Monday, September 1, 2014
Last week I wrote about my concern that our society seems satisfied to marginalize our children, to keep them away and occupied so they won't disturb our now quiet neighborhoods and predictable communities.
In this weekend's Boston Globe there is an article about "What Age Segregation Does to America," reporting that it is not just children, but the elderly as well, who are marginalized in society, who are separated into silos on the periphery of the community where they lose connection to others.
I was talking with a friend about this phenomenon recently, even before this article appeared, and she brought up the point that the young and the old -- both stages of life that can be messy and unpredictable, noisy and uncomfortable -- are removed from the mainstream community, leaving our neighborhoods mostly filled with a homogeneous and predictable population of grown-ups. As the Globe article author, Leon Neyfakh, reports: "Our society…has become far too segregated by age."
This was not always the case, of course, as my friend who has a Ph.D in History pointed out. Not that long ago it was ordinary and accepted to live in multi-generational families, to live on streets and in neighborhoods with a mix of young and old. Children would play loudly and freely in the streets while grandmothers would perch on their front porch to watch. There was more vibrancy, more diversity. As this recent article in the New York Daily News reports, there was a time when children were more visible in neighborhoods, more active, and allowed to play more openly and freely without the expectation of constant adult supervision. The article discusses the famous New York City urbanist, Jane Jacobs, who exalted the many benefits of urban living in her classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The Daily News article author, Alex Marshall, states: "Jacobs made much of the fact that children caroused without formal supervision, watched primarily not by their parents, but by shopkeepers, housewives, nosy window watchers and random block people. This type of supervision was good for the kids — but also for the rest of us, who created a sense of community."
Now, our communities are much more sterile. There is less of that diversity that creates a vibrant, bustling community. Children and the elderly are systematically removed from everyday life. So what's the solution? Can we reverse this troubling trend? Globe article author, Neyfakh, reports that "…there's no major movement back toward educating kids in mixed-age groups, and senior communities are likely to keep flourishing…" Yet, homeschoolers and unschoolers alike know that one of the great benefits of learning outside of schools is that it facilitates multi-age learning and play, and learning throughout the community, interacting naturally with people of all ages and stages.
When we as a society decide that age-segregation is no longer good for communities--when we remove institutional barriers for the young and the old and welcome back both groups into the fabric of our neighborhoods--we will regain the heterogeneity and spontaneity that Jane Jacobs observed in urban neighborhoods a half-century ago. We will welcome back children and grandparents and care for both within diverse neighborhoods and along lively streets. We will reverse age-segregation in America and re-integrate our neighborhoods with people of every life stage.
And it starts with us and the choices we make for our families.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
It occurred to me recently while shopping at the local farmers' market that many of us seem to increasingly value things like cage-free eggs, pastured pork, grass-finished beef, sun-ripended tomatoes, and so on. We pay more for these things, recognizing the value that freedom and sunshine grant to our food, helping it to reach its full potential in a most authentic, humane, healthy way.
Yet, we as a society don't seem to value the same for our children. In his recent Outside Magazine article about unschooling, Ben Hewitt quotes Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, stating: “Children are forced to attend school, where they are stripped of most of their rights...The debate shouldn’t be about whether school is prison, because unless you want to change the definition of prison, it is. School deliberately removes the environmental conditions that foster self-directed learning and natural curiosity. It’s like locking a child in a closet.”
Instead of giving our children more freedom, more time outside of the confines of a building, we are lengthening school days and school years, beginning formal schooling at ever-earlier ages, and placing our children in an array of structured, adult-led, age-segregated activities that consume most of their formerly free-play time. It's no wonder that many children flock to video games and television screens when they finally have a moment to themselves: they feel exhausted and defeated.
If it's important for our meats and vegetables to grow outside, freely in fresh air and sunlight, then why isn't it just as important for our children to spend their days in the same way?
Cage-free learning. Pastured playtime. A grass-finished childhood. Sun-ripened dreams.
It seems a worthy goal for all children, don't you think?
Friday, August 29, 2014
This is my favorite time of the year to be unschoolers. As my Facebook feed fills with back-to-school photos marking an end to summertime freedom, we continue to spend these warm, bright days outside with friends at the lake or in the woods or by the park.
For our family, Labor Day Weekend is not an end to childhood freedom, but a clear reminder of the importance of that freedom all year long.
