Saturday, September 13, 2014

On socialization

these are the people in your neighborhood
I remember when my oldest was a toddler and we met at a local playground with a neighborhood mom who at the time was homeschooling her oldest, a kindergartener. I had just begun to think about the homeschooling option and was curious to learn about this mom's experience. One of the first questions out of my mouth was: "What about socialization?"

So, I can't fault well-meaning people when they ask this question, no matter how many times I hear it. It's the natural, knee-jerk question from all of us who have grown-up conditioned to believe that "socialization" happens only in schools and therefore must be lacking in homeschools.

But what I, and most curious questioners, really meant was: "What is their social life like? Do they interact with others? Do they have friends?" Socialization and being social are two very different things: the former being a process of conformity to a set of cultural mores, the latter being an essential condition of the human spirit. Yet again, though, we often associate the two--socialization and being social--as only happening in schools.

Most of my current, dear friends are not people I met in school. They are people I met in my community, through neighborhood walks, through shared interests and experiences, through other friends. To think that friendships and the opportunity to be social are only cultivated through institutional schooling is clearly ridiculous. For most of us--I hope at least--our friends are a rich blend of ages and interests, philosophies and persuasions representative of the larger society.

My children, like most homeschooled children, grow within this same context of societal diversity, interacting daily with an array of children and adults in our community. They have close friends, many of whom they have met through our neighborhood, through homeschool park days and community activities, at the playground and around town. They also have constant exposure to and interaction with a much larger segment of our population than their same-age schooled peers who spend much of their days and weeks in age-segregated classrooms learning from the same handful of people. Through the everyday process of integrating children into our lives within our communities, children can meet, talk to, and build relationships with a wide assortment of individuals from whom they learn--be it the neighborhood florist, the librarian, the cafe clerk, the shopkeeper, the instructor, the musician, the scientist, the carpenter, the neighbor, and the friend.

When I naively asked the socialization question of my friend at the park a half-dozen years or so ago, she gently helped me to see that my question was not about socialization--a process of cultural conformity that, I think, can be damaging to many children in our current high-pressure, consumption-based, overly-commercialized, hyper-competitive society. Frankly, I am glad that my children don't care much about what they wear or how their hair looks or whether or not they have the latest fad gadget. "Socialization" is not what I strive for with my children. But being social? Being social is a natural component of being human. It's part of our mammalian instincts. Immersing ourselves and our children in our broader community allows for meaningful interactions with a diverse network of individuals and mentors, and allows for deep friendships to blossom when we are able to authentically choose and nurture these friendships in the context of our community.

After that day at the park, and in the subsequent years of my family's unschooling journey, I find that most people I encounter make the same mistake I did: confusing "socialization" with "being social." Usually, I find, it's a simple clarification, and often it ends with a remark like the one I heard recently: "Yea, I didn't really like all that school socialization anyway--cliques and bullying and such."


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

adjusting our unschooling schedule

"…it often occurs to me that while we are socialized to believe that our children's lives should be constantly expanding into new horizons and opportunities, could it be that we are ignoring (or simply ignorant of) the value of having their world contract?… Maybe we could start to show them the richness of experience that waits directly outside their front doors, in our neighborhoods and communities--in our imaginations, even." - Ben Hewitt, Home Grown: Adventures in Parenting Off the Beaten Path, Unschooling, and Reconnecting with the Natural World
As our fall rhythms begin, I am making some adjustments. It's very easy to get carried away with the many wonderful homeschooling opportunities available to us in the city, to the point where structured classes and activities fill our days, and unstructured time--like reading, playing, crafting, dreaming, lounging at the library, and gathering at the park with friends--gets squeezed into tight pockets of a packed week.

I tried to keep our schedule relatively light this fall, while also recognizing that as my babes grow so too do their interests and their need to use our city as their dynamic classroom. But as the weekly schedule has begun, as I see how the days flow, I realized we needed more do-nothing days: days without any structured activities, days to just be. So I canceled one class that sounded marvelous but would have eaten up a good bit of time, and I canceled another when I learned there was an instructor-switch and a previously beloved teacher wasn't going to be available. I also moved some other activities and classes around, freeing up days for unstructured time and prioritizing things like weekly homeschool park day and informal gatherings with friends. While these informal, unstructured moments may not have the bells and whistles of the fabulous classes of the city, they are so very valuable, so very necessary, and, I'm learning, should ultimately take priority as we strive for a slower, simpler childhood.

