Friday, September 23, 2016

There are no Theoretical Children

Photo by my son, as published on his photography blog.
Recently I attended a wonderful training session with Arthur Brock and Eric "Bear" Ludwig, founders of New York's Agile Learning Centers. During this session, Arthur explained that "there is no such thing as theoretical children".

You know those 'theoretical children' parents and teachers sometimes ask about in terms of  'what if a child is afraid to ...'? Those kids don't exist. Either they are in fact real children, in which case they're not theoretical, and need to be discussed in terms of their actual individual situations, their relationships and history and needs... or they're irrelevant, because they don't exist. As a teacher, parent, director of a program, etc. you can't worry for (or even worse, design a program for) children who don't exist, because their individual nature and needs are totally unknown quantities, and you can't prepare for something undefined.

I thought this was a wonderful direction of thought.

We in the education world design programs with theoretical children in mind. We consider the children we know and have known who might benefit from our plans, and we expect to modify them as we get to know the real children who participate. As parents we also consider theoretical children. We read articles, gather parenting advice, follow programs and regimens we hope will help us parent well. We adjust when we see things going awry, and we seek new advice.

But it's easy to lose sight of the needs of our real children. You know how if you've grown up being warned that dogs bite, you may not recognize a gentle dog when you see one? Well maybe when I believed that all children need a hug when they get home, I didn't recognize that my son really needs some space first. For example.

And about my son. Let's say there's this theoretical child. He's made friends with some people in the grade above him, and really wants to participate with those kids in the activity they're doing. But we assume, as educators or parents with all the theoretical children in mind, that the group as a whole will likely be served best if we put him in the group with kids his own age. This is because, first of all, he needs to learn the things they're learning before progressing onto the subject matter the older kids are learning, and secondly, he'll make friends there anyway. Right? Except he's not a theoretical child. He's my son. We've tried that experiment, based on the values ascribed to the theoretical child, and it bombed.

Yesterday we tried again. My son is now attending a new program, with all new kids. And guess what? He's made friends with some kids who are older than he is! And guess what? Once again he wanted to join them in their science and social studies program, instead of the one for the kids his own age. But here's the big news: they let him do it! 

Cut to yesterday afternoon: I was waiting to pick up my daughter when I saw my beaming son, confidence shooting out his head like steam from a steam engine, come striding down an East Vancouver street alone for the first time ever in his life. He was smiling with that kind of vague powerful smile that says 'I am happy to be me in the world, today'. He discovered me waiting there in the car, hopped in energetically, and proceeded to tell me about his day. He said he spent all morning talking about science with a bunch of people who also wanted to talk about science. He spent all of a delightfully long lunch time chatting and playing drawing games with his new friends. He spent all afternoon doing a native studies program that he says was "really interesting". He doesn't even know what grades those kids are in. He's just with them, being himself. And that was what he needed to find his confidence again.

This week my real child was given a voice. He had his own real needs acknowledged and met. His needs trumped the needs of theoretical children, and everybody won. After all, there are no theoretical children.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mama Guilt

I had a bath today. Due to our renovations we haven't had a tub in the house for about four months, so I filled the tub out in the garden. I filled it with a hose, climbed in and lay there in the steam looking out at the branches of our arbutus tree, the nearly-full moon peeking through the hemlocks, and the first few stars as they quietly became visible in the deepening blue.

My first thought was how totally blessed I am... but before I could enjoy it too much, my friend Mama Guilt came tapping me on the shoulder: "What are you doing out here?" "What about the laundry? You haven't hung it up yet." "You should have offered the kids a bath first."

She's good at these things. She's practiced. "You could have just washed your hair in the kitchen sink again."

I tried to drown her out by sinking down under the water, but came up frustrated, as she chirped, "You waited two months for a bath; why did you have to do this on a school night?"

I washed, dried, drained the tub onto the lawn and walked to the house feeling so blissfully clean. I came back inside to the smell of the casserole I'd put in earlier all baked and ready for dinner. Ahhhh... "It's nine pm. What were you thinking making dinner so late?"

Oh just shut up already.
I'm sick of you, Mama Guilt.

I hear her wagging her finger behind my ear. "You haven't made your lunch yet. You can't afford to buy a sandwich tomorrow." But anyway I'm clean. Hopefully that drives her off a little further for tomorrow. And I'm making my lunch, now.

