A couple of weeks ago our four year old daughter, Juno, began to swim. Just six weeks before she was a koala in the water, hugging my leg or my hip tight, afraid to even stand solo. One heat wave (and 129 river swims) later and she is off, flapping around the water doing her own made up stroke; all limbs paddling at once but very much afloat and speedy. We’d be sewing the badge for ONE WIDTH on her suit if she was at Swim School. It came out of nowhere, this swimming. There was no teaching or even active encouragement on my part. Just many hours clocked up in the water and the motivation, I guess, to not drown.
A few days ago we’d enjoyed an afternoon of swimming when Juno was ready to go home. I walked with her up to the top of the bank, where the trees turn into a meadow, while I ran back down to the get the sunglasses I’d left on a rock. When I came back up I saw Juno in the meadow. She’d shed her towel and her pale body was glinting in the grass. I could see her trailing her hands across the tops of the clover, and then leaping with her arms in the air. As I got closer I saw she was moving her body alongside two small purple butterflies, mimicking their movements and she was singing to them, a wordless melody. I sank into the grass and pulled my hat low. I didn’t want to intrude on this magic. I felt almost like crawling backwards away, as a courtier leaving a royal throne.
This state Juno was in, this right brain flow-of-the-universe state is a beautiful thing to behold. It used to drive me crazy when I first encountered it. Walking to the park, a three minute journey, would take thirty whilst eldest child Ramona, then two, would stop on the pavement in awe of every piece of squashed chewing gum. She’d want to run her palms along the red curves of the plastic seat at the bus stop, she’d shuffle in every small drift of leaves, rarely moved on by my insistence we can take all the time we want once we’re at the playground my love.
Over the years I’ve learnt to sort of respect this zoning out or, more, this zoning in. This all-absorbing wonder that can be fallen into. I’ve discovered how the right brain is the operating system for small children, so we mustn’t be frustrated when they fail to see past the very moment they are in. I’ve learnt to try and use it as a prompt for myself, to take those minutes to be mindful, to pay attention to the moment, my body, my senses. My daughters are my gurus, in this sense.
But only recently did I begin to understand how precious that state is. And it was in this Ted Talk by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor. She’s a neuroanatomist who had a stroke at 37 so is now able to relate exactly how it feels to have the rational, practical, analytical left brain shut off. She recounts the first moments of her stroke, when she began to exist entirely in her right brain:
“I lost my balance and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me, what is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and — total silence.
And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.”
Juno is still in the meadow with the tiny purple butterflies but she’s as still as a blade of grass now, just breathing gently, just marvelling at it all. She’s got about two and a half years left of this. In just a few birthdays time her brain will have completed the connecting pathway to her left hemisphere and she’ll spend less time in wonder and more time problem solving. We sit in our own worlds for 15 more minutes and then wander home.
Later that night Juno took a thick green felt tip pen and wrote Juno, Juno, Juno, Juno, Juno, Ramona, Tim, Lucy, Zoe, Hello, Juno, Juno, Juno on a piece of A4. She curls the half loop of the J around and around in a spiral.
Ramona peers over Juno’s shoulder, a little bit interested. Not much though. Not bothered that her sister, three years younger, has written more words on one page than Ramona ever has. Ramona can do monkey bars for eight minutes straight; that’s the kind of thing Ramona likes to work on.
I’m unbothered too, because doing the monkey bars and swimming and chasing butterflies all has as much to do with reading and writing as sitting down and actually writing does. It sounds strange, but it’s true.
The process that our brain naturally takes, when it comes to reading and writing, starts with our bodies, with fine motor development, with muscle memory. As children develop physically and as they become more adept with their bodies they build neural pathways that make conceptualising abstract concepts far easier.
When we try and teach kids to read and write before they’ve had their fill of play and movement, we short circuit the process. It’s like trying to drive a car with flat tires- it’ll go, sure, but it’ll be clunky with a huge possibility of long-term damage. Research coming out of Cambridge University shows that children that start reading later (at 7 as opposed to 5) quickly catch up to their peers and by the age of 11 show better text comprehension and more positive reading attitudes than their early learning peers.
It’s to do with the brain hemispheres again. You know how kids live from their right brain until they are around 7? Asking a child to read only from their right brain will mean they learn only through sight (a right brain activity), they will miss out on getting to use the left brain reading activity of sounding out phonetically, and all the extra deep comprehension and that will come once the bridge to the left brain has been built. (Read more about that in this thorough and excellent read about delaying reading until the body is ready.)
