Because his parents never married, Leonardo da Vinci was not allowed to receive a formal education. He could not look forward to becoming a notary like his father or to holding any high office.
What seemed like a very unfortunate circumstance actually turned out to be a gift. While spending hours roaming the fields surrounding his provincial hometown, the future genius submersed himself in his natural surroundings and had endless time to carefully observe plants, animals, and the elements. Leonardo was also taught at home by his uncle, who was himself an avid nature-lover.
Leonardo’s creativity and imagination were undoubtedly sparked by unstructured time spent outdoors. He grew to become a preeminent artist and scientist whose ideas and work affected and inspired millions.
Recently the New York Times featured an article about the increasing popularity of outdoor preschools in Germany.
More than 1,500 outdoor preschools, called forest kindergartens, are operating in Germany. Regardless of weather, kids between the ages of 3–6 spend their days almost exclusively outdoors, enjoying hours of unstructured playtime. Toys are replaced by the “imaginative use of sticks, rocks, and leaves” and kids creatively come up with their own ideas to keep themselves entertained all day.
What do you think our ancestors would think of that crazy idea (I am writing tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I do think they would at least think it’s crazy to pay adults to supervise kids while they play in the woods)?!
A study in 2003 shows that “graduates of German forest kindergartens had a ‘clear advantage’ over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development.”
As homeschoolers, we naturally have more flexibility and our kids generally enjoy much more free time than children in full-time classroom environments.
Even so, it is still hard for me personally to find the balance between book learning and providing children—especially young children—hours of unstructured time to play and just “be kids” (It is even more difficult to provide book learning for my older kids while the younger kids are roaming free and distracting everyone in the process, but that is a topic for another blog post!).
So many “good” activities creep into our lives. Those good activities, coupled with the drive to get through all the school books, means I have to fight for those hours of unstructured time for my kids to learn and grow while exploring nature. This is difficult even during summertime with swim team, camps, VBS, traveling, playdates, etc.!
I am inspired by the life of Leonardo da Vinci, and even the idea of these German preschools, to keep seeking those hours in our week to allow my kids to fully submerge themselves in nature without rushing or hurrying them, and without them needing any toys or other forms of entertainment other than the world around them.
Last spring, sometime mid-week, there was an especially glorious, good-weather day. Rather than simmering in a bad case of Spring Fever, we put the books aside and spent all afternoon creek stomping. We took the classroom outside for three hours. Three hours! It felt luxurious. My kids would have liked to have stayed at the creek even longer.
I sat on a blanket and watched the kids, sometimes reading the book I brought along with me. The kids spent their time wading in the water, climbing trees, forging paths through the woods (while I tried not to worry too much about ticks!), inspecting insects, throwing rocks into the water, and trying to catch frogs. No technology was involved. We didn’t have any agenda. We weren’t in a hurry to do anything or be anyplace. The kids just got to be outside. To be kids. To be free.
There is a whole adult world out there, waiting. It can wait a little while longer before it claims my kids.
At the end of our glorious creek stomping day, the kids begrudgingly left the creek bank, taking their happy memories with them as we trudged home for dinner.
They say the best things in life are free. I think that’s probably true.
Photo Credit: First graphic: StockSnap; Second photo courtesy of Amy Koons