The natural curriculum

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Going to school can stifle a child's imagination and creativity, says Rosie Benson-Bunch. That's why she is teaching her son at home

My seven-and-a half-year old son has never been to school. He is one of a growing number of children in Britain who are educated at home. The decision to take advantage of this legal option may be for religious, social, philosophical, academic or other reasons.

My own reasons were to provide education based on his strengths and interests, to allow learning at his pace, to offer one-to-one attention and to create an individual development programme which schools do not offer.

The national curriculum is based on adults' ideas of what children need to know. In primary schools the emphasis is on the three Rs. Indeed, when friends ask about my son's education, they invariably want to know "how is his reading?" Why not ask about his musicality or his imagination? Are they less important than his reading?

Children go through natural stages of development, but schools do not take account of these rhythms of childhood or children's own motivations.

From birth to the age five or six, children acquire language naturally. The mind is in a language learning phase and is particularly receptive to the patterns of speech. At this age a child can learn two or three languages without effort or confusion as long as the same language is consistently used by any one person. My son was exposed to English and Dutch with no difficulties. There are French speakers running playgroups en francais, and children learn through songs and games. It can only be a matter of time before the diversity of today's society makes other languages accessible to toddlers.

A major preoccupation of childhood is exploration of the world and how to relate to it. Physical activity is important: children need the space and time to run, jump and climb. Schools limit such activity to only a couple of sports sessions per week and to "play times". There have been cases of inadequate development of children's muscles and bones through lack of physical movement. When many children's lives are shared between school and television, that can hardly be surprising. Mental as well as physical development is at stake. And what about music? Babies respond to songs from the cradle on, can clap and move to music before they can walk. Yet in schools its importance is largely unacknowledged. Singing or humming while you work is natural - but not allowed in the classroom.

Music is logical, mathematical, a language in itself. A musical ear can be trained in the very young. Co-ordinated movement becomes dance. Imagine if the time devoted to reading for four-to-seven year olds was instead given to music. There would be time to learn an instrument, to understand how music is written down and to discover many styles of dance. The Suzuki violin method proves that children as young as five can master an instrument, learning by ear as they learn language and using the fine co-ordination skills they need for writing.

Music is much more natural to young children than reading and writing. Learning to read and write after the age of seven would be much easier and be quicker for most children.

As well as learning "subjects", children need to develop their personalities. They have the capability to be independent and like to plan and choose. A totally timetabled day gives little chance to practise those skills. School spoon-feeds almost all the time, yet a six or seven-year-old can, with help, plan and carry out a day's activities.

There is a greater sense of achievement in reaching your own goals than in doing what you are told. The child can also learn about commitment through choosing something which requires regular attention, such as keeping a pet, learning to play an instrument or tending a garden. Schools are run by a set of limiting rules, designed to prevent children from asserting themselves or stepping out of line.

Children develop social skills talking to people of different ages and not in a classroom full of their peers. Adults who are not "teachers" have much to offer children through their personalities, experiences and skills.

Young children are also very imaginative, making discoveries through acting out and pretend play, copying the role models around them. They do not need to write down and record these on a daily basis. That is an adult ploy to keep them busy and to make them practise writing skills. They need freedom to be themselves in order to work things out and come to terms with their world and their place in it. The classroom does not acknowledge that requirement.

The real needs of young children are not met by the national curriculum. It stifles too many natural inclinations and takes away their liberty.

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