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Lessons from Unidentified Yellow Flowers…

Reluctantly I’m being forced to accept the onset of autumn, a beautiful season in so many ways that I’d love to embrace more than I do, but I can never escape the thoughts of the coldness than inevitably follows. Winter is the bearer of many treasures, but why does it have to be so long?
So I am defiantly clinging on to a second mini-bloom of climbing roses and an unexpected burst of life from my much neglected hanging baskets which, I confess, I’ve not given due attention to in recent weeks. Consequently they looked like they had relinquished their efforts in return… But last week I noticed that, from their lifeless wispy stalks, four of my deceased hanging baskets have produced a single yellow flower. Not a small weedy flower, but a foot high mini-sunflower, it would seem. I did not knowingly plant these flowers back in April; enthused as I was to bring my garden back to life after such a tedious winter; so I’ve no idea what kind they are but still, invisible and undiscovered seeds somewhere in the soil decided to gift me with them anyway.

A couple of weeks ago my son started school. Like many parents, my pleasure in seeing him embrace this new venture sits alongside a good dose of sadness for the little boy he will never be again; and anxiety about how he’ll adapt to this new life; weighed down by matters that someone else has decided are important for him.
Yesterday was ‘Meet the Teacher’; a chance for us parents to find out how our kids have adjusted to school life; to reassure us that the unsavoury behaviours our 4 year olds deem acceptable at home haven’t transferred to the classroom, and that they can, in fact, eat their lunch next to an unknown 11 year old and not be terrified.
The teacher described the experience of watching our children’s free-play as ‘fascinating’; a window into their learning; especially for those kids who aren’t so forthcoming in structured activity, and thus don’t readily express how much they’re absorbing (including mine, I suspect). I can only feel great relief that our foundation aged children are permitted to immerse themselves in such a natural learning process, but already I feel anxious about the onslaught of year 1.

With the play-based Foundation Stage behind them (an environment which not only nurtured ‘learning’, but kids who had a healthy relationship with learning) I’m already hearing from other parents I know about their stressed-out kids; about teachers under pressure because kids aren’t learning the way they teach, and parents anxious because their kids aren’t being taught the way they learn.
As parents; as is true of most teachers themselves; we don’t endorse the belief that our kid’s value is calculated by the results-led machine that our education system has become, and yet we want to be on the same side as their schools; to encourage our kids to learn, even when it’s hard work; to be resilient, to try their best and; if they should fail; to try again… That’s a lesson in itself and it’s called ‘real life’… *Cliched, but true*
I recently read a quote that really resonated with me; “If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t blame the flower. You create a better environment for the flower to grow in.”
Those of us who live and work with children possess so much knowledge, and yet can get so preoccupied ‘proving’ that growth is happening that we miss its most basic principle.
Far from being a condition for learning, worry and pressure are toxic, for anyone. No one thrives in it; why would they? Stress just pumps acidic hormones into the brain; It would be like putting weedkiller in my hanging baskets and expecting flowers to grow; not in spite of it; but because of it…

I often use weeds as an analogy when I talk to people about resilience; about how they don’t just survive, but thrive, even in the most hostile conditions. But, resilience aside, one of the most powerful agents for progression is ‘motivation’…. it’s a complicated beast because, when behaviour systems, rewards charts, stickers and sweets have the desired effect, we think we’ve successfully motivated our children. These tokens can play a valuable role of course, but they’re still subject to kids meeting the needs, the expectations, the approval of an adult.
My determined yellow flowers did not grow because I ‘made’ them. Nor did I expect them to; in fact I did not even plant them. And yet, with conditions ripe for germination and left alone long enough to get on with it, they did. In essence, they grew because they wanted to. It’s just another; more optimistic; version of ‘real-life’; One that we don’t embrace enough.

How my hanging baskets produced these mysterious flowers I don’t know but, actually, do I need to? Our obsession with ‘knowing’ creates this problem with ‘trusting the process’; something we’re not culturally or professionally encouraged-and frequently permitted-to do. It’s much more favourable, much more important, essential in fact, to ‘know’.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in my own quest for knowledge is just how much I still don’t know, but what I do know is that my son; like many children; is one of those ‘unidentified yellow flowers’. He gave no indication that he had any command of numbers, before counting to 10 on his second birthday. Almost three years on; like many parents; I am perpetually frustrated by the consistency of ‘I don’t know’ when I ask him what he’s done at school… and then he’ll engage me in an intricate and detailed role-play of classroom life.

It’s less a question of learning ‘in his own time’ but of sharing his learning in his own time. It’s easy to assume that we have some ownership over what our kids learn, and that they have a duty to prove it to us. Doesn’t what they learn belong to them? How much more clearly ‘proof’ shows itself when our kids have the freedom to share their learning when, how, and with who they choose. Yet the powers that be demand how and when this ‘evidence’ should be presented, so schools are forced to pass these demands on to their children.
I’m not saying that knowing kids are progressing isn’t important, but sometimes it does seem that ‘evidencing learning’ is more critical than the actual purpose of learning itself.

So, how do we cultivate ‘intrinsic motivation’; the innate desire to blossom and bloom; in our kids? The many demands of life often don’t afford us; parents or educators; with enough time and energy to keep that question at the forefront of our minds, but surely the most likely source of the answer is our kids themselves. While we’re busy attending to ‘knowing what they’re learning’, we forget that our kids know stuff we don’t; ultimately what drives them, what puts fire in their bellies, what they’re still thinking about when they fall asleep at night.
In essence, my son’s teachers are already embracing this approach; learning what and how our kids learn, directly from our kids, because that’s permitted in foundation…
The unanswered question (one of many), of course, is how we cast that net across their entire childhoods, not just in the idyllic Early Years… Shouldn’t we be creating space and time to let them teach us what we need to know; not just when they’re 4 and 5; but always?

