In recent months I find myself reading a lot about the importance of play--unstructured, risky play included--and all of the ways it influences childhood development.
Sometimes when I think about my own childhood, I feel like it didn't include much risk. I didn't spend a lot of time in unsupervised outdoor play, I didn’t climb high trees, travel freely around the neighborhood with a pack of fellow 6- and 7-year-olds, or build forts in the woods.
But I'm realizing that there were other elements of my childhood where potentially risky tasks were embraced, namely real work with "dangerous" tools and materials.
I remember once when I was in Brownies (a level of the Canadian Girl Guides program), my mother, one of the leaders, organized an applesauce making activity. She was all set to provide all the 7- and 8-year-olds with small paring knives and peelers, but the other leaders were positively horrified by the idea. None of their children had ever handled a knife in food preparation before. My mother found this surprising, considering I'd been doing so for years at that point.
I owned a set of small yet perfectly functional tools: a hammer, screwdriver, etc. with metal heads. Real tools, just child-sized ones. And when it came to the kitchen, I was using small sharp tools--under the supervision of my parents when I was younger--almost as soon as I was able to hold and control them.
My sister and I helped with cooking and cleaning, banged on nails, stacked firewood, helped change bandages on our dogs' minor wounds, and all other tasks, small and large, of everyday life. Some of these tasks (like wood stacking and apple cutting) seem, to some, to be dangerous and inappropriate for small children. But in our house, they were just treated as important skills, and things that needed doing.
In our adult lives, my sister has expressed distress at the way some other people she knows mistreat their cast iron cookware (we love our cast iron in this house) or (don't) clean their kitchens. I've been surprised many times over at how difficult cooking even the simplest dish is to so many young people. We learned from a young age how to feed and take care of ourselves and each other: our own version of “home economics,” I guess you could say.
In this culture where children are increasingly being sheltered from any possible risk, and where domestic and hands-on skills of any sort are considered to be far behind more intellectual and academic pursuits in importance, I guess it’s not surprising that many don’t learn those skills at a young age.
It seems to me that one of the ways home education prepares young people for later life is by intimately involving them in the here and now. Learning domestic and life skills alongside their parents, through nothing more elaborate than helping with the running of the house in age appropriate ways, is important. Anyone, regardless of education, can do this to some extent. But home learners, with their strong ethos of life learning and without school taking up the majority of their children’s time, seem to be especially good at it.
I might not have gotten those countless hours of unstructured outdoor play that researchers are finding is so important, but I did learn a whole lot of equally important life skills from a young age. I can budget for and buy food that I can turn into various delicious and healthy meals; mend clothes; start fires in our wood stove; grow garden herbs; care for sick pets and sick humans.
In some ways, I guess that doesn’t sound like much. But I’m as grateful for those skills as I am for the more academic ones I’ve worked on in my life learning journey thus far. Which I guess highlights one of my favorite things about self directed learning: the ability to value and cultivate the skills that you feel are most important, for yourself and your kids, and to expand the range of learning well past what a school curriculum considers to be the most important. Literacy and history are certainly important, but so is the ability of each individual to take care of themselves, their dwellings, their loved ones.
I wish that instead of seeing children using the tools of daily life as unnecessarily dangerous, people could instead see it as the first steps in learning to live healthy lives and as an opportunity to gain the unique feeling of independence found in being skilled at the everyday necessities of life.