Kids, Unsupervised

Once upon a time, when both of my kids were under ten years old, they went exploring around our local municipal hall while their father attended a meeting there. They explored all the way over to one of the local shops, where the shopkeeper asked them where their parents were. They told her their Pappa was in the chapel (not accurate - they knew where he was, but had used the wrong name for the building), and she asked them to wait while she called the police. She only meant to protect them - I know that. But they were terrified! They recounted a harrowing tale of running away from her, being chased by her and trying desperately to hide as they made their way back to the municipal hall. Once there, the police arrived and spoke to their father about (as my son tells it) "not letting his children run wild". The point was, they were never in danger. Terrified - yes. But only because of being "helped" by someone who genuinely was worried about them.

What good is it doing us to harbour such deep fears for our children? And more importantly, what harm is it doing them?

I work with many kids who come laden with fears about the woods. It can take a few brief wilderness adventures to develop the skills and knowledge they need to overcome those fears. Gross motor skills like clambering over logs, climbing up and down trees and bluffs safely, and hiking long distances help them to feel confident about the terrain. Cognitive skills like assessing the safety of their environment and activities can take a little more time, but allow them to feel confident in their own well-being. Observational skills like noticing changes in the weather, hearing wind or animals, noticing the stability of limbs or rocks they climb on... these things give them confidence too. And they need this confidence not just to feel safe, but to be safe. If you don't hear the bear coming, are afraid to navigate the terrain around you, have no understanding of common bear-encounter protocol, is it any wonder that you might be afraid of the bear? And if you are afraid of the bear, the bear will be afraid of you... and we know how well that scenario goes.

The city is different, but also similar. Recently I took three pre-teens to a movie in town. I thought: surely they've been here often enough that they are gaining some confidence and can do it alone. One bus, one corner to walk around, six blocks and into the theatre. Same route back home again. But I went with them anyway. I noticed that they kept an eye on me. They didn't watch where the bus was taking them, nor when they should get off - they just followed me. All the way into the theatre. So on the way home I asked them to lead the way back to the bus: six blocks, cross the road, get back on a bus. They were bewildered! It took them about five minutes to figure out which direction to go back (eventually with the help of a city map that I pointed them towards). They became confused multiple times on the way back to the bus, had difficulty figuring out where to take the bus, and it took us over half an hour to walk those six blocks. I don't want to deride them. It was their first time, and I thought they all dealt with the situation I handed them quite gracefully. But this experience taught me that my kids need more independence.

No problem! I thought. They're unschooling in the city now! While my kids used to be the ones confident in the wilderness, now they're going to get confident in the city! And off we went. I am still accompanying them to various locations for this first week, to help them gain the confidence they need to navigate without me. After all, they are attending in various locations near some questionable drug and prostitution hotspots. Not that I have a problem with my kids being there - it's just part of our city that they need to learn to be safe in. They need skills like staying in populated areas, walking together, assessing strangers who might approach them to determine risk level, and how to maintain a strong sense of morale and dignity in a place where so many have been robbed of it.

So yesterday I received an email in red letters from my fourteen-year-old son that pleaded, "pick up time is 2:45!!!!!!!! Not 3!!!! Otherwise i'll be abandined on the street with no place to go." It was a mixture of humourous hyperbole and some genuine concern.

I'm not terribly worried about my son standing alone on a city sidewalk - but he is. And that is the problem. At the root of all our fears is the unlikely idea that they may be abducted or harmed by another person (or in the woods, an animal). Think about this for a moment. A person trying to recruit or abduct a child for nefarious purposes is going to look for a vulnerable child. I don't want my child to be that vulnerable child. That doesn't mean I need to hover over him and shadow him everywhere he goes until he's too dependent on me to look after himself. That means I need to let go of him and let him become independent.

And in the much more likely event that my children will be harmed by their own error, either of physical skill (as in falling off a cliff or crashing their bike) or of judgement (as in drugs, traffic accidents, or food poisoning) I would like them to have the opportunity to develop the skills they need. I saw many ambulances in town yesterday. Most were for presumed drug-related tragedies. One was for a traffic accident, and another I believe was domestic. These are the things I need to protect my children from. And for this they need to go out in the world without me and develop some wisdom.

Being unsupervised may unsettle kids, but it also gives them the opportunity and the need to develop some skills and look after themselves. And further, that unsettled feeling might kick-start their own determination to take stock of their situation and responsibility for their own safety.