While talking with my unschooling-mama friends at Monday's not-back-to-school picnic, we spent much of our time discussing how not to over-schedule our kids, how we are fiercely protective of our children's freedom to learn and the wide open time and space they need to do so. Schedules that may seem overly-light to most parents with same-age children seem to us too busy, too frenetic! So we make adjustments, we re-focus on our priorities, and we re-commit to providing and preserving the essential conditions for natural learning.
"…Children needn't be taught how to learn; they just do. It is as natural and obvious as breathing, as necessary to their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual beings as food is to their physical manifestations." - Ben Hewitt, Home Grown

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Learning At Home

Welcome to the September 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Home Tour
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have opened up their doors and given us a photo-rich glimpse into how they arrange their living spaces.

This is an excerpt from my article in the current back-to-school issue of Green Child Magazine. Click here to read the full article.

Our homes are powerful places for living and learning. Whether your children are still toddlers and preschoolers, or if you have decided to homeschool, there are many ways that you can create at home the conditions that ignite natural learning. 

By reimagining the ordinary spaces of our homes as extraordinary resources for early childhood learning, we can foster a home learning environment that sparks curiosity, engages children naturally in discovery of their world, and cultivates a more peaceful home life.

Here are five simple ideas for re-envisioning your home as a powerful place for natural learning:

  1. Warmth
Natural learning comes easily from a warm and inviting space. Filling your home with natural toys and materials, de-cluttering, and incorporating homemade items into play-spaces can create an enriching learning environment. Consider donating half of your child’s current toys to simplify and calm their space. The fewer the toys, the more deeply they will play with those that are left. For your remaining toys, select high-quality, non-commercial toys made from natural materials like wood and wool. These natural toys trigger a child’s imagination in ways that manufactured plastic cannot. And think creatively about special “toys” for young children. Playing with a ball of yarn or a basket of clothespins, while a grown-up watches nearby, can be great fun for babies and toddlers. Fill your play-spaces with warmth by showcasing the homemade. Drape a piece of string or yarn across a window or wall and clip your child’s artwork to it. Frame your child’s art for all to admire. Sprinkle handmades into your play-spaces, with a homemade pillow or a knitted blanket, adding warmth and inspiration to your home.

  1. Curiosity
Spark your child’s natural curiosity with baskets of books scattered throughout your home. Gather “coffee table books,” and other large, colorful books to include in your play-spaces for children to explore. Make tools for child-directed learning readily available and accessible, like wooden blocks and letters, puzzles, microscopes and magnifying glasses, dress-up clothes and play silks. Set up a book nook or a nature corner or a music alcove. Envision your home as an incubator of curiosity and imagination, with nooks and crannies offering enjoyable spaces for learning and discovery.

  1. Creativity
Think of ways to cultivate creativity in your home. Prepare a morning art table for your toddler or preschooler to stumble upon. Fill it with paper and crayons, tape and glue, magazines to cut up, or different materials to explore. For older children, designate a space in your home as your constant “creativity corner,” with art supplies ready and waiting when inspiration hits. Filling our homes with creative spaces for our children help them to direct their own learning, reveal their own interests, and pursue their own passions without waiting for grown-ups to lead the way.

  1. Rhythm
When we think of simple ways to integrate our children into the daily rhythms of home--involving them in household projects, inviting them to move through the day alongside us--we find that our days at home can be more peaceful, more enjoyable, and more productive than we ever thought possible. By re-envisioning our home and the daily tasks we complete within it as important to our child’s early learning and development, we begin to see that our role is not to entertain our children, not to occupy them, but to welcome them into the daily rhythms of our life and work. Yes, it will take longer—perhaps much longer—to fold that pile of clothes or bake those cookies, but when we see our home-based activities—like cleaning and cooking—as central to our child’s learning, then it doesn’t matter if it takes longer than it otherwise would. It’s not something to get through quickly so you can play with the train set on the floor. Instead, it is the learning activity for that time of the day, for that moment, and it is deeply worthwhile.

