Monday, July 28, 2014

Graceful Parenting... in birds

This summer a pair of robins lost their first brood and began a second family in the wisteria above our porch. We were lucky to witness the process from nest-building to egg-sitting to tending chicks to fledging, and we captured some of their family life on film. Enjoy!

(Definitely set aside 10 minutes to watch the whole thing and full-screen this!)

Robins by Emily van Lidth de Jeude on Vimeo.

Obviously, this is so beautiful, from a parent's perspective. To see how we dedicate ourselves so thoroughly, giving up other pursuits, and giving everything we have... and suddenly our babies are grown and leaving the nest. How quickly it goes! This makes it easier for me to treasure the time I have.

...and to appreciate the evolution of opposable thumbs and non-oral waste-disposal methods. ;-)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Wild Clay

Scrape scrape scrape... clay comes off smooth and silky from the creek-bed.

Ta da! Lizard by Taliesin. This can't be fired. The clay would need to be carefully sieved first for that, and even then it would be iffy. But the hands-on process of harvesting, creating, drying, observing, and slowly allowing the creation to return to earth is hugely rewarding.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Reconciliation in the Forest Court

Theatre Sports at the Forest Village Theatre
This week at the Wild Art program we've been creating a village in the forest. As with all activities at Wild Art, there is only one rule: Be mindful of your activities' impact. In other words, do whatever you want as long as you're not hurting anyone or anything. All of the 10 kids involved came this week with the intention of creating a forest village, so there was an intense enthusiasm right from the beginning. Over the course of the week, the very entrepreneurial 9-12-year-olds sustainably harvested food and resources, and created and sold, gifted or traded each other all manner of useful and decorative items and services. Items varied from creek-harvested clay sculptures to fern-woven clothing and jewelry, to furniture, natural art supplies and instruments, wild food and temporary pets. Services included pet-sitting, massage, wilderness tours, face-painting, dramatic productions, workshops, library and museum, front desk managing, and an art studio. There was also a jail, when a very inspiring "oubliette" was found in an old nurse-stump, but when the cops failed to incite crime, they also failed to find anybody to arrest, and soon the jail became a climbing-in-and-out challenge, instead. And then a compost.

Terms of trade were often determined at the point of sale, and when currency was used, it was usually rocks (rare and valuable), Y-shaped sticks (moderately easy to find), or fern leaves (plentiful). Few ideas were mine. The children brought what they know of the world and created their own in sharing that knowledge. It is always beautiful to see how easily a sustainable empathetic world develops when children are left to be creative in the wilderness.

Musical Instrument shop with customers
As an adult, I am present mostly to participate, as a fully engaged member of the group, doing whatever I love to do (because of this). I am also permanently the doctor-on-call. But of course I am also present, as all participants are, to offer my advice and compassion when issues arise.

This week, when a fairly major emotional issue arose, all of my advice and compassion for the individual parties could not bring them closer together. The girl I will call the first girl made a gorgeous fern-and-moss mat, and sold it to the second girl for three extremely difficult-to-find mushrooms. The next day, the first girl wanted the mat back, but the second girl said it was an essential part of her spa, and she couldn't return it. The first girl begged. Well, did she have the mushrooms to trade back? No. They were gone. The second girl suggested the first teach her how to make a mat so they could both have one. The first refused. It was her special technology. The second girl left to harvest licorice root and the first girl sat distraught behind a tree. They were both pretty much entrenched.

So I opened a court of reconciliation. There was no judge - only me to mediate, and I called a reconciliation meeting. Upon hearing my serious summons, the two girls arrived and sat facing each other in the newly named "Library Court House". The rest of the group gathered behind the court house, and sat with rapt attention. I did nothing but ask the girls to share their feelings with each other. Within 5 minutes they had both expressed themselves, tears were shed, and then they sat in tense silence, thinking. It was difficult for me not to jump in with suggestions, but I bit my tongue and waited.

Then the second girl breathed deeply and stretched her shoulders. "O.K. How about this: You can have your mat back at the end of today. For free. Just take it."

The first girl raised her head in moderate shock. She sat silent for a moment.

The second repeated, "I said you can have it. Is that O.K. then?"

The first looked the second in the eyes, softened her own, and weakly said "thank you". Then she raised her arm above her head and declared to the group at large, "I'm running a mat-making workshop in five minutes! So if you want to take it you should collect ferns now! The workshop is free!" And the onlookers dispersed. The two girls hugged, and a wonderful workshop ensued. Everyone left richer.

The mat-making workshop!

I left richer. I have been thinking about this beautiful event for days, now, especially how it relates to our "real world" issues. When I called these kids together for the reconciliation meeting I said "You know... this forest village is similar to the real world..." and one of the other kids shouted "It IS the real world!"

In our children is the hope for our future. We need to retrieve and retain the things we knew as children.

What Our Kids See

During most of the school year, I lead a weekly family wilderness outing in my community. Parents arrive with their children from newborns to teens, all clad in rain gear and rubber boots, and we slog around together through the creeks and ferns, bluffs, forests and swamps. And we all leave exhausted and wet and muddy, most of the time. It's wonderful.

What is especially beautiful for me to see is the engagement of the parents. I don't go to lead the children with parents in tow, I go to spend time with other parents exploring the wilderness, and our kids come too. Our kids watch us discover birds' nests and wild foods, signs of logging, animal activities, geologic change and weather. They see us engage in conversation and questioning about the things we see and the world we live in. Those of us who do bring cell phones are so engaged in what we're discovering that we don't have time (or clean hands) to use them. The children see their mothers crawling over muddy rotten logs and cradling millipedes in our hands.

Our children see us.

That is the point.

