Autumn seems to bring with it an awareness of time passing, the days growing shorter, children going back to school. Something about the chill in the air, or memories from my own childhood of fresh pencils and new book bags, makes me feel restless, eager for new experiences, ready to take on new challenges. As a homeschooling parent, I am busy planning our lessons, weighing various enrichment activities and special classes, choosing how we will spend our days. Every parent, whether their child is in school full time or still at home, faces the same choices, deciding on the right mix of music lessons and play dates and enrichment activities to meet their child’s needs.
And yet there are two critical needs that I try to keep in mind when I plan each year. I keep a notecard taped to my refrigerator with just two words on it, two words that for me define two of the main reasons I’ve decided to homeschool my children.
I believe that these are two of the most important things I might offer to my children: time, to daydream and contemplate what’s around them, to develop and learn at their own pace….and space, to explore and expand while still feeling safe and connected.
I believe that these qualities are just as vital to children’s health and development as nourishing food and adequate sleep. And yet they are becoming harder and harder to secure, both for ourselves and for our children. Our lives are crowded with activities and responsibilities. Our private space is often threatened by the ring of our cell phones, the constant flood of emails, the endless stream of information and opinion which seems to suffuse our daily lives, making it hard to know what we think, or really require.
At the same time, we seem to get messages that our children’s time must be constantly filled with educational and social opportunities. Parents are urged to sign their children up for multiple sports, pursue enrichment classes and academic tutors, schedule multiple play dates. Lately, I’ve even heard commentators lament the “uselessness” of summer vacation, arguing that all of those hours might be better spent on math drill and group projects.
As a homeschooling parent, I’m hardly immune from these pressures. I find myself wondering if I’m doing enough, if we should extend our lessons into the summer, if we can squeeze in another enrichment class, or whether I’ve offered my children enough opportunities to make new friends.
And yet, I remind myself, for all of my concerns over my child’s social development, the most important relationship he’ll ever have is with himself. He will need to recognize his own inner voice, be confident in his own inner knowing. These abilities will become even more important as he reaches adolescence, and the onslaught of mixed messages and peer pressure becomes almost deafening. I have also come to believe through my own experience that personal success and happiness depend on qualities such as initiative, imagination and resourcefulness. Yet the opportunities to develop these capacities may be short-circuited if our children are provided too many pre-packaged experiences, too few unstructured hours.
As the year turns toward the equinox, a time of balance, I am again challenged to put away some of the brochures and flyers and “can’t miss” opportunities. I remind myself that time and space are more critical to my children’s happiness and long-term development than any particular class. I remind myself that childhood, those empty hours, those wide open spaces, that sense that time stands still and yet goes on forever, is not only fleeting but also endangered. I ask myself, how can I offer my children time, and space, and permission to expand into both in a way that will help them listen to their own voices, and follow the paths they were born to discover?
As I think of ways to guarantee my children time and space, these are some questions I might ask:
:: Does my child enjoy at least 30 minutes of quiet, media-free, alone time each day? Even a half an hour after school can give children the chance to calm their nervous systems, process the events and images of the day and regroup before family activities or homework.
:: Do I allow unstructured time on the weekends and during school vacations? By this, I mean time the child spends alone, when I don’t feel the need to provide diversion or entertainment.
:: How many extracurricular activities have we committed to? This year, I’m going to limit each of my children to one extracurricular activity a season, something they truly desire. Daniel Elkind in his book The Hurried Child wrote that too many extracurricular activities can provide as much accumulated stress on a child as a major life event such as a move or change of school.
:: How much of my child’s free time is filled by media? Consider limiting media time, including movies and even educational videos or video games, to a few hours a week, perhaps a family movie on the weekend.
:: Do I provide healthy and predictable rhythms? Regular bedtimes and meal times, and a predictable progression of structured and unstructured time? Family meals and regularly scheduled family time are integral to providing a child with an inner sense of security and a safe base from which to explore alone.
:: How often do I provide my child with unstructured time in nature? Too often, our outdoor activities are goal-oriented: a peak climbed, a cliff scaled. But open-ended, undirected play in a forest or field can be a rich experience. Let your child splash in a creek, pile leaves, build forts or tiny fairy house out of bark and grass. Provide supervision, but try to stay in the background, letting your child find their way into the natural world.
:: How can we move away from experiences of being rushed or out of time? Consider earlier bedtimes (7 pm for school age children) and earlier wake-up times that might provide your child with more leisurely mornings, the opportunity for a family breakfast, or a walk or outdoor play before school.
:: How do I spend my own free time? Model constructive ways of filling your own free time, without resorting to checking email or surfing the Internet. Let your child see you reading a book, creating art, gardening or writing in your journal.
:: What kind of space do I provide my children? Children thrive in uncluttered environments that provide them with space and an open experience. Keep art materials, books and open ended toys available, but neatly stored away in a cupboard or cabinet. Resist the urge to keep televisions and radios on as constant background noise. Be conscious of the smells, sounds and images that invade your children’s space, and may jeopardize their sense of safety.
:: Do I respect my child’s emotional space? I’ve finally learned not to ask my children about their day right when I pick them up from a class or friend’s house. I’ve learned that when I allow them space and respect, they’ll eventually share what they want me to know, after they’ve had a chance to process things themselves.
:: Do I honor my child’s request for space? In our family, we treat the request “I need space” with respect and even sacred attention. We try to honor that need, whether it is comes from an adult or child, and we try to teach our children that it’s a worthwhile and understandable request to make. My children also have created special nooks in their closets, with pillows and quilts and favorite stuffed animals, for when they truly need to be alone.
Erin Fossett-Walsh is a freelance writer and homeschooling mother of two. She lives in Colorado and enjoys reading, hiking, knitting, and studying herbal medicine. She has written articles for Rhythm of the Home and Living in Season, as well as for her own blog, Wild and Precious Life.