White space as a learning tool

Published by Lori Pickert on January 15, 2009 at 06:20 PM

So, let’s think about how we can use white space as a learning tool.

So much happens in a single day; children talk and play and shout and make plans and ask questions and draw/paint/build/make messes and ask more questions.

When we stop and listen, we’re creating a space for actually hearing what they are saying. When we write something down in our project journal — a plan, a quote, a question — we are concentrating on one single moment and giving it the potential to be something more in the future.

We’re reaching into the chaos and pulling out one thing that we will hold onto — and attach to something in the past, perhaps, and something in the future.

It is easy to be overwhelmed with everything that is happening — how do we choose what to remember? what to reward with that extra attention?

One parent e-mailed me and said that she thought nothing was happening, that her children were just randomly playing every day and avoiding “real” work whenever possible and had no strong interests. But when she began quietly listening and writing things down, paying close attention — she realized that there was so much happening that she hadn’t noticed. They did have interests; they were asking questions. She just hadn’t heard them.

In the space of a few days she went from one problem (thinking the children had no strong interests) to another problem (suddenly there were so many she didn’t know how to choose!).

The point isn’t to find the perfect interest, the perfect path toward meaningful work. The point is to clear some space and pay close attention, then choose something — anything — and begin.

Your attention is powerful.

Not only does your attention reveal so much of what is happening all around you, but it creates a dynamic that pulls your children in and feeds their desire to work. When you pay attention to their work, when you provide them with the space and materials they need, they respond by doing more of what you are paying attention to — your attention to what matters becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rather than praise or coercion, you are simply making space to focus on something. And your focus and attention are worth more to your child than all the praise and coercion in the world. So they are drawn to doing more of what earns your attention.

How do we begin? By clearing a space. Space in your day to listen and pay attention. Space in your home to support and highlight their work. Space in your life to be quiet and deliberate.


Comment by molly on January 15, 2009 at 07:39 PM

lori - this is absolutely perfect. i've been trying to keep track of the things i make - mostly to help me see how much i accomplish even when i think i get nothing done - and one of the things i realized i make is time for my children. time to sit down and do legos. time to make the recipe that avery wants to try. time to listen and sometimes just watch. it's amazing what you learn when you really pay attention. i'm so glad you wrote about this topic. now i need to make time to go back and read and re-read all your insightful posts.

Comment by amy on January 15, 2009 at 07:55 PM

I wish this would work with gaining their cooperation. I feel like way too much of my day is spent drowning in the stupid stuff--trying to get out the door, for example, even for something the kids want to do, is a struggle. I can't remember the last time bedtime or morning went smoothly, and it's not like I'm forcing them to get up, get dressed, hurry up, catch the bus! I'm asking them to play quietly until I have the baby settled and I'm up, usually only a half hour after they wake up, but they can't or won't do it. Everything I request is met with "no" or "but." I feel like it's become their automatic reaction to anything their dad or I asks either of them to do. I wish if I focused on their cooperative times it would generate more cooperation, but that doesn't seem to work. Neither does pointing out that none of us can accomplish anything unless we all cooperate with each other. It makes me wonder if we're just not suited to homeschooling.