And when they grow up they will carry intrinsic memories of what being adults looks like.

I love what we're looking like!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Growing Up

Star, the last of Tali's pet rats, had a tumor on his lower spine and finally lost function of his back end, last week. Here he is spending some quiet time with Tali. He was unable to walk, but Tali was faced with what I think was the most difficult decision of his life: Wait for Star to die, bring him to the vet to be euthanized, or euthanize his own beloved pet, himself.

After thinking about it overnight, Tali decided without any prompting that it would be kindest for his rat if he did the job himself. He did, with a little help and moral support from the rest of us, and he and Rhiannon arranged and carried out a beautiful burial, as well, beside the grave of Star's brother, Mercury.

This experience was, to me, one of watching my son mature hour by hour. The courage and strength he showed amazed me. At one point after he made his decision I asked him if he was sure he could carry through with it - I remembered times he had been too upset to help when other people had been hurt. He said "no, I'm not like that anymore".  Sometimes our children change so subtly but so deeply right under our noses.

I wondered how he would deal with his feelings, but didn't want to push him on the issue, so left him alone. He got out the laptop and posted about it all to his blog:    

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

cherry pit spitting contest

Tallying worldwide results of the family kersenpitspuugwedstrijd:
Emily, Nana and children: between 15 and 18 feet (4.5 - 5.5m)
Opa: 22 feet (6.7m)
Markus and Adrian: 23 feet (7m)
Jeroen: 26 feet (8m)

...more incoming eventually.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Beauty Is...

With thanks to my Auntie, who made this beautiful sign, I thought it was time for some loveliness in this space, so I'm taking her example and just plunking some down here. This is some of the beauty that has come around so far this summer. With love to all the beautiful people who make this life so fine.

Our Imperfect Life

Recently I seem to be posting without enough care to express that the challenges I talk about are in fact my own challenges. Most disconcertingly, I meet people who tell me that they like to read my blog and would love to be able to unschool their kids, but they aren't confident enough to do it, or their kids aren't smart or motivated enough, or they themselves aren't smart or motivated enough. Obviously this is because I am not humble enough in my postings. I've constructed some strange world where my family seems to have no problems. People ask me for advice. I can give opinions, but I can't give advice. Because I'm just an opinionated person and not in any way qualified to advise.

So, here it is. The bare bones. The truth about my completely imperfect life. Pretty much everything on this blog is in some way something I struggle with: I have bought colouring books for my kids. I have told them many times why I disagree with these things, but I have caved in to my daughter's desire on more than one occasion, and I've also printed colouring pages for them and their friends without even blinking an eye. I not only buy myself lattes at Blenz but also get homogenized steamed milk for my kids there, despite knowing that homogenization makes the fat particles small enough to pass into their bloodstreams. I never buy homogenized milk for the house! But in town - oh yeah, there went my principles and intentions. I am no less a member of the overfed middle class than the rest of the people in Blenz. I make myself feel better because it's not Starbucks. And then I throw my paper cup in the garbage because I don't want to carry a wet paper cup home to recycle.

Truly, I do have good intentions! I usually make my own drink in a thermos and bring it with me; I usually bring metal containers with food, or when I'm too disorganized to do that, bring them empty to fill at expensive buffets. Except when I forget, which... is most of the time.

My kids? They're so awesome. Totally brilliant. Always doing something productive and intelligent and socially conscious. Except when they're sitting on the couch for day three of the house getting filthier and filthier (because I am the world's worst housekeeper) reading the same obnoxious comic book and eating junk food. They barely lift their heads when I call them for meals and sometimes I don't bother to cook. They don't go play with their friends because their friends go to school and apparently they've been dropped off the invitee list for field-trips this year, so they lost connection with most of their friends. Sometimes unschooling sucks.

And then there's the parental relationship. To say we've had a rocky past few years would be putting it mildly. My kids have listened to far more fighting and crying from us than they've managed to create for themselves. Do I feel guilty? Yes. Ashamed? Yes. But this is our life. And I also am glad we're working out our issues, because our relationship is now in far better shape than it was four years ago. I have to tell myself that at least the kids are witnessing how to save a dying relationship because that would be better than having hidden it. We couldn't have hidden it. There was too much.

But these are the realities of life. We all have our challenges and yes - unschooling probably brings many issues to the fore that wouldn't have been so difficult in another context or situation. But this is the life we chose, and I really feel that this is currently - for us - the most authentic way to live. Authenticity is important to me. That's why I'm writing this post.

I blog about the things that come to mind or, in a few cases such as the recent 10 Essential Educational Toys post, because somebody requested something. A blog is an opinion log. In everything I write here, if I am expressing opinions about products or activities, or the way the world is or I think it should be, these are my opinions. They are in no way judgements about people who read my blog, but are usually thoughts about my own activities; my own challenges.

I am not a perfect person; my family sure doesn't have a perfect life. But I try to make the most of what I have in whatever ways I find, and I try to present positive solutions on my blog, because I'm trying very hard to find those positives, myself. This blog is an expression of my hopes and dreams. We're all just trying to find those, all in our own ways.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

hazards of free-range kids

Clothespins. Looking pretty scarce at the moment. A pain for a person who doesn't have a dryer. Where are they?

Oh there they are! Put to good use by the kids.

A month ago.

Yes. A month without enough clothespins to hang my laundry well. A month with squeezing past this sheet-jungle to get to my daughter's bed at night. A month of wondering if there are any foods molding away in there, since it's too cramped for an adult to gain access to.

