Monday, April 30, 2012

Homeschooling in the City Series: Los Angeles

This week, I am delighted to present a series of guest-posts by urban homeschoolers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Buffalo. I hope you'll check in to see how other families approach city homeschooling. Today's post was written by Brenna Gisbson Redpath at Urban Homeschoolers who shares her insights about homeschooling in Los Angeles.

I find myself saying a lot these days “Los Angeles might be the best place to homeschool on earth.” I know – it’s not exactly the ideal vision of bucolic simplicity… But I really do feel lucky to be living in the urban sprawl of LA during my family’s homeschool days, for so many reasons.

Obviously - there’s the weather. Warm and sunny days makes gathering in large groups outdoors easy to count on. Most support groups in Los Angeles center around weekly or bi-weekly Park Days where scads of families get together to play and visit. Classes are often held in parks too. I find that my family spends a lot of time outdoors, in the grass, under the trees.

Then there’s the staggering number of homeschoolers in our area. The California Homeschooler’s Network website lists nineteen different support groups in the LA area, and this doesn’t even begin to be a real count. That adds up to a lot of people, and a lot of diversity. All kinds of people for all kinds of reasons are teaching their own in this city. With so many of us, there are countless opportunities to take classes, join clubs, go on fieldtrips… I often joke about how the biggest challenge with socialization around here is learning when to say “No, we’re actually staying home today!”

In Los Angeles, as a homeschooler, it’s easy to find your tribe, and as veteran homeschooling mothers know, finding a tribe becomes much more important as children get older. My children are 13 and 10. My son is a teenager, and my daughter is a social butterfly. As much as I love sitting on the porch reading a book aloud for hours on end, my children are having none of it these days. They need groups.

As I sit here writing this blog, I can hear my daughter vocalizing her kicks in her girls-only self-defense class. My son is next door getting ready for his scriptwriting class. This is all happening at Urban Homeschoolers, a homeschooling resource center that a group of us moms opened this year. We have classes two days a week, focusing on Middle and High school ages. It’s a classic example of seeing a need and filling it. We’re meeting our own, and our children’s, changing needs. I think it’s a great example for kids to see.

The further I go down this urban homeschooling road, the more I realize just how valuable so many aspects of this lifestyle choice are. I come from small towns in the south. People knew each other, and took care of each other. People spent time on the porch, visiting and chatting. Mothers knew each other’s children, and looked out for them. When I moved to the big city I mourned that loss. I assumed that I would never have my grandmother’s kind of life. Now, in some ways, I do. I am part of a community, knitted together in a wonderful way, and I’m so very grateful. When a catastrophe (or even a stumble) strikes one of our group, we spring into action, organizing dinner delivery, offering childcare, filling in the gaps. And of course, since we’re so family-centered, our kids watch all this community first-hand. It’s another opportunity to teach your beliefs, by example, every day.

Besides all this, we just have so much FUN!! Our group holds family dinner dances, talent shows, craft fairs. We take the train to Santa Barbara, go family camping, and meet at the beach all summer long. People choose to homeschool for so many varied reasons. Most families I know soon realize that it’s not a choice about school. It’s a choice about lifestyle, and priorities, and balance. It’s about family. I often think that I have the best homeschooling family in the world, and I hope that everyone reading this blog thinks that they do too.

Brenna Gibson Redpath and her family have been homeschooling from the beginning of time. Not really - it just feels like that some days. Although she grew up in Arkansas, she has lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. She strongly believes that our greatest weaknesses are also our greatest strengths, and so we're better off feeling kindly towards all parts of ourselves. In 2009 the Redpath family sold everything they owned, and traveled for a year and a half to Eastern Europe, Europe, North Africa, and South America. They chronicled their journey in their award-winning website, From Here To Brenna and her partners currently own and operate Urban Homeschoolers, a resource center for homeschooling families, located in the Atwater area of Los Angeles.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Finding Nature in the City

Welcome to the April edition of the Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival, hosted by Authentic Parenting and Mudpiemama. This month’s topic is “Celebrating Our Earth - Green Living." Please scroll down to the end of this post to find a list of links to the entries of the other participants. Enjoy! 

In the city, where cars and concrete outnumber woods and wildlife, celebrating the natural world can take some creativity, forethought, and awareness. In our early days of homeschooling, I often found that my children were over-scheduled with classes, activities, and playdates that carved into the blocks of precious, unstructured time they needed to explore nature in the city. I had a choice: I could continue on the fast pace of an over-scheduled, structured childhood, or I could help us to slow down and re-focus my children's lives around the treasured triad of family, community, and the natural world. I chose the latter, and became vigilant about equally allocating and protecting time for each of these priorities.

Valuing and prioritizing free-range, unstructured time in nature for our children takes deliberate focus and monitoring. In Richard Louv's popular book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, he asserts: "It takes time -- loose, unstructured dreamtime-- to experience nature in a meaningful way. Unless parents are vigilant, such time becomes a scarce resource, because time is consumed by multiple invisible forces; because our culture currently places so little value on natural play." Reclaiming natural play for our children, choosing activities that engage our children with nature and teach them to learn from, care for, and grow within nature, is our role as natural parents.

Even in the city, we can seek and protect moments of natural play and discovery for our children. Most cities have well-kept and populated public parks, green spaces, zoos and nature centers, hiking and biking trails, and diverse waterways to spend hours immersed in nature. Just outside of most cities, often accessible by train or bus, are state and national parks and beaches that create additional natural learning opportunities for families.

