From an early age my boys wanted to know how everything worked. If it could be taken apart and studied, they wanted to do just that. They asked hundreds of questions every day about everything they observed. They were constantly moving and constantly hungry. They took every available opportunity to test their boundaries. They had very low tolerance for any sort of teaching material that talked down to them. They rarely chose to be sedentary if the option to move and explore was available. They would not walk anywhere if they could bounce, run, or crawl there instead. In other words, they were healthy, normal children.
Kids have energy. There is no way around this. Demand that they sit, and they’ll do a slow motion dead-weight collapse over the starboard side. Strap them to their seats, and their feet will tap a belligerent tune titled “Just wait till I’m a teenager.” Threaten them with consequences and they will run off to distant lands in their minds and have their adventures there, leaving you alone with your lesson book and a barrel of frustration.
Oftentimes adults will measure children by their ability to “sit and behave for school.” A colleague of mine once chimed, “Good children sit and learn. Bad children fidget and squirm.” This saying is complete garbage. We should not equate a child’s ability to sit at a desk with his or her character. Be they angels or rascals, children were not created to sit behind a desk all day. Embracing a child’s natural energy affirms love for who that child is and paves the way for life-giving learning in the home.
I learned early on to work with my children’s energy. This wasn’t because I was some marvel of creative pedagogy; it was sheer survival instinct. We felt led to homeschool, and at the time we had four wildly rambunctious boys aged 5 and under, and I was concerned for the structural integrity of our small home. I started looking around for a starting point, some way to get all my kids to cheerfully congregate in that small space for a reasonable length of time using all that energy for learning.
I had my answer one day while sitting on my living room floor surrounded by an explosion of toys and laundry. My third born child, having just finished his own lunch, crawled over to steal the barely touched lunch off my plate. I stared at him as he tore into my lunch like a starving man. He didn’t move from my side until every crumb was gone. I blinked through my sleep deprived stupor as epiphany dawned. My boys would show up and stay put wherever food was present. Moth to a flame. And so one of the first cornerstones of our sophisticated philosophy of education was born. “If I feed them, they will come.”
I started to make simple, healthful food and presented it on our table in the loveliest way within my means. Even though they were extremely young, I would light a candle or trim flowers off the hedge and stick them in a small vase next to our snack. I would introduce small evidences of tangible beauty, lovingly offer nourishing food, and then settle back to read beautiful words aloud to them. As the days ticked by, their appreciation for these things grew. It took root in their memories. It became a part of their home culture.
They were gaining not only physical nourishment from our table, but mental and spiritual nourishment as well. Little by little, day by day, the stretches of time spent reading and learning round the table grew longer and longer. Soon this crossed over into our regular studies. I started to read about various philosophies of education and realized that, unbeknownst to us, we had been jamming with Charlotte Mason and Classical education all along. It was nice to have official names for the things we were doing; it made our relatives less nervous. A few cross country moves later and we found our farmhouse. There was space for a classroom and a lot of outdoor green to release the children upon. Our little philosophies became habit. Learning became synonymous with living.
Learning is a joyful action for the boys. It energizes them. Like a bolt of lightning, a charge of creativity sparks questions for them to chase down. They relish the chance to dig for answers rather than have answers thrown at them. As their mental batteries begin to fill, their bodies begin to crave movement. Legs bounce up and down, fingers tap, minds wander. We take 30 minute breaks between studies for the boys to run, bike, climb trees, play games, lie in the grass and stare at the sky, build forts and have fun without their mom’s intervention or direction.
They often carry their lessons outdoors and into their play. They’ve crossed the backyard in wagons made of cardboard boxes with the Ingalls family, they’ve played starseek in the back hollow like Heather and Picket, they’ve held their own Revolutionary War battle reenactments, and they’ve organized science experiments and tested theories. Swiss Family Robinson in the tree tops, geometry work with sidewalk chalk on the driveway. Every day they sow their creative energy and live out their lessons under a big blue canopy of possibility. In other words, they are still learning even as they play.
Albert Einstein is often attributed with the quote, “Play is the highest form of research.” What undeniable truth! After all their research, the boys return to the house with reddened, dirt-streaked faces, ready for a glass of water and another round of learning. This rhythm has shown me that providing children the opportunity to move provides me the opportunity to teach children at rest. Whether the children are sitting behind desks or under them, they are ready to learn. Upside down on a couch, cozied up on a warm bed, hiding under a staircase, nestled in a laundry basket, or lying prostrate on a coffee table, there is no “right” posture that can beat a teachable spirit.
My boys drink tea every single day. I read poetry aloud and they drink tea. They might be wearing army helmets, or have a sling shot set right next to their china tea cup, or have an assortment of plastic insects somewhere on the table, but every single day, these rough and tumble boys have tea and listen to beautiful books. One day I looked up from my well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and realized they were all squinting at me. Each boy was sporting a black eye in various stages of healing. Four shiners peering over the gold-rimmed edges of four teacups, I smothered a smile and pressed on. Ah, teatime with boys.
Six years into our homeschool groove, I have to acknowledge that our richest learning still takes place around the table. Shared conversations over a warm meal settle into the soul and take root much deeper than drills in a handbook from behind a desk. For as long as they are in our home, there will be tea and books, there will be energetic childhood lived in motion, and there will be shared meals and life-giving learning.
Elsie Iudicello lives in South Florida with her husband, four young boys, fifteen chickens, a pig, a duck, and a pup. She is a writer, blogger, speaker, herder of small children, seeker of adventure, and avoider of laundry. She is passionate about encouraging homeschool moms, reading beautiful books, kissing her hubby, and raising her boys to be men of God. She loathes cat memes and the sound of squeaking styrofoam. You can catch her on Instagram, and you can read more from Elsie at Farmhouse Schoolhouse.