“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton
For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season, where we find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather and with focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.
Since 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives,” I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:
Winter, Contraction and Frustration
Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.
The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.
The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.
Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.
So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.
The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.
In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.