Thursday, May 23, 2019

Love Against the Machine: The Enormous Joy of Discovering that Unschooling Works

Me in my garden - photo by my son Taliesin River.
I started unschooling my kids rather out of a place of despair, when my son's learning style (his way or no way at all!) didn't mesh with the system. I quickly realized how similar unschooling was to the way I already taught other children, using explorative creative play and art-making to teach them about the workings of the world and their own hearts and minds. So on pure blind faith and a good chunk of sheer determination, my husband and I just let our kids go, free-range for the most part, trying to follow their interests and our own, and cobble together some sort of symphony of it all.

And there's the machine, of course - the socio-political one. I've never been someone to follow the masses, myself, so unschooling suits my personality. It wasn't until recently that I realized (thanks to my mother) that everything in my life is a rebellion against the machine - even gardening. I grow food to prove to myself that I don't fully depend on the agriculture industry. I grow it to prove to my children that we're skilled and capable of looking after ourselves. I grow it to teach myself how - to feel less frightened about the looming possibility of social collapse, and to know that I'll be able to feed us, if need be. And I grow it because it's an interesting challenge. I garden exploratively. I unschool gardening. And recently - at long last - I'm having a bit of success with it.

My son, now seventeen, unschools photography. I'd love to say I taught him that, because I love photography too, but I didn't. I just gave him the freedom to teach himself. And I let him use my cameras. He explores photography. He breathes photography. He leaps around the city and wilderness, seeing it all in his unique way, and using whichever camera he has as a natural extension of his own eyes. He mastered the technology on his own, through exploration, as a child masters the use of a crayon, or his fingers. He mastered it intuitively, because he has freedom to explore.

He has a volunteer job, now, exploring beaches and documenting his discoveries in image and words for a forthcoming marine atlas. Yesterday he let me join him on one of his explorative adventures, and he told me that he was off to look for the anemones that he knew lived on the other side of the lighthouse. I realized with total delight that we were on the same sort of adventure we did almost every day of his younger childhood, but this time, with camera in hand and the confidence of a great strong wind, my son was leading me.

There was a day many years ago, when I led a wilderness exploration group (including my own kids) into the meadow, and somebody asked my daughter if she ever gets sick of being with her mother. I was offended, and then worried, and really questioned our decision to live so closely with our kids, especially because my daughter has always been looking for ways to engage separately from the family. There have been SO many days like this. So many doubts and fears and blaring warning signs cast up by others and by my own fearful mind telling me to turn and run back to the norm. But we didn't. My daughter is fiercely independent, and she taught me how to let go of her so she could go gallivanting in the city with her much-older friends. Unschooling demands of both of us to live bravely and trust. Our deep connection built over so many years of living life in close proximity makes her independence possible. I know I can trust her to look after herself, and to reach for us when we're actually needed.

And yesterday I looked into my son's lens, as he towered above me on the rocky beach, and realized he was taking a photo of my smile - his smile - the smile that exists because of him. Whatever he explores in this world, with or without me, I am reassured that he loves me and is happy in his life and in himself. Whatever more could I have wished for in the world? This is the enormous joy of discovering that unschooling works.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Exploring to Learn About Diversity, and Why It Matters

Found: A decomposing, rat-chewed deer vertebra.
This morning my fabulous group of Wild Art kids and I lay on the forest floor with our heads in the dried leaves, looking up at the canopy of deep, dark, low-branched cedars and verdant freshly-leaved maples, their moss and fern-covered trunks reaching down to the ground beside us. The diversity of greens was shocking. Even the leaves of one maple were a very different green than those of the next. We talked about the diversity of bird sounds we could hear, the sounds of the different sorts of leaves rustling both under us and in the distance. We talked about the dark brown, cone-covered branch hung up in the cedar above us, and one of the kids waxed nearly poetic about the balance of dead and decomposing things with the fresh and living things, the balance of different shapes all around, and even the balance of humans in nature, since mostly we now find ourselves not there.

We agreed that balance is pretty important. And the more diversity we have, the more balance. Diversity and balance are essential for all communities, human and wilderness. And the understanding of this diversity is essential for engaging with the world.

This past weekend I attended a rhododendron symposium in Washington, where a majority of attendees were grey-haired, and one of the burning questions was how to engage younger people in the study and love of rhododendrons. Well, of course it's not just rhododendrons, as various people pointed out - it's wilderness in general. But rhodos are one way to look at the wilderness, and humans need to be connecting more with the wilderness. Rhododendrons, mostly recognized as those car-sized, shiny-leaved, blossom-covered shrubs often lining suburban driveways, don't exactly scream wilderness as they beckon weakly from the garden aisles of Costco and Walmart. But did you know that plants of the rhododendron genus occur in the wild on nearly every continent, from cold alpine climates to temperate lowlands to tropical forests? They grow in swamps, on rocks, on stumps and even in the tree canopy. Did you know that these shrubs can be as big as castles or as small as a football? They include species with leaves as big as serving platters, and as small as your thumbnail, blossoms of all colours and many different shapes, and some are evergreen while others are deciduous. We have a few wild species here in my own ecosystem, and one of those, Labrador Tea, is harvested from the swamps for human consumption. I drink Labrador Tea. It's delicious.

There is quite possibly some kind of rhododendron participating in your ecosystem too, just as there are likely many species of grass, trees, moss, lichen, fungi, mammals, and insects. If you go out in the woods, today, you will find diversity.

My point is this: The great diverse world of rhododendrons is one of millions of interconnected pieces of our complex world that thrives because it is complex. Each individual rhodo species or plant, in its own natural community, is an integral participant in the livelihood of everyone. The diversity of human culture is important, too. Each of us contributes in a unique way to our greater community, creating a balance that keeps us more generally prosperous. It is not enough to write this in textbooks for biology students, or to depend on a few grey-haired plant-enthusiasts to champion the diversity of each species. We all need to champion diversity in general, and to celebrate and nurture it in every part of our lives.

If we don't take our children into the wilderness and allow them to play, how will they know - I mean innately, deeply know - that diversity is essential for life? In the wilderness, diversity is what ensures the cycle of life. A rat chewed the deer vertebra in the photo above, nourishing itself with essential minerals and introducing those and others back into the available substrate when it pooped, so that tasty maple cotyledons now shoot up all over the place, are eaten by a nursing doe, passed to its offspring by lactation, and thus the minerals of that bone become part of the next generation of deer. Nobody told me this; I surmised it from a lifetime of exploring and asking questions and being engaged. You don't have to tell your children this. They don't need to read about this cycle in a text book to understand it. They need to crawl around in the underbrush of the forest and find the bones with their own grubby hands, feeling the marks made by the rat's incisors all along the edges. They need to get curious and go looking for the rest of the bones.

As the earth's biodiversity succumbs to climate and habitat destruction, there are people trying to preserve the diversity of rhododendrons for the world. These hardy explorers traverse mountain ridges and river valleys, picking their way through a still-surprising diversity of life and weather conditions, to discover wild rhodos and bring a few seeds back to raise, at home. They observe and document the diversity of life that exists where the seeds came from, and create similar diversity in urban gardens, so that one day when we stop razing the world's forests, perhaps some of this diversity will be retrievable. There are people doing similar preservation work for thousands of genuses and ecosystems all over the world. The reason the room full of grey-haired rhododendron enthusiasts is so eager to engage future generations is because they know the importance of the preservation of diversity for all species.

