An Unschooled Girl Who Knows Herself

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Ching, who is an eight year old girl, has been unschooling in Hong Kong since her early childhood. Instead of going to school, she follows her interests and learns from daily life. When she was six and a half, she found her passion in gymnastics. After practising on a regular basis for two years, Ching has mastered many gymnastics skills. Recently, she won three gold medals in individual events and was the All Round Champion in a gymnastics competition.

After the competition, Ching’s mom asked her, “Were you nervous? Were you scared?” Ching innocently replied, “No. Why would I?” Gymnastics is something that she is passionate about. She didn’t feel like she was competing, nor did she feel pressure to win.

When the competition was approaching, Ching didn’t do extra practice. Her mother reminded her a few times, “Don’t you need to practice more before the competition?” But on each occasion, Ching replied, “No, I don’t need to. I’m well prepared.” Mom decided to let her bear the consequence of not practicing, assuming Ching wouldn’t do so well without extra practicing. The competition took place in a gymnasium which was a totally new setting for Ching. Without testing the springboard and rehearsing, she got the highest marks in the Vault event.

Ching’s mom was absolutely amazed by the result! She wondered why her daughter could perform so well even without extra practice and rehearsing in the new setting. After thinking for a while, she said that Ching spent most of her time in playgrounds before the age of six, since she didn’t go to school. She simply played freely until she had had enough. Ching’s mother said the free play in the playgrounds might have helped her to build up her arm strength and her physical flexibility, which became an advantage in gymnastics.

Ching’s mom also recalled that when Ching was around 2 or 3 years old, there was a period of time when Ching was very focused on playing with some empty boxes. She could play with them for more than an hour every day. One time, her mother needed a box to carry an object, but she couldn’t find one in the right size. Ching then took a look at the object, and found an empty box with exactly the right size for her mom! At that moment, the mother was surprised that Ching has such a good spatial sense. She believes that this strong spatial sense also contributes to her daughter’s mastery of gymnastics.

Ching’s mother was asked many times, “What does your daughter learn if she doesn’t go to school?” When she tells people about the above examples, they often react like this, “Playing in the playgrounds is playing, not learning”, or “What good is it to have a strong spatial sense?” In fact, who can judge whether a child’s play will be useful or not in the future? Many of us grew up learning things that adults thought were useful. But we either didn’t learn them well, or we learned, but found out in the end that they were totally useless.

In fact, Ching’s mom has never intended to bring up Ching as a gymnastic athlete. She simply let her daughter follow her interests. When Ching engaged in those “useless” activities, her mother would not intervene. She simply trusted her daughter and supported her, even though she had no answer whether those activities were “useful” or not. After this incident, Ching’s mom realized that she has underestimated how well her daughter knows about herself, and how she should have trusted Ching about how much practice she needed.

Ching’s gymnastics coach stated that Ching mastered the skills better than those who started gymnastics two years earlier than her. As a result, Ching’s mom believes that a child’s ability has nothing to do with how young she starts learning. What is more important is to let the child follow her passion. Ching’s mom feels very grateful that her daughter knows herself so well, and she didn’t treat the tournament as an aggressive competition. Instead, she enjoyed the whole process and was very relaxed. Through gymnastics, Ching feels her inner strength, which is not determined by winning trophies. Her self-confidence comes from within which can’t be taken away by anyone.

P.S. Fake names are used in this story in order to protect the child’s privacy.

Why Sudbury Philosophy Fascinates Me: Trust

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(by Michell Huang)

A few months ago I went shopping with my 3-year-old son. In front of the shop door, there were six staircases, leading to the ground. While I was paying the bill, he ran toward the shop door. The staff, some customers and I were all worried that he was going to run away or fall down the stairs. But just before we could stop him, I saw him sitting down on the top of the stairs and he said, “Mommy, I wait for you here.” We were surprised and we all burst out laughing!