Comment by Michelle Lee on October 20, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Been there; done that! It helped me to close my eyes and grit my teeth for a few years, and once everyone was over the age of 6, things smoothed out. Remember-- they are not out to get you, they don't see the big picture like you do, and what's important to them is the current moment. If it's a struggle to get out the door (for example), it has nothing to do with where you are going. Try singing everything you would have normally said. Try being ridiculous. (Last one with shoes on their hands has to drive!) Try having a project, toy or book that can only be used in the car. (One of mine chose to stay in the car for another hour after we got home. It wasn't only a horrible place where you have to be strapped down after that.)
The particularly wonderful cooperative behavior I occasionally see is the exception, not the rule, so expecting it all the time was setting me and the kids up for failure. The most surprising thing to me was that it takes less time to focus on a child and 'help them do it themselves' than it does to argue about whether they are going to do it. Multitasking doesn't work as well as I like to believe it does. :-/ If I stay calm and don't take the verbal arguments/back talk too seriously, I can avoid escalating the situation. I don't have to convince them; they will do it because I am mom and not doing it isn't an option. :-) Actions speak louder than words.
When I can remember to focus on what they did well/helpful/cooperatively, then they try to get my attention by doing more of the same. If they only get my attention when they are behaving poorly, then that's the behavior I'll see more frequently. They are responsible for their choices and behavior, but I'm the one that feeds the beast. :-)
I suspect (because I've been there) that what you are not suited to is less than 7-9 hours of sleep! Everything is more difficult when you are sleep deprived. Save the housecleaning and "me-time" for when they are in high school. (I also put off handwriting, grammar and spelling!) SLEEP. When you are getting enough sleep, your children will suddenly be more adorable, more humorous, more cooperative, and exceptionally brilliant problem solvers and project captains. ;-) I promise. Big hugs to you and yours -- I know you will figure out what works for your family, whatever it may be!

Comment by katrien on January 15, 2009 at 08:25 PM

In Heywood's Meadow you would call it "green space"!

Comment by Amy on January 15, 2009 at 09:03 PM

Oh, this is powerful. naturally I agree:) (I anticipate a day when I disagree! Won't that be interesting for me..)
My work right now seems consumed with watching, paying attention, and he seems to be blossoming right under my nose with very little input from me. I almost feel like I need a nudge in the direction of more interaction - it's a balance I am learning about. He flat-out refused my assistance several times this morning in various things, some of which he actually could not achieve on his own (juicing an orange, putting on his shoe) but didn't want my help, so he didn't get it. He seemed satisfied with the consequences. When I join him in his work with legos and structure building he tends to want to direct what I do or work independently of me, not too into collaborating right now.
At the same time, I find I have to push myself to introduce new things into our routine. It is easier to do if I actually declare the intention the day before and then try to keep very open expectations the day of (example, yesterday we painted with two colors as Leisa had discussed in open thread - I had talked about it for two days and spent time getting the materials and space prepared so we could focus on the task at hand. We had about 20 minutes of engagement and about 10 minutes of painting himself, the cans, the other brushes, the vinyl tablecloth - but the stage is set for successive practice).
I'd appreciate feedback about how those with pretty independent little ones work this edge -
I'm also wondering if the journal will help me in this regard, help keep me focused and see where to further inquire...I don't feel like I have a good understanding of its use yet but have the intention of it derving this purpose for me in time...

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 15, 2009 at 10:13 PM

aw, thank you, molly. :^)

i’m sorry you’re having a hard time, amy — you never cut yourself any slack! you need to cut yourself some baby slack, some january slack .. lots and lots of slack. :^) don’t give up! just try to take it easier, do less, expect less.

katrien, !!!! i am totally stealing that! lolol

amy, remind me of how old your son is, because i’m guessing his extreme desire for independence is a natural part of where he is in his development. but you know, even for children who stay fervently independent, when they are sure that you are there to support them and not boss them around — when they’re confident you’ll let them do it themselves, they tend to better accept a little negotiation/collaboration. and then, some don’t, ever, no matter what! :^)

i think the key to the journal is, you need to keep looking back in it and rereading what you wrote before .. to find those connections between what happened last week and what’s happening today, things you thought about before that maybe you want to try next week. it’s good that even though you’re not sure about it yet, you’re continuing to work with it!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on January 15, 2009 at 11:45 PM

One thing I've found this week is that my girl has many many interesting things to talk about if I take the time to listen rather than being in my own space. Good thinking, huh?

We've had lots of good white space time this week and some really interesting ideas are coming out of it, like Annika's plan to move to a farm in Oregon. Apparently we're going in about 6 months, so I'd better warn Jeff.

