Friday, January 15, 2010

More than a Mind

Today was one more day in what feels like an endless stream of unschooling days.  We've been off of our regular schedule due to seasonal flu but, despite a little sleep deprivation, we're in good spirits and enjoyed the relaxing feel of this day.

Being off of our schedule is usually hard on us.  By the end of winter break I was itching to get back to school but this week has been different.  It's given me a chance to observe how much learning takes place even when we're really not planning for it.  It's also helped me connect more deeply with each moment.

This slowing down and connecting moment-to-moment is called mindfulness and it's a practice that has greatly benefited our family.  If you're not familiar with it, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to both your inner and outer world without judgment.  It's being fully present in the moment instead of lost in plans, worries, or other distracting thoughts.  When we come to the moment with all of our awareness, we give our children the thing they want most from us -- us.  But the benefits don't stop there.

With mindfulness, we learn to see ourselves and those around us with more clarity.  We begin to recognize our habits, good and bad, and create an opportunity for growth and transformation.  When mindfulness is practiced as a family, we learn how to create joy and manifest a deep, loving bond with our kids.  We see them for who they really are and this allows us to engage more effectively in their lives.  We can't be there for them if we don't know them.  What's more, our ability to model and teach mindfulness can only come from the depths of our own practice.

Practicing mindfulness is teaching me to have patience and compassion for myself -- something that I didn't even know I was missing. This practice is certainly on the rise in the West and there are some great online places to learn more. 

For more information, check out mindfulness together, a social network created by Susan Kaiser Greenland, and mindfulkids, a site operated by students of social activist and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. But don't think that this is something complicated.  Mindfulness just means paying attention without judgment. 

Today's mindfulness activities consisted of watercolor painting, a game of chess, piano, and a little dance/movement.  Most importantly, today we engaged in nurturing, constructive activities together and gave each our full attention. 

Both dance and painting demand mindful attention.  In dance, our awareness drops down into our body.  We get out of our busy thoughts and focus on our movements.  The same thing happens when we express ourselves through music or visual arts.  Just engaging in these activities with your child is the beginning of developing mindful awareness.  When we dance or play music our inner light turns on; we connect with that part of ourselves that is more than our mind.

Playing chess is a little different.  It may sound challenging to play with a young child, but as a beginner myself, it's really fun.  I think the trick is seeing through your child's eyes.  We turn our game into imaginative play and make funny voices while trying to capture pieces.  Remembering the direction of each playing piece is an excellent memory building tool and taking the time to consider the consequences of your move before making it is a wonderful life lesson.  

In chess, as in life, there are always consequences for unconscious actions.  Learning to pause long enough to consider the effect of your actions is an essential part of our at-home curriculum.  Bringing your attention to the game and keeping it there gives your child the attention they crave and gives you an exercise in patience.

The last mindfulness practice for this day is one that we have planned for bedtime.  Connecting with our kids and engaging in their education means honoring their inner world and not just their mind.  Today begins Winter Feast for the Soul, a 40 day spiritual practice commitment.  This forty day event was was inspired by a quote from Rumi: "What nine months does for the embryo forty early mornings will do for your growing awareness."  My family is committing to eight minutes of stillness each day -- four minutes in the morning and four at bedtime.  We're starting and finishing each day breathing together, bringing our attention to our breath, and just... being... still.  

I'm still looking forward to getting back on our regular schedule on Monday but until then, I'm remembering that a child is more than a mind and enjoying things just how they are... right now... in this moment.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Romanesco Fractal

The first time my daughter asked, "Mama, what does “infinity” mean?" I stumbled over a technical answer and botched an opportunity for something magical like, "It is how much I love you."  Today, an opportunity to revisit the subject arose as organically as the box in which it came.

We support Riverdog Farm, a certified organic CSA and Thursdays are our veggie box day.  Eating seasonally is an integral part of our curriculum and opening the box on veggie day feels like Christmas morning to my whole family.  We’re always surprised and delighted by the wonders inside.  What’s more, eating seasonally and locally helps us feel our connection to the earth and her rhythms.  As a homeschooling parent and a mother endeavoring to teach her child environmental responsibility, I’ve come to honor and rely on this rhythm.

While picking up our veggie box today, I felt especially grateful for the opportunity to belong to a CSA and reflected on the values this is instilling in my little one.  We talked about how the produce at the grocery store comes long distances on trucks that use stinky fossil fuels and how that affects the environment, we talked about the importance of supporting our community, and how food tastes better when it’s fresh from the farm.

By the time we got home, I felt satisfied with the organic lesson about supporting our CSA.  This was just the beginning of today’s homeschooling highlights.  We opened our box and discovered a fractal vegetable, Romanesco Broccoli (Brassica oleracea).  The bright green flower is composed of spirally arranged segments that are identical copies of the whole flower.  The copying process continues ad infinitum as a three-dimensional fractal form.  The mathematical beauty and simplicity of this flower never ceases to amaze me.  School was now officially in session.

Discussing infinity with a Kindergartner might seem daunting but it becomes magical when demonstrated on the dinner table.  Since botching my first attempt at explaining infinity last year, I’ve gotten a little better at seeing through my child's eyes.  Last summer, we even had some fun growing Fibonacci Sunflowers in our Edible Classroom.  While grasping an abstract idea may be a stretch for most kids, understanding something they can see, touch, taste, smell and feel usually works.  Today, we literally held infinity in the palm of our hand.  This is nature-based learning.

Looking at the Romanesco, we can see that it’s cone-shaped.  Each of its cones is a replica of the whole flower.  Each bud is composed of a series of smaller buds; all arranged in yet another logarithmic spiral.  I hear Jefferson Airplane singing, White Rabbit.  “Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”  It’s a pretty psychedelic vegetable!

After eating all of our math, we popped open the laptop and looked at a few other images of fractals.  Two more from nature are the fern and snowflake pictured below.  All of nature is alive with language, math, and music.  We just need to slow down and look more closely.

Later, we'll draw some of our own fractals -- a big shape with of each of its parts as identical copies of the whole.  Maybe I’ll dig up some literature on the universe as fractal and work on a Parallel Worlds Thematic Unit.  We've read (and seen!) so many archetypal stories with the “magical worlds” premise (Chronicles of Narnia, Wizard of Oz, and Golden Compass) that stepping through magical gates into other worlds has become part of my daughter’s regular imaginative play.  Eventually we will discuss the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics but we’ll have to schedule a field trip to the Exploratorium for that one.  For now, just keeping her mind wide open and pointing her towards math and science is enough.

It takes an open mind to see the magic in the world.  We can't be so full of ideas that we're not open to the infinite possibilities before us.  This is the magic of childhood.  Nurturing that creativity is exactly what I hope to do when I introduce concepts like fractals to my five year old.  One of my most important jobs as her teacher is to pique her curiosity in all subjects.  If I can do that and get her to eat her vegetables at the same time, I think we both get an A+ for the day.
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