Exploring to Learn About Diversity, and Why It Matters

Found: A decomposing, rat-chewed deer vertebra.
This morning my fabulous group of Wild Art kids and I lay on the forest floor with our heads in the dried leaves, looking up at the canopy of deep, dark, low-branched cedars and verdant freshly-leaved maples, their moss and fern-covered trunks reaching down to the ground beside us. The diversity of greens was shocking. Even the leaves of one maple were a very different green than those of the next. We talked about the diversity of bird sounds we could hear, the sounds of the different sorts of leaves rustling both under us and in the distance. We talked about the dark brown, cone-covered branch hung up in the cedar above us, and one of the kids waxed nearly poetic about the balance of dead and decomposing things with the fresh and living things, the balance of different shapes all around, and even the balance of humans in nature, since mostly we now find ourselves not there.

We agreed that balance is pretty important. And the more diversity we have, the more balance. Diversity and balance are essential for all communities, human and wilderness. And the understanding of this diversity is essential for engaging with the world.

This past weekend I attended a rhododendron symposium in Washington, where a majority of attendees were grey-haired, and one of the burning questions was how to engage younger people in the study and love of rhododendrons. Well, of course it's not just rhododendrons, as various people pointed out - it's wilderness in general. But rhodos are one way to look at the wilderness, and humans need to be connecting more with the wilderness. Rhododendrons, mostly recognized as those car-sized, shiny-leaved, blossom-covered shrubs often lining suburban driveways, don't exactly scream wilderness as they beckon weakly from the garden aisles of Costco and Walmart. But did you know that plants of the rhododendron genus occur in the wild on nearly every continent, from cold alpine climates to temperate lowlands to tropical forests? They grow in swamps, on rocks, on stumps and even in the tree canopy. Did you know that these shrubs can be as big as castles or as small as a football? They include species with leaves as big as serving platters, and as small as your thumbnail, blossoms of all colours and many different shapes, and some are evergreen while others are deciduous. We have a few wild species here in my own ecosystem, and one of those, Labrador Tea, is harvested from the swamps for human consumption. I drink Labrador Tea. It's delicious.

There is quite possibly some kind of rhododendron participating in your ecosystem too, just as there are likely many species of grass, trees, moss, lichen, fungi, mammals, and insects. If you go out in the woods, today, you will find diversity.

My point is this: The great diverse world of rhododendrons is one of millions of interconnected pieces of our complex world that thrives because it is complex. Each individual rhodo species or plant, in its own natural community, is an integral participant in the livelihood of everyone. The diversity of human culture is important, too. Each of us contributes in a unique way to our greater community, creating a balance that keeps us more generally prosperous. It is not enough to write this in textbooks for biology students, or to depend on a few grey-haired plant-enthusiasts to champion the diversity of each species. We all need to champion diversity in general, and to celebrate and nurture it in every part of our lives.

If we don't take our children into the wilderness and allow them to play, how will they know - I mean innately, deeply know - that diversity is essential for life? In the wilderness, diversity is what ensures the cycle of life. A rat chewed the deer vertebra in the photo above, nourishing itself with essential minerals and introducing those and others back into the available substrate when it pooped, so that tasty maple cotyledons now shoot up all over the place, are eaten by a nursing doe, passed to its offspring by lactation, and thus the minerals of that bone become part of the next generation of deer. Nobody told me this; I surmised it from a lifetime of exploring and asking questions and being engaged. You don't have to tell your children this. They don't need to read about this cycle in a text book to understand it. They need to crawl around in the underbrush of the forest and find the bones with their own grubby hands, feeling the marks made by the rat's incisors all along the edges. They need to get curious and go looking for the rest of the bones.

As the earth's biodiversity succumbs to climate and habitat destruction, there are people trying to preserve the diversity of rhododendrons for the world. These hardy explorers traverse mountain ridges and river valleys, picking their way through a still-surprising diversity of life and weather conditions, to discover wild rhodos and bring a few seeds back to raise, at home. They observe and document the diversity of life that exists where the seeds came from, and create similar diversity in urban gardens, so that one day when we stop razing the world's forests, perhaps some of this diversity will be retrievable. There are people doing similar preservation work for thousands of genuses and ecosystems all over the world. The reason the room full of grey-haired rhododendron enthusiasts is so eager to engage future generations is because they know the importance of the preservation of diversity for all species.

