It’s amazing what we can learn if we just stop listen and observe, if we don’t rush to fill a self perceived void. I’ve got a three-year old son who is an amazing skateboarder. I’d go as far to say that he’s a prodigy. We go to the skate park on a regular basis and he handles all the ramps, and even does a number of other tricks. He’s come by these skills pretty much on his own. In fact, I’ve tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. See, the thing is, I want it to be “his thing”, something that always gives him pride and joy. I want him to have ownership.
Now, just because I say that doesn’t mean I’ve always adhered to it. Truth is, I take a great deal of pride in his skills and at times I find myself pushing him to places he’s not ready to go. After all I say, everybody needs to be pushed to reach their potential. I’m just trying to be a good parent by helping him excel, not to mention that if he’s successful then somehow it’s a reflection on me as a parent. Fortunately, my son is stubborn and not afraid to show me the error of my ways.
Case in point: he actually started skating when he was two. He would hop up on the board and was quickly able to go down the sidewalk. Soon he was contemplating hills. He conquered a couple small ones. So, I started taking him to the skate park. There he would eye the big ones, but wouldn’t go down them. Of course I started pushing. “Come on”, I’d say, “You can do this no problem. You do the small ones all the time.” Still he would resist. This would cause me to get frustrated and aggravated. He had a talent. He needed to use it. The more I pushed, the more he resisted.
In fact, not only would he resist but he’d start to goof off. He’d sit at the top of the hill and just let the skateboard roll down the hill. Of course this would just set me off. “Quit fooling around.” I’d say. ‘If you’re just going to goof off we’re going home.” Still he went about things at his own pace. Then one day I stopped looking at things through my eyes.
I realized that what I thought was goofing off was actually careful calculation on his part. He was sending the board down the hill to get an idea of what would happen. He was testing things and processing them. About a week later, he went down the big hill by himself. We danced and celebrated like he’d won the Olympics. Inspired by this success, he tackled several other hills. Again we danced and celebrated. None of this would have happened without his “goof off” times. Low and behold, I’d also learned something.
These days he’s at a bit of a plateau. He’s mastered all the hills, but he’s a little scared of the super steep ones. There are also tricks he’d like to attempt, but physically he’s not ready yet. Truth is, he’s a little bored with it all. This time though I’m not interjecting myself into the conversation. I’m just going to be supportive and put him in an environment that is conducive to progression. I’ll give him the tools he needs and then I’m going to have faith and trust him to find his way to the next level.
My role as parent and mentor is to provide him with tools and situations where he can develop his talents. My role is to celebrate his success and help him develop the tools to deal with his shortcomings. If I want this to be a life long endeavor for him, I have to let him own it. Owning it means not enforcing my learning styles on him. Truth is, since I don’t live in his head I don’t know when he’s learning or not learning. I need to recognize that there will be times that he seems to be making great progress and times when it seems he’s making none. Neither is probably a true reflection.
Will he be a gold medalist at the X-games someday? Is he the next Tony Hawk? Who knows and does it truly matter? Isn’t it more important that he develop a life long passion? Something that he’ll find joy and solace in for the rest of his life? Something that he actively pursues throughout life? Who would have ever thought I was learning something about education while taking my three-year old to the skatepark.
Adults are always trying to develop methods for children to learn while forgetting that they are not just vessels to be filled with knowledge we deem important. We hear children are bored and suddenly feel the need to create new programs to engage them, never stopping for a moment to consider that these times of boredom could be as educational as our rigorous classroom exercises. We try to use our measurements on when children are learning without ever listening to the people who spend the majority of the day with them or recognizing that there will be times in their lives were circumstances will supersede what we deem a priority.
Perhaps we need to focus just as much on the environment we are creating for children as we do on the test scores they are creating. Maybe we need to recognize that the immeasurable is just as important as the measurable. Instead of creating undue pressure on children through increased testing we should create opportunities to risk failure without censure. Our goal should be to create life long learners who understand that learning isn’t just about passing a test but a means to enhance quality of life.
Unstructured play provides a means for children to develop into those life long learners. It is through play that children learn those valuable soft skills – leadership, collaboration, compromise, – that lead to greater success in life. I’m not alone in recognizing the value of play in children’s development.
In the 1980’s in the wake of No Child Left behind schools started to decrease the amount of play in children’s school day. Has that lack of play resulted in increased test scores? Absolutely not.
Children need to be given time to explore and find their own solutions. They need to have time to explore and develop their own interests. Play is essential to both of those needs. I’m slowly recognizing this fact and how it relates to my children.
Too often we impose our own timelines and deadlines on children. We impose benchmarks and learning strategies on our children because it makes us less worried, but is it good for them? Are we allowing them to develop in a manner that is natural for them or are we just trying to make carbon copies of ourselves?
It’s all very difficult and some days I thing I have all the patience in the world. Other days, I feel patience slipping away as I wonder why can’t he just do it this way? I know he feels it too and at times will push back at me, “Dad why are you yelling at me! You are taking all the fun out of it.”
That’s when I have to step back and realize that it’s not all about my expectations. He brings his own set of expectations, fears, and goals to the process. Sometimes I need to just sit back and let them develop. It is not easy, but it is essential.
I’m going to continue to watch my sons development on the skateboard. It’s one of the most fascinating endeavors I’ve ever been involved with. Today he attempted to “drop in”. It’s an advanced trick and one that he’s been afraid to try. He pushed the skateboard into place on his own and looked at me and said, “Should I try?” “Sure”, I replied “If you think you’re ready.” He did and he wasn’t. We celebrated the effort like it was a success. I’m pretty sure the success is in the future.