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Archive for the ‘Unschooling’ Category

Several weeks ago a friend said,

“My kids are probably excited about winter coming. It means I’ll start doing craft projects and reading to them again, instead of just yelling at them to go back to their movie so mama can work outside some more.”

The words could as easily have come out of my mouth. Although there are plenty of good wholesome times when the kids join me outside, helping with my projects or playing blessedly independent games alongside, there are as many times when I am out working in the yard alone, occasionally checking for their glazed faces through the dining room window.

Although we don’t get typically get snow until November, in many ways winter here in Cordova begins in September (if not August) with monsoon style rains and hurricane force wind. Not easy weather to work in the yard.

As you may remember from my last post, this was the first summer in a long time that I had tried to take on any significant projects, and I definitely bit off more than I could chew. When the weather called a halt to my projects, and the total sum of my summer’s accomplishments became evident, I was forced to accept that I hadn’t gotten even half of what I’d planned to do done.

After the disappointment wore off, I have to admit to a feeling of relief. True I hadn’t fulfilled my great expectations, but I had gotten something done, I had moved forward. And now, with winter setting in, I could finally let go those expectations. After a summer of feeling perpetually, almost frantically behind, I could finally relax.

For the last month I have been stretching with pleasure into the simple routine of playing with kids, cleaning the house, and cooking dinner. The luxurious feeling that nothing of import needs to happen, I can allow my days to be filled by the basic maintenance of family life.

I’ll get bored soon enough. But for now, my kids are reaping the benefits.

With the extra time of early winter, and in the anticipation of it’s long totality, I have been making some good stuff for indoor play. It started with turning the cubby hole under our stairs into The Bat Cave.

bat cave

We all have electronics sitting around unused in a box upstairs, right? We think we need to keep them for later, but really, they are already obsolete. The kids love clomping on this old chattery keyboard, the “monitor” behind it is a framed printout. And the old phone on the right was an instant hit after I spray painted it gold!

With the bat cave under my belt, I was motivated to finally make the indoor “playground” I’ve wanted for years. And it was so easy, I am kicking myself. All I did was nail a good 2×4 up across our wide hall (make sure you nail into studs though!) and hang some ropes down from it. There are two long ropes to hold a swing, and two shorter ropes to hold a hanging bar (which is pulled out of the way in this photo).

indoor playground
The climbing rope, on the right, had been there for awhile, and is no more than rope through an eye bolt. Although the rest of this playground needs an open hallway to make set-up easy, the climbing rope just needs a wall with a findable stud. Check out this youtube for how to make a simple harness.

I cut two sizes of 2×4 for the swing seats, so that there can be someone swinging and someone using the hanging bar, or move the ropes about a bit and fit in the two-kid swing for extra fun.

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After the thrill of an indoor playground leveled out, I made this play kitchen out of a big cardboard box. I was surprised at how excited the kids were, my 4YO boy couldn’t stop gushing and he played on it for hours that first day.

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And yes, my boy likes to wear pink and purple striped tights. A lot. Gotta problem with that? He also turns everything which can be held in his hands into a gun, including his penis, so I’m sure he’s quite healthy.

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A good friend lamented recently about her kids’ lack of contact with any kind of real wilderness. This city has some beautiful parks and gorgeous landscaping, but untouched nature? Not so much. Louisiana at large has a decent share of relatively raw wilderness, but it’s swamp, accessible only by boat or chest waders and a burly fearlessness of alligators. Not exactly the kind of place you can bring the kids to of a Saturday afternoon.

Her kids are little, as are mine, and I surprised myself by launching into a diatribe about how little kids don’t need wilderness. Me– Alaska Woods Woman– defending the lack of wilderness?

The conversation stuck in my brain for the rest of the week as I tried to tease out the details of such an unexpected opinion.

in Alaska the kids played with dirt and rocks

here they play with dirt and rocks

I believe that part of our patriarchal heritage is an over-obsession with Big Important things, and a tendency to disregard or even disgrace things which are small and humble. That’s the premise of this whole blog really– recognizing the value in the small-scale, the influence of each individual home.

Likewise, I think our Big Important Brains tend to overlook the everyday small wildernesses around us. We don’t think it qualifies unless there are black bears or ancient redwoods or unscalable mountains. But consider an ant hill at the park– what wild nature unleashed! Consider the wind shushing in the rows of planted trees, a thunderstorm heedless of a whole city’s urgent traffic needs. Consider the explosive cockroach population in my very own kitchen. No matter where you are, there is the natural world. She is so yielding, so subtle, so humble that she completely conquers everything.

And I will tell you a secret. Kids know. Especially little kids. They don’t need big tracts of protected wilderness because they are still wild themselves. Until we beat it out of them, kids still recognize wilderness on an intimate scale everywhere. Have you been for a walk with a one year old recently? If not, go now. Borrow a toddler if you have to. They are a lesson we need to take, over and over again. Kids are incredibly receptive to nature, until quite old really, but especially when they have just learned to walk and before we drill the ethics of speed and efficiency into their wild little brains. They stop to consider each new thing, experiencing the world in rich, unhurried detail. A stick is utterly captivating. An insect climbing the rough bark of a tree? Breathtaking!

The hard part for us is allowing them to interact with that intimate wilderness. How often do you let your kids set the pace on a walk? I can hardly manage to circumnavigate our block at their pace, which can take more than an hour. Have you ever tried to take your kids for a walk and had them get stuck just outside the gate? Come on already! How interesting can it be, it’s still our own goddamned yard!

Even if you recognize the essential and enduring value of their natural discoveries, it is nearly impossible for us to slow down to their sauntering wild animal speed. But that speed, or the lack of speed actually, is key to reverencing wilderness on an appropriate, sustainable level. We need to slow ourselves down, open our souls to whatever wild world happens to be in front of us, believe in the importance of the miniscule.

And I guess this is why I bristled at the idea that kids need wilderness. Not because I don’t fully understand the visceral satisfaction of watching my kids interact with an untouched natural landscape. I won’t lie– I am really looking forward to bringing them back to Alaska. But because I think the whole concept negates their particular power, which we instead need to exalt! Kids are our emissaries to the wild world. We just have to open the gate and let them out.

It is very hard when you live in a city, I can attest to that. Especially at that most receptive age of just-learned-to-walk. They seem magnetically drawn to a.) the street or b.) someone else’s porch. There is such a narrow strip of land we are allowed to frolic in, in cities. Parks are great of course, lots of open space for uninhibited exploration. But there is something I think particularly valuable about just opening your door and walking straight on into adventure, even if that adventure is only 5 feet wide.

You don’t need to read books or get professional advice on this matter (unless you have an older kid who’s been reared on chips and tv…) The expert is your own child. I would venture to guess that no matter where you live, the most remote wilderness homestead or inner city block, if you allow your kids access to the outside world they will find all on their own:

  • dirt
  • rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • flowers
  • water
  • bugs
  • squirrels
  • birds

Does the backdrop matter? Do they internalize the angular structure of houses and power lines vs the organic pattern of mountains and forests? Maybe. I do think exposure to pure, untouched wilderness becomes more and more important as they get older and their vision opens out. But unless you are going to live in that untouched place (making it therefore “touched”) these experiences will always be anecdotes to their otherwise life. Short my personal fantasy of post-industrial return to aboriginal life, we are going to have to work this shit out in the cities and suburbs of our modern world. We are going to have to open our minds and hearts, and work to see nature wherever we are.

Better yet, let’s just stand back and let our kids show us the way.

Related Post: Kid-Walks

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Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

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