When my child was 2.7 years old, he naturally learned to use the potty. I heard that children need a transition period to totally quit the night nappy, so I tried to put on a nappy for him whenever he went to bed. But he refused and said to me firmly, “I don’t have pee. If I want to pee, I’ll wake up and use the potty.” At that time, I didn’t trust that he would be able to do that. I kept persuading him to wear a nappy, but I never succeeded. It turned out that he did wake up in the middle of the night to use the potty, once in a while. It has been almost a year now, and he only wet his bed two or three times. This is how he became dry at night.

What often happens, like in the situations above, is that I don’t trust my child due to my own fear or some deep-rooted negative beliefs. I didn’t trust that he was able to take safety into account, and I didn’t trust that he was able to use the potty in the middle of the night. But in fact, my child knows himself better than I expected. He always follows his inner voice that allows him to develop in a healthy way.

Fifteen years ago I learned about Sudbury Valley School. The founders of the school suggest that children are born curious and strive to become capable and effective adults. At Sudbury Valley School, students spend their days following their own interests rather than a fixed curriculum. When I first encountered this philosophy, I was absolutely amazed. But it wasn’t until I had my own child that I gained a deeper understanding of the Sudbury philosophy.

Parenting has brought me to reflect on some important topics, such as, what is human nature?

The Sudbury philosophy shows a deep trust toward human beings:

It trusts that humans are born curious and are equipped with an immense learning ability.

It trusts that humans are benevolent in nature.

It trusts that humans strive to become capable people, who function well within their communities.

It trusts that every one is a unique individual, who has her/her own life path.

Though children are not fully developed physically and cognitively, they are definitely much more aligned with their soul than are adults.

To me, it just doesn’t make sense that humans are bad in nature or they are born lazy and do not want to learn anything. If this were true, humans would have become extinct a long time ago. Any so-called negative traits must be acquired, just like the original state of a normal body is intact and workable, rather than bleeding from a wound. So from a medical perspective, the purpose to heal is to bring the body back to its original state. And from an educational perspective, the purpose of education is not to “do” anything to change children, but to recognize the good nature in children, and provide conditions under which they can develop naturally. What we need to do is to stay out of their way, in order not to kill their inborn good traits, and let them develop into unique individuals.

Now here’s the problem: let’s say we agree that we should trust children, but why is it so difficult to put it into practice?

It’s all about our fear.

In Sudbury Valley School, if the adults do not trust the students, they do not set a rule to limit them. They face their fear, reflect how they have projected the negative beliefs to the students, or they observe more closely the students’ behavior so as to understand them better, or they let the students express their views. They discuss the issues in the school meeting. They listen, understand each other, vote, and make decisions together. This process includes intense self-reflection and the breakdown of old belief systems.

In my view this explains why the number of Sudbury schools is increasing only slowly although Sudbury Valley School has been established for 46 years. We still can’t find such schools in many countries.

You just can’t learn how to treat children the way Sudbury people do, like learning times tables. It’s more about the inner work of a person. If you have not faced your fear, or have not gone through the challenges of tearing down some or all of your deep-rooted beliefs, or if you can’t see the world from a child’s angle, there is no way that you can put Sudbury ideas into practice. In Sudbury schools, there are no teaching methods for you to hold on to. You can’t control students by learning specific skills, nor can you find some model answers about child development to make you feel secure. The lives of Sudbury students are full of possibilities. This includes the possibility of living a life, in which they can be who they really are and which could be entirely different from their parents’ expectation. This is scary to the majority of people.

As a parent, I surely have my own fears and sometimes I’m just unable to trust my kid, nor life. Inspired by Sudbury philosophy, I learned to see the world from a child’s perspective, and face my fear and connect with my inner wisdom. I also learned to let go of my limiting beliefs and live out my life first, before I can trust my child to live out his. To me, the Sudbury philosophy is not merely about education. It is a life attitude. It is an approach that encourages human beings to live consciously, and to connect with their inner selves. It is always a choice whether we want to continue to live in the fear, or live out our lives freely.

One time, I wanted my child to do something the way I did it, so I said to him, “Look, this is how I do it”, hoping that he would copy me. However, he looked at me and said, “I’m different from you!” He was right and that reply served as an astonishing reminder to me that he is a unique individual and that I should trust him!