This is why exploration is important - because in exploring, we discover real diversity, on a scale that no textbook, biology professor, or nature documentary can show us. We know by the dirt under our fingernails that we are a part of this. In a time when the earth's biodiversity is severely threatened, we can immerse ourselves in it, engage with it and know it, literally from the ground up. Then when we get on a city bus we can look at the great diversity of people around us, the great diversity of ideas and emotions and physical attributes, smells and even microbiomes, and we can feel comfortable in knowing that these are important parts of our ecosystem, too.

No matter where we look in the world, diversity means innovation from diverse sources and evolution in many directions, and therefore more likelihood of success and survival, overall. Diversity matters in wilderness ecosystems as well as in our intestinal bacterial populations, boardrooms, classrooms, and human technological progress. Let's give our kids the opportunity to be and value and preserve that diversity.

Further Reading:
May 21 is World Cultural Diversity Day!
Rhododendron Species Foundation (largest collection in the world)
The Catalogue of Life!
Monoculture vs. Diversity in Farming


Monday, April 22, 2019

Why the Best Learning Looks Like Play

My fourteen-year-old daughter is spending today doing and creating crossword puzzles, playing Sims, and rehearsing for her current role as Ginny in A Very Potter Musical. I asked her to tell me about a time she remembers play that was especially wonderful, or meaningful to her.

"What do you mean?" She asked me. "I'm always playing!"

Far from being the useful answer I hoped for that would help me frame this article, her answer helped me rewrite it. My fourteen-year-old unschooler is an accomplished writer, actor, and student, as well as one of the most diligent workers I know. She always keeps her goals and commitments in mind, runs her social and academic lives like tight ships, and yet feels like she has spent her life always playing.

My daughter is living the dream I dreamed for her, and yet the simplicity of it took me by surprise.

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”                           ~Alan Watts

I've been writing about the beautiful learning that my own kids and the kids I work with stumble upon while playing for a very long time, but every day I still run into my own judgments about what comprises valuable activity. This is the way with most of us, I think, who unwittingly (or otherwise) subscribe to the notion that drudgery makes us valuable. But it doesn't. It just makes us drudge.

Play is the word we use for something that we joyfully engage in. Work is often used to represent the opposite. What happens when, instead of teaching our children that hard work pays off with more time for play, we teach them that play is the way to engage with life. We teach them that they have to do some chores, and they have the power to make the chores fun. We join them in the chores because it's a happy way to engage socially. We teach them by example that we are constantly learning. We allow them to see our fascination at whatever we observe happening during the day, we talk to them openly about our wonderings and explorations and the things we've discovered by simply looking up that new word we heard or researching whether we can eat that berry growing in the park. Not only does this demonstrate a healthy way to learn through play, but it turns the job of parenting into joyful engagement... and that's play.

photo by my fabulous brother and teacher, Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, who knows the value of play
"But", says my own father, "at some point you have to stop playing and get to work." As a culture we've convinced ourselves that in order to be of value we have to struggle. I'm going to suggest we throw that away. Just chuck it out. Life has enough inherent struggles, and we're going to learn from every one of them. We don't need to set ourselves (or our children!) up for planned struggling. It doesn't make us more valuable; it just makes us less willing. Nobody went into a parenting or marital or personal crisis on purpose, and yet those crises happen and they make us who we are. They give us the passion we need to pick up and go again - only wiser.

Passion. That's what we need. There's passion in having a fun idea in the middle of the night and getting up to make it happen. There's passion to be found in discovering a new recipe or a new unsolved mystery or a new insect on the wall. There's passion to be had in taking any of the hundreds of experiences of our day and allowing it to inspire us. And that's what some of the best learning looks like: Passionate play.

Maybe it sounds pompous of me to call anything the best learning, but I'm not backing down, there. For decades, now, research has been showing the massive value of play-based learning for people of all ages but especially for children and youth. Some excellent schools have been putting it into practice for a long time, and many businesses are following suit, as companies encourage their employees to both explore their own passions and share their pursuits with the team. In these cases students and employees are encouraged to play; encouraged to explore, and the result is empowered, passionate learners. The result is better teams; better learning; better work.

I live in British Columbia, where the Ministry of Education has rejigged the provincial curriculum to focus on core competencies and other broad ideas that create opportunities for empowered, self-directed, explorative learning. It is taking a while to reach the goals of the new curriculum, but we're on our way. Maybe in twenty years we'll have a whole generation of young adults who have learned through playing all their lives, and go on to build inspired, engaging careers based on curiosity, learning, and enthusiasm. No matter what we're doing, may we always be playing.
...
Some resources for further reading:
http://theconversation.com/play-based-learning-can-set-your-child-up-for-success-at-school-and-beyond-91393
https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/early-learning/teach/earlylearning/play-today-handbook.pdf
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39889523

Monday, April 8, 2019

Unschooling, Defiance and Motivation

"No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them."                ~Assata Shakur

Our family didn't originally discover unschooling because it aligned with our beliefs. We discovered it during a desperate-feeling time when my five-year-old son was so defiant that school seemed an impossibility. He was only interested in pursuing the things he'd thought of himself, and even then would lose interest as soon as somebody tried to push or even encourage him. Many days he flatly refused to leave the house. Unschooling seemed at the time like the only way, and I can say now that he's on the brink of graduation that although it has been extremely difficult, I think it was the best way.

I'm a bossy person, my controlling nature fueled by the fear drilled into me at school that any wrong action could lead to failure, or even death. So I make decisions that feel right to me, and I expect people to see reason and follow my lead. My son has defied me every day of his life, to the extreme frustration and benefit of both of us. So unschooling, which challenges me to allow him complete autonomy, and challenges him to take responsibility for his actions, has been our solution over these past twelve years.

This road has never been without struggle. I watch him every day like a mother owl whose fluffy chick is teetering on the edge of the nest, knowing that if he falls out he'll be prey for the wolves. At every turn I feel like he's making grave miscalculations of safety and feasibility. At every turn I attempt to warn him, coax him, steer him to safety or provide him with advice. All of my efforts are unwanted, and many, I admit with shame, lead to arguments and threats. Worst of all, my controlling behaviour causes my son to lose faith in himself, and then I know I have truly failed him.

I pick up the baton again and again, setting myself back on the unschooling track I chose, and he makes some gains of confidence and autonomy before I fall of the rails again. It has never, ever been easy. But it has been right.

In their 2009 article for the Journal of Educational Psychology, Maarten van Steenkiste et al. revealed that "to foster good quality motivation, teachers and school principals need to create a school and class environment that allows students to satisfy their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness." This is what unschooling does for us. And if we've truly given our children autonomy, they are bound to defy us when we try to control them.

Defiance is necessary for autonomy. A wholly obedient person can never go very far along a path of inspiration before being led astray by somebody else's advice or admonishments. How will our children learn to make safe decisions if they aren't given an open testing ground for experimenting with decision-making? They need the freedom to tell us no when we're interfering with their autonomous motivation. We need the courage to watch them make mistakes.

My son, after all this unschooling, is now considering getting his highschool diploma, and may graduate in a couple of months. This very short timeline has meant a lot of work and stress for him, and a correlational rise in my level of parenting fears. I find myself constantly checking in on him, begging him to stop playing video games, get working on whatever is most urgent for his courses, or just get some exercise and eat a proper meal. He is learning to deflect my concerns with less bitterness than he once did, and I am learning to keep my mouth closed more often. I find cooking him a healthy meal is a better use of my energy than standing in his door lecturing him about time management.

