Creating Mental "Shelves" Through Enriching Experience

Moon eclipse

This morning I got my 7-year-old son out of bed at the unearthly hour of 4 am. Last time there was a total lunar eclipse, I got myself up to see it and then told him all about it in the morning. Naturally he was furious! So this time was different. I checked the time on my phone before heading downstairs to make sure we would have a perfect view, then silently entered my son's room to whisper in his ear, "Wake up, Wes! I want to show you something!" It took a minute for him to shake the sleepiness as he stared, open-mouthed, at the shadow of the earth. The next two hours would be spent alternately cat-napping on the couch and checking the view at the window. Finally, when he had seen enough, he fell back into deep sleep, only to be awakened by the arrival of daylight a short time later.

Why would any sane parent do this? What if he is sleepy at school today? What if he can't focus on his math or his reading? Couldn't I just show him pictures of a lunar eclipse in a book? Well, let me tell you what I think. I am not of the mind that kids will just pick up whatever knowledge and skills they need without direction from an adult mentor or teacher. I do think it necessary to memorize the rules of grammar, spelling, math facts, states of matter, important dates in history, etc. I am probably never going to be that homeschool mom that can abandon curriculum and schedule in favor of completely child-led, experience-based learning. In my mind there must be a balance.

This is how it comes together for me. Think of a child's mind as a vast library in which his experiences are not so much books, but shelves. A child goes to the park and digs a "river" in the sand around his castle, creating a "shelf" for learning about real rivers and castles in the future. Another child listens to classic books read aloud and develops an ear for good writing, proper grammar, and varied sentence structure, which he will learn later. A child goes camping with his family and gains experience with the outdoors, creating a space for future acquisition of natural science and the study of ancient lifestyles. What can biology possibly mean to a child who has never caught a grasshopper or watched a caterpillar turn? What are parts of speech to a child who has never read a book? What is astronomy to a child who has never seen a rocket launch or watched the stars come out?

The key here is relevance. Trying to stuff the mind with facts for which there is no experiential context or relevance to the child's life is like piling books on the floor of a library with no shelves. It makes a complete mess and a retrieval nightmare. On the other hand, experience alone, without the complementary in-depth study, could be compared to a library with vast shelving but no books.

Since either case represents a lack of balance, we continue to pursue both enriching experiences and methodical study.  So, while I'm not too shaken by the fact that my child may need a mid-morning nap, and I feel the eclipse experience is worth the inconvenience, it doesn't mean we'll be skipping our grammar lesson later on today. After all, we're learning the prepositions, and those are important, too.


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