We soak up every bit of summer and sunshine as we move gradually into autumn rhythms. Classes begin slowly next month, sprinkling the calendar with activities but also allowing for long stretches of unstructured time to play and create, read and dream. We follow the authentic cadence of the seasons, enjoying late-summer days outside, in the water and on the grass, until the cool winds of the Equinox begin shifting our time from outside to in.
It is at this time of year that I am most reminded of what a gift it is to give our children the freedom to learn, in their own way and in their own time, following the natural rhythms of the seasons. They are free to follow their interests, develop their passions, get lost in their imaginations. They are free to spend long hours outside in the still-summer sun. They are free to run and jump, twirl and shout. They are free to chart their own course in life, to be the master of their own fate.
They are free to learn.
They are free.
Oh, what a great time of year it is!
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
I had been trying to think of the word. I had been trying to conjure the term to best describe how our current education system functions in relation to deciding years ago what children today need to know now to be capable, competent, compassionate human beings decades from now.
Then, while reading classic Greek myths to my children, it struck me:
It's hubris--arrogance--to decide what is right for another human being, to determine what content and mastery are required at certain times and in certain ways for someone else. Hubris.
How do any of us know what is required to live a good life, to participate in a global community, to deal with the unknown challenges and undiscovered inventions of a society decades from now?
What we can do is help our children to be life-long learners. We can ensure that their innate childhood curiosity and zest for discovery are not suppressed. We can show them, through the everyday process of being an integral part of a vibrant, diverse community, the current tools of our culture so that they naturally strive to learn such things as reading and writing, math and science, collaboration and conflict resolution. We can grant them the respect and autonomy to become their own people, to reveal their own passions. We can let go of the antiquated, haughty notion that our role as adults is to mold our children into some arbitrary template of what we think constitutes a successful human being. We can, instead, embrace the idea that children--when given freedom and opportunity--naturally learn the important skills of their culture and grow up to use those skills creatively and masterfully by combining their own innate gifts.
Rather than deciding what children need to know at certain times, in certain ways--quizzing them and cajoling them--we should grant them the freedom and opportunity to discover their own world, to develop their distinct interests and talents, to preserve their childhood curiosity and imagination.
Who is to say what a human being should master today to creatively solve the world's problems tomorrow? Perhaps we should instead allow today's childhood to be an incubator for self-directed creativity. Then tomorrow's mastery will come. And it will be far more powerful and influential than it could ever be when ordained by someone else, decades ago.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Imagine, just for a moment, that we live in a culture that fully embraces the idea of self-directed, non-coercive education for children. Community resource centers and other school alternatives abound, allowing children of all backgrounds and circumstances the freedom to pursue their own passions, to tinker and create and dream. Homeschoolers are ubiquitous. Children are everywhere, all around town, all the time. They are no longer whisked away to separate buildings for most of the day, engaged in structured, adult-directed activities for most of the year. They are, instead, a visible and vital part of a diverse and bustling community.
As a society, are we ready for this?
Beyond simply the general arguments for and against self-directed, non-coercive learning, are we at the very least ready to welcome (or welcome back) children into our community?
Sadly, I'm not so sure.
There was a time, perhaps even when we ourselves were little, when children had more freedom, had more visibility in their communities and neighborhoods. We played outside all afternoon after school with children of all ages, making up our own games, with no sign of a grown-up until dinnertime yells or bells. Back then--only three or four decades ago--children were everywhere. They were the very fabric of a neighborhood, granting it vitality and connection.
Then, somewhere along the way, the children disappeared from their neighborhoods. After-school sports and organized activities trumped neighborhood catch and fort-building. Parents' lives got busier, children's lives got busier. Enrichment meant more than play. Gotta get ahead to go ahead.
Then the digital age came, and an increasing number of people began working at home during the day, grateful for their quiet neighborhoods. In fact, many neighborhoods have grown so quiet, so accustomed to not hearing or seeing children in them, that the typical noises of childhood can be startling to some, a nuisance to others.
Which brings me back to my earlier rhetoric: are we ready to embrace -- to re-embrace -- childhood freedom? Are we as a society ready to say that childhood matters, that self-directed childhood play and learning matter? Are we ready to welcome children back into our neighborhoods, our communities, rather than accepting their newfound place on the margins?
For the sake of our children and our future, I certainly hope so.
P.S. Thanks to a blog Facebook friend for sharing this recent and relevant article about how most Americans want to criminalize pre-teens playing unsupervised!
Thursday, August 21, 2014
One of the common criticisms homeschoolers hear is that while we may have the privilege to lead this lifestyle, most families do not. We have the privilege to have one parent at home for much of the day, to take advantage of classes and community resources, to indulge in self-directed learning where our children lead and we follow. It's a luxury, the critics contend, that most do not have.
