Open thread: Let’s not block their view

Published by Lori Pickert on May 23, 2009 at 01:35 PM

We spent last week camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I’ve written before about how vacationing tends to highlight adults’ need to control things. I made a few discrete observations on this trip that made me think about not only traveling with kids, but helping them learn at home, too.

Sometimes it seems like adults are always trying to get between kids and the experience. We’re trying to define it for them, we’re trying to frame it, we’re writing a lesson plan for it, we’re designing a rubric, we’re setting down expectations and goals and plans. We are dissecting it before they even have it and reducing it to its parts and labeling them by curricular area — this is language arts and this is science and this is math and this is writing and this is creative problem-solving.

We insert ourselves into the picture and stand between our kids and the experience like an over-enthusiastic docent, spouting facts and pointing vigorously to things and partially blocking their view.

They don’t have a chance to take in the pure, unadulterated (pun intended) experience … the whole view … the undissected and not-labeled thing … the thing that is itself, whole, apart from our ideas about how it checks off a curricular box or fulfills an educational goal.

We need to work on standing back and letting them experience things for themselves, ask their own questions, make their own plans, devise their own ways of interacting with what they see. Sometimes we need to climb into the backseat and just see where they go.

(p.s. Because I skipped off to the woods, I was tardy with approving comments to last week’s open thread — there is some good stuff in there that hasn’t been adequately discussed, so check it out!)


Comment by Georgia on May 23, 2009 at 05:08 PM

This is so true! I really appreciate your posts and this website! Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Amy on May 23, 2009 at 05:45 PM

I think we all have an idea of what we think things should look like, and when that doesn't happen, it can be hard to step out of the way and just let things flow. The actuality can be better than what we envisioned, if we just get ourselves out of the way. So maybe the solution is just to have *no* expectations. ;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 23, 2009 at 06:50 PM

thank you, georgia. :^)

amy, so true about how much better things can be — really, it’s just like project work. if you try to pre-define what’s going to happen, you are automatically limiting what can happen. if you leave it open, the results can be amazing. and even if they aren’t amazing, they are way more enjoyable! :^)

Comment by Theresa on May 23, 2009 at 07:28 PM

Oh, how I love that park. Where we used to live it was 20 minutes from our doorstep and we went there all the time. What a treasure.

As far as your observations, as usual I think they are spot-on. We seriously need to let our children experience the "unadulterated" version of nature. Sometimes I think we fail to realize that nature really doesn't need an interpreter to speak to our children.They can hear its voice just fine on their own.
But as long as we keep that in mind, I think it is ok for us to lead sometimes, too. We have good memories we want to share with our children. Things we loved as children ourselves, or things we missed out on.
I always enjoyed the times my mom took me out in the woods and shared with me the things she knew and loved (for this reason trillium, wild raspberries, and towhees will forever be associated with my mom in my mind). But I am also very grateful for the vast majority of the times when she took me out and just let me be, letting me develop my own independent relationship with nature.These "wild" times were priceless and I am so glad she knew that, too.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 23, 2009 at 08:53 PM

nature doesn’t need an interpreter — truer words have never been spoken! (written!)

i think sharing our love of nature with our kids is great. i just think the guidebooks should be there as reference when the kids want to look something up — rather than used as lesson plans to organize the experience ahead of time. i think we need to let our children build a relationship with the outdoors and let them lead. (oh, i always think that. ;^)

what a wonderful story about your mom. :^)

Comment by Kyrie on May 23, 2009 at 09:45 PM

Lori, we are at the beach this weekend, and though most of it has been spent on the beach, we went to the aquarium as well. I was thinking very similar thoughts about our experience there- that so many times there are barriers between the children and the experience. Often it's the adults, with their own "educational" or get-our-money's-worth expectations. Sometimes it's the exhibits themselves, as well-meaning as they are. Nothing is better than letting them wander, at their own pace, noticing and experiencing things for themselves.

xo, K

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 23, 2009 at 11:25 PM

oh, kyrie, i know just what you mean about well-meaning exhibits. the museums, aquariums, historic sites, etc., all seem to do the same thing — they have a very specific idea for how children should use and interact with the materials. junior ranger (not that there’s anything wrong with that), etc.

it’s a type of herding — we can’t let children just experience it and then ask their own questions. that would take so much *time*. they would be everywhere, looking at different things, interested in different things, asking different questions. or we imagine that they wouldn’t have any interest (this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, i believe — adults’ conviction that kids will be bored by anything that doesn’t resemble a video game) so we make an educational game out of it. what kid is fooled by that? and what message does it send?

