Eira was happy with this suggestion while Esmae wanted to think of something else, so I told Eira where to find the ingredients for her treats, and she got on with making them (this meant she completed her Beavers cooking badge- bonus!)
I find it far more fun and productive for everyone if I back off while they’re in the kitchen. I’ve come to a place where I would rather have a temporarily messy kitchen and happy children who have independently cooked, than a cleaner kitchen when I’ve stood hovering over them to ‘keep it in the bowl’ and ‘be careful when you’re pouring’ (urgh) and generally cramped their process.
While Eira made the krispy treats, Esmae stood in front of the fridge with the door open for a while before pulling a Jus Roll pack from the fridge. She rummaged around in the cupboards, swapping the dark chocolate sticks for a blend of grated milk and white chocolate.
As they made their treats I sat at the dining table, mainly finding songs for us to listen to (always in search of that elusive perfect cooking playlist). I kept half- maybe a quarter- of an eye on things to make sure that the metal pastry tube didn’t slice anyone open and that we didn’t end up with grated skin in our food, and that Elfie (aged 4) didn’t rollerskate in from where she was making circles of the living room and splat onto the laminate floor. The girls finished cooking, did a bit of cleaning up and pulled out Guess Who to play.
After the girls finished Guess Who they got out another cupcake-matching game, one that Elfie loves, and played their own version of it to make it a bit more interesting. They then started bickering so I asked them to please “make the living room pretty” (read: tidy it). Giving them a job to do together often smooths out tensions (or makes them worse, but hey, what’s a bit of parental gambling now and then). They bickered a bit but they tidied up their stuff at the same time and folded the sofa blankets, which is nothing if not progress. We then had dinner.
After dinner, they went and played on the patio with their scooters, and picked some dandelions to feed the guinea pigs, rabbit and tortoise. They chatted with two of our neighbours through over the fence (one a 70 year old lady, the other a 5 year old girl) and drew a hopscotch on the ground with chalk. Then they came in and played a game where one of them rolled themselves up in the living room rug, and the others had to jump over them.
Eventually it was time to sleep and I read them a few chapters of a new Secret Seven book. Esmae and Eira both read aloud to me; they both picked books from the “Little People, Big Dreams” series which we love too.
And then it was bed, after a day of not doing much- playing, being, just- faffing around.
And it’s this I wanted to talk about a little bit. Faffing around. It’s been, really, the pillar of my kids’ childhood, and now that we’re stuck inside for weeks on end I’m seeing that there are huge positives to having a mum who is neither particularly creative in the “kids’ activities” department, nor motivated to spend hours in the role of whatever characters they wish to engage with in their role play games. Can anyone else relate?
“I gave you siblings”, I have been known to announce in response to a request to “play farms with me!” You have sisters and pets and an ungodly amount of Playmobil, crack on.
Crack on. That is the other pillar to our style of home education. You want to cook? Crack on, I’ll be there if you need me, after I’ve put the laundry away. You want to build a LEGO city? You want to print off some codebreakers, a wordsearch, some colouring, you want to find a YouTube tutorial on mummification or what you can feed your Venus fly trap? Crack on. You’ve got voice search, you can (increasingly) read, you’ve got a house that is set up for you to essentially be a small independent person. Crack on, I’ll be here if you need me.
I suppose what I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that if kids are left to their own devices the outcome is not what most people might expect it to be.
Kids are absolutely hardwired to find things of interest to them. They’re hardwired to make their own lives fun and rich and enjoyable, and to pursue things that they find fascinating, for hours on end. All things being equal, they won’t stagnate, they will find their groove and something to be interested in.
Letting kids faff about for huge portions of their lives also means that they are brilliant to live with. Some days I barely see the kids. They may be engrossed in drawing a 3D diorama of Minecraft characters on a massive roll of paper upstairs, or experimenting in all the ways that baking soda can react to mess up my kitchen, or threading marshmallows onto spaghetti sticks to make constellations that they found last night with an app on their iPads. They might be deep into building a magical world on their joint Minecraft realm with their friends, learning about the different properties and uses of diamond and obsidian and lava and – on one fateful day- TNT (RIP to Eira’s house, it really was excellent).
Other days, they need me more and I’ll spend most of my day engaged with them and supporting an activity they want to do. It might be figuring out and ironing a complicated Hama bead pattern, or untangling a sewing project every 60 seconds, or explaining a new mathematical concept, or suggesting new topics that might be of interest to explore.
Usually we attend groups each week- STEM groups and English and maths and art and project work groups, Beavers and Cubs and science workshops and Lego classes. This is in between days at the farm with friends, and play dates and trips away.
In between those, the kids faff about and crack on and we pretty much enjoy life, and all the amazing learning that comes through simply going through life with your eyes open- open to all the incredible opportunities and experiences and resources and possibilities that we can use to create an amazing education for each of our children, through their childhood and beyond.
Letting the kids faff about is not really synonymous with “child led” trains of thought. As a parent you are a leader- leading your child in whatever path you’ve set out for them, whether that is narrow or broad, structured or unstructured; schooled or home-schooled or unschooled. A leader communicates boundaries effectively and is the support and guide and advocate and example-setter for those they lead.
Setting up an environment, both physically and psychologically, where children can freely explore and learn is a commitment, a huge investment in time and attention and constant learning yourself in the best ways to help your child thrive. It’s a very conscious decision and shouldn’t be confused with apathy or resignation; it is immensely purposeful.
And what if faffing about doesn’t work? If we are having a day where the kids are struggling with self motivation, I set up activities and we do them together, in between giving them tasks to do independently. These things aren’t forced; anything learned in an environment of force will quickly be forgotten or despised- but sometimes children need some more guidance than other days. It’s a rhythm, a happy cycle where everyone gets their needs met, and for our family it works brilliantly.
It is easy, especially in such a competitive and exam-focused society as ours, to mistake anything that does not count towards a grade or exam mark or production of some kind of ‘work’, as something of a waste of time.
I think it would be wonderful if we re-examined, as a whole society, our thoughts around education and what is worth learning (and surely the value of learning anything in particular really comes down to the individual?). Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of panicking over a stack of paper-based tasks that aren’t getting done, we were able to cast a positive eye over a child who has spent half the morning building their social skills and capacity for delayed gratification while playing Minecraft with their friends?
How lovely would it be if we went to bed feeling satisfied that our kids had a great day riding bikes and making a bug hotel and watching back to back episodes of their favourite program and making a LEGO time machine instead of having to wrestle with that niggling feeling that nothing was down on paper, that they didn’t actually do any ‘work?’
I wanted to just jot down these thoughts here, mainly because I know that a heck of a lot of parents are anxious at the moment, and I am 100% happy to say that faffing around has always been a pillar of my kids’ entire education and probably always will be.
Long before the schools closed and for long after they reopen, my kids (and thousands of other home educated kids across the UK) will be dealing with boredom by pulling out board games, or grabbing paper and scissors, or cutting up old clothes to make new ones, or digging through the kitchen cupboards for ingredients, or half-assedly tidying their room, or cleaning out their pets, or searching for tutorials, and doing a lot of what looks like not very much.
And I know they are thriving- so if your kids do nothing but faff around for a few weeks, they will very likely be fine too.