Well maybe that's the point. They love it. This sheet-and-blanket-fort has brought my kids together in a way that they had been slightly lacking, lately. It's given them a space of their own where I not only can't get in, but can't even see (further than this little section) to witness the messes. They have 4-person play extravaganzas in this space (how do they all fit?!) and emerge joyful and inspired. O.K. It's worth the use of my clothespins. For however long they need them.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


There was some upheaval in my community recently around the use of the word 'sexy' in a phrase that was intended to deeply compliment women for their efforts and achievements. At first I couldn't understand why people were offended, but after an apology was issued, and various men joined the conversation to reassure, I began to think about it more deeply. Why is the word 'sexy' so offensive? Should I be offended?

Oh yeah. There was that...

Eleven-something PM, 1998. Summer. I was out in a small uptown bar with my husband and brother. My husband sat swallowing beers while I danced. My brother flitted about between the dancers and the bar as his ever-so-sociable self is wont to do. And a very tall guy smiled at me. "Hey sexy", he crooned. And I hoped my husband would see the advances that still came to me, despite our marriage, and possibly because he was happier behind the bar than dancing with me. But I looked away from the guy, because actually his breath stank and I'd been in similar situations often enough to know you don't look somebody like that in the eye and give them reason to believe they can have their way with you.

I kept dancing. The guy came back around in front of me, and moved in close. I turned. He put his arm across my shoulders and I could see and smell the sweat on his shirt, my face just inches from his chest. I ducked out from under his arm to realize he had me cornered and was working me between the other dancers toward the wall. And then my brother stepped in, put his arm between us, and danced me out of that situation with a smile on his face. For the umpteenth time, I came out OK, my fate determined entirely by the men in my presence. It isn't always that way, of course. Sometimes I've beat off my attacker with my own fists or wit. But objectification? Yeah... it's pretty much always that way.

These situations happen because the way we are objectified is so intrinsic to our every day activities and thought processes (yes - women's too), that we don't even see it. And actually, whether I notice it or whether it's intended or not, when someone calls me sexy that person is implying that I am defined, at least in part, by my ability to satisfy his sexual desires, whether visually or physically.

And neither one of us notices it's happening. But the damage is done.

Joy Goh-Mah says in her Huffpost Lifestyle article,
It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as "somebody's wife, somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, or somebody's sister," it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also "somebody".

Of course, the damage goes so much further when men blind themselves to it, whether out of shame, laziness or sheer stupidity: Why Objectifying Women Isn't Your Fault

So today, for your viewing pleasure, I have the two best things that passed my way in the past few days. You'll notice that both of these are presented by men. Why? Because men have not only the perceived authority to save us on the dance-floor, but also to be heard. And this gives them the confidence to speak. Whether you're a woman or a man, no matter what your age, race, gender, sexual orientation or political stance, these two videos pertain to you. Something to think about.

Sexy isn't offensive because I can't take a compliment, or because I am too old, or too prudish. Sexy isn't offensive because the word has been corrupted by feminism or even by harassment or abuse. Sexy is offensive because it reminds me that I am, first-and-foremost, a sexual object--whether that's intentional or not. So next time you're crafting a compliment directed specifically at a woman or a group of women, ask yourself: can I say the same thing in good faith to a man or a group of men? If the answer is no, ask yourself why. And when you are called out for your mistake, read this article before responding. As Jamie Utt says,
I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent. At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact? After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?

You-- I-- We are not bad people. Few people actually intend harm. But I think we can grow so much from having this conversation with ourselves and out in the open.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

5 Steps to Save the Humans

So today in our province, the big news was as expected: Our Feds approved the Northern Gateway Pipeline that threatens to destroy a large tract of northern BC wilderness as well as potentially (and the potential for oils spills in the crazy fjords they'll be tanking through is high) our entire coast, and with it, our lives and futures. The political, social, and ecological fallout from this threat might overwhelm us. But it's justified because jobs. Because money. Because paying back whatever we owe to China. Because our faces are too stuffed into our latte cups to see that there are no jobs on a dead landscape.

The little sound I live in is just now beginning to show the first signs of recovery from the industrial devastation it endured half a century ago... there's a long way to go until full recovery, but before that's possible, our provincial government has a few more plans (thank you Chris): LNG plant, waste incinerator, gravel pit, and massive logging of the biggest island in the heart of the sound (as if they hadn't already decimated the perimeter of the sound). What is now a sparkling green sea will become Vancouver's filthy little industrial wasteland.

This is our home. This water, the sealife, the land- and air-life, the plants, the rain and the fog among the varied bluffs and lakes and forests are the body of earth where my children (and we) have grown up. This is the land and sea that feeds our bodies and hearts and minds, and we are devastated. Our children are scared, and we are fanning that fear with our teachings and our own cautions about climate change and other ecological issues. In schools kids learn about problems associated with fossil fuels and then they come home in big buses with the plastic wrapping of their lunches and truly - what are they supposed to do about it all? Are we saddling them with this because we don't know how to stop it ourselves, so we hope they'll grow up to save us?

At the rate things are going we can't wait for our kids to save us. They'll be barely into their adulthood when the shit hits the fan, and then it's rather too late, isn't it? Or maybe the shit's hitting the fan right now and only our kids have eyes open wide enough to see it and let it permeate their nightmares. As if the news today didn't reach them. Today, their government approved the pipeline. Only the children, with their darling enviable innocence, were truly surprised and horrified by the news.

Shit. Hitting fans. It isn't one big afternoon event. Shit's not like that. It hits the fan and then sprays out, hitting us all with little sticky pieces that seem to stink even after we thought we'd wiped them off, and apparently we don't notice what's happening until it's too late. The shit hit the fan a long time ago, and we've had enough signs, now, that it's obvious: too late is beginning to slap us in the face.