to me, it says “ho ho ho, kids, we know you hate broccoli so look! we covered it in cheese sauce!” it sends the message that this thing is boring, which is why we had to jazz it up for you. and we know you wouldn’t know how to interact with this, so we set down a plan — here, go do this and this and this and you can have a sticker or a pin.

it’s more than just lowering (or tossing out) expectations, then — it also requires us to try to change our minds about the way kids are and rid ourselves of our anti-children prejudices.

thank you, kyrie!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 24, 2009 at 02:09 AM

This was such a great post for us as we head out on our vacation. We bought sketchbooks for everyone today for the trip, so we can each record our experiences. Jeff and I have a code word for "you're taking it over. Shut the F up" ready and waiting. There are things *I* want to do, and I will own that they are my things. Otherwise, I'm not getting in their way unless the experience they want is a totally commercialized one. Hopefully it'll all work out.

Comment by Sarah on May 24, 2009 at 06:23 AM

I have seen this need for adult control so many times at the zoo. It's painful to watch, really. Once, my kids watched the sharks for an hour and a half solid. Then they were hungry, so we packed up and left for home. During that time, I watched countless other parents herd their children into the shark exhbit, hurry through some sort of "educational" talk, and then rush their children out while saying things like, "Hurry up. If we stay this long at every exhibit, we'll never get to anything." I always wonder if the kids want to say back: "Get to anything? I haven't GOTTEN to a single thing yet, today!You've been rushing me through and talking so much that I haven't had a single moment to find out a single thing for myself."

And I find myself labeling a moment according to its educational value in the way you mention in your post. Even if I don't do this out loud, it's not a helpful way to even think. We find a turtle on a nature walk and, out of curiosity, look it up in our guide book. "Good," I think, "science." Or the children dump out their piggy banks and sort and count up the change, and I immediately think, "math." It's that curricular dissection that you were talking about , and it's very limiting, isn't it?

Comment by Kathryn on May 16, 2015 at 02:33 PM

This is a great point. I find myself guilty of this, so you've given me a much needed reminder. Funny too, because we have memberships everywhere, so it's not as if they will never go back and see the rest.

Comment by Stacey on May 24, 2009 at 10:31 AM

What I don't understand is the shift in this. As a child I was allowed to wander for hours by myself in the wood by our cabin without any supervision or limits (starting a 6 years old). Somehow these same parents think it's necesary to show everything to children now. Is it because we feel that our experiences lead us to feel that we are experts or is it that we want to recature them?

On another note there is a book called The Geography of Childhood that explores these ideas in great essays (by Gary Nabhan and Steven Trimble). The thing that struck me most in these essays is the discussion of the panorama view versus the tiny. How adults are interested in seeing the larger pictures and the landscape while a child wants to get lost in the small spaces.

Comment by Amy on May 24, 2009 at 02:40 PM

Theresa, the towhee is my favorite. ;) My boys know its call--we often call it the "drink your tea bird"--because it makes me so happy to hear it.

Ah. Lori, we share that disdain of the museum scavenger hunt!! And even the very good, kid-oriented museums have them. At the Carle museum a couple of weeks ago I was trying to avoid the "gallery search" table, but my 7yo noticed it. Clipboards! Pencils! And he can read, so... he picked it up and immediately started looking for the items on the sheet. Although the sheet also had text explaining about the pictures they wanted the kids to find, he glanced right over that--he was in hunt mode. Argh! Both my husband and I tried to slow him down, we looked at all the pictures, and if we happened to come across one on the sheet, we discussed it.

It's very much talking down to children, as you say--if adults don't need a gallery hunt, why do children? Why can't they interact with the art on their own terms? That's what I try to model for them, and it's always interesting what *they* see. And I know this museum is very focused towards children, they have all sorts of Reggio resources, a beautiful studio, a wonderful story time (using the whole book approach--I meant to mention it in my comment on children's books), but it seems no museum can resist the lure of the kid scavenger hunt!

Comment by Elise Edwards on May 24, 2009 at 08:44 PM

Luckily we haven't reached the 'scavenger hunt' age yet... although we don't visit many museums now that we're in Hawaii. When we lived in Denver, I enjoyed having memberships to the art museum and the children's museum - so that I didn't fall into that 'get my money's worth' mentality. I could go to the art museum and sit and look at one painting and feel completely happy. Or we could just play outside in the spraying water fountain sculptures :)

But even without memberships, that's something I need to remember, not getting between him and his authentic experience. Right now we have unlimited access to the national park here, so that is wonderful. If a hike lasts 5 minutes, it's fine. If a hike lasts an hour, but only takes us 100 yards down a trail, that's fine too. I guess the lesson for me is to keep on opening my eyes to similar OPEN experiences, even as he gets older.

Comment by Sally on May 24, 2009 at 09:17 PM

"Sometimes it seems like adults are always trying to get between kids and the experience."