I will always be here waiting with my arms open wide when they need my love or advice - or even just a non-judgmental ride home from an unfamiliar street or a bad trip. My dear friend said that having children is like having your heart walking around in the world separate from you. So as parents we can't just hold on and stifle those hearts until they wither; we have to be willing to pick up the pieces again and again and again.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Unschooling in the City!

It's no secret that our family has returned to our unschooling journey. But no longer will we restrict our activities to the fields and forests of our lovely island home... you know, the place were the maximum speed limit is 40Km/h, the most threatening thing in the woods is a wasp or a skunk, and homeless people mostly have a roof over their heads. It's not that we don't know anything at all about the rest of the world, but we're pretty sheltered in our everyday lives. And endlessly privileged. We used to go into the city for family adventures. But now we've cut the ropes.

This morning I walked my two to a street corner we've never seen before and left them standing with a group of kids they don't know to wait for an escort they've only met twice... to take them on a field trip. They have backpacks with lunches they cooked and packed themselves (I haven't even seen them; don't know if it's even enough food) and some swimming gear. They have their father's work number written on papers in their bags, but they don't have phones. They have change, should they find any of the increasingly few pay phones. I'll go back to that corner to get them later this afternoon. I left them the only advice I have: please don't drown in the pool, and keep their eyes on each other, wherever they go.

But tomorrow? Tomorrow they're going to separate places! I guess you might say I feel a little nervous about this. (Gulp!) But, as frankly is always the case with parenting, I just have to turn my head away and walk away from them with grace and determination, telling myself it's going to be all right. My kids have to grow up, and they're not going to do it with me clinging to their hands.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

how to foster respect for nature while encouraging kids to play

Two six-year-olds are playing in a creek, and barks at the other, alarmed: "What are you doing?!"

The other barely looks up from her task, yanking and hauling at a fern frond. "I'm just getting this fern to put in my dam."

"Stop hurting nature!"

"I'm not hurting nature! It's just a fern! I need it for my dam!"

The first is distraught, and looks at me plaintively. "She's hurting nature! Tell her to stop!"

And I didn't.

It's a common issue among nature-based educators, parents and even among kids playing outside: How to foster respect for our surroundings while still having fun with the materials and resources at hand. Engagement is essential to developing a strong bond and learning from whatever we're using, and we need freedom to play in order to fully engage. So how do we look after the space, the other parts of our ecosystem, and the resources we have? The following is a list of some of my own practices; hopefully they're useful as a jumping-off point for others.

Stop using the word 'nature' - or define it. The way we currently use this word separates us from the rest of what is truly our own ecosystem, setting up an artificial boundary between 'people' and 'nature', which, far from creating a respect for 'nature', allows us to easily disengage from it when it suits us. Imagine taking out twenty weeds to put in a garden bed. Now imagine taking out a tree for the same. Now a rat's nest. Now your kitchen sink. Now your mother. All of those imaginary sacrifices are not equal - why? Because of their perceived value. When 'nature' is not part of us - part of our family - then we can ignore its value. But somewhere deep inside most of us do understand that we are a part of nature. At its root, the word 'nature' just means everything in the universe we know; the ecosystem we came from. Without it there are no silicon computer chips, no electricity, no asphalt roads, no buildings, no food; no people at all. 'Nature' is us. So being invested in its welfare requires dispensing of the artificial separation encouraged by the current connotation of the word 'nature'. My preference is to make the point by referring to our surroundings as 'our ecosystem', and sometimes talking or asking about our specific roles in our ecosystem. This provides a lot of opportunity for discussion about how the ecosystem works, what we observe, etc., but I think it would be equally effective to discuss the meaning of nature, and to talk about the nature of people, and the way we interact with the other parts of nature.

Father and son playing at the lake.
Play! An understanding of the way things work helps us to feel true respect for them. And understanding comes from explorative learning! So play. Not just the kids you work with, but you. Get deeply personally engaged. Other kids and adults will see and follow suit. And play innocently. Don't be afraid to talk about the things you see that you don't understand. Look them up together, observe them together, and theorize about them together. If the kids aren't interested, let them do other things and observe and theorize by yourself. Even if you don't share your discoveries, the people you are with will feel your engagement and be inspired. They may not discover or explore the same things you do, and that doesn't matter at all. What they explore matters to them, and that is the best possible scenario. When something matters to them, they will care.

