Connection and Integration

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I remember a friend telling me that if she sent her child to kindergarten, his world would contract. He would go from interacting with the many people, places, and things of their community as they went about their daily life together to interacting with a set group of same-age peers and one or two teachers.

If I sent him to school, his world would contract.

This statement stuck with me. I see what she means in the daily, often serendipitous, interactions that my children have with the people, places, and things in our city. Yesterday morning, for example, a friend of my husband's was passing through town and stopped by to show our kids the latest software he is working on creating, designed to beautifully and powerfully link music and art in a visual representation of sound. It is magical, and the kids (and grown-ups) were awed.

Earlier in the day, my eight-year-old joined me on a conference call with a professor at a local university (who was homeschooled himself) who is very interested in reaching out to the homeschool community to offer free, grant-funded classes and lab experience to local homeschooled children. (More details to come!)

Among other things, the day also included a walk to the library in the midday quiet when the librarians are fully available and accessible, and a stop at a local coffee shop where we chatted with a neighbor.

These are the kinds of experiences that occur in our typical day of living and learning together as a family. In each family, these experiences--the people, places, and things one encounters daily as part of ordinary living--would be different depending on one's community and lifestyle, needs and interests; but they are all encounters that occur naturally as we go about our days together.

I continue to be struck by author and unschooler, Ben Hewitt's, words about the increasing "separation and segregation" of American society. In his new book, The Nourishing Homestead, he writes: "The separation and segregation of all the varying aspects of human life and survival is a disempowering and enormously unhealthy phenomenon" (p. 102). We separate children from their family for increasingly longer portions of their day and at startlingly younger ages. We segregate children in artificial classrooms with static groups of same-age peers, disconnecting them from their larger community and the vibrancy of daily living. As adults, we increasingly separate and segregate ourselves--away from our children, our homes, our communities.

What if, instead, we aimed for "connection and integration"? What if we connected children to their families more deliberately, halting the separation and disconnect? What if we integrated children into the fabric of their community, into the dailyness of living together with all kinds of people of different ages and backgrounds and experiences? What if we sought ways to build a life based on this connection and integration?

What if we expanded the world for our children rather than contracting it?

How to Get the Most Out Of Homeschool Park Days

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The signs of spring are popping up everywhere. The patches of bare grass grow larger and more ubiquitous. The forsythia bushes are beginning to bloom. The kids spotted their first crocus flower yesterday afternoon. Spring is here. And with spring comes the return of weekly homeschool park days. (Next week, maybe? Fingers crossed…)

If you are new to homeschooling, or even just beginning to explore it as an option for your family, I can't emphasize enough the importance of going to a homeschool park day. Here are some tips to make your park day experience a good one:

1. Know What To Expect. Once you join your local homeschooling network (usually an online community), you will likely see reminders about weekly park days. In my area in the warmer months, we could probably go to a homeschool park day almost every day of the week if we wanted to. Weekly park days can be a great way to meet other families and begin to build friendships, for both children and grown-ups. They are usually free-form, meaning that the kids just play together by themselves while the grown-ups chat by the picnic tables. Sometimes there may be a structured activity, like Ultimate Frisbee or Capture the Flag. Usually, park days just provide a day-long space for unstructured, free play time and community-building.

2. Shop Around. Not all park days are created equal. It is helpful to shop around to find the park day that will best fit your and your children's needs. Some park days tend to have more older children; some  are geared toward younger children. Some park days take place at a big field or park; others might be centered around a playground. Some park days may be more structured than others. Try to visit as many park days as you can to get a feel for the vibe and the people. And go more than once. You may find that you feel more at home with one group than another. This is a good way to begin to find your "tribe."

Another thing to note about park day, and another good reason to shop around to find the one that best suits you all, is that most established park days already have a community of families that know one another and that have developed certain (usually unspoken) expectations about the kind of play that happens there. For example, at our beloved park day, the kids have the freedom to roam through the fields, around the park, in the trees. The kids often bring toy weapons and toy guns--or conjure them out of the sticks they find. For some families, this kind of play may not be acceptable or desired and they will want to find a different park day that better suits them.

