I’ve lately been interested in considering the role our physical environment has in shaping the ways our children learn and grow. In my family’s case, my husband and I decided to leave our home in Washington, DC when we felt ready to start a family. We traded access to world class museums, theatre, and restaurants for 87 acres, long winters, milk goats, wild blackberries, Amish neighbors and home cooked meals.
Arriving at the decision to radically change our lifestyle came easily for both my husband and me. The landscape we arrived at resonates with us at so many different levels. Even before my three sons were born, I longed to watch them grow amid the abundant wildlife and stunning landscapes that so stir my soul. I imagined their red little cheeks flushed from the excitement of discovery and abundant fresh air. I could see perfectly their plump muddied toes sunbaked from a day of play in our garden. I believed that the skies, fields, and forests would become important teachers, influencing my children in wondrous ways akin to that of a loving parent or favorite uncle.
When my oldest son, Elias, turned three he announced it was “time for school to begin.” The decision to homeschool was natural and inevitable and one that my son adapted to with deep joy. The first idyllic year felt like it had been copied from the pages of a story book, complete with breathtaking illustrations depicting each scene. Most of the time was spent in hands-on nature activities. Elias gathered plants for sketching, crafting, medicine making and dying play dough while I carried his baby brother Jo Jo on my back.
At that point, my children were very young and people hadn’t yet begun asking “What curriculum do you use? What grade are your kids in?” I did not think to try and name what we were doing, but obviously now I see we were sowing the seeds for an educational model based on the principals of interest-led learning and unschooling. Since the beginning, my boys, like most children, could think up more lesson plans on their own than any calendar could contain. They’ve taught themselves handwriting, how to read, calculate, craft, and conquer bad guys without a single text book. For me to bust in on their magnificent agendas with curriculum ideas from strangers seems intrusive, unnecessary, and even a little rude! Almost immediately I recognized my primary job was to observe their playtime together to get a sense of what books, people, art supplies and field trips should serendipitously appear in their lives.
Through our hours of exploratory play, it was soon evident that Elias was born with the eyes of a naturalist. He thrives in our little haven, developing numerous hypotheses and testing these in thorough hard- to-understand experiments in his well imagined laboratory. Our youngest, Walden, only two, seems also to seek and find comfort in sun, snow, and rain. He races for the outdoors as soon as the possibility is announced. My youngest applies herbal fixes for toy Dino’s injuries and watches the surrounding wildlife with deep, glorious joy. Both boys surprise and delight me as I watch them connect with their land and our values. Teaching them is a cinch! In buying this land our “curriculum” was purchased. They have what they need and I feel like a competent enough guide to assist along the way.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t challenges and doubts along the way. Of course there are plenty. Rather, these challenges tend to be ones I’d anticipated. For the most part, things flow as expected.
Five year old Josiah, our middle son, is an artist. Like any good artist, he shakes things up with color, noise, and astounding vision. He is temperamental, experimental and so very curious. From the time he wakes from his last morning dream ’til bedtime he spends his hours sketching, painting, and sculpting everything but the environment that surrounds him. He comes alive when we venture north to Ottawa or Montreal. Steel, concrete, abstract modern art and traffic move this little boy like nothing that resides on our farm.
This weekend we bought a new ram to add to our flock of sheep. As he put our unhappy passenger into the back of our minivan, I’m certain my husband and I were thinking the same thing: days like this are what it is all about. This is why we came here. Our boys will reminisce about these sorts of days when they are old.
As our bewildered ram carried on making his displeasure known, my eldest and youngest boys squealed with glee. They busied themselves trying to simultaneously calm and name him as we inched our way home. I turned around to join in the fun only to find my eyes on my middle son instead. With the ram just inches behind his head, Josiah seemed not to notice. With his paper and pen and a favorite picture book, Jo Jo was utterly absorbed in a sketch of some sort. In the “perfect” homeschooling story, I suppose I might be able to tell you he was sketching the ram or the bucolic farm from which we’d come. But, he was drawing Darth Vader. And Luke Skywalker. And C3PO, I think.
Jo Jo does not object to a good game of outdoor chase or a snooze on the hammock with his daddy. But the awe inspiring hikes, berry gathering expeditions, and garden daydreams that I long to share with him move my artist about as much as a day spent memorizing multiplication tables might. Hiking hurts his feet. Berry brambles are too prickly. And garden daydreams are a nightmare. So sensitive and alive is he to his surroundings that much of the outdoors is over stimulating and must be absorbed in small, digestible pieces he can interpret on paper afterwards.