Respecting our children's interests, decisions, and independence means that they don't want to be compliant when we ask them to. It's hard for us as parents, but in the end it gives them the experience and confidence to succeed. Our kids' defiance is an essential part of the desired outcome, whether we like it or not.

It is not lost on me that parents of unschoolers are by default defying the current school system, and it's not likely that many of us have relinquished control to our children without a struggle. After all, our children began life nearly helpless in our arms, but the measure of our success as parents will be when they overthrow us, making their world far better than we imagined. So keep going, brave parents - the terrifying struggle to empower our children is worth it.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Our Kids are Protesting: How Can We Help?

Vancouver Youth Climate Strike, March 15, 2019. Photo by Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC reposted from CBC.
My kids are in the middle.
In the very small wake of Friday's global youth climate strike, I feel we adults need to remind ourselves what it's all about. At 1pm our time, 2000 people - mostly youth - gathered in Vancouver to beg the rest of us to see this climate crisis for what it is. Around the world, organizers estimate about 1 million children participated. Children spoke up about the desperate need to convert to a green economy immediately - to save their own lives. They call it "time to panic". An entire generation of humans sees no future unless we change our ways. Many parents joined to support their children, but in social media, countless members of older generations complained that their own protesting had failed; that government didn't listen; that it's a good thing the children are speaking up because it's their turn to act, now, and maybe people will listen to them.

No. It was never the government that might have listened. Protesting does little to change policy. Protesting is how we reach each other. Protesting is how we let our fellow citizens see that there is a very great injustice and how we demand change. But the change won't come unless we also make the change. Government isn't going to do it for us. Our children are talking to us.

This is the time to support our children's efforts by changing ourselves. We can stop using plastics. We can stop consuming electricity and processed food and oil and gas and clothing and paper and disposable goods of every sort like these things will keep on coming because they won't. They can't. We can't do this. Yes, our whole lives revolve around these - and we can't participate in contemporary societies without them. So we have to change our societies.

We have to give our kids enough time in their schedule to cook their own real food instead of buying them packaged processed foods. We have to set up their lives in such a way that they don't require being driven all over the place simply to participate in their communities. We have to find work that doesn't require us to drive all over the place, as well. We have to find local things to do with the people we love, instead of using school vacations to fly our kids off to exotic places. We have to create family engagement that doesn't rely on electricity or fuel, packaged plastic goods, shopping, and more consumption. We have to, also, stop having children. Not only because our growing population is compounding the problem of consumerism, but because we have condemned our children to a future of devastation instead of abundance.

Consumerism does not equal abundance. 

Abundance is still out there, but it doesn't come from stores and store-bought activities. It doesn't come from elsewhere. We can find it on the beaches in the summer with nothing but a bag of fruits and water jugs, a few swimsuits and towels. We can find it in the forests, where plants and animals live a life of abundance that is ours for sharing and for rejoicing in. We can find it in gatherings of friends and family, where love and laughter, dancing and singing and storytelling have kept us together for many thousands of years. We have to make these things happen. We have to show our children that there is a future in these things. In fact, the only future is in these things.

The government isn't listening to our kids, and they wouldn't make the necessary changes, even if they were. They are listening to the large corporations like Nestle and Chevron and Exxon/Mobil, and all the corporate lobbyists who change government policy to keep us spending money. We can't stop them. But we can stop buying into the lie of consumerism.

It's spring break. Cancel your vacation plans. Have a party. Respond to our children's desperate plea with real action and love. That is the only way all of us are going to survive the next few decades.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Our School in Crisis

My son took this for his media arts class at school.
Twelve and a half years ago my son entered Kindergarten and became resentful of school. He hated not being able to sit with the grade threes who he felt particularly drawn to, and he hated the kitchen because that was where he was supposed to do the alphabet rap, and nobody listened when he said he didn’t want to do it. He didn't even like art, because he wanted to use the materials in a different way than he was told to. And he dictated the words "I do not like it" for his book report, about a book he had never been interested in reading. He only loved lunch time, when he would commune with his grade three friends until I came to get him from his half-day program. So we took him out of school at the end of that year and threw ourselves into the world of unschooling.

Academically, unschooling was exactly what he needed. It enabled him, and later his sister, to self-direct, to listen to their own hearts’ desires and act accordingly. The separation from traditional school programs meant my sensitive kids were protected from the often viciously competitive and degrading social scene of public schools, and they grew up with a real self-respect and respect for others. The ability to follow their own passions meant that by grades three and five they were following online university courses in child development, nutrition, and physics and astronomy. They had a small group of peers, and friends in every school in our community.

Unschooling was growing in popularity. We connected with various homeschool groups on our island and on the mainland, and I even ran a program that offered science and art education through unschooling principles of self-direction and explorative learning. Even the mainstream began to take notice of the simple truth that giving kids room to play with broad overarching ideas and respectfully allowing them to direct their own learning is hugely beneficial. A few years ago, our provincial curriculum was overhauled to focus on core competencies such as critical and creative thinking – a broader view to nurturing humans who will grow to feel competent instead of competitive. It’s beautiful, but too late for my kids who, at twelve and fourteen, had been learning this way all along, while the school system in our province is just beginning its first halting steps towards this way of thinking.

Around this same time, teens in our community became increasingly more swept up in the school system, or moved away entirely, and my kids became very lonely. Academically, unschooling still suited them well, but the isolation became a social disaster. So we tried out some schools, very carefully chosen to most adequately serve our kids’ distinct social and academic needs. But despite many good and well-meaning teachers, the inflexible nature of those schools meant a kind of academic stifling that left my kids disinterested and disempowered.

Enter Windsor House School. Three years ago, when we thought we’d hit the end of the road in terms of finding a community for our children, we discovered Windsor House. This school, one of only a handful of democratic programs in our very large province, has been operating for longer than I’ve been alive, offering a truly open-minded education for those brave enough to give it a try. When we walked in the doors to our first orientation day, we discovered that the bathrooms were all non-gendered. The classrooms and activities were open to all ages. The meetings, such as the judicial council meeting, were chaired by student volunteers of many ages, and attended by students and teachers alike. The entire school operated on the basis of mutual respect. Period. And it worked.

In short, Windsor House is the public school that offers “room to grow, and be yourself”. There are kids of all ages here, from kindergarten to grade twelve, studying and socializing and creating the community they need to grow in, for themselves. My daughter has grown out of her early obsession with writing stories and studying child development, and now is fully immersed in Windsor House’s theatre program, where she has discovered her love of musical theatre. She still writes (musicals, now!) and Windsor House supports her in that, allowing her to use her work towards English credits. My son was allowed to fulfill part of his grade ten science credit by attending an adults’ robotics club and physics lectures at the university, and reporting back to his teacher… while still going to the farm with school just to feed the goats. As a rule, Windsor House listens to students, and follows their lead. That results in a school community that is both empowered and respectful.

As I write this, the students of Windsor House are having an important meeting. Some of them had already planned a meeting for today, where they intended to discuss the distinct culture of the school, and how to keep it strong. But that topic has been put on hold, because yesterday we learned that the district intends to close the school at the end of this year. This is an emergency.