3. Seek An Ambassador. Penetrating an existing community of homeschoolers, many of whom have likely formed deep friendships over many years, can be intimidating. My suggestion is to prepare ahead of time by finding an ambassador: someone who can spot you when you arrive and introduce you and your children to the group. For instance, a mom emailed me early last fall when she began her homeschooling journey and wanted to know how to connect with other families. I suggested a park day and we made plans to meet there. I then tried to introduce her and her child to the families at park day to hopefully make the experience more enjoyable and less overwhelming. Contacting someone ahead of time to be your park day ambassador, or sending a message to the online group saying that you're new to homeschooling and want to come to park day, can be a great way to maximize your park day experience.

4. Go Often. Building friendships and making community take time. It takes an ongoing effort to connect with the same families on a regular basis and begin to form relationships that may extend beyond park day. Some of our deepest friendships--for both our children and my husband and me--sprouted from homeschool park days. Often park day friendships can lead to other weekly playdates with a smaller group of families with whom you connect, or to the creation of homeschool co-ops and other opportunities to continue to make community.

5. Start Your Own. In some areas, there may not be an established, regular park day. Or perhaps you haven't found a park day that suits your family's needs and interests. Start one! Find a location and a time that work for you and let your local homeschooling network know! In my opinion, there can never be too many park days, too many opportunities to connect with other families on a similar path. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well-received your invitation to a new park day can be.

6. Make Community. I have written before about making community, and plan to do so again soon, because it is such an important topic and one that is particularly relevant for homeschoolers. With homeschooling, making community takes a lot of individual effort and thought. Unlike the type of "institutional community" that one finds in a typical school environment where the community is ready-made, making community within the homeschooling sphere can be a slower, more organic, less straightforward process. It requires presence and persistence, a desire to connect, an effort to build friendships and get to know people, the initiative to expand community beyond park days to gatherings at your home, potluck family dinners, weekend mom coffee chats, new classes or co-ops together, and so on. It can take more work to create these types of connections within the homeschooling community, but as a result it can also lead to much deeper, more genuine, more rewarding, and more long-lasting friendships.

Warmer days mean more opportunities to connect with other homeschooling families and begin to make community and build friendships. Park days can be a great place to start. Hope to see you there!

Organic Learning

Monday, March 23, 2015


  1. of, relating to, or derived from living matter.
  2. denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole.

We went on a family hike this weekend and spotted hundreds of strange-looking fly critters of all shapes and sizes crawling atop the snow. It made us all wonder, and especially my four-year-old bug lover, what these creatures were and how they could possibly be alive with temperatures still mostly at the freezing mark or below. My eight-year-old mentioned the "subnivean zone," something neither my husband nor I had ever heard of but that she learned from some Wild Kratts episode on the topic. Sure enough, it describes the area just beneath the snow that acts as a warm insulator of wildlife. Who knew? 

We were all still curious about these buggers, so we checked in one of our bug field guides when we got home from the hike. We usually bring these guides with us but I honestly thought there would be no bugs yet! My six-year-old landed on the "Crane Fly," certain that this was what we spotted. We dug a little deeper on the iPad, Googling "crane fly," and discovered this great site, Bug Eric, that describes a type of crane fly called the "Snow Fly," which survives cold temperatures by living--you guessed it--in the "subnivean" zone.

This discovery then led to a lengthy discussion, again spearheaded by my eight-year-old, about insects and about how spiders aren't insects because they have eight legs instead of six, and so on--once again something that neither my husband nor I knew, or forgot from 9th grade biology. We then started talking about how animals are classified in nature and found a nice, quick YouTube video on taxonomy for kids (and grown-ups), and a website with all different mnemonics for remembering the major classification categories. The kids decided the one they liked the best is: Did King Philip Cry Out For Good Soup? (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) 


My point in relaying this weekend story is to share how powerful it is to learn organically: to learn together, spontaneously, through our every day living as a family, allowing individual discoveries to "fit together harmoniously" as we learn--or re-learn--as much about the world as we can on any given day.

We didn't set-out with an agenda for our family hike. We didn't decide that this week's lesson would be about animal classification, or insects, or the "subnivean zone," or mnemonics. We didn't intentionally spot bugs and decide, as parents, to turn it into a "learning moment." We didn't construct a unit of study around all of this to prolong the topic. We simply went about our day together, became interested in learning more about what we discovered as a family, used the tools of our culture to help us, and followed our children's lead. 