Comment by Kelly on January 15, 2009 at 11:55 PM

I don't really know where to begin...I stumbled upon your site after reading about your 'green space' project on molly irwin's blog and now I can't seem to read all of the information on your blog fast enough. My son is two months shy of his fifth birthday and has, for the past few months been at loose ends and uncertain of what to do with himself. I am having a difficult time keeping up and stimulating his need for new experiences. I have even been questioning my own decision to not send him to junior kindergarten which I knew (and know) in my heart of hearts was the wrong decision. Now I don't know where to begin (as I said) so today we went outside (it is approximately zero fahrenheit here today and the wind chill is devastating) to gather some twigs and brown leaves and we raced back inside and started to draw. He told me his drawing was brilliant but mine needed some work and, do you know what, he is right!
We will go from here, building and moving forward with baby steps. Thank you so much for this fabulous resource you are providing.

Comment by Dawn on January 16, 2009 at 12:15 AM

I read your post earlier today... turned the computer off and built a lego playground!
Now after thinking about it and reading some of the other comments I am thinking about time and space... Fionna (5 years old) is very spirited and there was a time when I thought there was no way I could homeschool her. We went crazy at home... she fought EVERYTHING.. even the things I knew she wanted to do.

Now I think most of her fighting is because she wants so much to have things on her terms. I know that not everything can be on her terms but I have learned over time to give her the space and time she needs to think about things. If she needs some quite time to process what is happening that's okay with me now. I just make time in our schedule for that... because I know chances are good that it WILL take us an hour to get out the door when it "should" only take us 20 min.

It can wear you down... no doubt about that! But, since we have been homeschooling and we are HOME much of the time things have gotten even better than I imagined. When she was 4 I scheduled her in a class a day through the city. Like I said, we were crazy at home so I figured that she needed more than I could give... off to classes! WRONG way to go! Things got so much worse and it was just one more thing to fight about everyday.

She did need more... she needed more time! Time to for unstructured play, time for calm moments in nature, more time for me to listen to her, time when I was not saying "NO"...This "NO" was a big one for me.... Now when she asks to do something that I can't do at the time instead of "NO" I say "I can't do it now but I would like to do it after dinner" (or next week or whenever I think I can) The important part is for me to follow through. This has helped because she trusts that I am going to do it with her and I am not shooting her ideas down all the time with a "NO"... which can be just too frustrating for words! This also allows her to move on knowing that I have acknowledged her and will spend time on what is important to her when I can...
Many times she requests that I do things for her that I know she can do... "put my socks on please" and I tell her that I can help her after I get her brothers socks and shoes on... usually by the time I get him set she is done. It took us awhile to get here. Many times she would just wait for me to help her but eventually I think she realized that if she REALLY need help I would but for the most part it was easier just to do it herself.

The other thing that has helped us is routine. She knows what to expect most days... even when she fights it I can say "we do this everyday" She usually comes around faster than if it is out of the norm. We have flexibility within the routine but mornings (from breakfast to getting dressed) - and bed time are pretty set in stone.

This has been a great learning experience for me to slow down and listen to her. She has the most amazing ideas and thoughts. Her verbal communication is behind a tad so I know she gets frustrated easy trying to express herself and her needs. If I slow down and stay calm she comes down much faster and we can work through her thoughts and issues. I have to pay lots of attention and sometimes lead without my voice but with my ears... So hard for Mama to do sometimes!

Sorry for going on and on... Something we have been stuggling with for - well since she was born... she is a little spirited fighter born to two very low key parents. Lots of learning going on here!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 16, 2009 at 03:32 AM

sarah, that annika ;^) tell her i want to see some plans for her farm.

kelly, thank you *so* much and i’m glad you are finding something helpful here!

dawn, thank you so much for sharing your story, and i think it is very, very helpful for other parents to hear. i, too, think that it is very help to step down from activities, do less, stay home more .. it’s not exactly the trendiest way to go! ;^) but it seems like every time we get off the rails, what brings us back on again is to slow way, way down and do as little as possible. thank you!!

