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We found out the Friday before school started that my three school aged boys got into the highly coveted new alternative school that opened this September in Toronto. The school takes a more holistic approach to education. We’re almost two months into school and so far we love it. I’ve wanted to write about it but two things have kept me from doing so: 1) I’ve kind of been waiting for something bad to happen. I’d wanted my kids to get into this school so badly. For a while there I thought we’d never get in, but in the end things worked out so well for us. I wanted to wait to make sure this all wasn’t too good to be true. 2) I have found it difficult to put into words what the school is all about and exactly what I love about it. So, with the help of a few quotes from the school’s website, here goes.
“In a society facing complex cultural, environmental, economic, political, health and scarcity issues, the same ways of approaching problems will no longer suffice. What will be required is a new set of aptitudes that include imagination, inventiveness, collaboration, openness, adaptability and flexibility. Education has always played a fundamental role in preparing our children to become engaged citizens of the world and there is no better way to make change happen than to begin rethinking how we teach and engage our future generations.”
On the very first day there were two things that stood out to me. Firstly, all the teachers go by their first names. I think it helps to make the kids feel like they are on equal ground. It is more indicative of a nurturing relationship. The teacher is still recognized as the teacher but in balancing out the power in the relationship a little, the kids can feel more comfortable speaking up and being the little people that they are. Perhaps in using more familiar terms there is a greater element of trust.
Secondly, the school lay-out is very open concept. The kindergartens have two classrooms: a regular ol’ indoor kindergarten classroom and an outdoor classroom. The outdoor classroom – where the kids have spent the majority of their time so far – is wonderful! The kids use wooden cable spools as tables and tree stumps as stools. There is a nature table which houses – you guessed it – things from nature! It became home for a day to a bucket of snails from our garden and has also been adorned with leaves, pinecones and all sorts of other things that my kids and others have picked up on the way to school. There is large space in which the kids can do an activity, play with toys or run around freely. Circle time is spent underneath a shady tree with blankets and “sit-upons” (a circular spongy place for the kids to sit and keep their bums dry!).
“One of [the school’s] principles is developing the body-mind connection through movement and awareness techniques, and yoga is one of the many activities practiced.”
The indoor classrooms aren’t really regular ol’ classrooms. When you first walk into the school’s main area you find yourself in a large open space. This space is used for yoga and the weekly craft circle, among other things. What was once an unsightly pillar with some sort of switches on it is now a beautiful tree (with a secret little door that opens up to reveal the now hidden switches.) The individual classrooms, although separate from each other, are very open and do not have doors on them. They are filled with things like wooden toys, modeling beeswax and are set up in such a way that they are far less stuffy and formal than the average classroom.
“Holistic education engages the head, heart, hands and spirit of the child. It is a curriculum that makes connections – community, earth, soul, subject and mind-and-body connections – and it develops intuition and inquiry.”
So far this year, things have gone very smoothly, considering it is a new school and the first of its kind. As I sit here writing I pause and look over at my almost 8 year old, grade 3 son. He’s sitting on the couch finger knitting; a new skill that he learned at school. In addition to finger knitting, they’ve made knitting needles and hand sewn bags. They will eventually be using the knitting needles they’ve made to learn to knit. All of these things happen once a week at craft circle. The children get to know the other grades as they all come together and work on craft projects.
The school also takes weekly walks/hikes/trips. The kindergartens have been to the pumpkin patch, but they mostly stay close to the school. They either go to the local library, a local park, or a nearby ravine. They explore nature and learn about the surrounding community in a fun and engaging way.
The older kids have gone on trips to the apple orchard and pumpkin patch (the pumpkin patch was a trip in which the entire school participated). They also go for walks locally and other places like the Humber River to see the salmon run and to the Leslie Street Spit.
“[The school] will achieve academic excellence through an arts-integrated and experiential-learning curriculum. Our approach addresses the whole child and promotes the development of healthy, responsible, inquisitive, creative human beings.”
This week I was welcomed into the classroom to bake with the kids. It was a really nice experience. My 2 year old daughter came with me and toddled around while a few of the grade 3 girls doted on her every move. Some kids were really keen on baking, some were moderately interested and some just didn’t care much for it at all. The kids were all welcome to participate as much or as little as they wanted. The teacher and I supervised and helped when needed; the kids read the recipe, measured the ingredients and mixed everything together. While it was chaotic at times, for the most part it was a somewhat organized chaos. I think everyone had fun. The pumpkin muffins were a little less than perfect. There was an extra tablespoon or two of this ingredient, a little less of that ingredient and one ingredient that I’d forgotten altogether (the teacher and I laughed about how it was a little like a Bake-Off/Taste Test from an episode of Just Like Mom!) but it was the experience that mattered most. To the kids the pumpkin muffins tasted great.
As we go through the year there will no doubt be bumps along the road. Not everything is perfect and there are resources that will take years to build, but there is a vision, and I like what that vision looks like.