When I consider what most thrills, frustrates, inspires and challenges me about homeschooling, it is this. I had a vision of what childhood could look like for my sons and of how we might learn together. Children, like mothers, have their own visions. When Jo Jo and I are both confident and feeling inspired, I wouldn’t trade my artist’s passionate determination and sense of self for all the nature walks in the world. On the days when the paint drips on the floor and the scissors aren’t cutting straight, we both can become moody. I feel doubt at what our landscape and I can provide for him. I wonder if he’d be happier in the city we left behind. I wonder if he sits too much and should play more soccer. I wonder what someone like me, someone who can’t draw a straight line, can possibly offer this child.
Only a few short months ago I threw my hands up in despair and told my husband I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to homeschool Josiah. I wholeheartedly value creativity and each of our days contains a great deal of freedom for such pursuits. However, for a week I’d been trying to engage Jo Jo in additional activities for fear he was missing out on exercise, social interaction, and a myriad of other things moms worry about from time to time. I tried everything. I was like a cruise ship activity director throwing out ideas in a high pitched chirpy voice, complete with happy smile to indicate how much fun we were about to have. How about we bake? “Nope. No thank you.” How about a walk. “Nope.” Soccer? Have a friend over? Violin? Play a game? Visit with the goats? Read your brother a story? “Nope, nope, nope.” And with a wave of an ink-marked little hand, I’d been dismissed.
Filled with self-doubt, I began an attempt to better understand how I might improve our learning time together. Research into various learning styles took me on a fascinating journey. In my reading I came across insightful literature about visual spatial learners. To make a long story short, visual spatial learners think in pictures and see information as a whole. In sharp contrast are auditory-sequential learners who break down information into small bits before they move on to more complex parts. They are as linear in their thought patterns as visual spatial learners are not.
This was it! This was the stuff I needed to know. Through further reading, I was given a brief opportunity to see the world through the eyes of my child. In contrast to my son, I learned that I am an audio sequential learner. Translated, we are polar opposites. Both of us are extremes on this learning style spectrum. If someone was trying to guide me to their home for the first time, anything more than the most simple of maps would be a waste of paper. Instead I would ask for instructions. Details like turn left at the house that doesn’t really look like a house with the funny little dog sitting on the front step would mean far more to me than words like “north” or “south.” The more details the better. Josiah, if given a map, would reach his destination with ease. A series of seemingly disjointed details would be frustrating and of no use to him.
Unwittingly, I was presenting the world in a way that made sense to me (and to the other sequential learners in my home). What sometimes appeared to be an almost defiant lack of interest in his surroundings was nothing of the sort. Rather, Josiah perceived our environment from an entirely different angle. He was using a different road map.
Later that same day, Jo Jo began to sketch Frankenstein and Walden and Elias asked that I read them a science book about volcanos––exactly the sort of fact-based resource Josiah runs from. With Walden on my lap, Elias attentively seated beside me, and Jo Jo in another room drawing, I read. What might have been a cozy time together was interrupted by distracting feelings of guilt that I was neglecting Jo Jo and that he might be feeling left out. I hurried through the book and when at last we’d finished reading, an elated Josiah burst into the room.
“Look, Walden.” He called to his little brother. “This is a volcano. This is the lava, the magma and this is a fissure.” Each of us looked it over, appreciating the fine details as well as the thoughtful way he’d labeled each feature. I called his father at work and together we laughed at our fear and concerns.
Just as we trust in nature, family and community, we must trust our children’s instinct to learn.
We strive to let our children engage in learning in ways most meaningful to them. I aim to provide an environment that I hope is both stimulating and peaceful. Jo Jo responds to that environment in curious, wondrous ways that I never envisioned when I traded in a professional wardrobe for muck boots. The brilliant red sunset that makes me think of poetry, appears to him as the perfect shade of red paint he’ll mix to make Darth Vader’s lightsaber. Our mighty Rooster’s siren, my absolute favorite pastoral sound, inspires Josiah’s creation of a hideous half man half bird villain that must be avenged.
Upon discovering student-led learning my reaction was one of excitement. The idea to throw away curriculum that isn’t working and to let the students lead the way is both intuitive and inspiring! But as my children and I grow older, I realize it goes much deeper than this. There are so many ways to inhabit one single space and even more ways to learn from it. Each person’s eyes will interpret the same goat nibbling at their pocket in innumerable ways. Our sugar bush on a snowy morning, the geese honking overhead, the starry sky on a clear night—each will be experienced, and synthesized in a unique and personal way. This is a fundamental aspect of an authentic education. This is a truth kids just seem born knowing.
This article appeared in the May-June 2014 issue of Home Education Magazine
Rebecca lives, laughs and learns with her husband and three sons on their farm in upstate New York. Rebecca is an herbalist and owner of Mind’s Eye Farm and Herbary.