Lessons from Unidentified Yellow Flowers...

Reluctantly I’m being forced to accept the onset of autumn, a beautiful season in so many ways that I’d love to embrace more than I do, but I can never escape the thoughts of the coldness than inevitably follows. Winter is the bearer of many treasures, but why does it have to be so long?
So I am defiantly clinging on to a second mini-bloom of climbing roses and an unexpected burst of life from my much neglected hanging baskets which, I confess, I’ve not given due attention to in recent weeks. Consequently they looked like they had relinquished their efforts in return… But last week I noticed that, from their lifeless wispy stalks, four of my deceased hanging baskets have produced a single yellow flower. Not a small weedy flower, but a foot high mini-sunflower, it would seem. I did not knowingly plant these flowers back in April; enthused as I was to bring my garden back to life after such a tedious winter; so I’ve no idea what kind they are but still, invisible and undiscovered seeds somewhere in the soil decided to gift me with them anyway.

A couple of weeks ago my son started school. Like many parents, my pleasure in seeing him embrace this new venture sits alongside a good dose of sadness for the little boy he will never be again; and anxiety about how he’ll adapt to this new life; weighed down by matters that someone else has decided are important for him.
Yesterday was ‘Meet the Teacher’; a chance for us parents to find out how our kids have adjusted to school life; to reassure us that the unsavoury behaviours our 4 year olds deem acceptable at home haven’t transferred to the classroom, and that they can, in fact, eat their lunch next to an unknown 11 year old and not be terrified.
The teacher described the experience of watching our children’s free-play as ‘fascinating’; a window into their learning; especially for those kids who aren’t so forthcoming in structured activity, and thus don’t readily express how much they’re absorbing (including mine, I suspect). I can only feel great relief that our foundation aged children are permitted to immerse themselves in such a natural learning process, but already I feel anxious about the onslaught of year 1.

With the play-based Foundation Stage behind them (an environment which not only nurtured ‘learning’, but kids who had a healthy relationship with learning) I’m already hearing from other parents I know about their stressed-out kids; about teachers under pressure because kids aren’t learning the way they teach, and parents anxious because their kids aren’t being taught the way they learn.
As parents; as is true of most teachers themselves; we don’t endorse the belief that our kid’s value is calculated by the results-led machine that our education system has become, and yet we want to be on the same side as their schools; to encourage our kids to learn, even when it’s hard work; to be resilient, to try their best and; if they should fail; to try again… That’s a lesson in itself and it’s called ‘real life’… *Cliched, but true*
I recently read a quote that really resonated with me; “If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t blame the flower. You create a better environment for the flower to grow in.”
Those of us who live and work with children possess so much knowledge, and yet can get so preoccupied ‘proving’ that growth is happening that we miss its most basic principle.
Far from being a condition for learning, worry and pressure are toxic, for anyone. No one thrives in it; why would they? Stress just pumps acidic hormones into the brain; It would be like putting weedkiller in my hanging baskets and expecting flowers to grow; not in spite of it; but because of it…

I often use weeds as an analogy when I talk to people about resilience; about how they don’t just survive, but thrive, even in the most hostile conditions. But, resilience aside, one of the most powerful agents for progression is ‘motivation’…. it’s a complicated beast because, when behaviour systems, rewards charts, stickers and sweets have the desired effect, we think we’ve successfully motivated our children. These tokens can play a valuable role of course, but they’re still subject to kids meeting the needs, the expectations, the approval of an adult.
My determined yellow flowers did not grow because I ‘made’ them. Nor did I expect them to; in fact I did not even plant them. And yet, with conditions ripe for germination and left alone long enough to get on with it, they did. In essence, they grew because they wanted to. It’s just another; more optimistic; version of ‘real-life’; One that we don’t embrace enough.

How my hanging baskets produced these mysterious flowers I don’t know but, actually, do I need to? Our obsession with ‘knowing’ creates this problem with ‘trusting the process’; something we’re not culturally or professionally encouraged-and frequently permitted-to do. It’s much more favourable, much more important, essential in fact, to ‘know’.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in my own quest for knowledge is just how much I still don’t know, but what I do know is that my son; like many children; is one of those ‘unidentified yellow flowers’. He gave no indication that he had any command of numbers, before counting to 10 on his second birthday. Almost three years on; like many parents; I am perpetually frustrated by the consistency of ‘I don’t know’ when I ask him what he’s done at school… and then he’ll engage me in an intricate and detailed role-play of classroom life.

It’s less a question of learning ‘in his own time’ but of sharing his learning in his own time. It’s easy to assume that we have some ownership over what our kids learn, and that they have a duty to prove it to us. Doesn’t what they learn belong to them? How much more clearly ‘proof’ shows itself when our kids have the freedom to share their learning when, how, and with who they choose. Yet the powers that be demand how and when this ‘evidence’ should be presented, so schools are forced to pass these demands on to their children.
I’m not saying that knowing kids are progressing isn’t important, but sometimes it does seem that ‘evidencing learning’ is more critical than the actual purpose of learning itself.

So, how do we cultivate ‘intrinsic motivation’; the innate desire to blossom and bloom; in our kids? The many demands of life often don’t afford us; parents or educators; with enough time and energy to keep that question at the forefront of our minds, but surely the most likely source of the answer is our kids themselves. While we’re busy attending to ‘knowing what they’re learning’, we forget that our kids know stuff we don’t; ultimately what drives them, what puts fire in their bellies, what they’re still thinking about when they fall asleep at night.
In essence, my son’s teachers are already embracing this approach; learning what and how our kids learn, directly from our kids, because that’s permitted in foundation…
The unanswered question (one of many), of course, is how we cast that net across their entire childhoods, not just in the idyllic Early Years… Shouldn’t we be creating space and time to let them teach us what we need to know; not just when they’re 4 and 5; but always?

I don’t know if or where I might find the answer for my own son but; given I found the question in a neglected hanging basket; I suppose anything is possible…

Jolene Beresford