Notice the damage you do. I tend to gently point out damage being done on the spot, or cumulative damage from many days of exploring the same area. "Oh look we've kind of removed most of the moss from this log," or "I can see where we've been walking every week; it's beginning to look like a deer trail." "Did you notice all the beetles running for safety when we pulled apart that rotten log? Look at the mycelium we've exposed. I wonder how we've changed their lives in pulling it apart." The idea is not to be critical, but to make observations and help others to make observations. People always make change - everywhere we go. Just our existence changes the world. For the same reason I feel that being involved in food production is far better than buying food on a Styrofoam tray, I feel that being involved in the many ways we impact our ecosystem is far better than pretending it doesn't happen. Yes, sometimes I stop people from ripping all the moss off a tree, or from destroying a whole log full of insects. But for the most part I just point out what's happening. We truly are a part of our ecosystem and we, like trees, bacteria, deer and mosquitoes, cannot live without also destroying. That's more than OK - that's life. So we have to do it consciously.

Don't be heavy-handed. You don't want to provoke fear. Far from being a healthy component of respect, fear leads to a lack of respect. The more people are afraid of their impact (or afraid of a teacher or parent's reaction to their impact), the more they will separate themselves from the rest of their ecosystem, and the less they will engage with it and care for it. As mentioned earlier, I try to encourage thoughtful conversation, but not to criticize. Who am I to criticize, anyway? I eat food, I use products; I walk on this earth. I have an impact, too. It's important to leave each other feeling thoughtful and empowered. The more we live in our own strength, the more we learn to use it with care.

Relax. This list is short for a reason. There's nothing more important than being comfortable in your environment, than playing without intention; than exploring with abandon. Too many rules gets in the way of all that. So just go out and play. Forget about this list, and forget about all the worries you may have had. If you damage something, so be it. Let that be a lesson for next time, and a place to leave a bit of your heart behind in the wilderness and help it heal. It will heal, and so will you. Because we're all a part of the same thing anyway.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

square foot observing

Have you ever watched a child stare endlessly at one particular spot - maybe the light dancing on the wall at bath time, or his own hand moving back and forth, back and forth, as he waves for the first time? Maybe you thought your child was 'just' stimming; maybe you feared there was nothing going on in his mind. Maybe you just wondered what he was thinking. Maybe you knew that he was observing and learning about his world; making observations that would serve him for the rest of his life. It took me years to see that my son's endlessly boring (to me, who couldn't take the time to join him) observations were in fact the foundation of his lifelong interest in physics. He was learning - and only because he wanted to! I think we all need to tap into that beautiful experience of explorative wonder. I've been thinking a lot lately about how we have had free-range exploration and wonder trained out of us by the education, social, and employment systems we live in, and how poor we are to have lost this innate learning ability. Observation is essential for learning, and it's time we get back in the rhythm of it. So I've come up with an exercise for all ages. Kids do it naturally. Some of us may need some encouragement. I'm going to call this exercise Square Foot Observing.

Yes this is a play on square foot gardening, but it's also a form of meditation - a meditation that requires nothing more than a brief commitment. Say ten minutes, though you may be forgiven for getting so deeply engaged that you stay for hours.

Here's how it works:

Find a spot on the ground or near to it.
One square foot. That is all. It doesn't matter what is in it.

Lie down, so your eyes are a maximum distance of one foot from the spot you chose.

Make yourself comfortable. You can even bring a mat or a pillow if you need it.







That's it! Next time pick a different spot.

What you're doing:

You're giving yourself an opportunity to relax, and your mind an opportunity to focus and explore. In limiting your field of observation to one square foot you not only relieve yourself of the masses of overwhelming or distracting other experiences around you, but you also give yourself freedom to see more deeply. You give yourself an opportunity to notice things you may never have seen before, and there are such discoveries to be made anywhere, from a square foot of the most boring-looking piece of sidewalk to a square foot of laundry, to a square foot of lawn, to a square foot of forest floor or lake surface. What you are seeing may involve other life forms, but it may also involve interesting molecular structures, light play, soundscapes, or textures. Maybe the movement of the air or the perceived humidity is the thing. You can't know until you lie down and start your observation.

Once you've been doing this for a while, and if you're not too much of a purist, you might want to bring along a little jeweler's scope to aid in your observations. These things can be quite inexpensive to buy, and can open you up to a whole new world of rarely-seen life and physical wonders.