It is possible that my husband and I learned about taxonomy, insects, microclimates, mnemonics, and so on during our approximately 15,000 hours each in K-12 public school. I am sure there were chapters in textbooks to read, vocabulary words to memorize, quizzes to study for, and scores to measure what we could recall. But learning organically, with each other and from each other as we go through the rhythms of our everyday life, prompts meaningful, lasting, enjoyable, deep learning. 

This is real learning. This is self-directed learning. This is unschooling.

How To Make the Leap to Unschooling

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A reader asked earlier in the week if I could share some insights on how to make the leap from homeschooling to unschooling. 

Put simply, unschooling means not following a set curriculum and instead allowing childhood learning to be self-directed. There is no coercion, no top-down expectations for what a child should know and when, no arbitrary determination of subjects to be covered in a specific way at a specific time with a specific outcome. There is no "school-at-home." There is no forced learning, even if done ever so gently. 

With unschooling, there is an underlying belief that children naturally learn. As my colleague at Alternatives To School, Dr. Peter Gray, writes: "When young people in our culture are granted the freedom and opportunity to educate themselves, outside of the boundaries of traditional school, they generally do so fully and joyfully. Through their everyday engagement with life, and especially through their free play and exploration, they acquire the skills, knowledge and values needed for success in our culture." 

When we force a child to do something, to learn something, because we as grown-ups think it is useful or important, we can diminish--however unintentionally--a child's natural curiosity, natural drive to discover and create. This process of coercion, even when done gently and with the best intentions, can condition a child to become a passive onlooker in his own education rather than an active leader of his own life. It is hard to love something you are forced to do. It is hard to feel ownership of something when someone else owns it. 

Music is a perfect example. Some of our culture's most talented musicians were self-taught and self-driven, developing an appreciation for music and performance and continuous improvement because they were in charge of their own path, their own learning, their own playing. They weren't prompted to select an instrument, cajoled to practice, forced to take lessons, made to perform in recitals. They found their way to music because it was their passion, their gift, and they taught themselves while gathering inspiration and guidance from others along the way.

Challenge Assumptions

Fundamentally, unschooling means letting go of the notion that learning is something that happens to someone, and instead embracing the idea that learning is something we humans naturally do. It means letting go of the notion that we are a child's teacher, and instead recognizing our essential role as a facilitator of our child's natural learning. Our child directs his own path, follows his own interests, while we as parents provide the time, space and resources for natural learning to occur. Unschooling means letting go of the prominent paradigm of education as schooling, and instead embracing the profound idea of education as whole-life learning.

Once we acknowledge the power and influence of self-directed learning, the philosophy of unschooling unfolds rather easily. We see our role as a facilitator of our children's own learning, not as their teacher. For instance, we unschooling parents accompany our young children to the library and encourage them to gather as many books as they want, and then we make the time and space to read, read, read -- to them and with them and alongside them, pursuing whatever topics or ideas they choose. 

Unschoolers recognize the limitations of packaged curriculum and the message it sends to our children, however subtly, that they are not in charge of their own learning. We instead acknowledge that living and learning are constant and inseparable, and allow our children to learn as they live--as easily and effortlessly and continuously as they breathe--without set times for learning, without set activities and expectations, without coercion and compulsion. 

We trust our children's natural, innate capacity to explore and master the tools of their culture in their own way and in their own time--just as they learned to roll and crawl and walk and talk in their own way, in their own time. Some children learn to roll sooner than others; some children learn to read sooner than others; some children learn to multiply sooner than others--and therein lies the great sea of human difference that should be celebrated and encouraged, not feared and controlled.


On a practical level, it is helpful and empowering to find a community of like-minded families who share your views on unschooling and natural, self-directed learning. While online unschooling communities are plentiful, and social media outlets can facilitate connections, building personal relationships with other parents in your community who share your worldview can be enormously uplifting. In populated, urban areas like mine, it can be easier to find such kindred spirits and to take the important steps toward forging lasting friendships that nourish and nurture us. 

