Saturday, April 22, 2017

How my unschooled kid taught me Slow Video

Hey--watch this!

Or, well, maybe you don't want to. It's a little long and moves a little slow. I won't blame you if you don't. I would probably have a hard time with it myself, out of context like this on someone's blog. It's so rewarding if you do watch it, but it is hard--without a 2- or 3-year-old kid.

It's only because I have one that I discovered it.

The whole thing happened kind of by accident. I remember exactly how it happened. He was actually one year old at the time, and according to the experts (well, some experts I heard quoted one time) I shouldn't have been giving him "screen time" at all. But we had just come back from his first road trip (to my brother's wedding) and we had seen migrating geese. I had pointed them out in the sky but hadn't been sure if he understood what I was pointing at. So when we were home I put my computer on the table and told him I was going to show him geese. Youtube was just the easiest way to show him anything. There they were--geese flying, geese honking, geese splashing down in a pond. I picked videos that were mostly raw footage, because the flashy stuff labeled "for kids" had so much talking and cutting between this and that that I just wasn't sure he could follow it. He loved it. "Geese! Geese!" It was a few days of him asking for more before I figured out he thought "geese" meant "video." Ha ha.

I was just the usual harassed parent of a toddler, and breakfast was one of the times I could relax a little because at least his mouth was full and his hands were busy. (We've never spoon-fed him anything. He has to do the work his own self, darnit.) Showing him videos extended that a little. From geese we went on to other birds, and pretty soon we started making our way in stages through "Winged Migration." Then I noticed it. I glanced over at him, and there was something about his eyes I hadn't noticed before. That slightly glazed, TV-watching look. Now I'm not saying anything bad about that look in itself--there's nothing wrong with relaxed immersion for Pete's sake, it's just a matter of how much of your life that is--it's just that I realized something really surprising. The other videos--his previous "screen time"--hadn't made him look like that.

I looked back at the screen and watched for why, and I saw it. It's an incredibly well-made documentary, beautifully cut and scored and voiced. It's meant to be immersive--that's why they cut it. Just like you read in the old arguments against TV, they don't show you the same thing for too many seconds--less than ten usually--then they cut to something new, and that's how they keep your attention. And that's how they get that look.

And raw footage doesn't have that.

Well, he was a toddler. I figured he didn't need relaxed immersion, he needed to see things he hadn't seen before. And there was lots I wanted to show him.  We're unschooling him--learning by doing, learning by seeing, all day every day--so I tend to be on the lookout for what he's interested in, what's at his level just now to learn. I'd told him where eggs and milk come from, for instance, and with Youtube I could prove it. We watched eggs being laid. He pretended to lay eggs. We watched the same hand-milking video for weeks. Some of the videos had audio commentary, but I liked the ones that didn't even better; it gave me space to explain to him what was going on. Just lots of home-made videos, "this is what we do on our farm." When I ran dry of ideas for those I went with his interests: heavy equipment, of course. Breakfast became time to watch tractors plow, or excavators dump earth into dump trucks, over and over. (There's a surprising amount of that out there, usually titled with complete specs of the equipment.) Not so fun for me, but he loved it, and I could open a blog in a separate, narrow little window and read.

My mom used to tell people about how he watched construction footage for fun, as a funny story. And I guess it is unusual. But I don't think he does it because he's an unusual kid. I think any kid would be interested in that. Any kid who'd be excited to see a backhoe turn up next door and would happily run out and watch it work, he'd gladly watch it on a screen too. We give them the immersive stuff because that's the programming touted as being "for kids," but it's not necessarily the only thing they'll like. I mean it's incredibly well designed to make kids keep watching, yes, but... that's one of the reasons I stay away from it. (Mostly. Now at 3 years old he gets animated nursery rhymes and a little gently paced CG dino who teaches numbers and colors in Spanish.) I'm not against cartoons, it's just... there's plenty of time for that. Why get him hooked so early? This is simple, it's not overstimulating (and I've seen him overstimulated, when all he ever wants to role-play for days is the same movie scene, he is overstimulated)... it's like waiting a little on giving your kid candy so they'll learn to like fruit first or something.

I just want to say at this point: we don't all have the same life. I don't eat organic. We can't afford it. (We can't afford Netflix either, which come to think of it might be a big reason this post exists.) If you can't afford the time this kind of thing takes, and it does take time, why on earth should I have any comment to make about that? I don't. I just thought this was worth sharing. In case you like it. That's honestly all.