All of the photos included here were taken by my son Taliesin, who has always taken time to observe deeply, sometimes with camera in hand.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 3: Plantain

This is the third in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin:

~  ~  ~ 

This past May, my daughter had a big fall, goring her knee on a rotten branch. She endured not only a week of emergency room IV for the ensuing infection, but then three months of the wound slowly expelling all the remaining bits of rotten wood. Plantain to the rescue! Yes – seriously! What the salt water soaks didn't pull out, we got out with plantain poultices. Grab a leaf, chew it up, and place it on the (closed) wound. You can even use one of the flat leaves as a bandage to hold it in place (tied with string).

Not to be confused with plantain bananas, the small green inconspicuous plants of the Plantago family are exceedingly common. Find them along the edges of roads, meadows, lawns, paths, and playgrounds. Most common around here are P. major (broad-leaved plantain) and P. lanceolata (narrow-leaved plantain or ribwort). Maybe when you were a child you learned to pluck a broad-leaved plantain and find the veins sticking out where you tore it off. Maybe you discovered that if you pulled those veins you could make the leaf curl up. Apparently some people have used these tough fibres as thread! When I was a little girl, my mother and I sometimes made the long gruelling climb from our home in Bowen Bay up towards Adams Rd. And along the way we saw ribwort, although we didn't know it at the time. We called them the Crowned Princes and Princesses of Denmark, because of their flowers' beautiful crown-like flower-heads. Oh the adventures those crowned princes and princesses have had over the two generations this game has persisted! Plantain is a wonderful entertainment system for kids on otherwise boring walks.

But it's also a food and a valuable medicine. Modern science is slowly beginning to study and confirm what folk medicine has taught for centuries. In her review, Anne Berit Samuelsen states that “P. major contains biologically active compounds such as polysaccharides, lipids, caffeic acid derivatives, flavonoids, iridoid glycosides and terpenoids. Alkaloids and some organic acids have also been detected. A range of biological activities has been found from plant extracts including wound healing activity, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant, weak antibiotic, immuno modulating and antiulcerogenic activity.” (1) In my own life, I often use broad-leaved plantain as a wound or sting poultice. It's handily available in the wilderness, where stings, nettle burns, and other small injuries often happen, and makes a huge difference to such inflammations when chewed up and applied directly. Ribwort is also valuable, both for the gut-cleaning (bulking) properties of its seeds (psyllium), as well as for its leaves' value in treating coughs and uterine complaints. As an anticatarrhal and expectorant, ribwort tea is an excellent cough remedy. (2)

Food is maybe the least exciting thing about plantain, since it's basically a plain-tasting leaf that gets tough very early in its life. But if you get stoked about the prospect of eating food out of your lawn or healing and nourishing your body naturally, plantain is definitely for you. As with so many wild greens, the young leaves are great in salads, or braised as they grow tougher. They're also delicious in green smoothies – especially with the knowledge of all those nutrients you're consuming! And if you are eating a grain-free diet, you may already buy the mucilaginous psyllium as a binder for coconut flour confections, or perhaps you use it simply as a dietary fibre. Either way, find it growing atop a humble plantain. Commercial psyllium seed actually comes from P. afra, ovata, or indica, but seeds of ribwort also have mucilaginous properties. Find some ribwort blossoms that have fully gone to seed, rub the seeds out into a small bowl, blow off most of the separated husks (some remaining is fine) and add a bit of water. After a while you'll see the mucilage forming around the seeds. The mucilage is, of course, the same colour as the water, so it is only apparent in that the seeds sit increasingly distant from each other in the water, held separated by their growing coating of mucilage. When there's enough of it you can feel its gooeyness.

But let's get down to business. Everybody needs some inspiration to try plantain, so I recommend starting with this lovely green plantain smoothie: Pick a bunch of youngish plantain leaves (either broad-leaved or ribwort will do), wash them, check for unwanted bits, and stuff them in your blender. Cover them with ice cold water (and a few ice cubes if your blender can handle it!), and add some fresh lemon juice. Blend until the leaves are fully macerated and suspended in the water. If you want it sweet (like lemonade!) then blend in a little honey, to taste. If you want it creamy, blend in an avocado or some nut-milk. Enjoy!

