Monday, September 9, 2013
Yesterday, while visiting the apple orchard for the first time this season, I thought back to a few years ago when my now almost-7-year-old was almost 4. Back then, I hadn't yet fully understood or embraced the idea of self-directed learning. We were committed to homeschooling for sure, but I thought that as the children got older we would most certainly purchase curriculum, at least for some subjects, and have an established "learning time" in our home.
Then I began to see more clearly how the children were learning all the time. There was no need for a curriculum or a set time for "learning," and in fact, I have grown increasingly convinced that such a model can actually hinder learning with its inherently top-down, adult-led approach.
I have purchased or borrowed some curriculum segments over the years, wondering if I could find pieces that would work for our learning. What I liked about viewing these curricula, particularly the Waldorf-inspired ones that I was drawn to, were the ideas they gave me, the structure they gave me. The kids rarely used any of them, but one of the aspects of Waldorf learning in particular that struck me three years ago when I first stumbled upon it in my search for what I thought was necessary curriculum for my oldest, was the focus on learning with the seasons. Ah, this was something I could embrace, this was something that would help me to be more mindful of the passing of time and how to incorporate seasonal rhythms into our home.
It was with this seasonal inspiration three years ago that we started going apple and pumpkin picking to celebrate autumn, visit the Christmas tree farm and celebrate the light of the Solstice at the start of winter, welcome spring with maple syrup tapping and nature journaling, and welcome the summer solstice with strawberry picking and staying up late on the longest day. The seasons, especially here in New England, provide natural and forever changing learning possibilities. Getting out in nature as much as possible, taking daily nature walks, noticing the changes around us, visiting farms and appreciating the harvests of each season, cooking and baking with what we pick, reading seasonal stories that help us to better understand and appreciate the changes around us -- all of these activities have become natural, seamless parts of our life and learning over these past few years as I have become more aware of how the seasons create these obvious learning opportunities for all of us.
The key with focusing on a home-based, self-directed learning path, as opposed to one that relies on curriculum, is to be aware. At first glance, self-directed learning may seem like a free-for-all where the child is fully in charge and the parents do nothing. In fact, while the child is leading the way, the parents are carefully observing, noticing a child's interests emerge, recognizing the world around them and getting their children out into it, providing resources and opportunities for their children to learn on their own.
Self-directed learning works, particularly with young children, when grown-ups help to provide these resources and opportunities. The adults aren't coercing or cajoling; they are merely making sure that such resources and opportunities exist based on what they have observed as their child's natural interests and talents. For instance, if your four-year-old is interested in dinosaurs, then your role in facilitating his self-directed learning is to visit the library to gather books about dinosaurs, learn about their history and habitat, perhaps find a nearby museum exhibit on dinosaurs, maybe discover some online tools or quick videos about dinosaurs, and so on. Let your child guide you to help him. In so doing, your child will gain all the necessary mastery he needs in reading and math, science and technology, history and geography, and so on without a slice of curriculum.
Children don't need curriculum. They need attentive grown-ups around them who can recognize and provide helpful resources and opportunities, notice a child's natural curiosity and individual interests, and discover ways to use the wider world around us as one giant classroom.
To learn more about how we became unschoolers, click here to read an article I wrote for Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts (AHEM).