“Ron Miller, one of the major thinkers and contributors to the field of holistic education, explains that: ‘holistic education is an effort to cultivate the development of the whole human being. Where conventional schooling views the child as a passive receiver of information and rules, or at most as a computer-like processor of information, a holistic approach recognizes that to become a full person, a growing child needs to develop – in addition to intellectual skills – physical, psychological, emotional, interpersonal, moral and spirited potentials. The child is not merely a future citizen or employee in training, but an intricate and delicate web of vital forces and environmental influences.’”
The vast majority of parenting choices my husband and I make come from our gut. They feel natural to us. Indeed, this is what the name Family Nature means to me; when it comes to our family and our parenting style we do what comes naturally to us. I think of this as our family nature.
Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world. It wasn’t easy initially with my first, but we eventually figured it out and never looked back. In the past (almost) nine years I have been either pregnant, breastfeeding (sometimes tandem breastfeeding) or both. There were times when it wasn’t fun but I never regretted breastfeeding. In fact, when I look back to my eldest’s first eight weeks it is a complete blur; I honestly and truly do not know how we all managed but I know one thing for sure: I am so unbelievably glad that I didn’t quit. I know for certain that it was the right, and most natural thing to do. Even without all the research and statistics about breastfeeding I knew that it was the best for both me and the babes.
The next thing that fell into place was co-sleeping. As an anthropology student I had heard of Dr. James McKenna long before I had kids. My husband also knew all about co-sleeping before any of our kids were born. So sure enough, when the first babe came along, it just seemed natural to have him sleep with us. I couldn’t even imagine the thought of him in another room; it just seemed so backwards and wrong. My instincts and my gut told me that he should be with us and they were right. I think co-sleeping is one of those secrets of parenthood – lots of people do it, not everybody admits it, but those who do it love it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up to gurgley coos and lopsided smiles. There is an absolute comfort that comes with a sleeping babe beside me; the sound of his breath like a lullaby to put me to sleep, the warmth of his body like a little furnace keeping us warm and the baby smell of him making me feel high. I know in my heart and in my my soul that my babies belong beside me at night.
I didn’t get the hang of babywearing for a few months but I think that it’s just another one of those things that naturally fell into place. My babies (and toddlers) were all so easily comforted in a carrier. They could be close as I did chores around the house, walked the older kids to school or picked up groceries. They nursed contently and had all of their need met so easily and naturally right there attached to me.
Other things also fell into place. I have done my fair share of reading but in the end it usually just confirmed the things that we were already doing. I learned pretty quickly that although there are some really awesome parenting experts and resources out there, there are also a lot of people with opinions and ‘advice’ that seemed so outrageous to me; just because you have a parenting book with your name on the cover that does not make you a parenting ‘expert’. I read something recently on The Happiest Mom blog that summed it up nicely. In her post the mother you need to be Meagan Francis writes, “I no longer even look at books or websites that seem completely at odds with what I believe in my heart to be true about myself and my children.” I read this nodding furiously. Yes! I think we rely too heavily on the advice of paediatricians, parenting ‘experts’, books and such for things that our own hearts and minds will tell us if we just listen.
Breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing –some say these are the hallmarks of attachment parenting. To me these are the simple, normal ways of parenting. These things come naturally to me and I’ve never second-guessed myself about these things. I just wish all aspects of parenting were this simple.
I have three boys and a baby girl and I’ve heard all kinds of comments about it. When I was pregnant with my fourth people were always saying things like “three boys, oh you poor woman!” or “oh, I bet you’re dying for a girl!” and “are you going for a girl?” and even things like, “oh man, I hope you don’t have another boy!” These types of comments drove me crazy.
Last night, my five year old, Son-F, said to me, “Mummy, when baby-M was in your tummy, did you want a girl?” I explained that I wanted whatever was inside and no matter what we all would have loved the baby. It sure is fun to have a girl, isn’t it? But wouldn’t it have been crazy fun to have four boys? He thought about this for a moment and then said, “Ya but Mum, didn’t you *say* that you wanted a girl?” No I never, ever said that. I always said that I’d be happy either way. We weren’t ‘trying for a girl’; we would have had four kids either way. If you ask me today if I’m glad I had a girl, of course my answer is yes, but wasn’t until I knew she was a girl that I felt like I really wanted a girl. Before that I would have been thrilled with four boys.
I have often contemplated the effect on my boys (and all boys) of hearing “oh all those boys, you poor thing” or “boys will be boys” or “thank goodness it’s a girl this time!” and other negative boy comments over and over and over again. What do boys think when they hear these comments day in and day out? Is “boys will be boys” a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are boys the way they are because it is what people expect of them? What message are we sending them?
It kind of makes me sad to think that Son-F thinks I wanted a girl. Not because there is anything wrong with wanting a girl, but because most of the people who made comments to me about me wanting a girl were really saying “because Lord knows, you don’t want another boy.” Does Son-F think that I didn’t want a boy? Does he think that I think that boys are “trouble”? Does he wonder if I wished he was a girl? Oh probably not, but it still bugs me.
There’s no denying that boys and girls are different, but I don’t ever want my boys to think that there is something ‘wrong’ with boys or that they are wanted any less than girls. So, the next time you find yourself about to make a comment about boys, think about who is listening and bite your tongue.