Sorry, gosh, I do go on one. Back to the kitchen, which is also sort of our bedroom, Juno is writing her name hundreds of times and Ramona is hanging upside down from the bunk. I’m making a cup of tea, still thinking about Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk. And I’m hit by a wave of grief for the millions of children we pull too early out of their right brain, to ask them to begin operating out of their left brain before they are ready. Think of them. One minute they are flying as one with the butterflies in the meadow, euphoric and at peace, and the next they are forced to stare at squiggles and try and remember what the squiggles mean before they even have the mechanics to do it.
Is there a greater cost to forcing small children into their left brain before they are ready? We have rising rates of dyslexia and attention disorders. And I ache for the children who will never be able to sink into a book and find peace in those pages.
But it also seems we are experiencing a collective existential crisis. An epidemic of depression. Whole days spent communicating in perfunctory emojis. Sometimes in the city I can almost hear the hiss of steam as people’s minds vacate their bodies, unable to stay put in the moment. Analysing, planning, rushing, ticking off, typing, gathering stats, brainstorming, texting. Thinking about me, my people, my house, my income, my country. We are lonelier than ever, cut off from neighbours, surrounded by a thousand shallow friendships.
“Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it’s all about the future. And start picking details and more details and more details about those details…. But perhaps most important, it’s that little voice that says to me, “I am. I am.” And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me “I am,” I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me and separate from you.”
We are good at living from our left brains. We’ve been taught for so long that it is best. We download meditation apps and apps that shame us with our social media use, we feel this urge to be at peace, to stop overanalysing, to stop planning, and to sit and breath…. but it’s too hard. We’ve been conditioned to default to our left.
We want, deep down, in our hearts, we want the right brain! Living from the right brain is all about:
“What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.”
Ohhhh. I’m bad at this. My right brain probably looks like a raisin lying alongside the wooly mammoth of my left. I’ve experienced some of that kind of right brain energy, sure. It’s Right Brain RUS on Moon Circle evenings, and every now and then when I’m chasing butterflies naked in the meadow I have a little revival of mystical consciousness. But bringing my right brain into my every day life is arduous, intensive. I have to rely on intentional ritual, and radical gratitude, and reminders on my fridge to be cosmic.
And I don’t think I’m alone. I see it everywhere. My friends tell me they feel it too, this inability to keep their minds in the present moment, to be expansive and open, loving and at peace.
What if we weren’t yanked so thoroughly from our right brains so young? What if children were given the freedom to live in that state of wonder until their own bodies built the bridge out of it? What if we waited patiently until our children were ready to learn the next thing, and meanwhile shared their moments of marveling with them? What if we saw this right brain perspective, of being utterly interconnected, as a gift children bring us? As something valuable to inspire us?
Jill Bolte Taylor woke up after her stroke, in a hospital bed, but alive. Her left brain was fully shut down and she was in right brain nirvana. She describes:
“My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.
But I realized “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” I picture a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.”
There’s not really a way to know, for certain, that the sudden push into the left brain age five is to blame for so many of our adult problems. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to one day learn that it’s a contributing factor. All of nature points to this idea that there are stages that need to be completed in order to truly flourish: the cocoon, the germinating seed, the bursting rain cloud. None can be rushed to good effect. Do we pay for early academics with the golden coins of peace in adulthood and compassionate societies?
When people hear about our lives without school they ask me but how will they learn? I want to quote Einstein at them, to tell them he, this behemothic genius, said “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” To explain how these early right brain years of play and wonder are the cornerstone for the rest of our lives; the foundation for all of our learning and the source of our peace. That adults have a duty to stop undermining them so deeply throughout childhood.
But I tend to leave Einstein out of it, to just explain that curiosity and delight are the perfect ingredients for learning.
One night last week, as I tucked Ramona up in bed, she said “This was the second best day of my life!” and I said “Cool! When was the first?” She looked at me as if I wasn’t thinking straight and replied “Tomorrow!” She’s seven, her left and right brain should be well on their way to connected up, but she doesn’t care for letters or numbers much. More importantly, her sense of wonder is strong. She is in love with the world, with her every day, with the community of nature that surrounds us, and believes that it’s all in love with her too. For both of my daughters, this sense of wonder is a vast and powerful ship on which they will sail for the rest of their lives.
Here is Jill’s talk. Which I really loved. Ha. You might have gathered.
And here is a recent Day in the Life of our Unschooling lives:
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