Pandemic period offers gift for some learners

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BY TERRY STAFFORD

The changes in schooling during the pandemic have many parents worrying that their children will fall behind academically. 

I feel we can take a deep breath and let that worry go. I’m not trying to make light of the very real difficulties as we live through a world pandemic, but some changes can offer rare gifts.

I myself missed months of school as a child, once at the age of 11 when my mother sent me to my grandparents’ farm because I had developed a nervous tic. (No school for six months and the tic was gone!) The next time was when I was 12 and my father’s illness inspired my mother to grant his dying wish and take us all to Mexico for nearly a year. Both times I slid back into school without a hitch. 

In fact, this hiatus in schooling proved a gift. I was able to follow my own interests, reading voraciously and learning Spanish through a cultural immersion that stood me in good stead through high school. I also learned from my father who shared his interest in Mexican art and ancient culture. 

Know that “falling behind” is far from the problem it’s made out to be. There are many instances of children catching up quickly and easily, given readiness and motivation. One well-known example comes from Sudbury Valley Free School in Massachusetts, where a dozen kids who had not previously taken math asked for instruction. This was their idea, and they were committed to it. It took them 20 weeks to cover the entirety of elementary school arithmetic. My own daughter, after homeschooling until she decided to enter Grade 6, finished catching up in math in one weekend. 

My purpose in relating these stories is simply to encourage you not to panic. In skill subjects such as arithmetic, catch-up is relatively simple. As for data-content subjects, just what information do we deem essential for a child to retain? And do children retain every fact in the museum of their minds? No, much information learned in school is rarely held for very long and, where retained, is done so through student interest, not curriculum demand. As for keeping the mind actively learning, there are many avenues, the major one being play. Besides being an expression of joy — a central feature of being human — play is a crucial means of cognitive and emotional development. 

Nor is there one hard-and-fast rule about the age at which children need to learn skills or information. The desire to learn is not age-dependent. It is inborn; it’s what humans do. From the day they are born, children are learning. By the time they start school they can walk, talk and orient themselves to the world around them. This avid drive to learn, when not discouraged, is a lifetime gift.  

In fact, the subjects children encounter in school do not necessarily cover the interests that may lead them to a future career or lifetime learning. Furthermore, coercive learning runs the risk of shutting down this innate curiosity, as sadly attested to by the many students who drop out of high school or who, once graduated, never open another book. 

It is more important to foster a joy in learning than to insist on mastering content. This time of COVID restrictions, as difficult as it is, offers opportunities: the opportunity to learn to be self-directed, to pursue and discover your own interests, and to learn who you are. An example of what I’m talking about is photographer Ansel Adams, whose father told him that school would distract him from finding his passion. He released his son from school, thus allowing him to develop his love of photography, and the rest is history. 

So, relax and give your children the gift of time — to putter, to explore, to try new skills, to discover who they are. In fact, time — a rare commodity in our modern over-organized lives — is probably the major gift these unfamiliar days offer. Don’t let the stress of worrying about missing academics deprive you and your child of this gift. You may find in future years that you and your child have fond memories of these months when the world changed and life slowed down.

The writer has a master of education degree and is director of Wildwood Educational Enrichment Centre on Salt Spring Island. 

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