This is why exploration is important - because in exploring, we discover real diversity, on a scale that no textbook, biology professor, or nature documentary can show us. We know by the dirt under our fingernails that we are a part of this. In a time when the earth's biodiversity is severely threatened, we can immerse ourselves in it, engage with it and know it, literally from the ground up. Then when we get on a city bus we can look at the great diversity of people around us, the great diversity of ideas and emotions and physical attributes, smells and even microbiomes, and we can feel comfortable in knowing that these are important parts of our ecosystem, too.

No matter where we look in the world, diversity means innovation from diverse sources and evolution in many directions, and therefore more likelihood of success and survival, overall. Diversity matters in wilderness ecosystems as well as in our intestinal bacterial populations, boardrooms, classrooms, and human technological progress. Let's give our kids the opportunity to be and value and preserve that diversity.

Further Reading:
May 21 is World Cultural Diversity Day!
Rhododendron Species Foundation (largest collection in the world)
The Catalogue of Life!
Monoculture vs. Diversity in Farming

Why the Best Learning Looks Like Play

My fourteen-year-old daughter is spending today doing and creating crossword puzzles, playing Sims, and rehearsing for her current role as Ginny in A Very Potter Musical. I asked her to tell me about a time she remembers play that was especially wonderful, or meaningful to her.

"What do you mean?" She asked me. "I'm always playing!"

Far from being the useful answer I hoped for that would help me frame this article, her answer helped me rewrite it. My fourteen-year-old unschooler is an accomplished writer, actor, and student, as well as one of the most diligent workers I know. She always keeps her goals and commitments in mind, runs her social and academic lives like tight ships, and yet feels like she has spent her life always playing.

My daughter is living the dream I dreamed for her, and yet the simplicity of it took me by surprise.

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”                           ~Alan Watts

I've been writing about the beautiful learning that my own kids and the kids I work with stumble upon while playing for a very long time, but every day I still run into my own judgments about what comprises valuable activity. This is the way with most of us, I think, who unwittingly (or otherwise) subscribe to the notion that drudgery makes us valuable. But it doesn't. It just makes us drudge.

Play is the word we use for something that we joyfully engage in. Work is often used to represent the opposite. What happens when, instead of teaching our children that hard work pays off with more time for play, we teach them that play is the way to engage with life. We teach them that they have to do some chores, and they have the power to make the chores fun. We join them in the chores because it's a happy way to engage socially. We teach them by example that we are constantly learning. We allow them to see our fascination at whatever we observe happening during the day, we talk to them openly about our wonderings and explorations and the things we've discovered by simply looking up that new word we heard or researching whether we can eat that berry growing in the park. Not only does this demonstrate a healthy way to learn through play, but it turns the job of parenting into joyful engagement... and that's play.

photo by my fabulous brother and teacher, Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, who knows the value of play
"But", says my own father, "at some point you have to stop playing and get to work." As a culture we've convinced ourselves that in order to be of value we have to struggle. I'm going to suggest we throw that away. Just chuck it out. Life has enough inherent struggles, and we're going to learn from every one of them. We don't need to set ourselves (or our children!) up for planned struggling. It doesn't make us more valuable; it just makes us less willing. Nobody went into a parenting or marital or personal crisis on purpose, and yet those crises happen and they make us who we are. They give us the passion we need to pick up and go again - only wiser.

Passion. That's what we need. There's passion in having a fun idea in the middle of the night and getting up to make it happen. There's passion to be found in discovering a new recipe or a new unsolved mystery or a new insect on the wall. There's passion to be had in taking any of the hundreds of experiences of our day and allowing it to inspire us. And that's what some of the best learning looks like: Passionate play.