There is plenty of nature to discover within your city limits! Here are a few simple suggestions for creating more opportunities for you and your children to connect together in the natural world:
  • Eat as many meals as possible outside, either at a park or green space, apartment balcony, deck, or yard.
  • Plan nap times around nature walks using your stroller or sling, offering a chance for your little one to sleep in the fresh air while you take some time to relax outdoors.
  • Take "nature sacks" with you on outdoor excursions to collect natural items.
  • Create a nature table in your home to place and observe natural items.
  • Get a bird feeder.
  • Grow a small city garden or start seedlings in a sunny window.
  • Take a magnifying glass and binoculars with you on city walks.
  • Find a camera for your child to take nature photographs.
  • Take a nighttime nature walk with your child to notice changes after sunset.
  • Find or create mud, dirt, sand and other messy materials for little hands to explore.
  • Read, paint, draw, and build outside.
  • Climb trees.
  • Go puddle-stomping.
  • Play with sticks.

Visit The Positive Parenting Connection and Authentic Parenting to find out how you can participate in the next Authentic Parenting Blog Carnival!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • Jardin, Our Garden y Learning to Reciclar — Florecita at Florecita Growing Up intertwines family traditions with gardening and green living in a way that engages her 7yr old, 4yr old and 2yr old.
  • Nature Love — Alice Griffin Writings from the Wherever shares musings from a walk in the countryside with her young daughter and her hopes that by seeking out this closeness to nature, it will help her daughter to appreciate and care for the earth.
  • Online Green Resources For Children (and Parents Too) — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama links to several great online resources which help children learn about the importance of treating mother earth with love and respect.
  • Finding Nature in the City — Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling shares simple ideas for celebrating nature with your children -- even in the city.
  • Get Green Quick: Goes Wrong — Megan at The Other Baby Blog writes humorously about her (failed) attempts to switch to natural cat litter.
  • Celebrating the Birds — Carrie at Love Notes Mamashares a dozen bird-lovin' ideas for you and your budding bird enthusiast.
  • 10 Steps to Cleaner Indoor Air  — Laura at Authentic Parenting gives a few simple tips t green up the air we breathe inside our homes.
  • Are Big Families Really the "New Green"?  — Michelle @ Grateful Moms of Many wonders how - and if - the tales our children hear influence their future
  • Toddler and Preschoolers Learning To Go Green: Six Ideas That Foster Respect for the Earth -- Mudpiemama from The Positive Parenting Connection shares six ideas for toddlers and preschoolers to learn about the importance of respecting the Earth.
  • Taking Responsibility for Our Food -- After noticing a disconnect regarding her children's view of food, Mandy at Living Peacefully with Children made it a goal for her family to work toward taking reposnibility for their own food and to live more sustainably.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Shifting Food from Factory to Family

Maybe it's because one year ago today I baked my first loaf of homemade bread and haven't looked back. Maybe it's because I recently watched the excellent, new documentary, Farmageddon, about the regulatory war on small farms in America. Maybe it's because I picked up the most recent issue of The New Yorker at our local newsstand and read the cover story on the ridiculous obstacles to raw (unpasteurized) milk sales and distribution throughout the country. Maybe it's because I am dreaming of our summer farm-stay vacation where we can become more connected to food and farm. Or maybe it's because this guy mysteriously appeared yesterday in the small backyard of our city condo building.

Whatever it is, I am fired up about food and farm. I am puzzled by how I became so detached from my food and only recently began the process of shifting control of our food from factory to family. How did this happen? How did pesticide-ridden, genetically-modified, factory-produced food become the norm in this country, while fresh, pure, time-honored, nutrient-dense foods become scarcer, more difficult to find, and, in some cases--like raw milk in certain states--outright illegal?

It's baffling to me, for instance, that it would be perfectly legal and convenient for me to feed my kids a daily diet of fast food and nachos, but I can't buy raw milk here in the city. (In Massachusetts, as in several other states, direct-farm sales of raw milk are allowed from regulated raw milk dairies.) As I've mentioned before, I love our lightly-pasteurized, glass-bottled milk from a Vermont organic farm collaborative, but I would like the convenient and legal choice to purchase raw milk here in the city. And for families in many states, it's outright illegal to purchase raw milk anywhere.

Raw milk is just one example of how our access to real, local, farm-fresh, wholesome food has become constrained over the past half-century by government regulators and big agricultural interests. I am hoping that the pendulum is due to swing back. I am hoping that families will grow increasingly outraged that their food is being controlled by factories not farmers, by federal regulatory bureaucracies and large food conglomerates, and not local communities and informed consumers.

I am doing my best to take back control of my family's food sources and engage in more rewarding urban homemaking as a result. Perhaps my visiting backyard turkey is a signal that city families are ready to take back the farm.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Connecting with Food and Farm

Like many of you, my expanding interest in urban homemaking and homesteading stems in part from a desire to understand and connect more deeply with food and earth. In the city, it is easy to grow complacent and disconnected from the soil and farms that feed our families.

As we were thinking about our growing homesteading interests, and considering options for enjoying Daddy's limited vacation time this summer, we found what we think is the perfect fit: a New England farm-stay. We discovered a 100-acre Vermont farm that invites families to become actively involved in the daily tasks of farming and homesteading, all from the comfort of a separate cottage on the farm.