That reminds me of a school field trip my fifth grade class took to the Arizona State capitol building many years ago. The tour guide was pointing out yet-another chunk of copper mined in Arizona and proudly displayed on a shelf (next to the other chunks of copper). However, most of us had noticed the wren outside who was feeding her babies. We watched intently, facinated, igorning the tour guide. The tour guide finally gave up and announced to our teacher and the class we just weren't interested in learning because we weren't paying attention to her.

Comment by Tracey on May 25, 2009 at 02:09 AM

Elise - wow! Well said!

Any thoughts on my struggle with my own attention span? I love watching my kiddos learn and want to answer their questions and such, but sometimes I just want to move on! *I* want to see everything and take it all in... selfish, I know, but I love learning too! ~:-)

Comment by mary on May 25, 2009 at 03:13 AM

We headed out to one of our state parks today and it wasn't until we were heading back to the car that I realized we didn't really look at much of the plant life around us. There were comments about the sun shining in one place but not in another and the ever present talk of poison ivy. We were hiking in a small canyon and picking our way over rocks and through the creek, we stopped for about an hour and the girls built a dam, we looked at the waterfalls and had a wonderful day. We talked a little about how the canyon was carved by the flowing water but that was it.
It's amazing how much more rejuvenated I feel at the end of these outings if I just follow their lead. We'll definitely head back to that park and maybe next time we'll notice some of the plants or not.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 25, 2009 at 03:15 AM

greenclogs sarah ;^) — i think that is an excellent point about owning it when it’s your thing! it’s not like i don’t sometimes initiate an activity i want to do! i think it’s absolutely fine to do that. sometimes you *do* have an agenda. but there are so many times when adults act as though something is “for the kids” and then step all over it and get in the way. as you said, when you want to control it, just be honest about it!

sarah, i have talked here before about that *exact* same thing re: visiting the museum. adults who want to herd the kids through so they “see everything”, when the kids would get so much more out of lingering as long as they wanted to at a single exhibit. so true!!

and yes, it *is* so limiting — and really, just unnatural — to label things by curricula. because *rarely* is an experience just one thing, and when we label it that way, we fail to see its complexity. and maybe what is most important about it — because we reach for that easy label.

thank you!

stacey, that is such a good point, and so interesting — and i have absolutely no idea. you’re right. my generation of children was given completely freedom; there were no adults trying to organize our activities. we played ball without joining a league, we made up our own games without needing someone to organize us, and we wandered hither and yon without supervision. and then we grew up and became micro-managers.

“Is it because we feel that our experiences lead us to feel that we are experts or is it that we want to recapture them?” i almost feel like it is an anxiety thing — like we are afraid to let go of control, because we fear without controlling everything, our children won’t learn, they won’t have the “right” kinds of experiences, they won’t get everything out of it, and etc.

i’ve read geography of childhood! that point about large view vs. tiny view is an interesting one — forest for the trees, as it were. and that’s exactly what i was talking about. adults want to step in and frame it for children, define it, name it … and meanwhile children are focused on something very specific, *from which* they could eventually build meaning and understanding. but we just take it right out of their hands and turn the telescope around.

amy — “It's very much talking down to children, as you say--if adults don't need a gallery hunt, why do children?” — beautiful! and exactly right! why *do* children need that? it is talking down to them, and it’s making negative assumptions about children that i absolutely don’t agree with — that children can’t pay attention, they they can’t focus, that they can’t have a natural and unforced reaction to art, that they must be herded. it’s prejudice.

you are so right — so ironic to find that at the eric carle museum, which is so pro-reggio! because that is very anti-reggio — the idea that the teacher pre-defines the experience.

elise, absolutely — and you know, with the right attitude, everything becomes an open experience! but it does become difficult, as amy said, to *avoid* those scavenger-hunt-type things as they get older and start seeing them. they are naturally drawn to this sort of offered-up game — which gets in the way of them having their own experience! so frustrating.

sally, ah, perfect. sigh. i took our mixed age K-3rd class on a field trip to a local theatre with their teacher. the tour guide took them around for hours showing them everything and pontificating. he was a very nice fellow, but he never asked them anything — do you know what i mean? he didn’t engage them. he simply talked and talked. even though he knew they’d been working on a months-long theatre “project” (i’m sure he just didn’t know what that meant). at the very end, he asked if they had questions, and they exploded with very detailed questions. he then started to explain something and they all said, oh we know all about that. he very patronizingly said, “well, why don’t you tell me what you know.” and they proceeded to blow him away with everything they already knew. he was simply used to thinking of children as bored, listless, not-really-listening field trip victims — he couldn’t believe these kids were on fire with interest about this subject *and* already knew a ton about it. (more than he did!) what do these attitudes toward children mean?! how can adults with these attitudes hope to help children learn?