We don't need to stand up to save our children. We need to stand up to save ourselves and stop waiting for our children to do it. We need to be the first generation to actually turn the fan off. And it isn't about saving nature, or the world. It's about saving the humans. It is about saving ourselves.

This is going to say "5 Steps...", and I choose the word steps very carefully, as opposed to "5 Ways..." or "5 Things You Can Do...", because these are not independent items. You cannot choose one and be done with it. We need to do all of these things. Now. Yes I'm aware that it's overwhelming, and that if each of us just stopped driving one day per week it would make a huge difference... but it wouldn't be enough. We are not going to make what in actuality needs to be a massive culture shift by simply minimizing our driving, or consuming fewer disposable containers. Every single one of us needs to do ALL of these things. In my notoriously unhumble opinion.

5 Steps To Save the Humans

Be engaged. The news sources, entertainment, and companions you choose greatly effect your understanding and engagement level. Just a couple of weeks ago our Canadian federal government mandated that meteorologists may no longer mention climate change on air. Is that the media you want to rely on? Look around, look outside of your normal scope, and get more of the things that you feel are good.

Unschool your children and yourselves. School curriculum is heavily influenced by the same corporate-controlled governments that are controlling the mainstream media. So are your extra-curricular resources: You can find branding in everything from your child's food to his clothing to his dreams. (Remember Scholastic's InSchool Marketing program?) Yes, you can counteract this by supplementing at home, but when we send our children into that environment for 30h+/week, our remedial impact is going to be minimal. Being free to learn in our own ways; to get engaged with the topics that inspire us and to follow our passions - those are the things that give us the power to make the changes we want to see. There is no point in worrying about PLO's and certificates. If things continue the way they are, there will be no future for our children to be learned and wealthy in, anyway. So let them - and let us - be learned and wealthy on our own terms. Yes, wealthy. Which brings me to #3...

Stop supporting enormous corporate interests such as oil, and the food/agriculture conglomerates. America is an oligarchy. Or a corporatocracy. And Canada is no different, as our federal government reminded us, today. In order to stop both the environmental and financial devastation caused by this situation we need to divest. To stop supporting this. That is, to give up plastics, fossil fuel, fossil-fuel-utilizing services and products, and oil industry investment. This sounds pretty bleak and impossible, but it doesn't have to be. We CAN find better, more sustainable, more local services and goods. These options are available to us, and in getting to know our communities and our neighbours we build our own support networks, as well. The wealth found in a supportive community; in the extreme pleasure of homegrown foods and local entertainment; in authentic relationships with each other and our ecosystems is enormous. In fact many of us are already doing these things, but I'm suggesting we need to go more quickly.

Be satisfied. My husband and I never go on "vacations". We've never been to tropical paradises, and unfortunately never get out for more than an evening or quick over-nighter without the kids. So we booked one: 3 days in an insanely expensive B&B in Victoria (because we were going there anyway; it was a good excuse, we thought)... and I came down with the worst pneumonia I've ever had. The vacation was not to be, and we came home feeling disappointed to have wasted all the money we'd actually saved to fix up our house this summer on a couple of days of shaking blinding fever and inedible food at an exceedingly crappy B&B. The next week, when my fever broke, I wavered out through my neglected and dirty house to the sunshine, where my family served me a bowl of rice and homegrown veggies on the porch. I could smell the May flowers. I could hear my children talking and chewing. I leaned my head on my husband's shoulder and felt blissful. Still deeply sick, but blissful. The kind of blissful that doesn't come from money spent on restaurants and accommodation but from a choice made to be satisfied with the good things we already have.

Until we, as a culture of humans, can learn to be satisfied with less, we will remain on this dangerous upward curve of consumption until it kills us.

Move from growth to sustainability. When we learn to be satisfied with what he have instead of always needing growth and expansion, we can find peace. Yes, this means living with less; even having fewer children. We have already so over-populated the earth that we are suffering the consequences. If we each replicate ourselves - 2 children per couple - and we take responsibility for that limit ourselves (not depending on our state to limit us, as has proved so disastrous elsewhere), then we will not only live in a more stable world, but will have the good feeling of knowing we created it, ourselves. We need to move away from a growth paradigm and towards a paradigm of joy.

My daughter elaborates a little on this, on her blog, the Economy of Joy. And that brings me back to my point: Our children are already doing everything they can. We need to step up and save ourselves both as role models for our children, and because the shit has already hit the fan.


(In case all those news-article links in the body weren't enough...)
Pipelines in Canada: CBC Article
Please sign this call for referendum: Let BC Vote


Saturday, June 14, 2014

10 Essential Educational Toys

The title "Toys" is a bit misleading, because although I will give some product recommendations, this post is more about making good choices and providing a rich environment for open-ended play and experimentation - for learning. With a handy 10-point list. I thought about calling this Toys for Boys, just to attract the attention of all those parents who, like me, find it difficult to satisfy their technologically-minded sons' desires without resorting to the kinds of products I'll list on the "uninspiring" list. But my daughter loves these things too, and I don't like gender stereotypes, so I'm not caving in to that. Then there was

Great Science Toys

What on earth is science? How stuff works: Life and everything else in the universe. Great Toys for Learning Everything?

Why do we need toys for learning, anyway? Well obviously we don't. But you know... we in the overfed and undernourished middle class... we like to buy stuff. So here it is:

If You Must Buy Stuff for Your Kids, Buy This Stuff

Ha ha ha.

If you read this blog you already know why we're unschooling: Because we believe wholeheartedly that learning comes not from prescribed activities and curriculae well-presented... but from exploration.

