Learning Outside the Classroom

Learning Outside the Classroom

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Connected enrichment as older kids learn and grow

My daughter, Marion, started high school last fall, and although she has some good—even great—teachers and enjoys school-related extracurriculars such as speech and theater, I am cognizant of the importance of the connection she and I share when it comes to her personal enrichment. Even though she’s 14, our parent-child bond is perhaps more important than ever. With school activities, Marion sometimes leaves the house at 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t return home until dinnertime. She is developing her independence and starting to figure out who she is as a person, and it’s struck me that, while my daughter doesn’t need me down on the floor to play anymore, she still needs me to be present as a parent. We don’t spend as much time together as we did when she was little, but the time we do share can be time spent learning and growing—in ways different from or that complement the experiences she’s getting at school.

Over the years, we’ve pursued adventures ranging from building elaborate cities out of shoe boxes at home to exploring local children’s museums. We’ve outgrown some pursuits, but others have grown with us: we still go to movies, for instance, but now, along with Pixar movies, Marion likes Quentin Tarantino’s films as much as I do.

Tarantino films might not be your thing, but the point is that, as our kids mature, we can continue to pursue activities together that connect us and promote personal growth. Our family’s top-three list? Read on:

1. Movies. I’ve already mentioned movies, but allow me to elaborate. Talking about the film, the director’s choices, the strength of the dialogue: all of these elements have an impact on a kid’s worldview and critical-thinking skills. After recently watching the long version of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight together, we spent the drive home discussing the director’s decision to use 70mm film and how certain choices Tarantino made gave the film unexpected depths. Marion’s studying French, so we’ve started watching French films with subtitles (most recently, the quirky film Amélie). It’s been fun for her to see what she can pick up without reading the translation—and how translations can be more or less literal. And documentaries, such as I Am, have become an interesting way in which to expand her horizons—and my own. Even bad movies have their charms: we recently enjoyed a delicious hour trashing a film that had received respectable reviews. We didn’t like the film, and it was interesting—and fun—to figure out why (we ultimately decided that the actors were saddled with a simplistic script). The key? We talk about the movie: sometimes during (if we’re watching at home) but always after. And honestly, we just love movies; it’s a fun, shared experience, regardless of the film.

2. Music. Another great way for us to connect and grow has been through music. Marion likes vinyl, and we have a turntable: when we’re home in the evenings, we tend to put on music as a backdrop to whatever else we’re doing, from homework to cooking. I’ve introduced her to music I love (David Bowie comes to mind), and my interest in groups such as Green Day can be directly traced to Marion’s appreciation of the band. The great thing about music is that it can be intensely personal but also a public experience: we’ve gone to concerts ranging from Robert Plant to AM to Japanese drummers Taiko Legacy. The energy of the crowd is intoxicating, and live performances, whether in a larger stadium or small, funky venue, provide fodder for discussions ranging from how certain musicians have influenced the trajectory of music to the different joys of live versus studio performances. We’ve talked about how music can be an extension of how we’re feeling; there have been some spirited discussions about what bands, what songs will provide the soundtrack to a given road trip or drive. Marion plays the guitar, and she’s learning music theory; she’s shared how her understanding of the underpinnings of music has informed her appreciation of the work of different musical artists. Plus, playing the guitar just makes her feel good.

3. Exercising. Marion and I have discovered the joy in exercising our muscles as well as our minds. We like doing yoga together, either at home or at a Chicago-area Park District class. (As a bonus, the practice has led to both of us reading up on Eastern philosophy.) The two of us like to bike on local paths, and, as a family, we’ve started hiking. (Last summer she experienced her first national park, the Great Smoky Mountains.) I hope she grows to appreciate the mind/body connection: how exercise clears the head and informs creativity; the solace nature can provide; the sense of accomplishment a physical challenge affords; and the healthy ways we can open our minds and hearts, and manage the stresses of everyday life.

But that’s what we want for our kids, isn’t it? Opportunities to think critically, to embrace music (or some other passion) as a learning tool and a mirror for their own feelings and experiences, to stay active and keep their bodies and minds sharp and strong? Some day, Marion isn’t going to live under our roof anymore. We’ll still have adventures, and I suspect those shared times will continue to grow as she and I do. My hope for my daughter is that the experiences we enjoy now will prepare her for life in ways beyond what she’s learning at school—give her the tools to express herself, manage stress, and find fulfillment, whatever path she takes in the years to come.

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

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