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 25, 2009 at 03:24 AM

tracey, you know, honestly, i think we have to decide whether it’s about us, about the kids, or a compromise. if it’s something we’re doing for them, i really think learning is best served by allowing them to move at their own pace, motivated by their own interests. but sometimes if you’re far from home, you may need to compromise to make sure every family member gets to enjoy, say, the art museum the way they want to as much as possible. :^)

mary, you know, that is one of the things i love about visiting the same place over and over — those places close enough to home that can become special places. because you really have the *time* and the opportunity to get to know the habitat, the animals, the birds, the rocks, the plants … paying attention to different things each time and at different seasons! i think it’s wonderful you just let the day unfold and let them focus on what interested them most — and that you want to go back! :^)

Comment by Kyrie on May 27, 2009 at 06:45 PM

Just thinking about this more, Lori-

I think there is a very "pose for the picture" sort of mentality with children and their experiences, both with nature and in some place like a museum/aquarium/zoo etc. Like, stand here where I tell you to, interact with it the way I tell you to, and then hurry on to the next "educational opportunity". It's disheartening, to say the least. As if children cannot possibly get anything out of the experience unless you force it upon them, or outline exactly the way in which the can experience it.

There's even a final "shot"- the inevitable testing at the end. Sad.

Comment by alycia in va on May 27, 2009 at 07:05 PM

Oh state parks. Such a jewell. Looks like you guys had a great time....I look forward to letting my little one venture out and explore next time we go camping.

Comment by Alison Kerr on May 28, 2009 at 03:28 AM

"The tour guide finally gave up and announced to our teacher and the class we just weren't interested in learning because we weren't paying attention to her."

This really made me laugh. It reminds me of my kids wanting to see pigeons rather than world-famous paintings one time when we were traveling. Really, who am I to decide what they need to pay attention to and learn?

I find it much easier to just explore naturally in a natural environment than in somewhere like a museum. My challenge used to be one child who needs to explore quickly, ask a question and move on, and another who'd like to stop and stare for a long time. I learned to let go of my own need, except when it came to food (I was often the first to be hungry)! I also solved the mismatch by going with a friend so that the kids each had a buddy who liked their pace.

Great thoughts, I mentioned your idea of taking the back seat at my post today <a href="">10 tips for Happy Family Camping</a>.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 28, 2009 at 02:29 PM

kyrie — “pose for the picture” — yes!! i think this has to do with adult playing it all out in their minds beforehand, thinking “we will go to [x] and it will be just like *this*.” and at the end they have that photo of the kids posing in front of whatever and they slide it into the album and check that box.

“As if children cannot possibly get anything out of the experience unless you force it upon them, or outline exactly the way in which the can experience it.” yes, and — if the children *have* to be forced and pushed and managed in order to get something out of the experience, that should tell us something. like, maybe, it’s not the right experience. but i agree that in these places — museums, parks, visitor centers, zoos, aquariums, etc. — children left to their own devices will find exactly what interests them and ask for help when they need it!

re: the inevitable test — there’s also the breaking down of the experience into tasks … which sends the message that every experience can (and should?) be broken down into tasks.

the thing that bothers me most is that adults have this persistent idea about children needing to be managed and controlled because, without adult supervision, children would be, presumably, lazy, destructive, loud, disruptive…

alycia, thank you! we had a great time, and it was so beautiful. you have some wonderful times ahead! :^)

alison, i know what you are saying about different paces — since i only have two children, i usually had the luxury of having a 1:1 adult/child ratio.

thank you!

Comment by Lauren on May 15, 2015 at 01:05 PM

The thing I find tricky is juggling the competing interests of my three very different children. Often it's not me hussling them on to the next thing, but one child wants to linger in one place, another is totally fed up there and desperate to get to something else, and the third didn't want to do whatever we're doing anyhow and just wants to go home. Arg! No one is ever happily engrossed at the same time, and I find it very difficult. It's hard enough learning to hold back from imposing my own agenda, and on the occasions I succeed handling their competing agendas often defeats me.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 15, 2015 at 07:44 PM

it can be tricky. one thing that helps is making sure they can work independently so you can move your attention among them and they can keep going with their own work while their sibling does something else. (and even when kids are working on the same project, they are really doing their own work within the project.)

when it comes to being away from home, it’s tough — everyone has to compromise! sometimes talking about what’s going to happen and reminding everyone that they’re going to get to do *their* thing (eventually) too is helpful. sometimes having a predictable routine is helpful — because they know what’s going to happen when and they know they’re going to get their thing, too.

it’s a challenge to juggle everyone’s needs! including your own. xoxo

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