While I agree that I feel privileged to be able to homeschool, to be a stay-at-home-mom, to allow my children to lead their own education, I do not think this is a privilege only for the few.
Why shouldn't it be accessible to all children regardless of circumstance?
I think it should be. One of the key tenets that my colleagues and I at AlternativesToSchool.com espouse is that self-directed learning should be accessible to everyone. It may take a complete transformation of our current education system -- indeed it likely will -- but we can get there. We can embrace a model of learning in this country that is built on the contemporary idea that education is self-directed, rather than the antiquated, industrial idea that education is something that someone does to someone else.
It will take change. Big change. But the models for this type of learning already exist. Think about museums and libraries, for example. These spaces are rich in opportunity and exposure, resources and expertise. There are knowledgeable subject-matter experts and other facilitators available to answer questions and prompt inquiry. There are dynamic exhibits, live lectures, classes and workshops that one can choose to participate in or not. By investing in these types of spaces, and expanding their presence, we can make self-directed, whole-life learning accessible to everyone.
Community Resource Centers that cater to the needs of homeschoolers are popping up in various communities throughout the country and many follow this model of encouraging self-directed learning. They offer a rich learning environment with resources and materials and caring grown-ups. They offer interesting classes on various topics that children can choose to attend or not. They offer a space for self-discovery and interest-based learning that ignites curiosity and helps children to reveal their passions and gifts. They trust in the human capacity to find our own way, to learn the important tools of our culture, when given the time and space and resources to do so. This week's AlternativesToSchool.com blog post showcases one of these Community Resource Centers: Parts and Crafts in nearby Somerville, Mass.
Sometimes it is easier to criticize an idea as elitist or out-of-touch than it is to think deeply about how such an idea could--and should--be made accessible to everyone.
Posted by Kerry McDonald, M.Ed at Thursday, August 21, 2014
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
But as time has passed, as I've been immersed in living and learning with four babes, as I have been asked this question more frequently in both formal interviews and casual conversations, I decided I needed to be more thoughtful, more honest, in sharing the benefits and challenges of homeschooling. Because if you want to launch into a homeschooling lifestyle, you should do it with eyes wide open.
So here's the truth: the biggest challenge to homeschooling is that it is very parent-intensive.
When you choose this lifestyle, you are taking on the full responsibility for educating your own children. You are not relying on state or private institutions to do it for you. You are doing it for your family, your children. Sure, you use the full resources of your community to help you. You take advantage of classes, instructors, museums, libraries, and other community treasures to enhance your children's learning, but you are the one facilitating this entire process.
You are the one watching and listening as your children's passions and talents reveal themselves, and you are the one connecting those interests to the vast resources of your community. You are with your children every day, for longer periods of time than most other parents. You get fewer stretches of personal "alone" time than others do, particularly when your children are young. You are cultivating a family life, a family home, that is filled with learning resources, sparks curiosity, and is designed for continuous learning. It takes thought. It takes effort. It takes time. It is very parent-intensive.
But here's the other truth: the biggest challenge to homeschooling is also its greatest reward.
You have the privilege of living and learning alongside your children, of really knowing them, of really seeing their distinct gifts unfold and flourish. You have the privilege of tailoring your children's learning to their own pace, to their own interests, and discovering the many wonders of your community to help you in this important endeavor.
As is usually true, the journeys that are the most challenging are also the ones that are most worthwhile.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
If I constantly wax poetic about how great it is to unschool in the city, it's because this place never ceases to amaze me.
I was thinking recently that my bibliophile seven-year-old might like an outlet to write about the books she reads, but I didn't want to conjure some artificial book report process or similar approach. So, I turned to the city.
I quickly discovered that one of our city's local, independent bookstores offers a wonderful program called Fresh Ink, in which children ages 7 and up can select free Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of pre-publication books, read them, and then email a review to the bookstore. If the review is selected, the child gets a store discount. My daughter was delighted when I told her about this program. We dodged today's raindrops and headed to the square to choose an ARC book.
This is natural learning. This is community-based learning. This is real.
Learning doesn't need to be contrived. It doesn't need to be perfectly packaged. It doesn't need to be adult-driven, or age-segregated, or connected to an arbitrary set of competencies. It doesn't need to be artificial.
When we think "outside-of-the-box," outside of the confines of four walls of a classroom or even a home, and embrace the many resources -- authentic resources -- of our community, we discover a myriad of ways to allow our children to learn naturally. We use the context and resources of our community to facilitate our children's budding interests and passions. We use real people, places, and things to augment learning.