  1. Nourishment
Just as folding the laundry can become a learning activity in and of itself for young children--an exercise in sorting and organizing, identifying shapes and colors in a natural way as part of the ordinary cadence of the day—so too can cooking and baking. Instead of feeling the need to buy play-dough, for instance, and find a set time for using it with your toddler or preschooler, instead make a basic pizza dough for dinner. Mix some flour, water, yeast, and oil following a basic pizza dough recipe, and then let your child play with it, roll it, knead it, squish it, while you move on to sautéing your mushrooms or preparing your salad. In this way, your child becomes actively involved in the daily rhythms of home while engaged in age-appropriate play with homemade ingredients that will nourish hungry bellies. Playing with dough, then, becomes seamlessly integrated into your day instead of an extra playtime activity. The same could be true of starting a simple herb garden with your child, picking strawberries or apples, visiting farms and farmers’ markets, making jam, or searching for wild edibles on a nature walk around town. All of these activities are connected to your daily rhythms of feeding and caring for young children, and all present extraordinary learning opportunities.

When we begin to see our homes and our daily rhythms as an integral part of our child’s learning, we live and learn joyfully with our children, using their natural zest for discovery as our beacon.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be updated by afternoon September 9 with all the carnival links.)
  • Being Barlow Home Tour — Follow along as Jessica at Being Barlow gives you the tour of her family's home.
  • A Tour Of My Hybrid Rasta Kitchen — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama takes you on a tour of her kitchen complete with a Kombucha Corner, a large turtle, her tea stash, and of course, all her must-have kitchen gadgets. Check out Hybrid Rasta Mama's most favorite space!
  • Dreaming of a Sisters Room — Bianca, The Pierogie Mama, dreams, schemes and pins ideas for when her younger daughter is ready to move out of the family bed and share a room with her older sister.
  • Building a life — Constructing a dream — Survivor at Surviving Mexico-Adventures and Disasters shows you a glimpse inside the home her family built and talks about adaptions they made in constructing their lives in Mexico.
  • Why I'm Sleeping in the Dining Room — Becca at The Earthling's Handbook welcomed a new baby but didn't have a spare bedroom. She explains how her family rearranged the house to create Lydia's nursing nest and changed room in spaces they already had.
  • The Gratitude Tour — Inspired by Momastry's recent "home tour," That Mama Gretchen is highlighting imperfect snapshots of things she's thankful for around her home. Don't plan to pin anything!
  • Our Home in the Forest — Tara from Up the Dempster gives you a peek into life lived off-grid in Canada's Yukon Territory.
  • natural bedding for kids — Emma at Your Fonder Heart shows you how her family of 3 (soon to be 4) manages to keep their two cotton & wool beds clean and dry (plus a little on the end of cosleeping — for now).
  • I love our home — ANonyMous at Radical Ramblings explains how lucky she feels to have the home she does, and why she strives so hard to keep it tidy.
  • Not-So-Extreme Makeover: Sunshine and Rainbows Edition — Dionna at Code Name: Mama was tired of her dark, outdated house, so she brightened it up and added some color.
  • Our little outdoor space — Tat at Mum in search invites you to visit her balcony, where her children make friends with wildlife.
  • Our Funky, Bright, Eclectic, Montessori Home — Rachel at Bread and Roses shows you her family's newly renovated home and how it's set up with Montessori principles in mind for her 15-month-old to have independence.
  • Beach cottage in progress — Ever tried to turn a 1980s condo into a 1920s beach bungalow? Lauren at Hobo Mama is giving it a try!
  • Conjuring home: intention in renovation — Jessica at Crunchy-Chewy Mama explains why she and her husband took on a huge renovation with two little kids and shares the downsides and the ups, too.
  • Learning At Home — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling helps us to re-imagine the ordinary spaces of our homes to ignite natural learning.
  • My Dining Room Table — Kellie at Our Mindful Life loves her dining room table — and everything surrounding it!
  • Sight words and life lessons — The room that seemed to fit the least in Laura from Pug in the Kitchen's life is now host to her family's homeschool adventures and a room they couldn't imagine life without!
  • A Tour of Our Church — Garry at Postilius invites you virtually visit him in the 19th-century, one-room church where he lives with his spouse and two kids.
  • Preparing a Montessori Baby-Toddler Space at Home — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares the Montessori baby-toddler space she's created in the main living area of her home along with a variety of resources for creating a Montessori-friendly home.
  • The Old Bailey House — Come peek through the window of The Old Bailey House where Erica at ChildOrganics resides with her little ones.
  • My New House Not-Monday: The Stairs — Claire at The Adventures of Lactating Girl shows you her new laminate stairs in her not-so-new-anymore house.
  • To Minimalist and Back Again — Jorje of Momma Jorje shares how she went to the extreme as a minimalist and bounced right back. Read how she finds it difficult to maintain the minimalist lifestyle when upsizing living space.
  • Our Life As Modern-Day Nomads — This family of five lives in 194 square feet of space — with the whole of North America as a back yard. Paige of Our Road Less Traveled guest posts at Natural Parents Network.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not-Back-To-School Picnic

