Autonomous Learning and Boundary Setting

Girl against a fence screaming

I often felt like this at school 😦

“A child free to play and enjoy themselves soon finds his passion.” SJ Hutson

In addition to having the freedom to choose what to do, shouldn’t autonomous learners also be responsible for setting their own boundaries?

Kai is happily enjoying being free from the tyranny of the school regime and spends his time as he pleases. This sometimes means he may spend a significant period of time simply sprawled over the armchair, playing with his Lego and playing on the computer amongst other things. But how far should this go? While he is free to choose I still set what I believe to be reasonable boundaries. For example, he is not allowed to play computer games or watch DVDs during school time. We do not follow any kind of school-related routine but this limit helps us to have some sort of structure to our day. However, is setting limitations of any kind in-line with true autonomous learning?

Should TV Viewing and Computer Usage be Restricted

Jan Fortune-Wood, in her book ‘Doing It There Way,’ argues that children who are autonomously educated who have limitations set on their TV or computer game usage cannot be said to have real autonomy. She later goes on to say that “television provides information quickly [and] video games provide stimulating entertainment and build up a vast store of knowledge about problem-solving.” While this may be the case, I have noticed when my son watches anything on a screen for more than an hour he comes away looking extremely tired. And from my research on the effects of TV watching it would appear that parents have good grounds for setting limits on TV viewing.

Research shows that there is reduced brain activity when you are watching TV; reading a book, on the other hand, requires mental work to create images. The ‘zombie’ effect induced by TV watching isn’t a myth: the brain is said to slip into a hypnotic state within minutes of viewing (seconds for couch potatoes :)). In this state the ability to think critically is significantly reduced and the subconscious mind becomes exposed to advertising slogans, marketing campaigns, and even propaganda. Note the reference to the subconscious mind in the following bible passage: “Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors…”(proverbs 8:34)

This would suggest that allowing a child free reign to watch TV for as long as they want would be negligent. In the same way, no sane parent would allow their child to exercise their autonomy by sticking a pen in a plug socket.

I feel that very small children benefit from having structures in place, such as bedtime and meal times. Nature herself observes routine. For example, how would we farm without seasons? And how would we organise our lives if the sun came up at different times of the day? Perhaps this would free us from plans and we would all live in the moment. I don’t know. But I find it a little more comforting knowing that after winter I can look forward to spring and the summer months ahead.

On the other hand, I understand that for a child to grow up with the ability to think critically and make sound decisions they need to have the freedom to make their own choices, and this doesn’t start when they are adults; it starts when they are children.

Those Wretched Computer Games 😦

My son, like many boys his age, loves to play computer games. He can spend significant periods of time on the computer, such that I decided to restrict his usage to about 35 minutes when he is playing games. This has often led to ongoing battles when it’s his time to come off. On a deep level I’m aware that by externally regulating his time he isn’t free to do this himself, and perhaps he too is aware of this.

I value Kai’s freedom and it is because of the school system’s failure to respect child autonomy that I decided to home-educate. But as time has gone by and we have laid aside the shackles of the curriculum, rote learning and any other school related activities, that more subtle forms of coercion have surfaced such as “Go to bed at 8.30.” or “ How much sugar have you put in your cereal.”

But isn’t coercion necessary?

If I don’t tell my son to go to bed, will he just stay up until dawn? Maybe not dawn, but he can stay up quite easily until 11. Without coercion, won’t he simply just go to bed when he’s tired? There has been the odd occasion when I have forgotten (it happens) to give Kai his usual bedtime cue and he’s up until a lot later than usual, but often enough he takes himself to bed. It is this form of self-regulation that autonomy nurtures.

Coercion, on the other hand, is argued to be quite damaging to a child’s thought processes. How many of us struggled with maths at school, being forced to work on problems which were far too abstract, at too young an age (fractions!!) and now as adults find that we have a mental block whenever we approach the subject, particularly in a group setting.

John Holt sums this up perfectly when he discusses how babies learn through a process of trial and error, with no regard for their mistakes and no need of tuition:

“…At any particular moment in their growth, their minds are full of theories about various aspects of the world around them…We cannot help these unconscious processes by meddling with them. Even when we are trying our best to be helpful, by assisting or improving these processes, we can only do harm.” (Learning All the Time p.103)

I feel the only way forward is to put my money where my mouth is and make a concerted effort to test out autonomous living. Let’s see how Kai self-regulates with a week of being able to do what he wants. Apart from the normal house rules: no shoes indoors and no climbing on the furniture. Kai will have the freedom to play computer games when he wants, go to bed or not go bed, go to clubs or refuse, and eat as much sugar as he pleases.

checkout: for info on the effects of TV harmful effects of TV viewing.



About SJ

A mother, writer and free-spirited home-educator with a passion for challenging the norm.
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