My kids have had access to various products throughout their lives, but mostly they've had access to freedom. Right now, nearly 10PM, they're both sitting in the living room with their father having a great chaotic accordion ruckus. Two accordions and a concertina: Nobody skilled at using them; everybody experimenting. It sounds wonky and ridiculous and there are moments of pure joyful discovery and harmony. This is our life. We've never sent them to grade-school, never followed a curriculum, never pushed pre-determined lessons on them nor demanded that they achieve the "prescribed learning outcomes" (PLO's) that we have to sign off on for their report cards. But you know? They do achieve those, without us really knowing how it happened. In fact, as I read over the PLO's and other information before I send in the requisite reports to our school district, omitting the fact that we don't actually follow any guidelines at all, I see that my kids magically over the past 7 years of unschooling have achieved everything the school district expected of them, and also most things for the few years ahead of their grade levels. Yes - my kids are brilliant - just like yours. All of us have the ability to achieve some kind of greatness when we follow our hearts and passions, and generally, as long as we're not limited, we're going to pick up the socially-expected skills and knowledge along the way.

So, back to the topic of this blog-post: There are toys and activities that limit exploration, and there are some that encourage it. I can't be the expert on this, and I don't want to pretend I am, so I asked my kids. What kinds of products are useful to you for explorative learning and play? Here are their responses, with some notes and additions from me:

Inspiring Toys

1. The outdoors. Not planned outings; just lots of free time for free play outside. With no rules. The outdoors is my children's primary learning area, and this great article will help you understand why. The Outdoors definitely got the agreed-upon #1 spot on this list. Oh. You need some products? My daughter suggests boots and good rain gear, because we live on the wet coast, and we play outside all year long. Considering the current season, though, I would like to add a safe sunscreen and a hat to this list if you can't keep out of the sun. The outdoors, of course, includes dirt. Everybody needs a good pile of dirt. My kids have a "mine", where they dig and discover buried treasures, and the various layers of soil, sand, and clay we live upon. Yes, even fossilized shells, here. They use sturdy shovels from the local building centre, because toy shovels can't stand up to serious digging. Dirt never gets old. And water. It's free. (And if it isn't we need to change that.) Water play is about sensory discovery, physics, wave theory, temperature, heat-transfer, mechanics, chemistry and emotional awareness. Products to support water play: Containers of all sorts, squirters, syringes, sponges, washcloths and pumps. And a swimsuit and towels.

2. Musical instruments. Real instruments, that is. Without lessons. Lessons can be just great, but make sure there is plenty of time and opportunity for free play with instruments that have no expectations attached to them. And if you want your child to explore physics, make sure they can see how the instruments work: non-electronic, drums, xylophones, stringed instruments, simple wind instruments. These are great to have around for open use. I like Elderly and Orff instruments, but going out to participate in live music-making with friends and family is truly where it's at, and then getting an instrument from someone who has played and loved it is so much more deeply meaningful than buying new online. Or if you don't have a community music making event to attend, go into your local music shop and try out what suits your fancy. This is one of my favourite Vancouver music shops: Prussin Music

3. Art and crafting supplies. Pens, paint, paper, sticks, glue, string, scissors, clay, fabric, needles and thread. Hammers, nails, saws and wood. Let them use things however they want and encourage experimentation. Lots of things won't work. That is how they will learn. For bigger experimentation with cardboard boxes, string, scissors, packing tape and Make-Do are great to have available.

4. Kitchen Supplies for chemistry and food. No you don't need the special chemistry sets, cake pans or recipes for kids, although there's nothing wrong with them. Just let the kids mix and experiment, taking care to stick around for some health and safety advice and to keep them from including all your organic vanilla beans in a special test-tube of goo. Include the kids in your own baking and then let them try their own invented recipes. This is, in fact, how my daughter invented the best gluten/soy/egg-free white-cake I've ever tasted.

5. Books. Obviously. We have a fiction library and a non-fiction library at home, and many trips to local lending libraries for discovery, as well. Some of our favourites to encourage open-ended play and experimentation are:
  • Theodore Gray: Elements, and Mad Science 1 & 2
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe by Mark Garlick
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Human Body by Beverly McMillan
  • Prehistoric Life (Dorling Kindersley)
  • The Finding Princess by Sue Ann Alderson - out of print but too good to omit
  • Rotraut Susanne Berner: season books, Night, and In the Town (any language)
  • Magazines: Our kids have subscriptions to Scientific American and Muse, but the kids also collect used Popular Science, Nat. Geo and other Cricket mags from our local recycling depot.

6. Science tools. A good quality telescope and/or microscope, with some instructions for making slides, if necessary. A good magnifying glass and maybe some petri dishes and receptacles for observation. Some prisms and some sunshine.

7. A fire-pit, some matches, and some benevolent supervision. This is how my son built a forge from bricks in the back-yard and forged gifts out of old nails for his loved ones.

8. Lego. It's plastic, it's expensive, and somehow the designers have lost their way, but among the useless branded garbage the company promotes you will find regular Bricks, Technic and Creator... all of which, given enough pieces, are wonderful for open-ended experimentation. And you can find lots of used lego parts online.

9. Electronics. I bought my kids a box of rubber gloves to protect themselves from lead and other toxins, and they delight in going to our recycling depot and bringing home discarded tools, toys, cellphones and other gizmos which they dismantle for parts. They have learned more about electronics this way than any other. But still we want to buy things, don't we? Something shiny for their birthdays? Well then I will suggest the Make: Discover Electronics Kit for beginners and the Make: Electronics Complete Collection for enthusiasts.

