Wayfinding: An Antidote to Fast & Distracted

I’m sitting outside on our 14 acre campus at Hillbrook School. I see a pair of Kindergarten girls walking to the office together. I say hello. They wave and smile and one of them says “I’m going to get my jacket I forgot in the music room, but first my teacher asked me to deliver this note to the front desk.” They go on their way. As they walk the next stretch of their journey they amble along. One of the girls takes a little skip and speeds up her step. The other matches it…and within moments they are sprinting towards the music room. On their journey back to their classroom they take a different route. A group of 8th graders (giants!) crosses their path and they freeze, staring. They get a couple high fives and hellos, and then they resume their journey.

Two 2nd grade students are walking down a small hill with a tote bag full of books. They share the load, each carrying one handle, and struggle with it a bit. Sometimes one of them moves faster than the other. Sometimes one of them loses their grip. They make it to the library, deliver the books, and start to walk back towards their classroom. They take a wrong turn towards a fenced off construction area. They realize, turn around, and get back on track.

A group of 6th grade students sit at a picnic table working together. Every now and again there is some screechy laughter, or one of them rolls off the bench and flops on the ground, but they are flipping through books and making progress on their work. They are keeping an eye on the clock, and pack up their things and move to the next class at the appropriate time.

None of these children are accompanied by adults. And that independence is a gift.

I’ve been mentally tending to a theory for some time now. My theory, in brief, is as follows: Children are showing up to school differently than they have in decades past. Most notably, they are showing up with underdeveloped self-regulation skills. The experience of childhood is changing, and that is having some concrete effects on child development.

I have some hypotheses on why this is happening, none of which are yet backed by any data beyond anecdotal, qualitative observation. I think there is a complex interplay between the increasingly fast paced nature of our world and the way we as adults interact with screens and devices. As adults we are FAST and we are DISTRACTED. We are leading largely unexamined lives around how the speed of living, and the inattention we give it as it passes us by, is profoundly impacting the way we interact with children and alters the types of experiences we provide for and share with them. We are trying to raise children, as parents and as schools, in the same way we navigate from place to place: by typing a destination in to our phone and waiting for that phone to tell us when and where to turn and how long it will take to get there.

We are thoughtlessly overscheduling and overprotecting little human beings through childhood, because it’s how we are living our own lives….and as a result the journey we (and by extension they) are on is less fruitful, more frenetic, and highly reactive.

Which brings me to the question at hand: What if schools were more like wayfinding and less like GPS navigation?

Wikipedia offers an interesting look at the term “wayfinding”. In addition, I like to describe it as the experience of moving about the world with open eyes, a present mind, and a willingness to embrace serendipity. What if school, what if childhood, were more like that?boy_and_girl_hiking_along_sunlit_path_in_woods_with_walking_sticks_and_backpack

True moments of wayfinding require time. They require parents, teachers, and leaders to prioritize possibility, ambiguity, and some uncertainty over what is predictable and scheduled. Wayfinding requires a firmly held belief that there is power in the emergent, and that when learning and living are supple in response to what shows up they can be that much more transformative and lasting. Opening up the world to children through a wayfinder’s mindset requires that we (as adults) be comfortable with reasonable risk and relinquish some of our much treasured illusion of control.  

In a 2011 issue of Evolutionary Psychology an article titled “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Antiphobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences” was published. The authors write,

“Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous physical activities, children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the borderline of the feeling of being out of control (often because of height or speed) and overcoming fear…Most of the time risky play occurs in children’s free play as opposed to play organized by adults. In modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all areas, including situations involving playing. An exaggerated safety focus of children’s play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally.”

One of the types of risky play that the authors identify is “Exploring on one’s own.” In other words: wayfinding. Children NEED it. And we are increasingly seeing children who are either unusually fearful or unusually unable to manage themselves when afforded age-appropriate freedom…because they haven’t had any practice.

You might have started reading this article because you were hoping I would give you “7 Strategies to Make Schools More Like Wayfinding and Less Like GPS Navigation”…but I’m going to disappoint you. Not only do I not know what those strategies are…but making a list like that would be doing the thing that I’m suggesting we resist: prescribing concrete strategies and sequences of steps towards the mythology of a sure outcome.

The only suggestion I have is, instead of looking at what adults (whether they are parents, leaders, or teachers) can do to control, change, adjust, innovate, or adapt the landscape of schools and parenting…I think we should take some time to turn the microscope on ourselves. How can you be more of a wayfinder? How can you disconnect (literally or figuratively) from the GPS systems in your life? What might emerge when you do?

Children will follow our lead.

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