Sunday, November 15, 2009

A new kind of learning environment

The thrust behind my plan is a desire to create a new kind of learning environment. In my last post, I tried to put across my fear of a division between children's and adult's learning as free early childhood education seems to be the dominant model being pushed in NZ. This model separates parent and child for large chunks of the day and whilst providing freedom and opportunities for both parent and child, it reduces opportunities for them to model, imitate, and mirror together. Instead, children get to spend more time imitating role-models largely involved in child-care and education, rather in activities which are specifically important to their particular family environment. For example, an ECE teacher may model healthy eating by preparing scrambled eggs with the children, but this learning is of no use to the child if their parent doesn't have the desire, know how, or strategies to reinforce similar practices at home. The child is not empowered by this situation because a key stakeholder in their learning is not directly involved.

Perhaps many adults would argue that the family benefits to a greater degree by parents being able undertake other activities while their children are in educational settings (such as study, work etc). This may be true for some, but for others, there is the difficulty that adult learning institutions and workplaces may not be fully supportive of wider family needs that often exist such as absence to care for a sick child, flexible starting times, child's presence, or absences for parent help with outings etc. These ocurrances, whilst supportive of the child's learning, appear to detract from the adult learning environment and within that context I would include the workplace.

So, is there an alternative? Yes, a fine example already exists with the Playcentre Association in New Zealand. In this environment, parents can gain early childhood qualifications whilst still being directly involved with their children's care and learning. They can gain transferrable experience in running meetings and in planning, teamwork and leadership. They have the opportunity to coach and guide other parents and to recieve the same. The problem is that ECE education and experience is not what every parent is looking for.

However, what Playcentre does so well, is to demonstrate just what parents can achieve whilst still being in the company of their children and at the same time providing a great social and learning environment. This is a model that could be imitated and then broadened to include more variety of adult learning opportunities, whilst including children so that the pattern of modelling/imitation is carried forth. My plan would be to further study the Playcentre model, make a minature "copy" of it, and then slowly adapt it by adding new branches of learning as the needs of parents and children emerge.

Ultimately, I would like to see new careers, new businesses, new products, new services and so on as the main products of this new kind of learning environment. These should better reflect the future needs of society owing to having developed in the presence of children, society's future leaders. And better still, children will have observed and participated in the process and tried out their new skills and ideas through their play with one another. This will better prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Plan - what it means to me

I have talked with so many different people about my Flexible Learning Plan during the last few months that it has come to feel quite, well..... inflexible to actually sit down and write about it. Talking is so much more befitting to the stage where I am actually at with the idea and the small steps taken towards implementing it. I'm sure that my description evolves a little more every time I launch into a discussion with someone new.

My plan is about so much more than just flexibility, although flexibility of learning is at its very core. If you don't want to read the whole post (it is typically rather long), then the following sums up what it is about. It is about what I value:

  • Learning through imitation
  • The potential of the parent/child relationship
  • Flexibility for families
  • Involvement of children in normal every-day parental activities
Here is an excerpt from a recent email I sent to a dear and sympathetic friend which gives an idea of the types of discussions that I been having with people:

"within the ECE setting.........there are so few opportunities for children to imitate adults in an environment where there are 10 children to 1 adult. I really believe that we tend to push children out of this stage too soon into a situation that prefers learning from peers at age 3 or even younger. Are the Ministry [of Education] not aware that young children experience other children differently from [the way they experience] adults? This is clearly acknowledged at an older age when children begin to take more notice of their peers (though school etc). Imitation of peers is not, and should not be, a substitute for imitation of adults at any stage. Jack was still imitating his teacher at age six and that was a great window for me to know what it was like for him at school. I would say that only recently has he been able to begin to weigh up the behaviour of adults around him and decide on his own terms how to take what he experiences. It's such an important process later in life to be able to decide independently "who will I follow?". I think this stage has lasted so long because we tend to view school-life as half of our day and there is home-life of equal weighting which includes working at home as both Geoff and I do in the process of growing our own food, making basic products, and doing things for others like giving away excess produce. This is tiring at times and means that I have to consider everything in terms of whether it adds energy or takes it away, because my day with children starts about 7am and continues until at least 9.30pm every day. "