My littlest babe hates the car. I mean, with a passion. None of my babies ever liked the car, vastly preferring sling or stroller. But I thought this guy, being born in Vermont and all, would be ok with the car. Not so much. We avoid the car as much as possible, which in the city is easy to do as we can leave the car for days without driving anywhere. 

Today, though, I decided it would be worth the trip--however many stops it might take to calm my little man down and perform various ridiculous poses to nurse him in the back car seat--to attend the Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM) Not-Back-To-School Picnic in the central part of the state. And, despite a very long drive home, it was definitely worth it.

Over 100 homeschoolers met on this bright, beautiful day to celebrate not-back-to-school time with rock climbing, hiking, and swimming at a lovely state park. And I got to chat with two of my favorite blogger-mama-friends: Shel at One Sweet World and Tracy at OFFKLTR

Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to find one's tribe, to connect with people who see the world the way you do, who value self-directed learning and a slow and simple childhood.  It was worth this effort today, to celebrate the freedom that this time of year brings and to share with friends our hopes and goals, challenges and struggles. Because, really, one of the secrets of happy homeschooling is having good friends with whom to share the journey: friends who know what your days are like, who know the ups and downs and in-betweens of homeschooling and motherhood. These are the friends who keep us sane, make us laugh, restore and reinvigorate us. These are the friends who keep this journey fun and fulfilling.

Sometimes it's worth a drive out of the city for that. Very worth it in fact.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Passion-Centered Learning

What is unschooling, really? It describes what we don't do (that is, school), but it doesn't give a clear picture of what it is we actually do

While at a park day today with other homeschooling families, all with varying homeschooling approaches and philosophies, a veteran homeschooling mom (whose oldest, never-been-schooled child just began a doctoral program in neuroscience at an Ivy League college), used the term "passion-centered learning" to describe her homeschooling approach.

Ah, now there's a good term to describe what we actually do, instead of what we don't!

Children, when given the time, space, and resources, are natural learners. They learn everyday, all the time, from the people, places and things around them. And much of this natural learning develops into passions and interests that prompt further inquiry and discovery. 

Lately, my seven-year-old daughter's passion is computer programming. She became interested in figuring out how computers work and how various programs and applications are developed. Neither my husband nor I have any background or knowledge in computer programming, but, as unschooling parents, we spot our child's eagerness to learn something and we research and gather resources to help her. For now, Khan Academy, the free, online, dynamic learning repository, has been an excellent resource in helping her to learn and apply programming skills. We continue to research other resources--including classes available in the city, other grown-ups with programming experience willing to share their expertise, other online resources--to help facilitate our child's current passion and all of the learning that goes along with it.

Children are their own teachers. As unschooling parents, we simply follow their passions, gather resources, and marvel at their discoveries.