I spoke with the owner of Falkenbury Farm, Jacki Ambrozaitis, and asked her if she would share with me her thoughts on why families--and particularly homeschooling families--are drawn to a farm-stay vacation. Here is what she said:

"We just welcomed a homeschooling family from out of state that spent several nights with us. They helped to bottle feed our fun little group of baby goats and even took them for walks before we put them to bed for the night in the barn. They fed the cows, collected the eggs, and watered the rabbits. We searched for the biggest frogs up by the pond out back and talked about how much fun it is to catch lightning bugs on warm summer nights. The several new batches of bunnies were an especially interesting sight during their visit. Sometimes there are baby calves to feed as well. It’s an ever changing scene here on the farm! 

We find it important and part of our nature to teach people about our farm and our homesteading practices. People need to know where their food comes from. I used to say that we need to teach the children where our food comes from, but we’ve learned there are adults who are just as interested. There seems to be a new wave of people who are concerned about where their food comes from, and they should be. The whole "buy local" movement is very prominent in our community.

We get phone calls fairly regularly asking: “If we come to your farm can we milk a cow?” The answer is always: “Of course you can!” We have had guests come to our farm who said they had never seen a cow! 

We offer farm stays so families can learn and connect. It’s not just the farm that appeals to our guests. It’s the wide open space. It’s letting your children run free through the fields. It’s taking the time to unwind, relax and renew or make a new connection to nature. Imagine falling asleep listening to the peepers and waking up to the cows mooing. It’s a different way of life and we like to share it." 

We can't wait for our summer farm-stay vacation to experience all that farm-life has to offer, enjoy the wide open spaces and sparkling lakes, and quiet, starry evenings in the Vermont countryside. I hope to return to the city with a greater appreciation for where my food comes from and with some additional homesteading skills. (Jacki has already said she will show me yogurt- and cheese-making!) 

If you would like to learn more about Falkenbury Farm, visit their website. And for more information about a farm-stay vacation in your area, visit Farm Stay U.S.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eco-Parenting: Homemade Bug Spray

Welcome to the Earth Day Blog Carnival! This post is part of the 2012 Earth Day Blog Carnival hosted by Child of the Nature Isle and Monkey Butt Junction. The participants have shared their practices and insights for earth friendly, environmentally conscious, eco-living. This carnival is our way to share positive information and inspiration that can create healing for our planet. Please read to the end of this post to find a list of links to the other carnival participants. Happy Earth Day!

Although we live in the city, we spend most warm days hiking in the woods, picnicking on the grass, and otherwise absorbed in the natural world around New England. I have never felt comfortable using commercial insect repellant on children, especially those that contain DEET, but I also want to take some precautionary measures while allowing my children to grow up with a deep appreciation for nature and the wilderness.

I must temper my personal concerns about nature's potential threats, particularly the threat in this area of tick-borne Lyme disease, with the much greater good that I believe comes from allowing children to freely explore the natural world. As author Richard Louv writes in his book, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder: "Spending time in nature, particularly in wilderness, can pose physical dangers, but rejecting nature because of those risks and discomforts is a greater gamble."

I researched various bug-spray options, including commercial brands, natural brands, and make-your-own recipes and finally decided on two, simple, homemade recipes that I like best.  You can try both and see what works well for your bugs!  The ingredients are said to be natural tick and bug repellents that are safe for the whole family. Using a small spray bottle, I spray the mixture on our skin and clothing before a hike in the woods. I cannot guarantee that these recipes are as effective as commercial bug-sprays, but they are mixtures with which I feel comfortable and ones that I hope, along with daily body tick scans, help us to reduce our likelihood of a tick-borne illness.

Homemade Bug Spray Recipe I

1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup water
20 drops of Peppermint essential oil

Homemade Bug Spray Recipe II

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup Witch Hazel
10 drops of Peppermint essential oil

(You can use a variety of your favorite essential oils to add potency, especially eucalyptus oil and citrus oil, but I like peppermint essential oil because it is both gentle for children and nursing mothers, and effective as a bug repellent.)

I believe that the benefits of instilling in our children a love of the earth, of nature and the wild world around us, far outweigh nature's potential risks. I try to take reasonable precautions for my family, stay vigilant, and remember early homeschooling writer, Charlotte Mason's wise words in her 1906 book Home Education: "With regard to the horror which some children show of beetle, spider, worm, that is usually a trick picked up from grown-up people."