I don’t know if or where I might find the answer for my own son but; given I found the question in a neglected hanging basket; I suppose anything is possible…

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“Springing from the underground well”… A story of ironic beginnings…

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last few weeks and months properly out of my comfort zone… adopting a ‘Growth Mindset’, one might say….
I am a self-professed technophobe so creating a website all by myself was never going to fill me with anticipation and yet the time had come when I knew I had to stop procrastinating. And so I’m almost there with that, and now I find myself with another first; writing a blog post. I quite like writing, but here I am trying to think of something interesting to share at the end of a long day, at the end of an August spent enjoying a rare English summer… A summer which has had me carrying sunblock in my handbag and wearing a brimmed-hat in my own country (possibly a first ever, on both counts). Consequently a summer I’ve tried not to work more than necessary and thus have little professional to report on…

But as we are at this new beginning, I feel quite compelled to explain how we arrived here, at Well Within Reach…
Our original organisation; ‘Child Learning and Development Advisory Centre’ or, more manageably; ‘CLADAC’; had expanded into sectors way beyond children’s services, and so, with a much needed new website on the cards, came the consideration that a name which more accurately reflected our work was also in order… I didn’t think it would be easy, but I think I’m pretty creative as well. How hard could it be???

Creating this new identity has been energising and challenging in equal measure. The first of many challenges being ‘What do we call ourselves?’ What is this new identity’? Where to start…. I took the sensible approach, of course, and asked colleagues for their input… “Why does my training material resonate for you”? “What do you most strongly connect with”?  “What’s my USP”? And words like ‘enlightened’, ‘insight’, ‘illuminating’ repeatedly came up. People told me that being able to decode those often fragile and vulnerable brains ‘behind the behaviours’ was like seeing beneath the surface. That when they understand what could not be seen, a completely different picture emerged from the one they could see.

All useful concepts for re-branding. Interesting visuals started to unfold in my imagination…. So I played around with a few names to do with light and illumination, but they all sounded like religious cults with visuals that spoke of alien abduction. I explored growth; trees, branches, life-giving roots concealed beneath the ground; and found myself stuck between old-hat metaphors and landscape gardening territory. Then someone beautifully described their experience of our training ‘like opening up your favourite toy and seeing all the mechanics inside’… I could accept a certain truth in that… but whatever name I came up with sounded like car or computer repair services.
However, I found myself sticking with this notion of the unseen; the beneath the surface-ness; the ‘so close yet so far’ idea…

I am one of those people who know they should just let it go sometimes but still don’t. During these long episodes of frustration I convince myself that this terrier-like tenacity is just in my nature, simply so I can permit myself to ignore common-sense, and instead keep going round in purposeless circles. 
But this long and lovely summer has afforded me the luxury of sitting in my swinging garden chair-one of my favourite place on earth-and; although never completely switching off my relentless self-interrogation; I did try to settle into stillness during those moments… to lean into ‘the universe will deliver’ adages. 

I felt to close to an epiphany, while trying to accept that what I was searching for would, in fact, find me… The question ‘What am I looking for?’ remained with me but started to take on a slower, less urgent quality as my imagination drifted to light; Light bulb moments, shafts of light cutting through woodland, light at the end of tunnels…. Then came caves and caverns, underground catacombs… I began to recall terrifying TV programmes about people leaping from cliff edges in to deep black cavities in the earth, assured that a parachute would save them before they landed thousands of feet below.
Definitely not along the right lines, of course, but immediately my consciousness was drawn to something softer… Something about opposites, and how they so often co-exist… terror and trust, the seen and the unseen, confinement and space, darkness and light…..

And then I landed in a memory… A memory from long ago, when I visited a place in Greece called Melissani Cave, a great subterranean cavern flooded by a lake which is actually borne of an underground well. The cave was only discovered when the ground above collapsed which, until then, had probably looked and felt as safe as any other. It was, in fact, incredibly fragile… And yet, concealed beneath, was a beautiful crystal clear lake. A reality is so close to the surface and yet; for the millennia of its existence before its discovery, at least; it was a world away.

I recalled from nearly 20 years ago a very contrary place; perched inside a little rowing boat within this immense black hole in the earth; the contrast between the solid, unmoving rock, and the flow of the water; between the brisk chilliness of the cave and the heat of a Mediterranean sun that burst through the skylight above as the little boat sailed beneath.
I remembered being mesmerised in equal measure by the light flooding in from above, and the clarity of the seemingly endless blue beneath.
There are many conflicting truths; it just depends on how you look at it. For certain, there are many terrifying possibilities; A gaping hole in the ground hundreds of feet above a deep unconnected body of cold water. But for all of its risks; the danger, the entrapment, the isolation, the darkness; it is also a magical place…. full of clarity, calm, light, colour, flow, reflection….

And so I had my concept. And as they so often do, the parallel process had unfolded…. Right beneath the surface; in the form of my sub-consciousness; there was the thing I’d been looking for. I had seen the light! And a well, as well; an unavoidable wordplay opportunity for a service that is all about ‘learning, doing and being well’. 
But I still didn’t have a name… ‘Well Beneath the Surface’ was true, but was too literal, and perhaps, a bit too dark. ‘Well Underneath’ did not work either… So what did? 
What else was this well? 
For all of the contrariness within, the unmoving cave with its flowing well are ever-present…always there, and thus, within reach. And so after much searching, the Well Within Reach finally sprung. Long may it flow :-)….     


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