10. Internet. We have family computers. Everyone uses them, and there is no privacy. Safety first. But as you feel your kids are safe online, let them get into it. My kids both enjoy programming: Scratch (beginner), Codecademy (good but apparently gets difficult quickly), and Khan Academy (both of my kids agree it's the best). We're currently deciding between and Arduino and Raspberry Pi for the next step. And 3D modelling systems. That's my son's domain, and he recommends the following: TinkerCad (easiest but more limiting, can have projects 3D printed), Sketchup (not as limiting; easier to make big things, easier to learn than blender), and Blender (very difficult to learn, but you can make extremely realistic, detailed 3D renderings for games and animations). And of course, all of those programs are free to use.

Uninspiring Toys

Now for the "uninspiring" list. I'm going to be brief. From any of the 10 "good" items you can quickly get sucked into products that look and sound very exciting but are, in fact, limiting. They may be satisfying in various ways, but they do not encourage open-ended exploration or creativity, and in fact they often lead us into feelings of inadequacy, since they present something pre-fabricated that most of us cannot dream of creating alone, without the purchased components.

1. Colouring books. Stamps. Stickers and make-your-own-[insert-craft-here]-kits. Some of them are SO beautiful. But they lead us to believe that we need somebody else, presumably more qualified, to make the structure for our art - that this is what art should look like.

2. Products such as Elenco's Playground and Project Labs look cool, and probably do provide some educational benefit and enjoyment, but lose the tactile experience that moveable electronic components provide. For (or not for) younger kids: Elenco Snap Circuits. They're O.K., but in their polished look, hefty price and click-together ease of use, they take away the it's-OK-to-break-it idea of experimentation. This is essential.

3. Model-building kits - ugh! Where is the creativity in that? "Science kits" that have a limited assortment of prescribed projects? Same thing. Unless you're willing to pay the relatively high price for the kit and allow your kids to make a mess of it in experimentation, get the ingredients and recipes and allow them to experiment to their heart's delight - without the kit.

4. Inexpensive crappy microscopes and other toy tools. This is where I think spending more money is a good thing. Cheap scientific tools can be very discouraging as they break easily and often don't work in the first place. Find something meant for a classroom.

That's about it for this particular brain-dump. Please feel free to add your opinions and suggestions in the comments. Then go out and play!


Tuesday, June 3, 2014


There's us: just two shy people who have sex and talk to our kids about it.
After having read this wonderful piece about talking to children about sex, I want to weigh in from my own perspective.

Our family is actually very much like the family of the author of that article: I'm shy but very open and comfortable with my family, willing to explain to the children anything (and often much more than) they ask about, and my husband is very shy, only answering as much as he feels is necessary. Both of us think it's vital not only that our children understand their bodies and the culture we live in, but also that the lines of communication remain open.

Our children are unschooled. There is NO sex-ed curriculum headed their way. If they can't talk to us, the places to get their questions answered are few, and quite frankly the number of questions that come up outside of the schoolyard is pretty small, too. But it isn't because we're unschooling that it matters so much that we are our kids' first line of information; not even because we want to be in control of what they hear, when. It's because they came from us, and they need to know that not only did they come from a joyful experience, but that we want them to have those joyful experiences, too -- that sex is good and they are good, and we not only trust them to make the decisions their bodies need, but that we'll be here for them when they make mistakes.

Do you remember wondering if your parents would get that nasty joke about the guy in the shower "parking his Limousine in the lady's garage"? I do. I worried endlessly that my parents would hear it, realize that I had heard it too, and be angry with me. My parents were very open, but I understood from my friends, anyway, that sex, drugs, dirty jokes, etc. are never something one brings up with parents. There was a common understanding (or so it seemed to me) that talking to parents about these things would bring trouble. Grounding. Not-being-allowed-to-go-to-the-party. Etcetera. Talking to parents would mean losing everything.

When I finally kissed somebody, I was terrified my parents would find out. In that weird teenage time of trying on sex before you actually have any idea what that pleasure is you're looking for, my first boyfriend gave me a hickey and I lied about it to my parents. I told my Mum our horse had accidentally whacked my neck with her head. Seriously. I said this. And my Mum pretended to believe me. I could see the pain and the pretending on her face; I could see her shrinking away from me into a kind of silence of sadness and I was more ashamed of the lie than of the hickey. It was the last time I lied.

I grew up feeling that sex was bad. It wasn't my parents' fault. They tried to explain to me even the things I didn't ask them about. Condoms were "a kind of little cap that men can put on their penises to catch the sperm when they make love". To this day I retain the image of a little knit cap on a penis, and a vague concern that it might fall off and get lost in the vagina. I never told my Mum about this concern, because I was too ashamed.

Shame is a nasty thing. Shame leads us to hiding, addiction, and fear. Shame leads us to hate ourselves and our bodies and the very act of love and pleasure that created us. That just sucks. It just sucks the big one, as we used to say in elementary school despite having no idea what it meant. My mother told me that fuck is a bad word because it imparts violence onto sex, which should always be loving. But she couldn't overpower what I learned from the schoolyard: Sex is embarrassing. Sex is shameful. Sex is bad. It's awesome to be bad. The worse, the better! That's why being naughty is something to aspire to in romance. Nobody ever aspired to be kind. Gentle. Those words are not ever on the cover of Cosmopolitan.

Age 10. My friend and I lay in bed discussing our dream careers as prostitutes. How much would you charge? Oh I'd charge at least a hundred for actual sex and just fifty for a blow job. Grin. I remember a slightly nauseous feeling, but my shame kept be from ever talking to my parents about this, and despite being a hairy feminist since my teens, there remains deep inside me a buried vestige of the wannabe hooker.

I told my kids this story. They looked pale. But they survived. I also told my kids the stories of their conceptions, some of the feelings I've had about sex, and also the lengths that their father and I go to to ensure that the other is happy during sex. We let them see our gentle caresses and kissing and the way we check in with the other's feelings, so that they can emulate something loving and compassionate when they choose to.

