How do you teach kids to think?

Up in the clouds: tired out or thinking big thoughts?

Teaching your child to think for herself, or himself, is an important part of green parenting. But how do you do it? This post is by Nicola Baird (and the view Nell and Lola are looking out over is Scafell seen from the top of Scafell Pike – England’s two biggest mountains).

Obviously the answer is that it’s got a lot to do with how much you do for them, and what level of freedoms you wish to give your children. When they are tiny this could be as simple as letting your six-month-plus-baby choose what they eat (ie, baby led weaning), or as toddlers giving them two choices of what to do (the park or the ducks). There are lots more ideas in my new book Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. As children get bigger trying to teach safety by explaining what might happen and how to avoid it (if you are wobbling fall off the wall on to the grassy side…) and why you must always stop at road junctions (even if you are cross with the world). And so it goes on until you have teenagers, and then (hopefully) grown ups. The rules and boundaries might change with your child’s age (eg, Going into town, then make sure you have your mobile phone. Going solo to India, then make sure you have the right vaccinations… ) but what doesn’t change is the way parents need to tell themselves to let go, and keep letting go. It’s quite tough!

Nell finds that earlier river visitors piled up rocks like Andy Goldsworthy.

My family’s just been for a lovely break in the Lake District over by Wast Water (famous for having the deepest lake, the smallest church and at one time the biggest liar). As planned we finally made it to the very top of England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike. But on days off the girls played by some lovely becks – paddling, rushing up the rocky beds and even swimming. At one beck we met a wonderful mum, Penny, who was waiting for Dad and their two biggest children to come down the mountain by arranging stones with her younger boys. The result would have made the landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy proud (you can just see one example in this photo). When Nell saw the strange stone formations she couldn’t resist inspecting, and soon was making her own replicas.

In the end the mix of free play, story telling and children’s parents and carers resisting the tendency to say “be careful, you might fall” are a good start. Of course children may fall, but if it’s not likely to be life threatening (eg, balancing on a log) well then why worry? And if you really are worried there are tricks – as Sara, quoted in Homemade Kids, told me:

“The children love humus and for protein I also feed tahini, peanut butter, breadsticks with sesame, cashew and walnuts. I also put nuts and seeds on breakfast cereals and in flapjacks. They’ve never choked but I did a first aid course in case it happened. If you know what you are doing you don’t need to freak out about serving nuts. Saskia is currently munching almonds and brazils – I often give her a handful as a snack while I’m cooking. I also toast seeds and sprinkle them over things.”

Despite my best intentions to let my own girls think for themselves so they will learn enough resilience and adaptability to cope with climate change (and like Sarra doing a first aid course), I was put to shame while reading aloud to Nell and Lola the novel Fell Farm Campers by Margaret Lloyd, published in 1960. In the story two 15 year olds and two 13 year olds set (and later strike) camp, cater for themselves (mostly), swim across tarns, tramp enormous distances up fells and even go for a mountain climb in the moonlight. My kids haven’t done anything like that, in fact while climbing three big fells last week I saw no groups of younger children going for a big walk without adults around, although there were plenty of 20 and 30 somethings. It’s worth remembering that most mums and dads now had a lot more freedom in their childhood. And spent more time outside too. Both these points Richard Louv tackles in his amazing book, Last Child in the Woods. If you are looking for more ideas about how to give even your youngest children the opportunity to think, do and play away from a screen then Louv’s arguments to prevent nature defecit disorder will help reinforce your instincts.

What have you done this summer that’s allowed your children a real taste of independence?

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