(1) Anne Berit Samuelsen: The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 71, Issue 1, Pages 1-21

Thursday, August 18, 2016


Today while looking for an email (and sorting by sender), I happened upon emails from my Dad, who died a year and a half ago. It's like seeing his ghost. I have lost an incredible amount of family recently, and am still feeling lost and stunned, so reading his words was comforting and surreal and confusing. He had emailed me about a blog post I'd written about him (6 years ago on my previous blog), so I went to read that blog post, and am sharing it here. In light of having lost the man whose story inspired it in the meantime, it is still meaningful to me. He's dead now. Even the toy store he owned all my life has been sold and changed. But this post, and his emails, feels like finding a piece of his voice from the past to help me get through the present.


Many years ago, now, my Dad told me he had given notice on his toy shop’s rental space. He couldn’t afford to rent as much space as the new landlord wanted him to, and the landlord wouldn’t rent him any less. He gave notice before he had secured another location. He had to be out by the end of the month. The month was December – December in the toy business. There was no time to be out looking for a new location, and not many spaces were becoming available at that time, either. On a visit with my Dad, I asked him how the search was going. If my memory is trustworthy, it was about 10 days before Christmas.

He replied that, well, he was hoping for Edgemont, but he was also considering Westview, since those were neighbourhoods he liked, and both closer to his home. Edgemont has about 50 shops, and Westview maybe 15.

Ummm… but he was looking elsewhere, too, right? I mean… it’s highly unlikely he’d find something in one of those tiny shopping areas, on such short notice and … NOW.

Nope. He wasn’t.

Well, surely he’d booked storage for all his stock, then, hadn’t he?

Nope. He was going to move to Edgemont.

He had faith.

Oh God – not this again. My father is a Baptist, and I am not. He would say don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. I do not believe in God. I would not put the future of my tiny toystore and all my life’s effort at risk just because I’ve decided I want something far out of my grasp, and then trust in God to provide it.

Had I ever heard of the Mount of Olives?

Of course not.

…the mountain where Jesus provided the people, bla bla bla… The people had faith and Jesus provided. It was a lovely story – really. Just not in my faith-book. My Dad said he had faith, too.

Uh huh.

Three days or so before Christmas I phoned to see how my Dad’s search was going, and to offer to help him arrange storage. He seemed to have found something, exactly where he wanted on the main street in Edgemont, but it wouldn’t be available until March.

So the storage?

Nope. He had faith.

The day before Christmas my Dad was clearing some snow from in front of his shop, and the neighbour – a man who Daddy had previously helped – came to ask how his search was going, and to offer him his empty warehouse for the lag time between leaving the old store and moving into the new one.

Problem solved. My Dad had faith and Jesus provided. Or somebody did. I still don’t believe in God, but I do believe in faith.

We just watched Miracle on 34th street, and I was struck by the significance of the “in God we trust” plot twist (the lawyer convinces the judge that Santa is real in the same way that God is real; invisible though he may be, millions of people put their faith in him, and if we lost that faith the fabric of our society would disintegrate). It doesn’t have to be God or Santa or the Easter Bunny; not even fairies or the Central Bank or love; it can simply be faith itself. I absolutely could not stand the movie “the Secret”. I found it shallow and stupid, but at its core it was about having faith. Numerous studies have shown that people who have prayer – whether by themselves or by other people they are unaware of – heal faster on average than those who don’t receive prayer. Obama won with a slogan of pure faith: Yes We Can! It doesn’t matter how or why or even what; we just trust that we can. The magic is not in the entity or power that is believed in; it’s in the belief itself. I believe in wishing.

When I was in grade 5 I went on a class trip to the Flying U Ranch. My class took the water taxi off Bowen Island in the early morning, and I wished fervently upon Venus that the boy I loved would ask me out. I wished and wished and wished with all the faith I had until I could no longer see the star, and then I wished the same thing in every tunnel we entered on our trip up the Fraser Canyon to the ranch. Not only was I one of the least popular girls in my class, always the last picked for teams, only 10 years old, and absolutely terrified to talk to the boy in question, but he was by far the most popular boy, doted on by every girl, and in no way desperate for a date. Girls had fist-fights over him, and yet none of us dated anybody, yet. Those wishes were prayers.