But even in less-populated areas where unschooling may not be so prevalent or accepted, it is possible to find your "tribe." Sometimes finding this tribe may involve looking outside of the homeschooling community. Many families, mine included, found their way to unschooling as a natural extension of their Attachment Parenting/gentle parenting philosophy. Identifying local La Leche League meet-ups, Holistic Mom groups, or AP/Natural Parenting networks can offer a great way to meet similarly focused parents. And if such groups don't exist in your area, it is always possible to start one! You might be surprised at how many other families are looking for such an outlet. Finally, I would add that quality trumps quantity. You don't necessarily need to find dozens of families who share your natural learning philosophy. One or two good friends--kindred spirits--can be a wonderful gift.


There are many excellent resources available to families looking for more insight into unschooling and the philosophy of self-directed learning. If you haven't already, check out Alternatives To for research and information on self-directed learning. And gather these gems at your local library or bookstore to get you started on your unschooling journey:

:: spring ::

celebrate the season

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

This is a special time of the year. With the Equinox just three days away and the snow melting by the hour, we are reveling in a return to brighter, warmer days. The signs of spring are all around us: the crocuses poke through the cold earth, our Little Library fills once again with wonderful books, the puddles grow, the roller skates and bikes and scooters emerge, and a festive boiled dinner simmers on the stove to enjoy tonight with visiting family.

Here is an Irish toast to the season of new beginnings. Cheers, friends!

An Irish Toast
by Kerry McDonald

May your home be filled with laughter,
Far more than sorrow;
May you live for today,
And not for tomorrow.

May your children know joy,
And little of strife;
May they welcome good friends,
To share a good life.

May your wisdom grow deeper,
Your ignorance shed;
May you find you are leading,
Much more than you're led.

May your days be full,
And your hearts even fuller;
May you find moments of still,
And make space for the stiller.

May you enjoy this journey,
Till the end of your days;
May your spirit be lifted,
While your memory stays.

Meet Molly, a local grown homeschooler

Monday, March 16, 2015

I am so excited to introduce you to Molly Pinto Madigan, a local, grown-up homeschooler who never attended school until college.

Now, she is living a full and fulfilling life as a singer/songwriter and novelist. Her new album, "Wildwood Bride," is being released at Club Passim in Cambridge this Thursday. The kids and I have been listening all morning to the streaming album available online and it is beautiful.

I asked Molly if she would share a few insights from her years of homeschooling locally. Here is what she has to say:

1. How would you describe your homeschooling experience? 

I loved being homeschooled.  If I didn't, my parents would have let me go to school in a heartbeat.  It was always my choice, but it was a choice I never even considered.  Not seriously, anyway.  I loved the freedom of being homeschooled, and I loved spending time with my mother and younger sister.  My mom started homeschooling me right from the get-go, so until my first day of college, I had never set foot in a classroom.  As a girl, I was profoundly in love with nature, and instead of being cooped up in a classroom, I was able to be out in the world, learning, exploring.  My love for the natural world was nourished, rather than nipped in the bud, and I was thrilled to be able to spend more time with my family.  I continued to be homeschooled up through my high school years, and if I had to it to do over again, I wouldn't do it any other way.  

2. What are your favorite homeschool memories/reflections?

My favorite memories are of being outside in nature, growing close with my mom, my dad, and my sister, and the joy of exploring the world around me.  Everything was a lesson; there was learning in everything.  The learning never stopped, because there was no unyielding structure of the classroom.  Sure, I had to learn my algebra and multiplication tables like everyone else, but there was a lot of freedom, too, which fostered a love of learning in me.  

As a high school homeschooler, I have really fond memories of being involved in Homeschooling Together, the local homeschooling network, and meeting wonderful friends through the group.  We had epic games of capture-the-flag on Mondays, ultimate frisbee on Wednesdays, and a classics book group taught by one of the mothers.  The friendships forged then were some of the best friendships I've ever known.  

3. How has homeschooling contributed to where you are today?

Homeschooling taught me to think outside the box.  It's taught me self-sufficiency, self-motivation, and how to be okay with being by myself.  My homeschooling gave me the freedom to explore my creativity, and today I'm a full-time singer/songwriter and novelist.  I'm so thankful to my mom for trusting herself and me enough to continue on that journey of homeschooling, which can, at times, seem daunting and unsure and scary ("Am I doing the right thing?").  For me, it absolutely was the right thing.  And I'm forever grateful to her -- my teacher, my mom. 

I hope you can visit Molly's website and listen to her lovely music--and make it to Thursday's show!