We understand that it was a financial decision made by a cash-strapped school board on the heels of a devastating audit fine. (As an aside, what kind of forward thinking provincial education ministry believes that impoverishing a school district with fines could promote improvement?) We also understand that closing schools is a good way to save money, and surely the least harmful schools to close are the smallest – easy enough for those children to be absorbed into the remaining schools.

But not us. The two hundred students of Windsor House School are here because they’re different. They have worked hard to create a democratic community that will feed their present and their future. They can’t just filter out into regular schools and blend in. These are kids who are used to having their ideas heard and respected. These are kids who, because of this culture of respect, have the integrity to make our entire school system better. Windsor House is an example of the best of schools. It’s a beacon to where we can go as a society when the new curriculum is fully implemented in our province. It’s a haven for parents and educators who have struggled and persevered both inside and outside the system to give students a truly empowering foundation. These people – and the school itself – are one of our province’s greatest resources.

It is my hope and conviction that that group of students meeting today will find the strength required to pull their community out of the ashes and rise. Windsor House has rallied to blows like this before, and we can do it again. It is my hope that the district and the province find a way to support and nurture this wonderful small school so that it can continue to be both an asset to our province as well as a demonstration of successful democratic education. Today also happens to be the global youth climate walk-out. Our children face a kind of global devastation we adults never imagined, and they’re taking it, head-on. In times as turbulent as these, we need all the forward-thinking strength we can muster. Let our children rise.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On Being a Colossal Failure - and Growth

Every great story has a crisis in the middle. Well, maybe many crises, actually: a rising crescendo of trips and falls and failures and flat-out terrifying leaps of insanity that land the protagonist smack in the middle of chaos or terror or hilarity, and then they learn something, and there is a conclusion, and we finish the story wiser than we began it. Hopefully.

Let me tell you one of my stories. This one began in 1993 when, at 17,  I went to the Netherlands, heart full of love and head full of dreams, hoping to become an artist. With the encouragement and guidance of my uncle, I took my portfolio and Canadian grad transcripts into the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in the Hague, the Netherlands, and walked out with a hearty invitation into the second year program. They loved me so much they put me into second year!! Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

My parents dug deeply and funded my great adventure, and I moved to the Hague in September, 1994. I was 18, and had rarely lived outside of the rural island I grew up on, apart from a year in the rural Shuswap, and short trips to the suburbs of Vancouver for family visits. My uncle picked me up from the airport near Amsterdam and brought me to the room he had arranged for me in a small flat in the Hague. Nobody else was home. The room was tiny. About eight by ten feet, with one enormous ten-foot-wide window on the side that faced the street. There were blinds, but the street-lights, the tram-lights, the sounds of trams and cars and scooters and sirens and drunken wee-hour partyers, the many neighbours all sliced upwards through those blinds and reflected off the ceiling to where I lay on the floor, huddled in a blanket on the folding mattress my uncle had given me. I cried so long I couldn't sleep.

At midnight on that first night my first room-mate walked into my room, introduced herself as Margriet, but said I could call her Daisy, if I wanted to, and I could use her dishes until I got my own. I was alarmed, but she became my first friend in that new and terrifying city. The first piece of news I read there described various female body pieces found in a garbage can in the park just a few blocks south of my new home. In the two years I lived there, I never went to that park.

I picked myself up in the morning, shopped with my cousin for essentials, as we were both setting up our new residences in neighbouring cities, and argued lengthily over who would buy the few white and orange cups, and whether each would look better with wine, beer, water, tea, and milk in them. My parents funded this shopping trip.

My tenure in the Netherlands was wonderful and terrible; I made some dear and treasured friends, and connected with my Dutch family in a way I never would have managed had I not lived there. I learned to speak Dutch, to cook and clean for myself, to live on very little income, and to find and create work for myself in a complex city that, at first, was completely foreign to me. I fought off a rapist in the middle of the night and then used my wits to force him to walk me to safety. I became courageous. I became an adult. It was perhaps the most powerful time of my life, and I have my parents' open minds and generosity to thank for it.

Me at the Royal Academy, 1996 - photo by A. van der Vlist
Art school, though? Well, I learned a few things, among them some basic printmaking skills that have stayed with me throughout my career, and the basics of oil painting. But mostly, after one and a half years, I learned about failure.

I majored in drawing and painting, and that department was set up like an open studio, where each student had a personal work area, and we gathered in some common spaces for lectures, lunches, and hashing out our ideas. As a working group it was great, but there was little support from professors. They wandered around and gave critiques irregularly, but basically in third year we were expected to self-direct and develop a practice. At the time I was working on womb-like forest paintings and abstractions of the same. I was working through feelings of homesickness for my forested island home, while living in the most urban environment I could imagine. While I lived in the Netherlands, a news story came out about a homeowner accidentally cutting down the last bit of indigenous forest. It was not the home I knew and longed for, and art is always a form of therapy.

So in early 1996, as I was deeply entrenched in this visual exploration of my heart's home and longing, the professors came around for the quarterly review, and requested that I come to the back room. But why? Don't we need to be in the vicinity of my work? Nope. They had only one pertinent question: Who were my influences?

Well, that was easy enough, I thought. I told them that probably my greatest influences were Georgia O'Keeffe, Emily Carr, and West Coast indigenous art.

They looked at each other knowingly, and flatly explained that while Georgia O'Keeffe is marginally acceptable, Emily Carr is "kitch", and "Indians don't make art". I can't remember anything I said after that - I'm sure it was useless. My mind was numb. They told me that since I was painting landscapes I should learn to paint like real landscape painters. They told me to get a print of a particular city landscape by Camille Corot and replicate it, stroke-for-stroke, until I had learned what a landscape should look like. I tried. I really tried. I laboured for weeks on this painting of two damn monks standing on a pale terrace overlooking a washed-out Italian cityscape. But the glowing ball of fire in my chest that brings me to paint had died. I was an empty shell pushing meaningless lines of paint onto a barren panel, and nobody - not even the professors - came to talk with me anymore. Until they did.

Sometime that spring the professors returned, ominously as a group, again, to give me an ultimatum: My work was going nowhere. They were going to give me a "Fail" for the year. My only alternative was to leave the school early and they would give me an "Incomplete", instead. With a newly blossoming relationship, a desperate homesickness, and a ticket home to Canada waiting to be used, I left. I went home knowing I had let my parents down, wasted their money, and caused them and my whole family irreparable shame. I soon discovered when I tried to continue my studies in Canada that an "Incomplete" is essentially the same as a "Fail", and I was unable to enter a Canadian university until I'd raised my grades by attending college. I was, truly and wholly, a failure.

Obviously, passion is a short-lived endeavour, as living generally requires a more moderate approach, and my passionate self-loathing waned over the years I attended school in Canada, married and learned to keep house, and eventually raised two children. This is the denouement of my story - the slow tumbling resolution to the crisis of my great failure. There was never a moment where I became un-failed or wildly successful. Never any particular redemption, although installing one of my works in Amsterdam last year did feel like a healing salve. The visceral memory of my firm kick out the door of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts gave me a whole lot more self-reflection, upon which to build a fire. I have now returned to my art career with a great but less fragile ball of fire in my chest. If I hadn't failed so colossally and grown to discover the beauty of it, I never would have arrived here. And perhaps I never would have laughed when my son sadly announced to us that he had received 38% on his math test.