On the last day of our class trip, there was a dance. I dreaded parties. I went to my cabin and sobbed the evening away while everybody else danced. Actually I was lying on the bed, drawing a very miserable picture of everybody else dancing, and myself crying. I still have it. It’s half finished. There is a funny-looking line where the pencil slipped when I suddenly stopped drawing. Knock at the door. … Yes? … Emily? Of course it was him – I was so shocked I fell off my bed and onto the floor, and, as I stumbled up to my feet in front of him, he asked me to dance with him. In hindsight, it doesn’t matter whether my teacher encouraged him to ask me, or whether he came to my cabin out of pure true love. That night not only my faith in wishes was bolstered, but my faith in a world that sometimes seemed to have abandoned me. I have spent most of my life trying to build up the courage to like myself; to have faith in myself and my ability to just be good enough. In my head I know that it’s all in my head. But it’s only faith that can make that leap for me.

My Mum and Pappa taught me atheism, but they also taught me faith. They put faith in the land and fed us. They put faith in their own ability to create a life together, and a beautiful home out of a piece of forest. It wasn’t easy, but they had faith and they prevailed. They put faith in love to lead us through our differences, and faith in me, recently, when they bought me an etching press for a career they can hardly fathom. We put faith in the vast universe, every day, when we leave our loved ones and our dreams and trust that we’ll find them again. Our faith is broken, sometimes. It has to be. But it's also what allows us to carry on. Faith goes on.

Right now my Dad is recovering from surgery after a fall that cracked his spine. His God sure hasn’t given him an easy row to hoe, but he is stalwart in his faith, just like he’s stalwart in his refusal to use a walker, much to my fear and dismay. His Parkinson’s seems, if anything, to have deepened his faith in his God. I guess God is there when you need him, just like parents, stars, love and Santa Claus.

I still don’t believe in God, but I believe in faith.

Monday, July 18, 2016

what to do in the face of global trauma

It's been a rough few months in the world. Maybe years, even but it feels like the violence and sadness is increasing. With multiple mass-killings, an attempted military coup and promises of the death penalty; police murders and police murdered, these few weeks have been brutal. People everywhere are hurting or scared or angry. It's overwhelming, and while many people's minds are turning away, others are turning towards answers. What can we do? How do we overcome this violent and frightening chapter in our collective lives?


We overcome it with love. In fact we don't so much overcome as live it. There is no use in distracting ourselves, hiding the news from our children; finding people to blame or people to save us. We have to turn our faces towards the horror and walk right through it, with love.

These things are happening because we live in a global culture that separates instead of loving. Think of the perpetrators of the attacks. They're usually portrayed as either outcasts acting from personal frustrations, or as cohesive groups fighting for or against other groups. Most of the perpetrators have at some point been disenfranchised in some way. Murder hurts. The act of murder is a horrifyingly painful act for the perpetrator. S/he loses everything in the process. As various people keep saying in the media, you don't give up everything to commit murder unless you feel you have nothing to lose. That goes for individuals shooting their lovers as much as it goes for cops shooting citizens as much as it goes for presidents calling for capital punishment and kids strangling their friends in dark corners at school. Did you hear the voices on the 911 call from the cops being shot in Louisiana? Do you read the emotion in the inflamed and judgemental posts on social media? They're scared shitless. Why do these people have so much to fear? Why do people feel they have nothing to lose? Because we've ostracized them.

In the very basic fabric of our education, legal, political, faith and social systems we separate. We separate by grading our children and measuring them against an ideal, so that some come out on top and some don't, and all of them come out fighting to succeed against the others. We separate by splitting people into victims and perpetrators, winners and losers, left- and right-brained, healthy and unhealthy, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer, empowered and disenfranchised, upper, middle and lower, black, red, white, yellow and blue. We have developed highly intricate and sophisticated ways of categorizing ourselves and then manipulating the systems we made to come out on top, or at least a little higher than the next guy, on whatever ladder we're climbing. We have so many ways of separating ourselves that it has become nearly impossible to see ourselves in others.

That would be compassion: To see somebody so much that when they hurt, you hurt. Not that you feel empathy for their pain, but that you actually feel the pain. Compassion is when you see that you and the other are the same. Love is when you transcend that compassion so that it isn't even a consideration anymore. It just is, as the way of being, because you love.

Love does not depend upon the other fitting into your categories, or upon you understanding their motives and desires. It just is. When a baby is born a mother (often) experiences true love. With such a deep physical connection to this being, we understand that despite the brief but growing separation of our bodies, we are still the same being. When we lay our babies to sleep and walk away we can feel their presence in our hearts, many of us know instinctively when they begin to wake or to need us. That is love. That is when we lose the separation and logical categorization and simply are one with the other. We have to learn to know that oneness in everything.