Thank you for stopping by the 2012 Earth Day Blog Carnival! Please take the time to read these other great eco-living posts: Earth Day Blog Carnival - Child of the Nature Isle and Monkey Butt Junction
  • You are a Child of the Earth - Using the Earth as their classroom, Patti from Canadian Unschool teaches her 4 children their spiritual connection to the Earth and she accepts that loving the Earth can get really, really messy.
  • Cutting Out Paper - Jorje of Momma Jorje shares how she went from curiosity and concern to actually cutting out the use of paper towels in her household. She is proud to be "greener" as each Earth Day passes.
  • The World is Brown - Debra Ann Elliot of Words are Timeless believes in keeping the Earth green, but because so many people inhabit the Earth it is turning brown because people aren't doing their part by reducing, reusing, and recycling.
  • 7 Child And Eco Friendly Activities To Honor The Earth (Plus Some Environmental Books For Kids) - Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares her favorite books that help children become more aware of the importance of respecting and caring for Mother Earth. In addition, she hosts a guest post outlining seven child and eco friendly activities to honor the earth.
  • 5 Ways We Teach Our Children To Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle - Valarie at Momma In Progress shares a few tips for encouraging young children to care for the earth.
  • Little Changes - Big Results - Meegs at A New Day talks about how sometimes it’s the little decisions and changes that can lead us to find big results, and how she's baby-stepping her way to a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.
  • Inspiring the Next Generation - aNonyMous at at Radical Ramblings hopes to inspire her daughter to live a green and sustainable lifestyle, in the same way she was inspired by her high-school science teacher, and talks about the changes her family are making towards this vision.
  • Eco-Friendly Cleansers: Safe For the Environment, Healthy For Every Body - Rebekah at Liberated Family writes about safe and natural alternatives to toxic, household cleaning products..
  • Lightening My Footprint with Cloth Nappies (Diapers) - Christine at African Babies Don’t Cry shares the biggest eco-choice she has made so far, and why she is so passionate about it.
  • Clutter Free for a Cause - At Living Peacefully with Children Mandy's penchant for decluttering and simple living cuts down on consumerism, taking less of a tole on the Earth.
  • Eco-Parenting: Homemade Bug Spray - Kerry at City Kids Homeschooling shares a homemade bug spray recipe that helps her family to enjoy the natural world while taking precautions against bug bites.
  • Let the Scales Fall From My Eyes...Just Not Too Quickly - Kelly at Becoming Crunchy talks about the discomfort of no longer being able to live in denial over how her choices affect the world around her.
  • Fostering Love of Earth - Justine at The Lone Home Ranger instills a love of nature in her daughters by embarking on their first backyard vegetable garden together.
  • Being in Nature - Carrie at Love Notes Mama knows that just being in nature is more than enough.
  • 5 Ways to Pass Down Environmental Values to Your Children - Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama shares how easy it can be to instill environmental values in your children.
  • Viva Portlandia - Amy at Anktangle writes about the place she lives and loves in: Portland. She describes the ways this green city makes it easy for her family to take care of our earth, and also the steps she's taking to further lessen her family's environmental impact.
  • Conspicuous Conservationism - Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction examines the phenomenon of eco-conscious behavior as a status symbol.
  • Time for Radical Sustainability - Terri at Child of the Nature Isle ponders how she can model a truly sustainable lifestyle for her children and raise them in a way that their environmental consciousness is as natural as breathing!
A big thank you to all of the 2012 Earth Day Blog Carnival participants!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Into the countryside

Ever since becoming more focused on holistic, family-centered healthcare, I have been searching for the right practitioner, that doctor who would understand our wellness choices and recognize that most health and wellness are centered around the home and not the medical office, pharmacy, or managed care department. Fortunately, we are rarely sick or in need of a doctor's care, so I had been hoping to find someone on whom I could call occasionally if a need arose.

After my daughter's homebirth a year ago, I became much more enlightened about healthcare in America and discovered that much of it was not rosy. The dangers of the American maternity care system aside, I began to question the entire model of standardized, one-size-fits-all, pharmaceutical-driven healthcare, and I realized that I wanted a much simpler, more holistic, alternative approach to healthcare for my family, should such a thing exist. I first tried an “integrative” medical practice that I thought might be a good fit, but still found it a bit too conventional.

Where was that old-time country doctor I envisioned? That doctor who created a warm and welcoming environment for children and families? The one who got to know the family's essence, and who recognized that home is where health and healing should occur? The doctor whom you paid directly for services rendered, instead of relying on a managed care system to broker the deal? The doctor who not only respected, but was actively supportive of homebirth, midwifery, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding, homeschooling, homeopathy, and parental choice in vaccination decisions? Where was this elusive country doctor of a by-gone era?

It turns out, in the countryside.

We traveled out of the city, to the countryside, into the woods as it were, to find the perfect doctor for our family. Finally, that feeling I had deep inside, that feeling that we weren't quite connecting with our current physician and that hope that there might be, must be, something better for us, was realized, beyond the city. It's fitting, I think, as I write about natural parenting that our well-matched doctor should practice in a small countryside office, surrounded and influenced by nature.

Since we traveled outside of the city and into the woods for a family well-visit with our doctor today, it made perfect sense to make a day of it in the countryside, exploring conservation land trails, collecting flowers in our nature sacks, spotting turtles, and spiders, and hawks, picnicking in the grass, and meeting up with countryside friends whom we see all too infrequently.

Sometimes it takes a trip out of the city, into the countryside, to find the perfect dose of nature and nurture.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wide Open Days

There is something very special about bright and warm spring days spent almost entirely outdoors. Taking advantage of wake-up temperatures already in the 60s, we headed outside early with a fully stocked picnic basket, books, and a plan to spend most of the day playing outdoors, in nature.

We spent a long while in a quiet corner of nearby Harvard Yard. My littlest one napped in the fresh air while the big kids climbed trees, played hide-and-seek in the shrubs, and made up their own creative games underneath shady branches and in hidden corners in front of old buildings.

While picnicking, we said hello to a passing acquaintance and her children. She remarked that she had been neglectful in not planning well for this April school vacation week and was seeking ways to fill their days to stave off boredom. As I write this week about "natural learning" ahead of Sunday's Earth Day celebration, this conversation reminded me of a fantastic quote in Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: "We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball."

As parents, we can sometimes be overly-focused on making sure our children's days are fully enriched with dynamic classes and activities to keep them from being bored, when, in fact, boredom--and the important ability to overcome it independently--can be an even greater lesson for our children. I think that if we parents can overcome our anxiety about our children's potential boredom and unstructured time, then we will see that children have an amazing talent for making their own play, for finding interesting ways to occupy themselves, for unleashing their imagination -- especially outside, in the natural world, on warm, wide open April days.

Louv reminds us how important it is to understand and embrace boredom. He states: "Most of all, children need adults who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity, adults willing to spend time in nature with kids, adults willing to set the stage so that kids can create their own play and enter nature through their own imagination." There is so much to do on these wide open April days, so much nature to explore, so many trees to climb, so many opportunities to create, to wonder, to dream.

