Learning through Freedom to Adventure
What is education? Is it sitting in a classroom; watching video lessons; or reading stacks of books? Or is education the process of gaining knowledge through study and experience — learning through the freedom to adventure?
For two boys in 1967, learning looked like hitching their pony cart to King, their gallant Shetland pony, and setting off for the Montreal Expo over 300 miles away. Tony (11) and Jeff (9) Whittemore learned a lot during their 27-day adventure; gaining not only skills but the confidence to use them. The brothers have a website with photos and articles from their trip, and it is interesting to read the news coverage of the day; then hear the story as it is told in the pony boy video.
Adventures foster learning and create lifelong memories
The video story, Two Kids. One Pony. Hundreds of Miles to Montreal’s Expo ’67 offers a look at the kind of learning that can happen when kids have the freedom to adventure and parents have the freedom to decide what is okay for their children.
The story is told largely from Tony and Jeff’s viewpoint, but it’s clear that although they did the navigating and day to day decision-making, their parents had also done research and provided the tools they needed to be successful. It seems that the boys had the freedom to adventure and learn because their mom had the time and freedom to conceive of this adventure, and the time necessary to write letters and keep an eye on their trip (and both parents had the common sense and backbone to ignore the naysayers and critics).
The comment section on this story was interesting — opinions were varied but many of the most positive remarks came from those of us who remember what childhood was like before helicopter parenting became so prevalent. Many commenters recall long summer days when they left home early in the morning with only the instruction to be home for dinner. They were free to play, roam, and learn from their adventures.
Why is it hard to give kids the freedom to learn from adventure?
Other commenters suggested that it was a different world then, but was it really? The news from 1967 was filled with the Vietnam War, protests and riots, crime and punishment, discovery and degeneracy, just as it is today. Perhaps what has changed for many people is the feeling of being part of a community where ordinary people can be trusted to treat others decently and help if needed. There are many places where that still happens, but a few commenters were clearly willing to consider only the exceptions — the headline-grabbing stories of catastrophe and danger — as the norms to be considered. It seems clear that “Our perception of child endangerment is skewed by the fact that we have an unhealthy habit of making every unfortunate thing that befalls a kid a national news story.”
The negative experiences may not actually be the norm, but they are one thing that makes it harder to allow the freedom to learn through adventure. However, I think there’s more to the helicopter parenting phenomenon and the loss of freedom for adventure than just a loss of faith in the kindness of strangers.
Adventures don’t fit neatly into tight schedules
One factor is that parents are often locked into external schedules that make it nearly impossible to deal with anything unique. There is so little free time that family activities are forced into neatly defined blocks of time, and these are stacked into an intricate schedule that depends on near-perfect coordination with a variety of people and institutions. With adults so locked into rigid schedules, it’s no wonder that it feels safer and easier to just keep kids at home in their own rigid routines.
If you’re in this situation, freedom and adventure might not seem to be an option — but sometimes there are things that can be changed (consider the post-Covid “great resignation” and the increase in people choosing to work remotely or part time). The Mr. Money Mustache blog offers very helpful ideas for making almost any income stretch farther; I recommend it.
Critics and naysayers have more power than they used to
Another thing that has made it difficult to give kids the freedom to learn through adventure is that critics today aren’t confined to writing abusive or judgmental letters to the parents. Instead, they can not only create massive negative social media publicity or even mobilize the power of the state to bring legal charges against the family. Even if charges are dropped and the adventure takes place, the potential stress and financial strain can discourage any deviation from the confines of the ordinary. The Whittemore family received both negative and positive letters about their decision to allow the trip, but they had done their research and knew their children, so the boys were able to go and create memories that would last a lifetime.
Freedom to learn and adventure can change a child’s life
The thing is, having the freedom to learn through adventure can change a child’s life. A big adventure such as a pony-cart trip to Montreal (five miles an hour — can you imagine?) doesn’t happen out of nowhere. Kids who learn to play outside independently, run errands, and do chores have a head start on learning about themselves and how to be responsible, solve problems, and stretch their capabilities.
Parents can encourage resourcefulness by providing free time and resources that the kids can build upon. This style of parenting used to be the norm; now it is sometimes known as free-range parenting. According to Lenore Skenazy who coined the term, free-range parenting is “simply the belief that our kids are safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit for.” It “emphasizes the child’s functioning independently with judicious parental supervision,” according to child psychologist Dr. Kyle Pruett.
This can be a difficult balance to strike when children are young, but when they have the freedom to adventure; to climb trees, play in puddles, bruise their shins, and rip their jeans while running, playing, riding, building, and doing, they will become more balanced, more competent, and more ready for the adventures and joys of learning. You may not be ready to consider a big adventure such as the Whittemore boys’ journey, but sending them outside to play can be a start. Enjoy!
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Why it’s gotten harder to give kids the freedom to learn through adventure