Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or"quality time" or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away.
Peter Gray, Free to learn
Getting our fingers sticky. Biting. Tasting. Putting our hands right into the dough. And licking our fingers after. That´s how we learn, not when we're spoonfed baby food –be it vegetable or Algebra purée. That's why we get bored when the only option we're left with is to open our mouths (to swallow). It´s just that curiosity, which makes us want to learn with all our might, is an adventurous little animal who can't live in a cage and needs to run free.
The idea –promoted by Gill Rapley– that babies do not need baby food in order to get used to solid foods has been gaining strength for some time now. Babies can self-feed, if our fears and preconceptions allow them to. Among other good things, this encourages babies to self-regulate what and how much to eat, something which will enable them develop an awareness of their own nutritional needs for the rest of their life. What I like best of this approach (and it's something I've seen in my own daughter) is that it lets a baby's curiosity unfold, lets her use all her senses and really enjoy eating.
I believe neither babies, nor children –not even grown-ups– like to be spoonfed baby-food. Because all of us need freedom to keep our curiosity alive. We need freedom to feel that we're responsible for our own decisions. To feel that we can do things at our own pace. When we feed (and teach) children by force, trampling over their curiosity and initiative, we are not teaching them to eat (nor to learn) but to obey. And the more we force them to, the more we will be falling into the trap of thinking that children will only eat (and learn) if we 'motivate' them to, if we reward them for doing it –when that is actually the best way to turn the pleasure of eating (and learning) into apathy1.
Children connect with the world through imagination and play. But they cannot imagine and play if we don't give their minds space to fly, if we keep them constantly tethered by instructions, lessons, homework, extracurricular activities, television, computers, and the constant murmur of adult voices. In our culture of fear and competition, we teach children to live the lives that adults program for them. We expect them to be responsible when we only teach them to obey, we want them to learn when we only allow them to memorize, we demand respect of them when we treat them as incapable of making decisions for themselves. To be free, our children need to be able to follow their initiative, without fear of comparisons, judgements or punishments, they need to know we trust them and that we accept their mistakes as just another way to learn.
Our directive education culture has led to bulimia: memorizing, memorizing, memorizing, only to throw up at the exam, and start all over againr2. We make children study compulsively, with no pleasure, out of fear and surrounded by lonelinessr3. We teach them that learning is about getting good grades and passing the course, not about living. Because living is something quite different which takes place outside the classroom.
Children can learn (and eat) by themselves –without subject-purée or spoon-teachers–, as long as we trust and support them, if our fears and preconceptions allow them to. All we have to do is open wide the sluice gates and let life (real life, not what we read in text books and much less what comes out of the telly) come gushing in. And what better place than nature to find the life that classrooms are lacking?
3A study carried out in Britain found that between 1986 and 2006 the number of teenagers who said they had no best friend in whom to confide rose from under one in eight to nearly one in five (Carl Honoré, Under Pressure).