Watching a Child Learn

This is a guest post written by Elizabeth Johnson.

As mothers (and fathers) we are blessed with an incredible privilege: watching our children’s minds unfold to the world around them. I used to take great pleasure from seeing an “A” at the top of my daughter’s spelling tests and would congratulate myself on parenting well done when my son could parrot back to me the correct answers for an upcoming science test. Never mind the distasteful preparation on behalf of parent and child in both of these cases.

About seven years ago I read How Children Learn by John Holt. His love for little children and his ability to quietly watch them to see how they learned was an eye-opener for me as a mother. Patiently, he would hold his cello while children came over to touch the instrument and pluck the strings. He did not push them away but allowed them to experience action followed by sound. Over the last few years, I have tried to take time to watch each of my three children and wonder at their curiosity.

Recently I looked through several files of family pictures. The pictures that had the best memories included one of my daughter, Sydney, about age seven, looking at a flower; my son Isaac launching tennis balls from a trebuchet he built with the help of his dad; my son Michael holding some leaves he found at the park; and our family playing at the beach together. These were real learning moments with real memories. These moments remind me of the examples John Holt wrote about in his book.

My son Michael, who is six years old,  and I have had some extra time together the last few days while my teens have been busy babysitting and working at an internship. I have enjoyed extra time watching him learn. A few weeks ago he found two snails in our backyard. He named them Susan and Charlotte. He spent hour-long stretches at a time on his stomach on the back porch watching these snails move on the ground. He allowed the large snail, Susan, to crawl all over his hands and arms. He placed the snails in a jar with leaves and a few drops of water and watched them with fascination at the kitchen table. I asked him if he wanted me to check out a book about snails at the library. His reply was, “Please find a book about sloths.”

I dutifully found a book about sloths at the library and brought it home. Has he asked me to read it to him? No. But he has asked me to read quite a variety of stories to him including a Korean fairy tale, poems about things found underground, and The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Last night he asked if I could take him to the park near our home. On the walk there he became distracted by spider webs, seed pods, red flowers, yellow flowers, and various desert grasses. He peppered me with questions that I couldn’t always answer, although I assured him we could look anything up on the Internet or check out books at the library.

This morning Michael and I went to a beautiful local garden. We enjoyed the roses (my favorite were the peach-colored ones), cone flowers, the water fountain, oak trees, occasional dandelions, butterflies, a hummingbird, and ladybugs. After exploring on his own a little, Michael came running to me and said, “Look at the acorns I found on the ground!” Although nervous around the wasps, he watched them fly around flowers and grass with interest. His excitement was infectious. I relaxed on a bench while he gathered fallen leaves and acorns, felt the sunshine on my face, and took in the strong scent of wisteria.

I am amazed at the variety of things my children are learning and at the interests they have developed over the years. They are unique. Equally incredible are moments in public places when I have taken time to watch other children whose eyes light up at rocks and blue skies. Children will learn as long as we get out of their way.

About Elizabeth Johnson

Elizabeth Johnson is a happily married unschooling mother of three children. She enjoys literature, music, history, time with family, reading the scriptures, mathematics, and playing the piano.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for allowing me to publish your article and the beautiful photos of Michael on my blog. Your story makes me wish I once again had a 6-year-old to observe and take pleasure in. Seeing the world through young children’s eyes is such a privilege and delight.

Does anyone else enjoy watching young children as they learn? As you know, my children are no longer little. However, I still love watching them especially when they’re involved with their passions.

If you have an unschooling story that you’d like to offer as a guest post, please let me know!

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  1. I wonder why we don’t see the beauty in their learning so well if they are at school? Is it lack of proximity or a dampening down of their enthusiasm due to forced exposure and study of things they aren’t passionate about?
    I’m so happy we unschool!
    Thanks for your article.
    Jazzy Jack

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