I was honored to be interviewed for Ben Hewitt's excellent article in the current issue of Outside Magazine. In the article, Ben quotes me, saying: "The city is our curriculum… We believe that kids learn by living in the world around them, so we immerse them in that world."
The city is our curriculum. Today's classroom was the bookstore. Today's lesson was writing. All of it was child-led. All of it was authentic. All of it was connected to real life, with real people and real places. All of it was fun. All of it was learning.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
My older daughter has read four juvenile fiction books in the past two days. She has read dozens of books this season. Some days, she will curl up with her books and read for hours on end. Other days, she will become immersed in some other activity or project and leave the books aside. Reading is one of her passions and has been since she learned to read several years ago.
We never taught her to read. We don't tally the books she has read or reward her for reading.
She taught herself to read, as the vast majority of children will do naturally, in their own time, when surrounded by literacy and when provided with the time and space and resources to do so.
Children don't need to be coerced into reading, quizzed, cajoled, or rewarded. They don't need promises of stickers or check marks, candy or pizza, or a chance to win a new iPod. Reading shouldn't be a race, a competition.
When we set-up reading as a contest--as a means to some arbitrary end--we minimize, however unintentionally, its inherent value.
Children are naturally curious, naturally driven to explore and discover their world. When they are surrounded by books, when they are read to often, when their parents and caregivers model a love of reading, most children can't help but learn to read.
And love to read.
Let's not forget that it's not just about reading, but about loving to read. It's about supporting a child's natural curiosity: a curiosity that can be easily snuffed or stifled when we make reading less about joy and discovery and more about competition and rewards.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
I am honored to have my article, "Learning At Home," featured in the new back-to-school issue of Green Child Magazine! I hope you will take a peek!
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
It was bound to happen. With all of the moving and transition of the last two weeks, as we cleared out of the rental house and settled into our newly-renovated city home, someone was sure to get sick. The stress of a big move and days of processed food and sugar that accompanied it certainly lowered everyone's resistance.
So over the weekend, when my three-year-old began showing classic signs of a urinary tract infection, I dreaded what was to come. In conventional medicine, antibiotics are the only way to go for this infection.
But, as you know, I am not a big fan of conventional medicine. So rather than get a prescription, I went the alternative route with homeopathy and the guidance and encouragement of our family doctor/homeopath. Using the common homeopathic remedies cantharis and pulsatilla, (available at most Whole Foods markets and other natural food stores), her painful infection cleared up in a few days and without any need for antibiotics.
Despite the flurry of recent, high-profile reports like this one in The New York Times pointing to the hazards of antibiotic use, particularly in children, these drugs continue to be issued and relied upon casually.
Look, antibiotics are a gift. They can be life-saving. I feel privileged to live in a place and time when they are readily available if needed. But I also think we parents can be a bit more discerning about when we use them, and we should seek the wisdom of homeopathy and Traditional Chinese Medicine first and to a far greater degree.
There is so much we can do at home to heal and nurture and nourish. It's a powerful place. More than we even know.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
After her sewing class this morning at our local fiber and yarn shop, my seven-year-old and I popped over to today's open house at Parts and Crafts, a nearby community resource center that offers daily drop-in programming for homeschoolers, as well as summer camps and after-school programs. It is such a wonderful spot, and a reminder that community-based resource centers like this one that encourage self-directed learning are instrumental in propelling the unschooling movement and making it accessible to more families.
Community Resource Centers, like Parts and Crafts, complement a family's home-based, self-directed learning by providing flexible scheduling options (1 day to 5 days per week), offering classes and lessons in various topics that children can choose to participate in or not, and allowing for abundant unstructured time in a multi-age space with enthusiastic adults available to help when asked. Families register as homeschoolers with their city or state (depending on local reporting requirements), and then take advantage of the resources these learning hubs offer.
I feel really fortunate that Parts and Crafts is a short walk from our home, and am trying to see if a day a week there may fit into our fall unschooling rhythms for my oldest. She is hooked and can't wait to return to do some more tinkering and exploring.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
It's about this time every year that I start thinking ahead to fall. While deep in the heart of summertime rhythms, enjoying these full days of sunshine and water and endless play, the notices and emails about fall classes and opportunities begin sprinkling my inbox. There is always so much to choose from, so many homeschooling and community activities to consider. It's an annual challenge trying to strike just the right balance of wonderful classes and unstructured time to just read, or play, or dream. Some years, some seasons, I do a better job than others of striking this balance. Other times, I find we get carried away with so many great experiences that the pace becomes too much. There is too much shuffling from one class to the next, too many disrupted moments of playing or reading or dreaming as we rush to some commitment.