My son Taliesin failed his math test. Colossally. So badly, in fact, that the online school he took it with is allowing him to rewrite it. It was nothing like the 15% I vividly remember receiving on a math-test, myself, but he, having held off telling us out of shame, was surprised that we just smiled and laughed about it. I imagine this single test failure to be just one small but positive experience in Taliesin's journey into academia. Go forward with courage, my love. May you live many adventurous stories, and may you overcome much greater failures than this one!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Working Class Heroes: It's Up to Us to End Capitalism


Markus aged 18
First there was the Universe. Then there was Markus. From then on this planet (Earth) was one of the most important things in life (his life). Then he went to SMU. This in and of itself was not very important - but while going there, he noticed many things about life which he did not like. These were mainly small things, such as holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, acid rain and projected populations for Earth. Having decided to change all this, he found that he already had the solution; the only problem was that he would have to become a V.V.I.P. (very, very important person) in the scientific field to implement it - and to know just about everything there is to know about this world. He is planning to start by learning everything about engineering or computers, and continue from there.

That's an excerpt from my partner's grad write-up in his 1988 school yearbook. He tells me he must have just finished reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and adapted his writing-style, accordingly. He also tells me it sounds pompous. My partner is anything but pompous. He's just lost all the confidence he had in highschool; he doesn't think he can save the world, anymore. 

The list of devastating global circumstances facing humanity has played out even faster than we 80's kids could have imagined, and we feel helpless. My partner did go on to study physics and engineering, eventually getting his degree in Computer Science. He now goes to work every day, finds, fixes and creates bugs in software that is used all over the world for resource management. Some of this 'resource management' is towards protecting the ecological welfare of the planet; a lot of it is simply management for destructive capitalist ventures. My partner does whatever he is told to do. Then he comes home exhausted, eats dinner, pets the dog, plays accordion, and goes to sleep, only to get up in the morning and start again. On weekends and vacations he sometimes makes adventures to soothe his tired soul; mostly he works at replacing our old house with less mouldy materials, hoping that at least his efforts will provide shelter for his family. Dreams of saving the world went away a long, long time ago. Shelter and survival in the capitalist world is his current goal.

Does it sound like drudgery? He would say no. Because he's living the dream we were all fed as children, and in fact he's doing better than that: He's raising free-thinking unschooled children in a park-like setting, hoping they'll have the guts and wherewithal to follow their own dreams in a way he never managed to do.

But wait - that's what his parents were doing too! They sent him to the best school they could find, where he learned to fly airplanes, wear a suit, and feel confident that he really could grow up to be a very, very important person in a scientific field and change the world. But he didn't. Why not? 

No Time Instead of It All (Markus aged 49)
Why do all of us hope that our children will grow up to change the world, and not change it ourselves? Somehow we seem to feel that we can trudge into the capitalist system that requires our compliance and still raise kids who will magically end up elsewhere. Why on earth would they? We ask our children to follow their hearts and at the same time we tell them to follow our culture's mandated path to adulthood. We expect them to be different and brave and to change the world and save us from the disaster that capitalism has caused (seriously - if you haven't already, go read that article and watch the video), but we're too afraid to get out of the system, ourselves. They will be, too.

John Lennon wrote in his song Working Class Hero: (full lyrics and song video here)
When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Our kids follow our lead. Unless we break this cycle, our children, like us, will reach adulthood and discover that the only feasible path is the one their parents took, and they will have children themselves, and they will hope that their children will save them. And with every generation the outlook is bleaker, and with every generation we hope the next will save us. 

Capitalism is killing us. Our school system is part of it. Our work ethic and career paths are part of it. Our diet and housing and everything that we consider to be essential is part of it. These things need to change, and we need to change them. Not our children or our children's children. There is no more time for us to live in fear. And there is no point hoping that the few brave souls who unschool their kids or drop out of the system or attend rallies will do the work for us. There will be no new reality until we all jump on board. We are killing ourselves with capitalism and we have to stop, now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Unschooling = Respect = Adults with Integrity

It's January, people are committing to new goals, busy having adventures and navigating their lives, but you wouldn't know it if you read my blog. I don't write a whole lot about my children anymore. Mostly it's because my kids are drifting from mid-teens towards adulthood, and are a little more careful about what they want shared about them. Whether or not I post the articles I write is their choice. It has always been their choice. Because I respect them, and I am counting on that respect to bring them safely into adulthood.

It works like this: respect means listening to my kids with genuine interest; with the understanding that even though I think I know better, I might be wrong. Respect means that what they want matters as much as what I want, and in situations that effect them deeply, it matters more. Respect means to them that I trust them to make decisions, and that means that they are responsible for those decisions. 

Think of it this way: The recipe tells you to turn up the heat under your custard, and it curdles and breaks and your homemade pie filling is ruined. You probably wish you'd found a better recipe, but it's not your fault. Stupid recipe. 

Now what if the recipe said to watch and gauge the temperature carefully, making your own judgements about the speed of heating and the thickness of the custard. It tells you to watch it drip off the back of a spoon and decide for yourself when it's ready. Scary, right? How will you know when thick enough is thick enough? The recipe expects you to use your own judgement! And you might get it wrong. But you'll learn, and eventually you'll be able to make custard without a recipe. And you'll be proud and confident, because you took on the responsibility of learning to make custard and you succeeded. It's your journey, it's your responsibility, and it's your custard. 

Unschooling is the recipe that tells us to follow our instincts. Both parents and kids. We basically cut the kids free from a scripted childhood and help them navigate the scary but empowering world of self-determination. And as parents we cut ourselves free from the parenting script of our particular region and take on the entire responsibility of raising whole, empowered children. And it's terrifying.

From a parenting perspective (especially those of us who were raised in the system we've now eschewed), unschooling is a constant clambering struggle up a crumbling rocky slope. Over and over again we get scared and turn around, afraid to trust that our kids will truly lead the way. We put restrictions on them or we berate them or we tell them they'll never succeed if they don't follow some rules, and then we slip back down the slope and find ourselves groping in the dark, trying to restore the trust we just vanquished in our children.

Trust is huge. We need to trust that our children will heal and persist after the many bad choices they will inevitably make. They need to trust that we will be there with open arms and no judgment to hear their stories and mop up the tears when they fall. And as the Dutch proverb goes, trust arrives on foot and departs on horseback. There is no such thing as repairing the bridge with a swift apology when we make the mistake of disrespecting our children. We've broken their trust, and it's going to take a long long slow journey on foot - days or months or years of small, respectful footsteps - to entice the trust back into our relationships.

So how do we disrespect our kids? We do so in telling them we know better than they do. Sometimes we truly do, and sometimes it's imperative for their own safety that we step in and make decisions for them, or simply pull them off the road as a car approaches. It's our responsibility to know which situations merit that force, and which don't. It's also our responsibility to help them take time to navigate huge responsibilities well, so that they can learn to make decisions carefully.

I stalled my daughter going to school for a few months when she was four, even though all of her best friends from preschool were going. The extra time gave her an opportunity to really consider her choice and she began to see the lack of freedom her school-going friends had. In the end she chose not to go, but we made huge efforts to create opportunities for her and her closest friends to keep close. This is a child who struggles with making decisions, and would very much rather somebody else make choices for her, but as time went by, she did try out some school and other programs, and is learning to make her choices carefully, given her own needs and values. As a fourteen-year-old now, she's quite adept at not only evaluating possible outcomes of her choices, but at accepting and owning the outcomes. She doesn't always want to talk about her experiences, but I try to be an eager and compassionate ear whenever she's willing. 