Often these discussions are held with other parents who are mostly all grappling with how to learn, work and be successful without putting their children too much to one side. I believe very strongly that the current model of Early Childhood Education in New Zealand wrongly supports the concept of separation from children to undertake these activities being preferable to the alternative of involving children in them. This is mainly due to the 20 Hours Free ECE scheme being unavailable for parents who choose to "educate" their own children. For example, a Home-Based Carer will attract funding for looking after other people's over-3yr old pre-school children, but not their own pre-school child. If they send their own child to another carer or centre, then they will then get the 20 hours free ECE and also have the potential to be paid more because they can then look after another child who eligible. What this equates to is that the parent's education of their own child is worth less than that which another person, sometime a total stranger, can provide for their child. As a parent, I find it offensive that the scheme values (sometimes) minimally-trained Home-Based Carers over intuitive and loving parents, or alternatively favours a centre-based ECE teacher looking after the needs of up to 10 children over the benefits of close parent/child relationships in education. That is why I choose to be my daughter's 'educator' both within and outside of the supportive environment of a Playcentre. Actually, it is what she chose too - after being exposed to many of the other options. My son also chose this option and rather than a sign of weakness on my part, I see it as an example of their ability to make a wise decision.

Of course this means that I can't work in a normal paid job, or study in the traditional fashion at Polytech or University. However, through my undertaking the Flexible Learning course at Otago Polytechnic and my previous research into flexible working arrangements, I have got to thinking that I won't be molding myself and my family to a system which I believe is seriously flawed. Maybe these systems governing work and education need to change a little (or a lot) for the benefit of children who need to learn by seeing and understanding how and why their parents engage in the activities of learning, serving, producing and so on.

Playcentre has provided me with an example of a centre that values both children and parents and the achievements that they can make together. Parents are expected to contribute and the children model this behaviour in their age-appropriate ways. Later in life they will have positive role models from their past to draw on as they figure out how to make a positive difference in the lives of their own and/or others' children. I am pretty sure of this as I was a "Playcentre child" and so was my mother.

It's not surprising then that the concept fits well with my own philosophies and thus it has been the seed for my flexible learning plan. I know that my proposal would not suit the current needs of many parents and I am not sorry for that. There are different choices which is a good thing. I am not trying to compete with the current model, but merely provide an alternative for parents who are capable of doing things productively in a family-centred environment and help them get the support to do so, for it must be out there.

In time I hope to provide an example of a system of learning and working which is wholly inclusive of children, with all their ideas, energy, and creativity. An encouraging example was found recently when Dunedin Creatability Club members visited Queenstown architect Fred van Brandenburg ( When explaining his current project, a $300million-plus fashion house being built in China, we were told that the young Chinese owner of the fashion label valued her long-serving employees so much that she wanted the new building to provide an environment where they were able to bring their children to work with them! Hundreds of millions of reasons to smile indeed!

In my next post, I will include slides from a presentation I gave at Otago Polytechnic earlier this year and following that I will post again with details of where the project is currently at.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Getting back into it

I am just getting back into things after a long "holiday" if there is any such thing when you have children, marriage and animals. I have been OFF the computer big time and finding it hard to relate to this medium of communication just at the moment. This is perhaps because some of my closer friends are at a distance from me location-wise and I would really like this to be different. When people get busy, then electronic communication gets dropped for a while and this is hard. But I'm just as guilty of it as anyone! Anyway, over the break I finally produced a good quantity of home-made shampoo product after three years of experimenting and I almost even wrote a recipe! All the ingredients but one are now locally available. I found two more people to trial the product and I eagerly await their feedback. It was nice to be able to go on holiday with home-made things to give away.

Anyone else willing to be a guinea pig can let me know.

My cow is about to calve and then we will have fresh milk again. We have been missing the daily-made yoghurt and I am looking forward to recommencing with my cheesemaking experiments. I will post soon on my first big batch of cheeses which are just about ripened enough for eating.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Learning to swim...