Maybe it sounds pompous of me to call anything the best learning, but I'm not backing down, there. For decades, now, research has been showing the massive value of play-based learning for people of all ages but especially for children and youth. Some excellent schools have been putting it into practice for a long time, and many businesses are following suit, as companies encourage their employees to both explore their own passions and share their pursuits with the team. In these cases students and employees are encouraged to play; encouraged to explore, and the result is empowered, passionate learners. The result is better teams; better learning; better work.

I live in British Columbia, where the Ministry of Education has rejigged the provincial curriculum to focus on core competencies and other broad ideas that create opportunities for empowered, self-directed, explorative learning. It is taking a while to reach the goals of the new curriculum, but we're on our way. Maybe in twenty years we'll have a whole generation of young adults who have learned through playing all their lives, and go on to build inspired, engaging careers based on curiosity, learning, and enthusiasm. No matter what we're doing, may we always be playing.
Some resources for further reading:

Unschooling, Defiance and Motivation

"No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them."                ~Assata Shakur

Our family didn't originally discover unschooling because it aligned with our beliefs. We discovered it during a desperate-feeling time when my five-year-old son was so defiant that school seemed an impossibility. He was only interested in pursuing the things he'd thought of himself, and even then would lose interest as soon as somebody tried to push or even encourage him. Many days he flatly refused to leave the house. Unschooling seemed at the time like the only way, and I can say now that he's on the brink of graduation that although it has been extremely difficult, I think it was the best way.

I'm a bossy person, my controlling nature fueled by the fear drilled into me at school that any wrong action could lead to failure, or even death. So I make decisions that feel right to me, and I expect people to see reason and follow my lead. My son has defied me every day of his life, to the extreme frustration and benefit of both of us. So unschooling, which challenges me to allow him complete autonomy, and challenges him to take responsibility for his actions, has been our solution over these past twelve years.

This road has never been without struggle. I watch him every day like a mother owl whose fluffy chick is teetering on the edge of the nest, knowing that if he falls out he'll be prey for the wolves. At every turn I feel like he's making grave miscalculations of safety and feasibility. At every turn I attempt to warn him, coax him, steer him to safety or provide him with advice. All of my efforts are unwanted, and many, I admit with shame, lead to arguments and threats. Worst of all, my controlling behaviour causes my son to lose faith in himself, and then I know I have truly failed him.

I pick up the baton again and again, setting myself back on the unschooling track I chose, and he makes some gains of confidence and autonomy before I fall of the rails again. It has never, ever been easy. But it has been right.

In their 2009 article for the Journal of Educational Psychology, Maarten van Steenkiste et al. revealed that "to foster good quality motivation, teachers and school principals need to create a school and class environment that allows students to satisfy their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness." This is what unschooling does for us. And if we've truly given our children autonomy, they are bound to defy us when we try to control them.

Defiance is necessary for autonomy. A wholly obedient person can never go very far along a path of inspiration before being led astray by somebody else's advice or admonishments. How will our children learn to make safe decisions if they aren't given an open testing ground for experimenting with decision-making? They need the freedom to tell us no when we're interfering with their autonomous motivation. We need the courage to watch them make mistakes.

My son, after all this unschooling, is now considering getting his highschool diploma, and may graduate in a couple of months. This very short timeline has meant a lot of work and stress for him, and a correlational rise in my level of parenting fears. I find myself constantly checking in on him, begging him to stop playing video games, get working on whatever is most urgent for his courses, or just get some exercise and eat a proper meal. He is learning to deflect my concerns with less bitterness than he once did, and I am learning to keep my mouth closed more often. I find cooking him a healthy meal is a better use of my energy than standing in his door lecturing him about time management.

Respecting our children's interests, decisions, and independence means that they don't want to be compliant when we ask them to. It's hard for us as parents, but in the end it gives them the experience and confidence to succeed. Our kids' defiance is an essential part of the desired outcome, whether we like it or not.

It is not lost on me that parents of unschoolers are by default defying the current school system, and it's not likely that many of us have relinquished control to our children without a struggle. After all, our children began life nearly helpless in our arms, but the measure of our success as parents will be when they overthrow us, making their world far better than we imagined. So keep going, brave parents - the terrifying struggle to empower our children is worth it.