<wipes forehead> OK. Anyway.

But see, the slow videos have made me think. Especially since Paul and I watched the incredible short-ish movie The Fits, about an African-American pre-teen who joins the amazing local dance/drill team only to find that it's being hit by a mysterious epidemic of seizures. It's magical realism, it's a deep exploration of a young girl's life, there is so much genuine emotion and so much respect--please watch it.

And it is slow. Never too slow, but it woos you into slowness. I don't really know that much about acting, but I suppose it must be a brilliant performance by young Royalty Hightower and some brilliant directing too, because it convinces you to sit and watch raptly as a young girl pushes a push-broom around a gym, or pirouettes slowly and aimlessly around it with the unselfconsciousness of a child who is completely alone.

What it reminded me of most was Andrei Tarkovsky. A Russian filmmaker who made these slow, spiritual movies, like Mirror and Stalker (not a stalker in the American sense--more of a wilderness guide--long story) and Solaris. (I tried to watch one of them with my dad, but when the first five minutes were someone getting out of bed and quietly gathering his things in the half-dark, he went off to do something else.) He was also brilliant, of course. It takes brilliance to take adults back to the pace of children, to being immersed in life, not because there's something new every ten seconds, but because it is life and life is new.

But kids don't need that. Kids can watch footage and think wow.

In college I once read an essay, I wish I could remember by whom, which made the point that the Grand Canyon doesn't awe us anymore specifically because it's the Grand Canyon. Because it's called that, because we show up with expectations, because we pull into the visitor center and get out of our cars hoping to be awed. What would it be like (the author asks) to just stumble on it? When you weren't expecting it? This massive gulf laid out before you, the bottom so far away.

Maybe that's why I had to watch the Swiss video above with a child. It is slow video embodied, a day in the Alps that isn't cut, that isn't commented. The title said it was about cows in the Alps, and I had recently told the Boy about them, how they wore bells and all--so I clicked. And we followed a Swiss family on their annual walk with the cows up to the high pastures. The depth of it creeps up on you--the huge bells hung from their ceremonial-looking collars, the young people around the edges, all helping to herd, the preteen girl quietly and expertly milking a goat. But what got me was the row of grizzled men sitting on the porch with glasses of something celebratory in front of them, doing this quiet yodelly singing in harmony. Not for show. They know some friend or relative is filming it on his phone, they don't really care. This is something they do because they love it. Their family has always done this, way back into the depths of the past. There are deep, deep roots here, and they're not being shown off. It's not some folkloric thing with a TV commentator telling us how cool--or quaint--it is. It's life, being lived.

I love that my kid can see this exactly as it is. He doesn't understand he's supposed to have distance from it. He doesn't know what quaint means, nor culture. To him it's just farming, which is something he's interested in; it's cows and bells, and going up to the mountain pastures because spring is here and the grass is long and green now, and a family hanging out together. And that's what it actually is.

And then we turned it off, and it was time for the most fun thing about slow video. "Can we play that?" He wants to play everything he sees. Everything you tell him about, even. So we got out his toy cow & farmers & I made a mountain pasture for him on the couch. His favorite thing was having the farmer go check on the cow because she fell down--sometimes down the mountain--so the bell stopped ringing. He would then help her up again. Y'know. Like you do.

He's played shoeing horses, or having me shoe him. ("I'm a DRAFT HORSE!") He's played laying eggs and racing cars and milking cows and surfing, roping horses and puffins flying off a cliff and an elephant named Ramprasad hauling logs through the jungle. (That was a BBC Earth clip.) It's ridiculously fun. And of course he plays excavators all the time. Kids will imitate anything they see. It's kind of their job--learning how to be and do. I remember the National Geographic video of a snowy owl dive-bombing an arctic wolf to protect her babies, how it fired him up--he wanted to be that mama, guarding little ones felt right in his bones. There are a lot of things I can't give him. We don't have a car, and clubs and lessons will be hard to afford. But I can give him this, and for free. And then play it with him.

There are a lot of different places you can go looking for this, and it's hit or miss (there's no Slow Video category to click on) but in honor of the Youtube poster who made me think all these thoughts, I'll post two more of his videos--the ones the Boy just watched as I was finishing this, since he went and woke up before I was done.

(If you want to know, I thought the second one was a little boring. But the boy really wanted it. And as soon as it was done he began to wave his hands slowly and menacingly in the air and announced, "I'm... a... lobsterrrr!")

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