Respecting kids isn't about wantonly abandoning parental guidance, it's about giving them as much guidance as possible, while ensuring that we're really listening to their needs and allowing them to make their own choices. Hopefully this enables them to gain some confidence and become adults with integrity.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Positive Language of Evolution

Look all over the news today. Or any day during the past many years. You are likely to come away with a sense of dread, if not fear. Sure, there will be some positive stories, but words like 'decline', 'collapse', 'fear', 'threat' and 'extinction' seem to be everywhere. I personally spend a lot of my time in fight or flight mode: fight the devastation of our civilization's demise, or bake cookies and tell myself (and my kids) we're going to be just fine, while inside telling myself I'm a liar. Maybe I'm not.

What if, instead of reminding myself at every turn that we are doomed, I shift the tone towards something more positive? OK, some of you might wonder why this never occurred to me before, and of course it has (hence the cookie-baking), but changing our minds is a slow process, and maybe this is another step on my journey.

I was just listening to CBC's Unreserved, where Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, discussed the words we use to discuss aboriginal languages, and how those words affect the way the language thrives or declines. She mentions words like "dying", "extinction" and "declining", which put negative expectations in our minds, and words like "revival", "reclamation", and "revitalization", which are empowering to speakers of the languages and to the languages' own vitality. This made me think about my last blog post, which I dramatically titled "Living Well in the Apocalypse". I did have second thoughts about that title, thinking maybe that "Post-Consumerist Age" would have been better than "Apocalypse", but I told myself it wasn't as catchy. I think I'm too concerned with catching my readers' attention. Sure, "Apocalypse" will get me lots of Google results, but will it help me achieve my goal? My goal is to see a positive future, despite current global threats.

A threat creates fear, and fear can definitely lead us to take action, but is it the action that we want? Or more specifically, is it the action that will best serve us in the long term? Studies show us that conservatives are fearful, that we can make liberals more conservative by heightening their fear, and that we can make conservatives more liberal by helping them to feel safe. This blows my mind. I suddenly see this in play everywhere. I heard of a girl in our city who was sexually assaulted after getting off her bus, and I immediately went to my daughter's room to warn her and declare tighter restrictions on her freedom. How does this keep her safe? I know in my rational mind that what we need to do is educate, love, and support our children so that they will become neither the victims nor the perpetrators of this sort of crime, but in the face of sudden fear, I acted on the impulses of my amygdala. By the way, the right amygdalas of conservatives are bigger and more active.

If fear is what is keeping us from stopping climate change, from developing a fair and egalitarian society, and generally from saving our species from extinction, shouldn't we let it go? Obviously it's not that easy, but I intend to try my best, and I'm beginning by looking at my successes. Unschooling is one of them. I admit that I leaned towards unschooling my children because my own school experience was so terrible that I wanted to protect them from it. However, within a couple of years, I saw such amazing positive results that I continued unschooling (and blogging and teaching from an unschooling perspective) because I loved it. And it's been wildly successful. My kids, husband and I spend close to zero time bemoaning the school system, and a lot of time looking joyfully at our many opportunities and engaging in them. The result of this is that we have two engaged, confident learners, and have also managed to bring some of this fabulous learning theory into a few schools. And above all, we feel great about it!

If education and child-rearing can be such a joyful innovative adventure, so can the rest of the societal changes we need. Maybe we'll figure out how to properly convert to solar energy. Maybe cutting back on plastics, instead of meaning sacrifice, can mean growing, developing and purchasing amazing new foods and products! Maybe living without big corporations can mean a blossoming of new, locally-developed community resources! This can be beautiful.

So my personal challenge now is to do this for the seemingly insurmountable problems facing our species' future. Wait. Not problems -- opportunities! Language matters. Let's try that again.

I hereby challenge myself to find positive, exciting opportunities for growth! Evolution. I would like for human evolution to be progressive rather than reactionary. I don't want to be cutting out the things I love; to sacrifice joy and abundance out of fear. We have more than enough resources to live very well without decimating our planet and each other. I would like for those I love to feel safe in this societal progress, and for all of us to evolve, finding wonderful new ways to thrive, together. I want to run out into the sunshine of our new and fabulous future.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Evolution of our Advent Calendar

My brother and I received this hand-made Advent calendar as a gift from my Tante Joelle when we were very young. It was filled with tiny gifts and treats, if I remember correctly, each individually wrapped. My mother continued filling it for us every year, and as we got older the gifts leaned progressively more towards candy and eventually to fabulous chocolate delights. One year she included Kirsch-filled chocolate sticks from the wonderful Swiss P in Kamloops, and since the calendar hung rather close to the wood stove, they melted, soaking the paper of my Mum's delicate wrapping work with crystallized Kirsch. We ate them with glee, anyway.

When I became a mother, I delightedly retrieved the advent calendar from my parents' home, and began filling it for my own kids. In an effort to be less wasteful with wrapping paper, I made brightly-coloured bags to hold the tiny gifts, which we have reused every year since. My kids received various little toy collections through this calendar, and as they grew older we followed the trend of giving activities. The challenge, I have found with these, is to come up with quick but rewarding activities that can easily happen within twenty minutes on a week night. And often we don't even have twenty minutes, so there is also an assortment of chocolate treats (and we don't hang the calendar too close to the wood stove, anymore!)

Sometimes I fall prey to my consumerist urges and put little toys or knickknacks in the calendar. One of my favourites was an assortment of Lego people that looked just like our family! But the kids have been recently reminding me that little useless toys are really not their favourite calendar gifts. That Lego family was cute for a couple of days but now it's just plastic in their drawers. My kids tell me that their favourite calendar gift last year was the family painting night, where we spent a couple of hours making teeny tiny acrylic paintings, and then trading them back and forth to change, decorate, and subvert.

But times, they are most definitely a-changing, and as noted in my previous post about living well in an eminently post-consumerist world, we felt it was time for changes with the advent calendar. In addition to a smattering of home-made chocolates and family activities, we have made donations in their names to organizations we think they support. In preparing this, we had to consider carefully which organizations they seem to have shown support for in the past, and how we could present this in an authentic way. So in the end we made four donations - one for every Saturday in the calendar - and a few philanthropic activities for some of the family activity days. Really I feel that in-person giving should just be done in person and from the heart, so none of these activities are personal. They include choosing food from our shelves to bring the food bank, and donating to a local Women's Shelter.

I was a little worried and very curious to see what my kids thought about this change. Thankfully after opening their first donation-note, today, they both declared their approval. Keep in mind they're 14 and 16, so definitely old enough to grasp the concept that they have traded a treat on the advent calendar for their parents' contribution to a cause they care about. I'm not sure they would have appreciated this at a much younger age. Although my eldest tells me he would still rather just make donations, himself, so that is something to consider for next year.

So with a little uncertainty we move into both a more mature phase of parenting and a different way of giving during the holidays. I really don't feel we're making enough progress, yet, but it's something: A way to keep a long-standing family tradition alive while trying to be sensitive to our changing world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Living Well in the Apocalypse

Recently our dinner time conversation was about how we should live, going into the apocalypse: admit defeat and carry on as usual, or fight for our lives. This, apparently, is parenting in 2018. And I believe in having all the hard discussions, because I want to raise thoughtful, well-prepared humans. Our discussion wasn't easy; we didn't all agree, but there seemed to be a current of unity: We don't know what to do. We've never been a family to give up easily, but in this case it's hard to get our heads around how we would survive the enormity of the horrors we see on the horizon.