Just practising uploading some video to see if I can do it. This is Jack learning to swim on his back.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dinner Tonight

Here is a photo I just took of a home-born-and-raised, home-killed chicken (well rooster actually!) We'll be having it for tea tonight and cooked at 100 degreesC for about 8 hours it should be just perfect!!
Note: the yellow-cloured fat is from it being grass-fed. Tracey

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fresh Flour

My new SAMAP handmill is attracting a lot of interest at home. To most people this is a completely foreign piece of kitchen equipment, but it's quite surprising to see how many people (including children) can't resist turning that big handle and grinding some fresh flour for themselves! Made in France, the stones are constructed from Magnesium Oxide and Magnesium Chloride with small bits of basalt rock embeded. Here are some pictures:

The grain goes in the hole at the top and comes out as flour in the dish at the base.
The next picture shows the grinding surfaces:
The taste of freshly-ground flour is just amazing. Quite some time ago I switched from using white flour to wholemeal in an attempt to improve our nutrition. This is supposedly a healthy thing to do, however, there is a big problem with wholemeal flour and that is rancidity.
It is important to use whole grains where possible. Whole flour contains all the fibre, vitamins and minerals of the bran and germ, while white flour does not. The problem with whole grain flour, however, is the bran and germ contain oils which go rancid quite quickly and give the flour a bitter taste. This is the reason why the oil-containing germ and bran are removed so that the flour will have a longer shelf-life and a better taste. However, in the process, white flour is stripped of the oil-soluble vitamins (like vitamin E) which are so important for health.
Check out this list of what else is taken out when flour is refined (from

"The calorie content......increases about 10% because of everything else that has been taken out.
An average of 66% of the B vitamins have been removed.
An average of 70% of all minerals have been removed.
79% of the fiber has been removed.
An average of 19% of the protein has been removed."

If refining reduces the mineral content of a food by as much as 70% then why would anyone eat it. Those who do must surely value taste and convenience above health and nutrition.

Freshly-ground whole grain flour has all the good flavour of white flour plus all the benefits of the fibre and higher nutritional value. It is well worth the effort. I am certainly benefiting from the exercise and from the sense of achievement in producing bread from scratch - that is directly from the grain and using wild-yeasts cultured at home.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Culture?....what culture?

I am only just beginning to identify myself culturally, and indeed up until the time I had my first child, the thought of my own cultural identity never entered my head. Having children made me realise something was a bit missing. There were things I needed to know and it phased me for a while that I had grown up without learning these things that now seemed essential.

Developing a cultural identity began with obtaining my great-grandmother's 90 yr-old cookbook and also re-finding a lot of old linen that belonged to her. Interestingly my 3-yr old daughter instantly recognised this "treasure" and promptly put it safely away in her own wardrobe. Yet my mother had little interest in it. Since getting the cookbook a few years ago I have been working back to find my/our cultural beginnings, mainly through food and lifestyle. The recipes in that cookbook seeded many new ideas about food, and I discovered from it the reason why my children would not eat soup I made.

My children are deeply connected to the area where we live, being the fourth generation associated with this bit of land. Their great-grandmother (paternal) lived just two houses up the street and farmed dairy cows on land we now own. I keep a house cow and hand-milk her just as my husband's grandmother, mother, aunties, and uncle did. We also do a lot of other old-fashioned things like growing much of our own food, only these days we do it because we are a bit crazy, rather than because it is the only way. Although I do believe it is the only way to get QUALITY produce most of the time nowadays.

I am determined to raise my kids rugged as in previous generations, because they were more rugged back then, and healthier too. In doing so, I have discovered strengths that I never thought I could develop at this stage in life. People like me, whose ancestors came from Scotland, England, France, Germany etc. often don't know much about their heritage because their ancestors might not have been proud of their beginnings. As such, precious cultural heritage is lost and we are left to try and carve out a culture for ourselves with the fragments we know.

I am grateful to have come across Weston Price's book "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration" because it gives some insight into how primitative Northern Europeans lived, at least as far as diet goes. I am in awe of the primitave knowledge and customs that are part of other cultures like Maori and it is just amazing that this has survived.