Understanding the principles of expansion and contraction has helped me better understand my children and live more peacefully with them. I've even learned a little more about myself and the way I feel and act. Here's my personal understanding of this topic after reading about it in The Heart of Learning and observing it in my life.
Expansion - open-ended activity for the sake of exploration and relaxation, with no goal in mind
playing/talking to other children
miscellaneous outdoor time
"free play" in general
Contraction - focusing attention and effort with a certain outcome in mind
sitting and doing a lesson, once we start this in the fall
helping me cook something
helping with chores such as picking up toys
It's a little confusing because one activity might be either expansion or contraction depending on how you handle it. Say to a child "build me a mermaid out of this play-doh" and that's contraction. Just squishing it into random shapes and feeling it in your hands would be expansion.
I think I am on the right track but correct me if I'm wrong. For some reason when I first read about these two principles, I envisioned alternating equally between the two. I soon noticed, after paying attention to how we experience expansion and contraction every day, that it's different for everyone. Suzi needs mostly expansion. She loves playing in the sandbox, in the yard, and with open-ended toys inside. Right now she is playing with a wire bead maze and singing a song about what the beads are doing. Today has been a pretty good day, we are more than halfway through it, and there might have been 30 minutes total of contraction activities so far. Suzi and I worked on a puzzle for about ten minutes and later we read books together. Because Ivey is not even two yet, about 15 minutes a day of contraction is all I can really expect. It usually happens while we read. When she gets tired of focusing, she wanders off or flips through a different book on her own while I read to Suzi.
Usually I can tell when we need to change from expansion to contraction because the girls have become irritable and have begun to fight over little things. Another sign is when Suzi says "I don't know what to do." This is probably the equivalent of boredom, and directing her to another expansion activity usually does not help. When this happens, I stop what I am doing if possible and spend some time with them. We sing songs together or read some books. (With Suzi, I sometimes start a craft or other activity with a goal, but Ivey is still too little for most of this.) They seem to enjoy having something to focus on and when we are done they are ready to move on with renewed interest to another expansion activity.
It's obvious when they have become too contracted and need to change to an expansion activity. Ivey will usually move herself to a new activity easily and there is no need to think about it. Suzi begins to get frustrated with what she is doing. Frequently she says she doesn't want to do it anymore and moves on. Simple! From what I've seen, the friction comes when an adult tries to keep a child in contraction for longer than they can comfortably stay. I have observed this while trying to let my kids help me in the kitchen. Here, stir this! Pour that! Wait for my instructions. Okay, cut this fruit. Now throw it in the bowl, and... Wait a minute, where are you going? The child just can't focus as long as an adult. I recently changed the way I treat my children in the kitchen. They can help and learn, but it needs to be 5% contraction and 95% expansion. Here, Suzi and Ivey "help" by playing freely with bits of ingredients on the counter as I bake Robert's birthday cake--and we all had so much fun. After reading about expansion and contraction, I can see why this approach worked better.
Once we start doing homeschool lessons, I will be careful not to overdo contraction activities with Suzi. A few minutes to an hour of focused effort a day for lessons is enough. I will also try to work her expansion/contraction cycles to our advantage by waiting until a time when she is naturally coming back into contraction to start lessons. This usually occurs mid-morning after outdoor play time, and again a couple of hours after lunch.
I've been working on this already without really focusing. I've greatly increased the girls' outdoor time and can see now when it might be beneficial to offer a directed, structured activity. There are still a couple of things I'd like to accomplish this week and beyond, and they are:
1) Compile a list of good expansion and contraction activities, and collect the materials for some of them. I would love to have a closet dedicated to these things with a list of activities taped to the inside of the door. That is my vision. But, alas, we have no free closets. Perhaps someday we will live in a bigger place. Please leave a comment with your ideas and the activities your family enjoys!
2) Continue on in my quest to become unafraid of messes. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, check out this post by Megan. I need to be more like her!
3) And then I need to think of some (somewhat controlled) ways to make messes. Messes are excellent expansion opportunities!
4) I was going to read more about expansion and contraction, but there is surprisingly little online about it and that's where I do most of my reading. I think I'll re-read that part of The Heart of Learning while considering what I've observed with the kids.
Update coming Friday!