But plotting our fall rhythms at this time of year, at the height of free summer days, reminds me of the pace we strive for come fall. The summer pace is slow and simple. It allows for abundant stay-and-play time. It avoids the feeling of constant motion, of juggling and rushing and glancing at the clock. There is a certain peace that comes from these free and open days. The children are calmer, knowing that they don't need to rush off this way or that, knowing that they can become deeply immersed in their play without interruption. I am trying to follow in the footsteps of my friend, Tracy at OFFKLTR, who prioritizes slow and simple days, recognizing their power in facilitating childhood imagination and creativity.
This fall, some classes are a given. We will continue with sewing and math and recorder for my seven-year-old, and ukulele, math and soccer for my five-year-old. My three-year-old and littlest babe will just play; no need to rush any structured activities yet. We will fill the rest of the week with ad hoc activities that we can choose at the last-minute depending on how everyone is doing: weekly MFA homeschooling classes, weekly homeschool park days, more sewing and knitting classes, museum visits, frequent library trips, regular gatherings with family and friends, and so on. There are bound to be other classes or opportunities that pop up in the coming weeks, some that may be hard to resist. And so I'll think ahead to busier fall rhythms while remembering how special, how powerful, these slow and simple days can be.
Monday, July 28, 2014
It has been a full but magical weekend of settling into our new city house. There are still boxes to unpack, closets to organize, pictures to hang, and knickknacks to place, but we feel right at home in this cozy spot and are so glad to be back in our old neighborhood.
I look forward to sharing more snapshots of home very soon!
Posted by Kerry McDonald, M.Ed at Monday, July 28, 2014
Monday, July 21, 2014
It was only fitting that we began our month in Vermont at the Solstice with strawberry picking, and ended the month at the same farm with blueberrying.
And now, back in the city, we are spending this week moving into our new city house!
Truthfully, at the moment this process seems a bit like performing open heart surgery on someone currently running a marathon. But I am trying to stay calm, let things go, and remember to appreciate all the joy of this week.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
After we eloped, I realized that there weren't many books available for couples seeking a non-traditional wedding. We weren't running away from anything; we just didn't want the pomp and circumstance associated with a traditional wedding. And I thought other couples might be interested in traditional wedding alternatives, too. So I wrote a book about it.
After Your Unique Wedding was published in 2005, I thought someday I would write another book. Then motherhood happened and I was knee-deep in babyhood and toddlerhood, homemaking and homeschooling. I still am. But I began putting together some ideas for another book, talking with the publishing agency I worked with for the previous book, gathering early endorsements from colleagues.
I dragged my feet a bit, wondering if I could really dive into this important project, debating whether now was the time. Then, at the beach with a dear friend while our kids splashed together, I got just the nudge I needed. I told her about the book idea, how my agent was enthusiastic, how my endorsements were encouraging. But I also shared my trepidation, questioning if I could really devote myself to this project when so much of my time was pulled in other ways. I said reluctantly: "If I decide to do this project, I will probably need to get a babysitter for a few hours a week so I can write." And then she, in her gentle but wise way, said: "But isn't that ok? Isn't this important enough for you to get some help?"
I thought about her words, her encouragement. I had never used a babysitter before, relying mostly on family members to help out. But in Vermont this past month, as the finishing touches are placed on our newly-renovated city house, I realized that this book project was important enough.
For a few morning hours a week, while the final proposal for my book on natural learning came together, we welcomed our delightful babysitter, Anna, into our home. Recommended to us by a neighbor who fully understood our family and philosophy, Anna was the perfect match. Calm, quiet, gentle, she allowed the children to fully direct their play and involve her as needed, while the baby and I worked in the back office.
This whole process has been eye-opening for me. I realized not only how important--vital--it is for moms to carve out time in their busy days to create and pursue their own interests, but it is also equally important to ask for help to do this. If we don't make space for ourselves, even just a bit, we run the risk of getting overly-stressed and burnt-out. We run the risk of becoming stretched so thin--of becoming so unbalanced--that we lose the joy in mothering. We run the risk of ignoring really important projects.
Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind us of what is really important, to remind us to take care of ourselves and seek help when needed. To remind us to find that balance. To remind us that now is as good a time as any to begin.