I want to be a trusted parent. And I want my children to feel safe, both in their relationship with me as well as in the righteousness of their own bodies. Sex, drugs, even mistakes -- these aren't anything to hide. These are beautiful opportunities for growth and evolution.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Homeschooling and Socialization

Our kids spend a lot of time just playing in small groups: as a sibling pair, with a friend or two, and even alone. The benefit of this is that they have a lot of focused time to develop social skills and to grow true to their own moral convictions. Because they live and grow in the community as a whole instead of in large age-based groupings, there is a lot more adult input, which helps them navigate their changing world with a little more understanding.

Socialization, as defined by Dr. John Baldwin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, is "the process by which children and adults learn from others" (online document for his soc142 class). Well... it seems obvious to me from our experience that the socialization my kids gain from living life in the world is more to our liking than an imposed pre-ordained sort of socialization provided by schools. And as unschoolers, we're not alone.

In his report on an unschooling survey he conducted, Dr Peter Gray states that
"...their children were happier, less stressed, more self-confident, more agreeable, or more socially outgoing than they would be if they were in school or being schooled at home. Many in this category referred to the social advantages; their children interacted regularly with people of all ages in the community, not just with kids their own age as they would if they were in school."*
*Read the full report on Psychology Today:

So that all sounds just lovely, doesn't it?

Ask any homeschooling family about the most common question they get from non-homeschoolers, and they will likely answer "What about socialization?"

[Yes we're still unschooling, but I write 'homeschoolers' here because the socialization issue comes up first for homeschoolers as a general group.] As unschoolers we more often are asked "How do they learn anything? How will they compete? How will they enter back into society?". (Though I would argue that unschoolers are already more in society than schooled kids are, so there is no entering needed...) The socialization question only comes up after these are satisfied, and I think it's interesting to look at the progression of fears and how easy it is to ride the fear-train from one question to the next... and end up at a projection of a lonely life as a social outcast.

Whoah. Social outcast? Yeah. That's us. We're the only unschooling family in our community with a 12-year-old boy who's interested in physics. By some twist of fate it happens that he's pretty much alone in his niche of our community. Our daughter doesn't have that issue. She's invited to all kinds of lovely events. But our son has been an outcast since he first split from the mainstream and didn't go to kindergarten. There was never a group of similarly-aged kids for him to adhere to. We keep trying, but we always feel like intruders on somebody else's social scene. This is the potential downside of home/unschooling, but it isn't actually a problem of circumstances, so much as
it's my problem.
 (Hm... have I said this before...?)

I am so upset to see the other kids his age going off on great adventures without him; so sad for him; so lonely for him. Yes, I am. Not he. He's not sad and lonely. I am sad and lonely for him. Does that sound insane? Well, I can't find any research to support this, but I feel confident that this is normal. We want the best for our children, and our greatest parental fears come from our greatest childhood fears. Those are the things we're afraid will happen again. As parents, we have to confront those fears.

The greatest unresolved issue I have, personally, is a feeling of being unwanted. I felt unwanted throughout my schooling journey, in every group I've been a part of - even in my own close relationships and family, and still, to this day, struggle with these feelings. My greatest fear, therefore, is that my children will feel the same way.

This is something I have to resolve within myself, and on the long road to that resolution, I have to keep reminding myself that this is my journey; not my children's. I am sad that my children are not invited on cool field trips. But they don't care nearly as much as I do. And in fact, I may be passing on my greatest fear simply in not dealing with it within myself. It's actually quite possible that I got it from my own mother, and she from hers. Time to put an end to it!

I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of homeschooling parents chose this route to protect their children from things they feared, but unschooling ourselves - with compassion and honest acknowledgement of our own fears - is at least part of the solution. The fact that home/unschooling creates so many situations for my fear to manifest also means it creates so many opportunities for me to confront my fear. And in confronting it, I teach my children to do the same.

Maybe being outcasts from a system we don't thrive in isn't such a bad thing!
Maybe having to confront that word is actually quite a good thing.

Please comment! What are your fears? How do they contribute to your parenting choices?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I am a mother.

This is a repost from my MAMAproject blog...

There is nothing particularly special about me. 
I am like billions of other people in the world: I am a mother.

And yet,

I am a mother.

I hold the lives of my children in my hands, on my breath I validate their dreams, and my intentions and mistakes determine their futures and their children’s futures. Retail, investment and service industries market to me; my interest is a hot commodity. And yet I have very few real resources, because those industries don’t benefit from my triumphs; they benefit from my needs.

You know who benefits from my triumphs? My children. Your children. Our children’s children. Every single generation to come benefits from every single time I get it right. And that makes it imperative that I take my job seriously and get it right.

We need to take responsibility for our children! As our children soak up every word we say; every hand-gesture, every movement of eyes and facial expression, are we living the life we want them to emulate? How many of us just sit back and allow our kids to play games (online and otherwise) without engaging them in conversation about what they are playing, and the ramifications of it? When my children asked me what rape was, I told them. We talk about wars, and politics, and sex and drugs and mental illness. We pause movies and games when things need to be explained, and my kids soak up the explanations (and questions) sometimes with more enthusiasm than the media itself. I can't stop them from participating in what is now popular culture, and if I did, they'd only want it more. But I can lead by example, and so can you. We all can. We have to. It's our responsibility. We didn't bear our children out of necessity; we chose this path because we love children. And children grow to be adults, to inherit our world, and to have more children, themselves. So it's our responsibility to raise them with integrity and awareness, that they go into the world full of questions and willing to look around, but also with a conviction to find their own truths and their own right paths.