 “We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions -- if they have any -- and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”  John Holt

6 Tips for Getting Started With Homeschooling

It's September, and for some of you this is a time to consider the homeschooling option. Perhaps your kids are very young, but you are delaying preschool and gathering more information about homeschooling. Or perhaps your kids started school this week, but something isn't feeling or working right and homeschooling might be a good alternative.

Here are a few of my suggestions on how to take the plunge (or just test the waters) into homeschooling:

Go To A Homeschool Park Day
More broadly, connect with your local homeschool group by joining its online community or attending events, but park days in particular are a great way to meet a variety of homeschooling families and begin to form connections. Almost all local homeschool groups have at least one weekly park gathering, and some groups even have themed park days (e.g., Young Homeschooler meet-ups; Teen meet-ups). Meeting the same families week after week and watching kids build friendships is very rewarding, and can often lead to spin-off playgroups and homeschool co-ops with like-minded families.

Learn More About Homeschooling
My favorite books about homeschooling are Free to Learn, by Dr. Peter Gray, Teach Your Own, by John Holt, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, by John Taylor Gatto, and The Unschooling Unmanual, by Jan Hunt, et al, and Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves, by Alison McKee. Additionally, Nancy Wallace's classic books, Better Than School and Child's Work, are gems if you can find them at your local library. There are also countless websites and blogs that can shed light on many different homeschooling approaches. Check out for a host of helpful resources and information.

Think About Your Approach
What type of homeschooling approach seems to fit best with your family's rhythms and your learners' needs? Many families begin with a curriculum-based approach to homeschooling and gradually move to a more self-directed, "unschooling" approach as they see how child-centered, community-based learning sparks individual curiosity and creativity. Even though it may seem that a curriculum-based approach to homeschooling would be easier and more straight-forward, it is often more challenging. Replicating school-at-home can lead to the same difficulties that coercive schooling creates and cause more conflict and less joy than self-directed learning. Before searching for curriculum, join your local homeschooling network and search for local resources to help homeschoolers. Libraries, museums, bookstores, community art centers, local organizations, colleges and universities, farms and nature centers are all wonderful community resources that enhance self-directed learning at home, and many offer free or low-cost programming. 

Trust Your Children
Trust that your children's inner curiosity will lead to a fulfilling homeschooling experience that will challenge their intellect and deepen their knowledge, strengthen family and community connections, and trigger an unquenchable thirst for learning. 

Trust Yourself
Trust your singular gift for knowing your children's needs, interests, strengths, and weaknesses better than anyone else. Trust that you are perfectly positioned to facilitate your children's learning by cultivating a rich learning environment, both at home and in the community, using a variety of accessible resources. Trust that homeschooling will offer your family the freedom, flexibility, and focus on individualized learning that creates a robust and engaging learning environment.

Try It Out
Experiment with homeschooling and its different approaches and see if it works for your family. Take it year-by-year, child-by-child and see how it goes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Not-Back-To-School 2014

Unschoolers of course don't have a beginning or an end to learning. There is no "first day" or "last day." There is everyday. Children learn all the time, everywhere, from the people, places and things around them. 

Still, each year on our city's first day of school, we celebrate our choice not to go to school and to learn instead freely from the wide-world around us. If my children attended school, the older two would be in second-grade and kindergarten. I am quite certain their day would have looked nothing like this one, made extra special with a week of vacation for Daddy to start September.

Museum. Woods. Water. 

Just another school day.

If you captured not-back-to-school time on your blog, please share a link in the comments for all of us to see!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Age-Segregation in America

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

Cage-Free Learning

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

Not-Back-To-School Time

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

:: Hubris ::

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?

We don't.

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

Are We Ready to Welcome Back Children?

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

The Elitist Argument

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 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 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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Homeschooling's Biggest Challenge

In the past when I would get asked what is the biggest challenge of homeschooling, I would gloss over the question and state some loosey-goosey response that didn't say much. After all, if I thought there were big challenges to homeschooling we wouldn't be doing it.

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

Learning Doesn't Need To Be Artificial

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.