Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Seeking Simplicity

Starboy and I applied to a preschool today. And nevermind that that kills me. We're just getting to know him, and now he's got to go off to school? Already?

I checked out the preschool last year, so this year wouldn't be a stressful push. It's a great school: Play-based, constructivist curriculum, co-op, great outdoor campus (these things are possible in Southern California), a fantastic mudpie kitchen, and outdoor sound garden (pots and pans to bang on), and chickens.

Are we the only ones in California without chickens?! I digress.

This school, which I'll call The Constructivist Co-op, is our second choice. We like another play-based school with a greener campus a little better, though it's a close competition. The other school is more specific and clear on its mission, while this one has more difficulty describing what it intends to do. The Constructivist Co-op nags at me a little: the yard is a lot of dirt and cement, and everything seems a little grungy. Which it should be, right, if kids are playing—but I feel like every week or so things should get hosed down so the kids can play with "new" toys sometimes. That's very Montessori, but it's a lovely thing for children to feel like some stuff is a new beautiful thing to explore. Of course there is much to be said about poking around in the dirt, as well.

So these things bother me, but I should be able to get around them, especially since maybe I don't have all the information, and so we applied anyway. And Starboy enjoyed playing in their playhouse, and massive sand pit, and mudpie kitchen, and play tent, while we visited. The facilities are great.

Some other moms and kids were there as well, some had come to play and others had never left after the school day. I overheard them talking about sleep training. Ugh. Sharing good iPhone apps. Ack. Nevermind that I was glared at when I answered my cell phone.

There is an extensive dress-up area, and a good half of it is princess dresses. Disney princess dresses. Gag!

I've just finished reading Peggy Orenstein's thought-provoking Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which highlights how much we limit children by obliging them the marketing schemes that drain our wallets and fill our toyboxes to overflowing. In Orenstein's book, and in a 2006 NYT magazine story, she reports:

"'Playing princess is not the issue,' argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of 'Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.' 'The issue is 25,000 Princess products,' says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. 'When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.'"

It's not just girls who are in trouble, of course. Boys get Disney Cars, Power Rangers, and all other kinds of scripted nonsense.

Scripted. There's a word you've heard before in education. Haven't people figured out yet that it generally equals "not learning new things on your own?"

Maybe that's one of the issues when your philosophy isn't crystallized—that the scripts sneak in, because you cannot describe why they shouldn't be allowed a seat in the front row of the playing field. Or if you look at it from the Teacher Tom perspective, maybe I'm not being fair.

So now I'm beginning to wonder: Is this going to be the right community for us? Am I going to have to pre-referee every play date to suss out whether the family watches TV, or plays with toy guns? Are we going to be considered the weird, nerdy house because we favor wooden toys that don't "do" anything and my son thinks his stuffed Kermit is just named "Froggy"?

And if this is the dominant paradigm, is this school going to be any different from any other?

Let the hand-wringing begin.

So maybe we are more Waldorf than I had estimated. I slogged through a months-long RSS queue this weekend, reading treasures, inspirations and thoughts from Adventures of Bear, Teacher Tom, MamaRoots, Rhythm of the Home, The Magic Onions. It was a lot to take in, in one sitting. And it stressed me out. Rhythm? Like a sorry street corner bucket drummer. Handcrafts? Sometimes. Good stuff when we do it, but not every day. Storytelling? Traditions? Sort of. A little.

I was inspired to get organized and try many more ideas, but also I felt like I was offering limited inspiration to Starboy. Well, in my mind inspiration sounds like "education." These people in these blogs homebake their own bread regularly, and have an entire studio room in their homes where they knit — I can barely spit out the word — ss sss sweaters! They have time to work on whole sweaters! And socks! And they home school! The whole curriculum! For like four kids or more! They home make all of their Christmas gifts without going to the store and their whole homes are nature tables with handmade silk, that easily could be featured in any magazine.

They must have closets. People with perpetually clean homes (who have time to blog regularly and make dinner from scratch!) surely have closets to store their treasures and tools. Or at least space to place that thrifted armoire the size of a college dorm room.

So I came out of the weekend a bit dejected, full of good intentions. But good intentions are only a start. You have to take them someplace. And I feel like much of that road is ahead of me.

At The Constructivist Co-op today, though, I realized that even though I haven't reached my high bar, I'm definitely sculpting a definitive vision for what we need to be offering Starboy to support him as a creative, creating, problem-solving citizen (who loves cars)(that will be interesting with the whole Waldorf castle meme). It's more specific than just a year ago. And maybe it isn't with "a little bit" of television or "a little bit" of marketing.

And at least I feel like I'm in good company.

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