Monday, April 16, 2012

From Natural Parenting to Natural Learning

Families are drawn to homeschooling for a variety of reasons, but for many families who believe in the ideals of "natural parenting," ours included, homeschooling is an obvious extension of this chosen lifestyle. Natural parenting is a broad term that encompasses many parenting practices aimed at being as natural, ecologically sustainable, and holistic as possible. It includes practices such as natural birth and breastfeeding, organic and sustainable food and consumption habits, cloth diapering or elimination communication, homeopathic and holistic family care, attachment parenting, and natural learning.

It is not surprising that as a growing number of new parents embraces natural parenting, these parents eventually become inspired by the idea of natural learning and homeschooling. Our early closeness and connection with our children helps us to develop positive, trusting relationships with each other. As natural parents, we are deeply aware of our children's needs, strengths, and limitations, and we use this knowledge to guide our parenting approach in the early years. As our children grow, we notice their innate gifts and passions unfold and we follow their lead, their unrelenting curiosity, as they learn and discover.

Most significantly, natural parenting focuses on trust: trust in our own powerful parenting instincts and abilities, and trust in our children to lead us, to show us what they need to learn and grow and reveal their true talents. Homeschooling extends this natural parenting and natural learning process beyond infancy and toddlerhood. It builds family trust and strengthens family relationships, and it grants children the uninterrupted freedom to learn and grow in their own, natural, intended way.

As an important extension of natural parenting, many natural learning families also place significant emphasis on learning from, growing in, and caring for the natural world. Through ecologically sustainable homemaking practices and extensive time spent outdoors, in nature, natural learning families prioritize their critical connection to the natural world. Homeschooling offers the gift of vast amounts of free, unstructured, exploratory time to learn from nature.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv states: "The boundaries of children's lives are growing ever tighter." A commitment to natural learning and time spent connecting our children to the earth, loosens these boundaries, unlocks our children's spirit, and widens our trust in nature's wisdom.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Natural Learning

Earth Day is a week away, so I'll spend some time this week blogging about natural learning and using the natural world as our children's classroom.

I can think of no better classroom than the natural world. And on a warm April morning, an empty Cape Cod beach was the perfect classroom for family discoveries. Slowly emerging sandbars revealed sand dollars to marvel at, shells to be collected and saved for late-day painting projects, piping plover footprints to spot and track. Outside, at the ocean, barefoot in the sand, we enjoyed hours of connection with nature and with each other. Moving from individual sand-castle-building to collective rock-hunting, yesterday morning took on its own tidal rhythm for our family, replenishing us with sunshine and salty air.

In his popular book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv states: "Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity." As parents, it is our responsibility to carve out this time in nature for our children, to value and prioritize it, not only to help spark our children's learning and creativity, but to help them to develop a deep appreciation for the natural world and their place in it. In Last Child in the Woods, and in his most recent book, The Nature Principle, Louv states that the rise in technology, the increasing digital influences that can both enhance and distract our days, require us to spend even more time in nature, more time disengaging from a wired world and reconnecting with a wild one.

It's not that we should be neo-Luddites, rejecting the good and powerful role of technology in our lives, but we should be mindful of how technology can make us more disconnected from nature and from each other. As Louv states in Last Child in the Woods: "The problem with computers isn't computers -- they're just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature."

It is up to us as parents to be watchful of creeping technological distractions, both for our children and for ourselves, that can minimize our family time outdoors, in nature. It is up to us to prioritize natural, unstructured, outside play for our children, to uncover the many lessons nature teaches us, and to strengthen our connection with the earth and each other.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

DIY Homemaking: A 'Made from Scratch' Life

Our Natural Family Living and Do-It-Yourself Homemaking theme continues today with a guest post from Justine at The Lone Home Ranger, who shares how she has cultivated a "made from scratch" life.

If you told me a few years ago that I'd be making homemade crackers, I would have laughed at such a preposterous notion. I've always loved cooking, using seasonal and local ingredients; however, when I worked outside the home, I was focused on trying the newest recipes in glossy magazines. I daydreamed about the fancy tools I would one day buy from the dog-eared pages of the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I didn't have time to ponder making my own pantry staples, and I lacked the confidence to try baking. Failure was not an option on the table.

When I made the choice to stay at home, our lives slowed down in many ways. As a homesteader, I've learned to embrace failure as a part of everyday life and, even better, my four-year-old daughter knows that mistakes are part of the learning experience. We welcome new challenges and are confident that with a little hard work, we can figure out how to make anything together. She rolls up her sleeves, turns to me, and says "Let's get to work." Our hands are our favorite tools.

What we eat has perhaps changed more than anything else. Last year, I found The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook: Heirloom fruits and vegetables, and more than 100 heritage recipes to inspire every generation and became fascinated with their return to such basic recipes, made with real food ingredients, that have been passed down through generations. I became inspired to try my own family's recipes. I started small by calling my mom to get her grandmother's high-rise yeast bread recipe. The kids helped me with kneading. Playing with dough and flour was a great sensory experience for them. I succeeded on the very first try and gained confidence.

Since then, my repertoire of homemade foods has expanded to yogurt, cheese, and even crackers! The Urban Farm Handbook: City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading, and Preparing What You Eat has been a source of great inspiration to me, both in the guidance it brings and in showing me that each idea is an opportunity for change, not a standard by which I'll be judged. It's fun to tackle new challenges when I'm not pressured to fit into the mold of the perfect homesteader.

