Bicycles, Shoelaces, and ABCs
By Liadhan Bell
It is about eighteen years now since I first fully
embraced the notion of learning at home. There have been many lumps and
bumps along the way and I have learned by experience that no two children
are alike. What fills one with joy fills another with dread. What one finds
simple, the other deems impossible.
As to methodology, I feel like someone I once read
of who said “Once I had no children and seven theories on how to raise them.
Now I have seven children, and no theories!” As with parenting in general,
I have come to recognise the pattern: Just When You Think You Have It All
Figured Out… Something Changes! There is always some new thing, or circumstance
(or person, in the case of growing families!) being thrown into the mix.
Nothing is static. The only thing constant and permanent is change.
I once lamented this. How on earth could I ever “get
it right” if the definition of “right” kept changing? Surely there must
be some constant in this never-ending state of flux?! It took a long while,
and the benefit of experience to realize that perhaps I was basing my expectations
on the wrong definition of “right”. Perhaps it’s not quite true that I have
no theory of education. It can probably best be summed up thusly:
“Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns.”
But of course, that is only the beginning of the
In my reading over the years, some things have really
stood out. One of those things (I think I am correct in attributing to Doctors
Raymond and Dorothy Moore) is the concept of the Integrated Maturity Level,
or IML. Simply put, the IML is the time in a child’s overall development
at which their senses, fine motor skills and cognitive function are optimal
for them to be capable of the abstract thought processes and manual coordination
needed to master basic academic skills. (Sorry… did I say simply put?)
One way to test if your child has attained this degree
of readiness is if they are able to tie their shoelaces with their eyes
closed, while counting backwards from 10. With this in mind it should come
as no surprise that the average age this is attained is not five, six, or
even seven. It is generally not reached until the age of eight or ten, and
in many cases, even older.
Until this time, the Moore’s and other’s research
indicates that it is not only counterproductive, but actually harmful to
put a child under pressure to perform academically. (Their highly readable
book, Better Late than Early covers this well, and also provides
parents with plenty of ideas of what activities children might most benefit
from and enjoy in the years before they are ready for formal academics.
They have also outlined further research, in School Can Wait. Another
voice on this subject in more recent times is research professor of psychology
Another favourite anecdote which made a lasting impression
on me likens the learning process with its differing educational approaches
of Starting Early vs. Waiting for Readiness to two farmers who wanted to
build a fence at the end of winter. The first farmer, impatient to see results
was out day after day chipping away at the icy ground, digging post holes.
Slowly, over many weeks, with much hard work, he got the holes dug. His
neighbour waited until the day the ground thawed, when he went out and dug
all his post holes in one day. This powerful little analogy has always come
back to me at times when I have felt pressured to ignore the wisdom of waiting.
So how does all this translate into our real life,
here and now?
In our life learning journey, I have swung between
living awestruck at the way my children are unfolding and growing before
my eyes, and succumbing to the desire to recreate the artificial sense of
security that comes from an outward structure with measurable results. For
most of us this is how ‘success’ has been measured since we were big enough
to hold a pencil.
As system after system I cleverly devised proved
imperfect, I began to grow suspicious that perhaps there was no perfect
system… As the years rolled by, peppered with ‘Aha!’ moments, I saw that
undue pressure on my children produced resistance and discouragement, yet
help and encouragement at the right time gave momentum to the inner drive
to know and to succeed that children naturally possess.
I began to question my own motives. Would I quiz
a kid (even ‘playfully’) on how to drive a car the same way I was secretly
fond of quizzing them (‘playfully, of course!) on questions of basic mental
arithmetic? The answer was obvious. Why would I quiz a kid on something
that a) they were not developmentally ready to do, and b) they had no immediate
practical use for? How often, I wonder, is it our undue emphasis on things
children cannot yet understand that creates anxiety in them, blocking their
ability to learn, leading to discouragement, and worse still, to avoidance
The opportunity to succeed at anything and the confidence
this builds is so much more important than any artificially-imposed timetable
of skills and abilities. We hear over and over that “every child is different.”
But often we are not prepared to let them be too different if it challenges
the generally accepted definition of “normal” or our own ambitions for our
children to be exceptional.
Three of my daughters learned to ride bicycles just
shy of their fifth birthdays. When I told one of them that I wasn’t able
to ride until I was six, she quoted my own favorite encouragement for when
they are learning a new skill. “Don’t worry Mum. People learn things at
On the other hand, I have no memory of learning to
read. All I know is that I could read before I started school. One of my
children has begun to decode words with apparently little effort. Her interest
in being able to read is inconsistent and self-initiated, but noticeably
gaining momentum as she sees that she can.
Another of them is not yet ready to read anything
beyond individual letters, and her own and her siblings names (which she
learned in a burst of enthusiasm a couple of years back!), but when she
wanted to learn how to tie her shoes recently it only took a few attempts
before she had it. She was ready! (And she had the added motivation of a
very fancy pair of lace up sneakers!) I, however, was one of those poor,
hapless kids who was still struggling to tie my own laces at her age, after
a couple of years of trying. Every child is different.
So… though our future may not be mapped out in convenient
compartments of What to Do When, and our present days may not fit into a
box, one thing is certain: We are all constantly learning and changing and
growing. It’s what people do. These children are amazing! They are brimful
of creative ideas, little pearls of wisdom, and the joie de vivre. They
put their minds to things and work hard and make those things happen. They
take pride in their achievements and so do we. They are gaining the confidence
that comes when you succeed in an endeavor of your own making.
They ride bicycles too. And tie shoelaces. And they
will read. All in good time.
Liadhan Bell passionately believes that
nothing will stand in the way of the thirst for knowledge when the right
seeds fall on fertile ground. She has seen this time and again in her own
life and the lives of her children. She knew from the age of seven, when
she penned her first twenty page play, that she was a writer and writing
has been her passion ever since. Academically-minded, Liadhan surprised
most people who knew her when she had rather a lot of babies instead of
pursuing a “higher” education. What nobody realized at the time was that
her intense interest in children and how they grow would provide her with
enough to write about for the rest of her life. She is particularly fascinated
by the learning and creative process and in the synergy created when a family
lives and learns together. Liadhan has seven children, aged 6 months to
21 years in 2016 when this article was published, and four adult stepchildren.
In between keeping up with the adventures of their large brood, she and
her husband Richard philosophize and write about life learning, Nature play,
their experiences parenting two deaf children, and also recount their wobbly
attempts at something like self-sufficiency at
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