Comment by renee @ FIMBY on January 16, 2009 at 04:19 AM

ok, I am loving these white space posts. something I hadn't thought about quite in this way.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 16, 2009 at 05:02 AM

thank you, renee! :^)

Comment by SJ on January 16, 2009 at 06:10 AM

I had this realisation moment yesterday - that a lot of my 'managing' of my 2 year old daughter (ha!) was actually trying to steer her in a particular direction (more independent play) rather than accept where she is at (relishing lots of my engagement). Part of thinking about white space for me is taking a breath and just enjoying who she is right now. That doesn't mean I can't facilitate next steps but means I can relax into our now : )

Comment by Amy on January 16, 2009 at 07:14 AM

thank you Dawn for your post. I think Benen and Fionna may come from the same mold. It's always so helpful for me to look at what others do in their daily lives.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 16, 2009 at 03:58 PM

SJ, yes, and — you know, we tend to look at everything from our own perspective — sometimes we need to just put it off by itself and realize that maybe it just is. maybe it isn’t about us. when we can untangle what our children want from what we want, maybe it’s easier to see things the way they really are.

relaxing into the now is a great phrase. :^)

Comment by Lisa on January 16, 2009 at 05:09 PM

I am so guilty of not noticing when it is often so important to notice AT THAT MINUTE. Yesterday is a good example. My daughter worked peacefully on a requested written narration from the Greek myths she is reading. She had enjoyed the story and really concentrated on her narration. I was distracted and working on [my job] "work" so when she came to me with the finished product I said--"just put it in your notebook for now, I'll read it when I'm done." If looks could break your heart that one did. Why was I then surprised that she was uncooperative for a while? Your whole blog is really changing how I see her, value her work, appreciate her and how I learn with her as well as vice-versa.

Comment by Thimbleina on January 16, 2009 at 05:37 PM

You know some of the things - well most of the things you write make me stop and think and more often that not make things in life seem so clear. Writing things down that the kids ask about in a journal and white space - I am once again so inspired. Since I have been reading this blog and your new Heywood's Meadow blog I have been able to do so much more with my kids and explore the things they are interested in and in turn I am finding I am interested in - you have made our family life so much richer - Thank you

Comment by Dawn on January 16, 2009 at 06:33 PM

Lori, thanks for having this space for reflection... I have thought even more about it today!

No problem Amy... It always helps me to know there are others out there who are living life with a spirited child. Especially nice to hear ideas that may work for us... That is why I am loving Lori's blog. It has helped so much!

Comment by J. S. on October 20, 2013 at 11:22 AM

So true, as I'm just learning. We started homeschooling my 9yo this fall after a *boring* second grade experience. I had always loved the idea of project based learning, something I was made aware of when I found you and your book this summer! It all made sense to me. What I didn't realize is that my son would reject the curriculum we purchased, and that our whole schooling would turn project based. I can not tell you how wonderful/inspiring/eye-opening these first two months have been. My highly-intelligent-but-lacking-motivation son has turned into the most enthusiastic, motivated boy who can't find enough time in one day to do all that he wants to do! Once obsessed with getting his computer time, he has now declared online gaming to be boring compared to all the other things he is discovering. This experience with him will go down as one of the greatest experiences of my life. Thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 20, 2013 at 11:37 AM


I can not tell you how wonderful/inspiring/eye-opening these first two months have been. My highly-intelligent-but-lacking-motivation son has turned into the most enthusiastic, motivated boy who can't find enough time in one day to do all that he wants to do! Once obsessed with getting his computer time, he has now declared online gaming to be boring compared to all the other things he is discovering. This experience with him will go down as one of the greatest experiences of my life. Thank you!

that is wonderful to hear — thank you so much for letting me know! i hope you join the forum and keep me up-to-date on what you guys are doing. :)

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