I see such a sparkle in my preschooler's eye as we sit down to a snack of all homemade foods. She daydreams about new foods she wants to try making; it's no surprise to me that jam and fruit leather are high on her list. We are also growing our first vegetable and herb garden this year, starting with seedlings in the office. The simple joy my kids gain from watching the seeds grow into plants and playing in the dirt brings peace to my home and lets me know we are on the right path for us.

Justine Uhlenbrock is an urban homesteader, a minimalist mom, a writer, and a doula-in-training living with her husband and two young girls in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is passionate about sustainable living, health, frugality, and her quest for real food and family heirloom recipes. She blogs at The Lone Home Ranger.

Friday, April 13, 2012

DIY Homemaking: Colorful Cloth Napkins

Our Natural Family Living and Do-It-Yourself Homemaking theme continues today with a guest post from Shel at One Sweet World, who shares how her family took a simple and fun step to reduce household waste.

A couple of years ago we switched from paper napkins to cloth napkins in an effort to help reduce the amount of waste that our family contributes to the world. In switching to cloth napkins we decided that each napkin could be used more than once as long as it wasn’t crazy messy. In order to remember to whom each napkin belonged, we first started using different napkin rings. I found some on Etsy that I loved but I was the only one who could tell whose napkin was whose. After a year of using the napkin rings we realized that we definitely needed an easier way to distinguish each other’s napkin. And then a thought occurred to me: we could tie-dye them!

Grace and Emma did most of the work themselves, selecting colors and placement. The end result is 12 gorgeous and distinct cloth napkins that we adore. Not only does the dying make them much easier to tell apart, it also helps to hide the stains of family meal times!

Switching to cloth napkins has been an easy step to reduce our family's waste, and dying them made the experience all the more meaningful and enjoyable. If you decide to tie-dye, there are many natural dyes to choose from, or you can make your own. There are also dying kits available at most craft stores. Now, almost a year later, our napkins look just about as good as the day we made them!

Shel lives, laughs, loves and learns alongside her husband and two young daughters in an old New England farmhouse. She blogs at One Sweet World.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thinking Off-the-Grid

Thinking is the key word here. I am so very far from being off-the-grid. For one, I am much more comfortable with traffic than with ticks. Probably my only "off-grid" action is that we don't have cable. But it is intriguing, isn't it, to imagine a completely self-sustaining lifestyle? To imagine this pinnacle of "natural family living" and "do-it-yourself homemaking?" It's fascinating to imagine a life, or at least a part of one's life, that is slower, quieter, simpler. What would it be like to procure our own water, produce our own home energy, compost our own waste, and live in a way that is more connected to the Earth and less connected to the Internet? Fascinating.

My recent interest in off-the-grid living, or homes that do not connect to primary utility grids, has been piqued by the bedside book I am reading: Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America, by Nick Rosen. A breezy look at a diverse group of individuals and families that have gone "off-grid," either for a primary or secondary residence, the book exposes the highlights and challenges of living in a more deliberate, self-sustaining way.

I would never want to give up entirely the vibrancy, diversity, compactness and car-free convenience of urban living, but I also find the idea of back-to-the-land living so inviting. I find it striking that in really only one century, we have somehow managed to become almost entirely ignorant of the fundamental skills that our ancestors relied on for survival. I have only recently realized how completely clueless I really am. I am taking baby steps to reclaim the knowledge and skills of earlier generations, but learning how to knit and sew and bake my own bread are really just the tips of the iceberg. There is so much more I don't know, so many ways that I am completely disconnected from the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the water I consume, the energy that runs my home.

Imagining a life in which I am much more connected to these things, a life in which I am more enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of food and waste and energy, is a worthwhile thought exercise even if it doesn't become a reality. According to Rosen's research, however, at least half of the off-the-grid residences in the country today are used by part-time "off-gridders," those using an off-the-grid parcel as a second home or respite. These off-gridders "are downshifting city dwellers who want a refuge in a tranquil spot," says Rosen. Maybe that describes me. Or maybe that describes me thinking about that tranquil spot where "natural family living" and "do-it-yourself homemaking" are all there is. Fascinating.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Homemade Natural Toothpaste

Welcome to the April 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Personal Care
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and struggles relating to their children's personal care choices.

In keeping with this week's blog theme of natural family living and do-it-yourself homemaking, today I am delighted to share a guest post from Nina Litovsky, a local homeschooling and natural parenting mom who has a homemade natural toothpaste recipe that's kid-friendly, easy to make, and good for the whole family!

I make my own homemade natural toothpaste which is completely free of fluoride, preservatives, and any other chemical substances. It tastes good and can be safely swallowed, which makes it a good training toothpaste for little kids. My toddler loves it! It has become our official family toothpaste of choice.

Why homemade?

Initially, I was looking at commercial options. I didn’t want fluoride in the toothpaste because I was concerned about its toxicity and I had doubts about its benefits (but that’s another story). I also wanted something that would be safe to swallow, as I was about to train our baby to brush her teeth. All the commercial brands I found seemed to have some kind of preservatives or other chemical substances and I was not exactly sure that these substances were completely nontoxic.

So I did a lot of online searching and gathered some tips here and there, and finally put together a recipe to make my own toothpaste, which would at least guarantee the quality I was looking for. Also, most homemade toothpaste recipes I saw seemed to be a little complicated and time-consuming. I wanted to create a very quick and easy recipe, with very few ingredients.

The recipe

It is a very simple recipe, requires only 3 ingredients, and is a breeze to make!

