For the third week in a row, we took a turn, a rather long and meandering turn, at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. The ideas of Charlotte Mason (how this family learns and lives) and Relationship Development Intervention (how this family guides persons with autism) began criss-crossing in my mind like the muscadine vines along the path.
Take this pair of mushrooms for example. Our state has a long list of things that ought to be taught and when they ought to be taught. I don't have the time to read through it, but I began to wonder when they recommend children should begin to learn about fungi. Will their first brush with the fungus among us be as something to pick off pizza and toss out? Will they ever see mushrooms in the wild before they meet them in books? Will they have ever tried poking small puff balls to release spores and notice that the white ones are duds, and only the brown ones work sometimes? Will they have seen the many beautiful colors that toadstool mushrooms show off for the world? Will they have ever seen shelf fungi growing at the bottom of a trunk or a dead stump covered in all sorts of mushroomy looking things? What creates the most awe and wonder: reading about them in a unit on fungus or finding a yet another sort of fungal friend in one of many long walks?
Will they ever see a toad hanging out in a chestnut tree crotch before they study the life cycle of a frog in books? Find a dozen frogs dotting the swamp grass? Catch a toad and wonder why their palms feel wet?
Will they ever see for themselves that The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider both spin webs? They will if they ever see this caterpillar house in the woods or if they find web worm nests in trees.
Speaking of said caterpillar, will they find eggs before they meet the book? A wee, whispery voice in me wonders if seeing a spotty leaf in the woods one week, then finding it overrun with wee caterpillars the next, and seeing the leaf transformed into holy lace another week inspires more delight.
Will they feel the thrill of naming a cluster of critters—"caterpillar convention" coined by one child naturalist—before hearing a very proper term army? Will they know on their own that a caterpillar army hugging a limb might relate to autumn's chill?
Will they see all sorts of camouflage like the little critter on the left who cannot change colors but hides well in autumn spectrum colors? Or will they think animals that change color and shape is only to amuse little children?
What, you don't see the little amphibian yet?
That's a clue!
Will they ever plunge clean hands into a pond to grab a water hyacinth? Will they dirty their nails to rip open its bulb and find styrofoam that God hid inside? Do textbook writers find this idea worthy of making the cut?
Can children whose time is ground up by busywork, homework, worksheets, testing, and standardized exam preparation ever find out if one really can make ink by grinding up oak galls? How many galls will it take?
"But, wait!" exclaim my RDI friends. What does this have to do with autism and experience sharing? What does walking through the woods have to do with developing relationships with people in the autism spectrum?
My friend, the child naturalist, knows the answer. When looking at a deer rub, he shared, "Deer rubs don't run!" He knows that the woods are full of wonderful things to see and know. It takes time to hunt crickets and catch them in a bug glass. Deer rubs take less time to catch because they don't run. Two years ago, when my friend's days were busy with traditional schooling, time was precious. He never had enough time to know all the things he longed to know. Sometimes, his parents took him and his siblings out of school to go on raptor rescue adventures. But, he still never had his fill of time.
It takes lots of quiet time and long experience in the woods learning how to provoke the antlion larva just enough to come out of its home to fight off intruders. Explaining too much too soon destroys the pleasure of seeing it unfold after long hours of exploring. Pumping buzz words into a child and attempting to extract said words steals joy and mystery from the experience. Pushing through the trail quickly while an expert explains all the important stuff on a field trip pushes out time for rabbit trails. Experience sharing is not about getting the job done and all the stuff known. It is about meandering and musing like the endless weaving of muscadine vines.
It also takes someone more experienced in the ways of the woods to guide. My friend spent many long hours learning things as a child naturalist. She carefully chooses when to share her knowledge (how to turn a ginormous beetle on its back and hear if its a clicker beetle) and when to let her children discover for themselves. To know what time is ripe for exploring and discovering a new thing without a lot of words. To know what time is best for supplying a well-timed word, for holding back an answer to foster wondering and yearning to know, for wandering off the path, for returning back to it. Too many words, too fast a pace, too few visits, too many prompts destroy the wonder of the experience.
I watched this little one pet his first frog and caterpillar today. We had to slow down our pace of interaction for him to keep up. When we did, his joint attention was lovely. Rather than flood his mind with blitz of correct jargon explaining everything a preschooler should know about frogs, his mama elaborated on a familiar play he enjoys. "What does a frog say? Ribbet!" Only then, after carefully studying the amphibian, after his mama quietly coaxed him, after slowly, but steadily reaching his hand toward the frog, did he finally pet the critter.
What life lessons would falter if she had goaded him to touch it, forced compliance, pushed out his time to wonder and ponder?
Even the most nontraditional homeschoolers know when to move on. We came across a garter snake stretched out along the road in a patch of sun. When enough big, loud, wiggly folks ventured too close, the garter snake suddenly sprang into action and sidled to a safe place to hide from the big bad world (just as a person with autism does when we rush too often). We watched the snake wind itself along a muscadine vine, moving onward and upward to blend into the security blanket of camouflage. We all longed to stay for a half hour and see how far it would go. The stomachs of the littlest ones rumbled. The minds of the adult ones knew time was short for we had a hard deadline in the afternoon (the feast of the mind to come). The more experience guides ushered the children along the trail because the time was right to transition.
We know that we will come back to our beloved trail and further our relationship with it. Another day may reveal how high garter snakes climb. Charlotte Mason often said, "Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character." To reap a relationship, we must sow experiences slowly, gently, humbly. When we do that consistently and carefully over the years with our children with autism, then relationships will weave in and out of their lives like the muscadine vines that bear the sweet fruit warmed by the patient sun.