There is no time to waste. And the smallest things make a difference; the random comments from my children remind me of this. My daughter once said, "I can't wait until I grow up so I can have pimples and wear cover-up, too!" My son said "I hope my wife doesn't think I want her to shave herself. That wouldn't be nice of me." Once my daughter reprimanded her father for some grammatical mistake and then turned to me with pride in her eyes. Oh no - did I teach her that? Of course I did! And it will take a lifetime to undo. Not everything we pass on is what we hope for. It matters very much not only that we lead by example, but also that we teach our children - from birth - that their own opinions and questions matter; that any question is valid, but that we also don‘t have all the answers. It's important that we reach for the best possible version of ourselves, because that will be the standard our children measure themselves against, and it will effect every single generation to come.

It is not OK for us to condemn violent video games but to watch violent movies, ourselves, or to wish death on politicians, talk trash and laugh about the emotional trauma of celebrities. It's not OK for us to practice attachment parenting but escape our children for a night at the bar. When they find us in the morning and discover that sour old booze smell on our breath they will learn that that is the smell of being with friends, and all the threats in the world won't take that lesson away from them when they're 14 and their friends are offering them cheap vodka under a bridge. It's not OK for us to tell them to be nice to each other, but to put our own community members down, to gossip, and to blame. Our children will learn more from our acknowledgement of our mistakes, and the lessons they’ve watched us learn than they will from the threats and consequences we’ve doled out to them.

We are mothers, and our demonstrated values and behaviour are the greatest teachers our children will ever have. We are mothers! We must take the importance of this incredible occupation very seriously, because there is nobody who can make a bigger change than we can, in choosing how we raise each new generation. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

beltaine for atheists

Happy May!

building the fire
Tali's wild salad
Rhiannon's May Cakes
...aaand... look who joined in the maypole dance this year!!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Changing the World

You know, I get called a lot of things, and sometimes those things bring me down. I've been called a lunatic idealist, a negative pessimist, a fear-monger, overly dramatic and even insane. I share anything on Facebook or Twitter that I think people might need to know about. I sign petitions a few times a week and I attend so many rallies and protests that I begin to fear people just think I'm going 'cause rallies are 'my thing'. But it's not that way. None of that is true.

cormorant and gull with freighters

What's true is I look out around me at the forest, my community, the sky, the creeks and the ocean... and I see something so beautiful - so needed in and integral to my life - that it brings me to tears. Happy tears. Sad tears. Tears of honest terror and helplessness. I look out and I see that we are using it up. Just using it all up and it's not ever coming back, and this - THIS is the world that's keeping us alive.

And I'm scared shitless.

There's no point in seeing all the changes that need to be made without doing anything to make them, but I can't change the world alone. Changing the world - saving the world - happens in all of us. I am moved to my core to see my neighbour and my friend sing his heart into our community, making it OK for us all to be real. Changing the world happens when my sister makes it her personal mission to disseminate discarded goods from the recycling depot so they can be reused, first. It happens when my son overcomes an enormous fear of confrontation to yell at a man he sees hitting a snake: Stop! Please stop! It happens when a friend gives up plastic and empowers me to do the same. It happens in all of us every day.

Wild Art kids releasing some tadpoles and changing water for those we're still raising.

Today was the last regular day of this year's 9-14 year-old Wild Art Group. These kids just rocked my world, this year. The premise of Wild Art is that we hang out for 4 hours and they basically do whatever they want, with encouragement, guidance, and mediation from me. Today we were looking at our tank full of tadpoles (a project not at all taken on lightly, and accompanied by a huge amount of moral discussion) and we talked about monoculture vs. permaculture, as it pertained to our little aquarium and the pains we take to replicate the pond the tadpoles came from and to which they'll be returned. This year these kids have created spontaneous forest villages complete with financial and labour systems, wild food stores and ethical consultation. And now they're putting the finishing touches on a play. The entire year, the artwork, the discussions, the explorations - all came from the hearts of these kids. I'm just the facilitator. But that is the work I love, and I hope that in holding this space for some wonderful people I can help amplify the waves they are making.

Wild Art play planning.

Changing the world isn't done alone. It's in the connections we make and the passion that connects us. When I share my feelings - the negative ones, the idealistic ones, the dramatic ones and the fearful ones - I'm just trying to change the world. Because I have hope.

This looks like a stock photo. It's not. It's a real moment of hope revealing itself.

Click this photo to enlarge it. That ain't yer average little clover, there! We took this photo today out on the field as the kids were going over their inventive and improvised script. We took this photo in the April sun, in a gentle breeze, with the movement of sequoia boughs above and a few species of birds snacking in the grass around us: six passionate kids and a four-leafed clover. There is always hope.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

easter for atheists

Despite being not Christian at all, we love Easter! For us it's about spring and growth and family; joy in new life and resurrection of the garden!

Most of us got together for our traditional Easter-time nettle picking!

And the Easter Rabbit did not disappoint the children!

(comparing quantities of chocolate eggs)

Rhiannon made a paper egg-hunt for the parents earlier on the weekend, and Markus found the last missing egg on Easter morning.

We bought some gorgeous local aracauna coloured eggs from a friend (for old time's sake; when we were children we had green- and blue-laying aracaunas, too), but since Tali is allergic to real eggs, we made him a sausage-and-apple-stuffed woven bacon egg, instead. I think he approved; he ate the whole thing! I got this idea from Mike at Atomic Shrimp (who is also a wild food enthusiast!). But his was quite large. This is my smaller, 1-person version, filled with natural pork sausage and sauteed apples.

(See our colourful eggs?) And I think we were all pleased to finally have a dog sleeping under the table, again. 
What a joyful day! Happy Easter! Happy Spring!