Learning and Play, Tribal Life

Vegetable Warfare and Self Expression

It’s “Mommy Monday” and Jude and I are in the kitchen, cutting vegetables for a soup we are making. He moves slow (as slow as a butter knife allows) but there is no real hurry. In between slices, he examines the shape of a potato he has just cut and declares, “Mommy, it looks just like a rhino!” I smile in acknowledgement as he allows his imagination to carry him away to a place where the oddly shaped vegetables in front of him are animals in the Sahara about to be engaged in combat. His voice changes as he switches roles and each potato-animal attempts to negotiate and compromise to avoid going to war. Of course, I know how this will end. No almost five year old in this house can resist the temptation of throwing two objects (edible or not) together at full force and declaring a winner (and possibly declaring that something is now broken).

Satisfied with his chopping and theatrical display of potato warfare, Jude moves off the stool and over to the kitchen table where the boys have been looking at a book I got from the library, showing how to draw different Halloween objects- bats, pumpkins, haunted houses. Jude returns to his picture of a haunted house he started yesterday. Before he starts drawing, he takes a few minutes to look over his work and study the picture on the page. He is quiet, aligning himself to get in the still, focused space now required of him. He picks up the pencil and starts drawing.

As I watch him, I am keenly aware that these moments, these days are fleeting. Jude is my youngest, my baby- and it’s his last year of preschool. Next year he will be in Kindergarten full time and it is likely that I will be working full-time as well. A new phase of life for our family, no doubt- full of new adventures.

As I watch him, I soak in the beauty of childhood. He teaches me so much, as all children do. Slow down, use your imagination, follow your instincts. Watch how happy these things can make you, he seems to be saying. Of course, he is right.

As I watch him, I offer a deep heartfelt wish, a silent prayer, that he will be given time and space to practice these three tenants of childhood in school. I think about his nature, which I know is not really all that different from the nature of most children. He is creative- will he have opportunities to draw, paint, color, build whatever he wants, in whatever way he chooses to express himself that day? He is theatrical- will he be able to play, take on roles, make up his own little worlds and act them out? He is sensitive- will he be given enough attention to feel like he belongs, like he is an important member of his class. Will he be given attention and the tools to work through things when his feelings are hurt? Or when he does something that hurts others?

I think back to a moment at this time last year when Owen, my oldest, walked in to Jude’s preschool class with me. His shoulders slumped and tears filled his eyes as he took in his surroundings. He turned to me and said, “We don’t have dress-up clothes in Kindergarten.” I pulled him in close, acknowledging his sadness at this realization and found myself asking, Why not? Why do they not have dress-up clothes in Kindergarten?

I know the answers to a lot of these questions and some I am still looking for. I am in collaborative meetings in which we pour over data and discuss which skills, which standards, students have mastered and which skills and standards they are merely beginning to understand. I see the value in these meetings, in this attention to individual academic progress. I do, I really do.

But what I really want to know is this. Why are we not first asking about the most important standard of a child’s well-being, of the most crucial indicator of whether they will actually learn any of these standards in the first place? Why are we not starting off these meetings with this question- “Is Jimmy, Pedro, Samuel, Abby, Mary, _____ happy and engaged? Happy. And. Engaged.

As I watch my son, as I think about the nature of school and what next year will be like for him, it is my most heartfelt wish that he is happy and engaged. I don’t care if he learns to read. I don’t care if has access to the latest technology. I really don’t. I care that he is free to be a child and uses his innate qualities to learn and express himself. I care that the teachers in his life are getting together and asking, “Is Jude happy and engaged?” I care about this more than anything else.

On this Monday morning, as I watch my son, he reminds me- imagination, self-expression, autonomy, choice- these are the keys to learning. He looks up at me, smiling, eager to show me his drawing.

See how happy these things can make you, Mama? See?

2 comments on “Vegetable Warfare and Self Expression

  1. Really lovely piece. It broke my heart to watch my daughter, for the majority of her pre-college education, not be happy and engaged. High school was the worst–an uninspiring schedule of tests and regimentation and boredom. Such a waste of opportunity. I hope you and your kids will find a better way!

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