Just take equal parts of calcium bentonite clay, xylitol and water. To make a solid, thick toothpaste, first you mix xylitol and bentonite and then add water. (I use water from our filter which blocks fluoride and a bunch of other toxins). You cannot add too little water – always add a bit extra if in doubt. You’ll see this when you start mixing it: if it is too dry, add more water. Mixing should be done in a porcelain, glass, or wood bowl using a porcelain, glass or wooden spatula or similar utensils.

Why porcelain, glass, or wood? Because clay has strong absorbent qualities, and if you use plastic (even BPA-free) or metal utensils, your clay may draw out unwanted plastic or metal particles.

The resulting toothpaste mixture looks like clay. Xylitol is a natural sweetener so it tastes good. If you’re feeling adventurous you can mix in veggie-based dyes or flavors.

How to use it

Open the jar, scrub with your toothbrush in a circular motion to get a good chunk of the paste smeared onto your brush. Brush one jaw, rinse and repeat. Or experiment to see what works for you. The idea is to smear a good amount of the paste onto your teeth. After you rinse your mouth, don’t worry if some of the paste is still stuck to your teeth. It will dissolve but in the meantime in will collect the bacteria.

How to store it

The toothpaste can be stored in a glass jar or a wooden/bamboo container (I’d say glass is better around sink moisture). It shouldn’t go "bad," but it is a good idea to cover it up, not airtight though. What works best for us so far is the jar pictured in the photo above. The lid is a little loose and allows for some air circulation inside the jar. You might want to experiment to see what works best for you to prevent mold.

For hygienic reasons each person should have their own container.

As for the toothbrush, it might be hard to completely rinse off the sticky paste. What I do is rinse the toothbrush a little bit and then put it in a glass of water and keep in there. The water in the glass will get a little “muddy” because of the clay but it’s ok. I think that the clay, due to its antibacterial qualities, will cleanse your brush the same way it cleanses your teeth. Eventually most of the clay should dissolve in water by the time of your next tooth brushing.

Where to buy the ingredients

Both bentonite and xylitol can be bought in bulk in 5-pound bags. Make sure that both are made in the USA (and that xylitol is not from corn but rather from birch, which is another sign it is made in the USA). Bentonite can be bought from Please note: although it may not be immediately clear from the description on that website, they sell calcium bentonite, which is what we are using in the recipe.

Or you can buy on Ebay from the same supplier. As for xylitol, it looks like it is getting more popular, hence competitive pricing on Amazon.

Why bentonite clay

Bentonite is known to have some antibacterial properties, but how these work in a toothpaste is not presently known. It is a mild abrasive and therefore has cleansing qualities. Basically, the clay sticks to your teeth and draws out plaque and bacteria. You can do your own research on the benefits of bentonite using these sources:

Bentonite and Gum Disease
Medicinal Uses of Bentonite


I am not a chemist or a dentist and I don’t guarantee that my recipe works for everyone. It seems to work for my family and my dentist doesn’t complain. According to my research, bentonite has cleansing and antibacterial qualities and is good for the gums, and xylitol is known to help prevent tooth decay. So I'm sharing this recipe with the hope that it would work for you or inspire you to try your own. Please don’t expect this toothpaste to heal your teeth in case you already have cavities. I personally don’t believe ANY toothpaste can heal existing cavities. This toothpaste is for preventive care only and doesn’t replace other important ways to care for your teeth, such as frequent flossing and good nutrition.

Nina Litovsky is a homebirthing, homeschooling, natural parenting mom living with her husband and two young children in Newton, Massachusetts. Besides parenting, Nina runs her own home-based web design studio and enjoys a variety of hobbies such as flute, tennis, and mixed martial arts.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo 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 live and updated by afternoon April 10 with all the carnival links.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Natural Family Living Movement

It seems there's a growing movement afoot of families seeking to live more naturally, more simply, more connectedly.

We read about it in articles citing increasing rates of homeschoolers, and rising numbers of homebirthers. We see it in neighborhood gardens and backyard chicken coops. We notice it in consistently sold-out local courses on knitting, and sewing, and other handiwork. We hear about it in conversations with friends and neighbors seeking a return to times of simpler homemaking, times when vinegar was the go-to cleanser, when sunshine was the greatest disinfectant, and when growing and preserving food were part of the seasonal rhythms of each family. We feel it in the growing demand for alternative, holistic healthcare solutions for families, and for greater trust in natural healing. It's all around us, this reconnection with do-it-yourself homemaking and natural family living.

We all arrive at our focus on natural family living from different places and for different reasons. For some of us, it is a rejection of the way things are and for others it is an acceptance of the way we think things ought to be. I've mentioned before that while I started on the natural parenting progression when I became a mom, embracing Attachment Parenting principles, discovering cloth diapering, and becoming passionate about homeschooling, it wasn't until my daughter's homebirth a bit over a year ago that I became truly awakened to the magnitude of what we are able to accomplish within our homes, within our families. I began to more seriously question mainstream parenting and homemaking practices, and reclaim home as the center of family life.

This week, I will be presenting posts highlighting natural family living and do-it-yourself homemaking, including some guest posts. I would love to hear how and why you have embraced natural family living. And if you would like to guest-post on this topic, please let me know!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Friendship and Family

A miracle occurred this weekend. My three-year-old sat at the dinner table for over an hour. For a boy who usually lasts about five minutes (maybe 10 if we're having pizza), this was an astounding feat. It happened while we were attending a Passover seder at a friend's house. It was such a special night and our first experience at a seder. My kids were mesmerized by the songs and story-telling and rituals.