In the past few years we've seen a sudden increase in climate-related disasters: countless thousands dead from fires, storms, heatwaves and drought. Millions displaced. And it's not just nameless faceless people; it's people we know. We're already accustomed to seeing social media posts of our friends fleeing and documenting disaster. We're already accustomed to living in the smoke and ash of burned lives every summer.

The reality of climate apocalypse has finally begun to hit mainstream news in the form of brazen apocalyptic declarations. Chris Hedges and others are warning of an imminent economic collapse.  The elite of our world (and even my own community) are buying up acreage in remote tropical places and hiring consultants to help them stockpile and guard their wealth in the form of food. Even the middle class is now beginning to stockpile emergency food for the disaster we know is coming (yes there are some great Black Friday deals out there if you fancy a decades-long-diet of freeze-dried foods). But it isn't packaged food or armed bunkers that will save us, people! It's each other.

Apparently the UN says climate genocide is coming. New York Magazine says it's actually worse than that: "To avoid warming of the kind the IPCC now calls catastrophic requires a complete rebuilding of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives." Yes, we're going to have to stop consuming like the credit-fueled fiends that we are.

We sure love to consume stuff. Never mind the usual purchases at online and brick and mortar stores; we've even found ways to consume after the money is gone. We pick up goods marked 'free' from the side of the road; we peruse the collection of working and broken electronics at the recycling depot. We choose foods and other essentials that come with freebies even when we know we'll never use them. When people in my house are bored or momentarily unoccupied, we often stroll through the kitchen for a snack - literally consuming just to fill the void of downtime. Sometimes I check Facebook. Or Instagram and email and phone messages. I turn on the radio. I try to reach for another cup of tea instead of food, but I'm still reaching for a fix. I hate downtime. We have trained ourselves to consume - whether media, food, entertainment, or manufactured goods - just to fix the downtime; to fill the void that might otherwise have been filled with love.

It isn't that we don't have love. In my family we are blessed with plenty of it. But we've become so accustomed to the fast pace of our world - to the constant intake of information and product - that we feel lost as soon as the hubbub lets up. Love is a quiet thing. It takes downtime: space and time and an uncluttered closeness to allow ourselves to be filled by only love. Still, we can.

So I decided to make a change. Downtime. No more TV, I said. No more hooking up the Netflix in our living room in the evening. And we spent our first evening listening to records, together, sitting around our delightfully peaceful living room in the warmth of the fire, reading and drawing and hearing some music we hadn't bothered to listen to in years. For just a few hours, we had our family back. If we want to live well in the apocalypse, we're going to have to re-learn how to love being together, instead of just residing under the same roof.

We're also going to have to learn to live with less. Less food, less convenience, and probably far less purchasing of goods than we think is possible. And it's Christmas time! Black Friday sales have been in full swing for days and it's not even Wednesday yet! Who doesn't love showering our loved ones with gifts (and really - just buying things in general?!) But we can't anymore. And that reality is starting to hit home, even for my kids. We tried going gift-free a few years ago, and while some supported the idea, we also faced some serious anger from friends and family, who, above all else, called us selfish and ungrateful. The gift-free Christmas idea ended up being just within our own household. But here's the thing: We're happy! My children are not feeling deprived; they don't feel unloved. In fact I think they feel empowered! This year they got together to write and illustrate a children's book about giving intangible gifts. My kids' favourite memories are of the adventures we've taken together, and the traditions we hold dear, like particular songs we sing at particular times, the way we set the table for each other's birthdays, and the customary foods we bake for certain holidays. The memories we cherish have everything to do with time spent in loving connection, and that's something that the end of consumerism will only mean more of.

This year our family's gift to each other is a snow adventure with my partner's sister and her family! We're going to spend a weekend playing together, cooking up good local foods, playing in the snow, and enjoying each other's company in the winter nights. So all three cousins in this little family will share this beautiful gift, making space in our traditions and in our hearts for the "battery of cultural changes" that now seem imminent. This Christmas can be a last kick at the consumerism can, or it can be a great platter of opportunity for new ways of giving. We don't intend to go into this darkness kicking and screaming, nor even with a cache of survival foods. We're going in with a burning light of hope and love: family who sees that being together is the only gift we need.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration

 


When I was in high school there was a poster on the door of my art classroom that displayed the then-ubiquitous 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmatic) along with a 4th: aRt. I think Mrs Sunday never knew how much that poster influenced my life. In grade twelve I spent nearly every lunch hour in the corner of the art room, using up her acrylic supply for finger-painting, and paint-squirting. To her enormous credit, she let me do it. I still do it, and I encourage everyone to do it - to get as messy and unexpectedly creative as possible with whatever supplies they're given.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about explorative wilderness play, but am often asked about "real" art supplies, and what kinds of simple art projects are good for various situations, and I feel like it's time I give a nice solid answer to that.

First, let me be clear: The best way to learn art is by exploration. Art is also a wonderful explorative activity for learning everything else. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2012) states the following:
"The benefits of play are recognized by the scientific community. There is now evidence that neural pathways in children’s brains are influenced and advanced in their development through exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression that occur during play.

"Research also demonstrates that play-based learning leads to greater social, emotional, and academic success. Based on such evidence, ministers of education endorse a sustainable pedagogy for the future that does not separate play from learning but brings them together to promote creativity in future generations. In fact, play is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."
So all those wonderful prescriptive art projects where you know the outcome before you begin, and the process of creation means following instructions? Those awesome craft kits that come with the pictures of what it will look like when you're done? They're junk. Throw them away. Or at the very least, get rid of the packaging and present the included materials with no expectations or directions and let the kids do whatever they want with them. Yes little ones might eat the crayons. So make sure they're non-toxic. Older kids might also melt them to make candles or wax prints or just to see how cool the melted colours are when pouring them around. Awesome! All of these things are actually done by professional artists all the time, so it's not even a stretch of the imagination to see their value. In fact, a stretch of the imagination is exactly where the value is to be found - because that is where the learning is. When I apply for an art grant for my own artistic practice, it always includes funding for "research"... which in the art world means experimentation and playing with material, form, and method.

It's important to think about how the presentation of the materials influences the way we use them. My father used to own a toy store, and supplied the Waldorf school in North Vancouver with the wonderful beeswax block crayons they use. He always had a lot of blacks left over, because they don't use those in their program. How does a child's thought-process change if they are never presented with the option to colour with black? We can't know for sure, but I am positive there are some interesting associations, there. I give me children all the colours. But do I always present them in rainbow-gradient? No. And amazingly, the kids end up sorting them themselves, into a myriad of different patterns, either because the sorting itself is fun, or because it's useful for whatever they're doing with the crayons. This, too, is an important part of their learning. It's how they familiarize themselves with the materials they're using, and with the colours they're working with.

Now for some material suggestions. I'm going to go most often with the cheapest alternatives, because we live in a disastrously consumerist society, and none of us needs to be buying new materials when they're not essential. Even on a tight budget you can get a load of materials at huge stores, but you don't need to. Going with unexpected chance finds from the local thrift shop, recycling depot, or other people's refuse not only saves money but also opens all sorts of new avenues for experimentation and problem-solving that will teach your kids more than a pristine new package from a store will.