It got me to thinking that I should try harder to incorporate more dinner-table rituals into our family meals and see if we can't extend our time at the table. Kids are so naturally drawn to stories and songs and traditions. If you have any special meal-time customs that work well for your family dining--and capture a three-year-old's attention--I would love to hear them!

For this morning's egg-hunt, our city squirrels only managed to steal and gnaw through three plastic eggs before we got to them. Determined little critters, they are.

Here's hoping you too are enjoying a lovely weekend of friendship and family!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Beware of Sabotaging Squirrels...

We celebrate Easter secular-style, which for us means we enjoy the Easter Bunny and learning about its origins as a celebration of Eostre, the ancient goddess of springtime, whose earthly sign is a rabbit and who hides bright eggs and treats as symbols of the sweetness of springtime renewal.

Last year, we were committed to having an all-natural Easter. We grew our own grass to line our Easter baskets, dyed our own real eggs in natural dyes (like beet juice and blueberries), and then left the eggs on our back porch with a note for the Easter Bunny, Eostre, suggesting she hide these lovely eggs along with treats in our building's small backyard.  She obliged, but apparently didn't notify the city squirrels (who mean business around here).  Within minutes of the Easter Bunny's arrival, while we were not looking, the squirrels confiscated 88 pieces of chocolate candy! Yep, 88 pieces.

We know this because we caught a couple of them in the act, and then throughout this past year we have discovered the shiny, colorful, candy wrappings strewn throughout the backyard as the squirrels slowly consumed their buried treasures.

So this year, we have little choice but to be unnatural. We are going back to standard-issue plastic eggs in which to hide Easter chocolates, and are hoping that these squirrels can't figure out how to crack them before the kids in our building have a chance to collect them. Given the fact that just this week, one squirrel unzipped my backpack, grabbed my zippered, cloth snack bag filled with cashews, and scurried up a nearby tree with the snack bag in its mouth, I am not entirely confident that our plastic eggs will be enough protection against these determined city squirrels.

Maybe Eostre can use some of her springtime magic to keep the squirrels at bay just long enough for our egg-hunt. And we'll be sure to share a few chocolates with our backyard friends as a thank-you.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

10 Natural Parenting Commitments

I find that sometimes, in the bustle of everyday life with three little ones, I can get distracted from the parenting and homemaking practices that are most important to me.  So I am writing down my most important natural parenting commitments, those practices that are central to the philosophy of our family life, in the hope that they remain top-of-mind even among all those distractions.  Here they are, in no particular order.

Top 10 Natural Parenting Commitments:

  1. It is important to me that I parent with love, respect, responsiveness and gentleness.
  2. It is important to me that I listen to and understand my children's needs.
  3. It is important to me that I facilitate my children's natural curiosity and encourage them to learn and grow in their own way, in their own time.
  4. It is important to me that I model the behaviors I expect from my children.
  5. It is important to me that I position family at the center of our lives.
  6. It is important to me that I feed my family wholesome, homemade, mostly-organic, preferably local, real food.
  7. It is important to me that I trust my powerful maternal instincts, especially when making decisions about my family's health and well-being.
  8. It is important to me that I strive to live more sustainably, seeking ways to treat the earth with greater care and thought.
  9. It is important to me that I make my home a greater source of production, rather than exclusively consumption.
  10. It is important to me that I continuously question, challenge, and inquire to reveal what is best for my family.  
What might your list look like?  Have you written down a mothering mission statement or a set of commitments that guide your parenting?  What impact has it had?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Instinctual Parenting

It seems we've lost our way. It seems that somewhere over the past century in America, as technological advancements, increased industrialization, and focused specialization promised to make our lives easier and simpler, they led us away from our own voice, our own instincts, and in so doing made our lives more complicated and stressful. Nowhere is this more obvious than in parenting.

Rather than trusting our own instincts and listening to our babies, from birth to toddlerhood and throughout childhood, we began abdicating control and losing touch with our natural wisdom. From placing control of our pregnancies and births into the hands of obstetricians and hospitals, to believing that babies should sleep through the night, to trusting large food conglomerates to feed our families, to relying on others to care for and teach our children, we have weakened the power of home and family and muffled our own parenting instincts.

Reconnecting with our instincts, listening to our inner voice and the needs our children so clearly communicate to us in their own way, can guide us back to trusting ourselves. It can help us to question the origin of some of our beliefs and expectations, and filter the barrage of "expert" advice. Who says my infant needs to learn to self-soothe? Who says children need to sleep alone, away from mommy and daddy? Who says I need to introduce solid food at six months if I don't think my baby is ready? Who says my two-year-old needs to learn to be independent from mommy? Why should I give my toddler time-outs? Why should my five-year-old get a dental x-ray for no apparent reason? Why should children be made to sit still and listen when their natural instinct is to run and shout?

We can learn a lot about reconnecting with our natural parenting instincts by watching our children, watching how they live with full authenticity and trust. Their needs are simple and straightforward, and when we listen and respond to them by trusting our own instincts, ignoring the reel of "should-bes" that rolls through our thoughts, we can experience more joyful parenting.

Trusting our instincts and parenting more peacefully is the topic of a new book just released by two Boston-area moms. The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby's First Year, by Megan Massaro and Miriam Katz, helps new parents to trust themselves rather than entrusting others to care for their baby's well-being. A must-read for new parents or others looking to parent more naturally, more instinctually, the book is full of thoughtful insights that help parents to question mainstream parenting beliefs and actions.

What about you? How have you been able to trust or reconnect with your own, natural parenting instincts, even if they run counter to current mainstream parenting practices?