Art-making space: Whatever your circumstances, just make sure you provide a large area where mess-making is acceptable and clean-up is easy. A large table is great but if you don't have one, or don't have suitable chairs, a corner of washable floor can be great too. Outside, a sheet of plywood on the ground suffices. I've done this often. Cover the space with a heavy paper that can be used for mess-making, drawing, or notes, and replaced when necessary. You can also cover it with a heavy plastic table-cloth, but glues and acrylics will eventually make the plastic lumpy, so I still recommend the paper-cover on top to make cleanup easier. 

But... don't keep art confined to this space. Take it to the kitchen. Bake cookies and cakes and decorate those; fill the sink with water and drip paints in or use the surface for oil-resist prints. Take art outside. Do tie-dyeing or papier mache there. Paint the lawn; paint your car or bicycle or front door. My uncle once gave his young children house paints and had them hand- and foot-print the front entry room. Decades later, their beautiful creative creation is still the welcome that guests first receive. Make everywhere art space.

An Easel: Not only does it give a new perspective to have your workspace upright, but dripping paint is wonderful, and should be encouraged. However, you don't have to go get an expensive easel. A stable propped board will do, as will an old sandwich board on a table. The best accessory for your easel, though, is a pair (or more) of large bulldog clips to hold paper in place.


Storage: If you want to have a beautiful art corner, you still can, even if it's not colour-coordinated or tidy. A bunch of large bins and a very few smaller ones will do well, or similarly a chest of drawers. We do have a great art-storage carousel that has been in use in our house for many years, holding an assortment of whatever the currently-most-used supplies are. This makes a greater number of supplies more easily accessible to various people seated at a table, and a handy place to put them away quickly. But it's not essential. A bunch of materials rolling around the table can actually inspire new ideas.

Some kind of drying rack is a great idea. We never had space for one, but the end of our dining room table was usually used for drying. Still, if you have space, old oven racks or baking racks can be a great thing to have in your art area. A permanent set of wire-rack shelves is amazing.

Paper: It really doesn't matter what you have - just have some. Preferably lots. We commonly have whatever papers people have passed on to us, including old letterheads, those old perforated printer-papers, construction and manila papers, some old used sketchbooks that people threw away with 80% of their pages still unused, and various types of white and coloured printer papers. I also supply my kids with the seemingly endless supply of graph-paper which they love. No papers have specific intentions. It's OK with me if fancy sketchbook papers get used for note-taking or construction or torn-up little shreds of I-don't-know-what, or even crumpling into balls and called 'cat toys'. Getting the paper second-hand helps me let go of my own hang-ups about 'intended use' and 'value', which gives the kids a broader explorative environment, and greater learning opportunities.

Cardboard: You could go all out and have some gigantic boxes for construction experimentation (my kids have built cars, rocket-ships, stores and villages, and most recently, as teens, a vending machine which they took into public for entertainment). But at the very least you should have some old boxes or scraps around in case construction starts happening. I hope it does!

Cutting Devices: Good scissors, appropriately sized for the people using them. An exacto knife. Obviously not for young ones, but you might have one handy to help out with big cuts. And a serrated bread knife! This has been very helpful to us for cutting cardboard, especially. Also never underestimate the usefulness of a good hole-pucher, and things like skewers for poking holes in cardboard.

String, ribbon, and other tying materials: Especially for constructing with cardboard, but also comes in handy for making books and all manner of other things. You never know when this will be just the thing you need in the moment!


If you're going to get a stapler, get a fabulous one like this that can reach into very big projects. 
And take a look at this Stockmar box from my childhood. The box has been replenished piece by piece over the years, and the crayons have been chewed and used by multiple generations.

Mark-Making: It's important not to narrow our kids' ideas of what constitutes a proper mark. So much is lost to a narrow mind! So provide lots of different options, and let the kids mix them up. You might want to keep some expensive felt-pens out of the acrylics, just to keep them in working condition, but experimental mixing of media in general is a highly educational activity, so do it! You don't need all of these but at least have many.
  • chisel-tipped pens - for older kids sharpies are awesome.
  • a great assortment of colourful felt-pens. Those cute stubby pens are a huge waste of plastic, though, since they run out frustratingly quickly and have to be thrown away. Tip: Store felt and ink pens tip-down, which means they last longer before drying out.
  • pencil crayons (as they are worn down they make many different types of marks)
  • wax crayons. Lots - and be prepared to see them very, very broken.
  • those Stockmar beeswax block crayons I mentioned earlier.
  • paint pucks that fit into a plastic tray - when you don't have time to get out the bottled paints, or just for watery experimentation, these are a wonderful thing to have available.
  • bottles of tempera or acrylic paints that you can squirt out small amounts of for open-ended free painting (tempera is great for younger kids who might ingest it, but acrylic is great for the ability to paint on many surfaces).
  • brushes! The best in my experience are natural stiff-bristle brushes, flat or chisel-shaped, because they give more opportunity for a variety of marks than round ones do, but others can be fun too.
  • pencils, erasers, and fine black markers. 
  • something smudgy like chalk or oil pastels. Sidewalk chalk can be used inside and chalkboard chalk can be used outside.
Glue sticks: Glue gets two sections because you need both. We always have a few glue sticks around, as they're the best way to stick papers together without soaking or wrinkling them. I recommend acid-free strong-hold glue-sticks. Don't bother with those silly school-glue types. They often don't hold.

White glue: While basic white glue will work for many applications, such as stiffening fabrics, gluing together cardboards, fabrics and layers of paper, we keep a bottle of Weldbond universal adhesive around because it glues almost everything! That's a great advantage when you're mixing up sometimes unexpected materials.


Fabric scraps and found materials: Without getting into the wonderful worlds of sewing and yarn arts, fabric itself is indispensable as an explorative material. With a bin of such materials for free creativity and exploration, you can create costumes, forts, decorations for those cardboard constructions, head-dresses, jewelry, dolls, doll-clothes, and really an endless list of delights. Have a bin of scrap fabric! And to this add found materials like plastic, corks, sticks, wires, etc. You never know what random things will be fabulous. Discarded CD's and cutlery for example. You just never know.

Something to squish and build with: A great block of clay and a big clay board to work on is awesome. That would be my favourite, although to be honest I didn't often have it on hand for my kids. We mostly used natural clay from the creek outside, and mud. Of course there are plenty of polymer clays available and while they're fun for building with, I don't personally like the environmental burden they bear (wanton use of plastics that end up in the garbage). I'm not really suggesting slime, either, because while slime-making and playing is a fine explorative activity, and fun, I think we get so much more mileage out of materials that stay put when shaped. A biodegradable glue mixed with sawdust or ground/shredded newspaper, by the way, is a pretty cool modelling material. So is salt dough, and gingerbread, if you want to eat your creation. One brand name product my kids did love and use for a long time was Stockmar modelling beeswax (no I'm not paid by Stockmar; they just make a few really fabulous products!).

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So you see, the main thing is to have a fabulously free space and some stuff to play with there. Get messy. Play with the kids (or teens or adults!). They will learn a huge amount from watching what you do, so make sure you're exploring and have no idea what your outcome will be. This will help them learn to do the same, and together you'll make wonderful discoveries.