It's going to be a long journey for us humans to transcend the systems we've created for ourselves, and grow through compassion to oneness - to love. But we're already on the journey, whether we know it or not. In so many ways we are learning and teaching each other to see. Whether you're transcending social norms by reaching open arms out to help the people you're afraid of instead of turning away, or trading goods in an open market with farmers and crafts-people instead of supporting money-centred corporations; whether you're looking with an open mind at a small ecosystem in your back yard, opening your mouth to participate in discussion or to sing with others, opening your door to strangers, or stepping out of the rat-race and into an open meditation session - you are opening. As we open our eyes and hearts and minds and arms to let each other in, we are transcending the separation. We are learning to see and to appreciate the sameness of everything.

As parents, we have an opportunity to look at our children with open minds; to work on opening ourselves instead of closing our children. Remember when people told you to imagine that the other person was you, and to treat them as you would want to be treated, yourself? It's still good advice, but the truth is that other person is you. When you hurt them, you hurt you. When you look for differences or create separation of values, ideals, or presence, you break a piece of yourself. When you open your heart to them, you learn to see the connection that was there before. It's always there. We just have to re-learn to see it.

We have to love.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

unschooling to school - the aftermath

So this afternoon my son came to me and said "Right now it's prynhawn. I think."

Pardon me?

He explained that that was Welsh for 'afternoon'.

I asked him where he learned it. Duolingo, apparently. I said it didn't sound like he was pronouncing it correctly (not that I know much about Welsh, mind you), and doesn't Duolingo have an audio component?

Well yes, he said, it does. But he couldn't hear it because he had the sound turned off.

What? Why?

"Because I was doing it in French class."

I laughed.

He said "I thought maybe you wouldn't be mad at me."

Mad? No. Delighted. My dear one struggled terribly with French during this last year at school. For all his teacher's valiant efforts and kind encouragement, the focus of the course she was teaching had switched to rote memorization of verb conjugation, and he just couldn't stand to learn that way.

Finally, we're back to unschooling, and he can learn whatever languages he wants, however he wants.


Thank you Prince Ea!

Friday, June 24, 2016

On Building in the Wilderness

I have seen various articles, recently, including this rather balanced and good one, asking the public to stop building stacks of rocks. I struggle with this issue all the time. Not always specifically with rock balancing (as we call it here), but with engagement with the wilderness. It's what I do, and I'm passionate about it. There are SO many long-lasting benefits to playing in the wilderness, both for adults and children... and for the wilderness. 
Most people now live in urban areas, are very disconnected from the wilderness, and also harbour a fear of it simply because they don't know it, and/or have been warned about it by their parents. So I take them out to gorgeous wilderness areas and let them play with it. Yes, they move rocks and build dams; they pick up sticks and play with them; build bridges and forts and storefronts where they craft beautiful 'wares' out of clay they scraped from the creeks, mud they scooped from the ground, grasses and leaves they plucked, and moss they pulled from the trees. And as they do this I help them to understand the importance of those things. I show them how the moss holds the water on the rocks to feed the trees; how it forms the bed for the many plants and animals that grow in the trees. I show them the body of the mushroom that lay hidden in the rotten log they crushed, and the importance of that mycelium to the welfare of the whole forest. I show them the many insects and gastropods, etc. that live on the bottom of the rocks in the creeks and the many animals and plants that thrive in and around the mud they are messing with. And they go home filthy, leaving the landscape changed, and also they are changed, themselves. They know the landscape. They aren't afraid to engage with it, and they have a deep appreciation of the many varied and integral parts of it.

When most of us look at a map of a proposed development or construction, we see a map. We can usually relate to it for how it fits or doesn't fit into our community plan or activities. But we don't often think about how many species of insects live on the bottom of the rocks in the creek that flows through the top left quadrant of that map. We don't usually know how our bums feel after sitting in the wet moss on the rotten log at the base of the biggest tree in the bottom left quadrant. We don't think about how much that area or the whole of our community will be impacted by the loss of that area. We don't have a deep sense of caring for the wilderness of that area, so we don't take that into consideration. And then it isn't just altered - it's gone.

This is happening everywhere. So many of us feel unperturbed when we hear that they're building pipelines out in the unpopulated areas of our wilderness, because that wilderness is not our home. The people giving directives to make changes to the wilderness are not often personally acquainted with that wilderness. Our homes are refuges from the wilderness, in towns and cities that are, themselves, refuges from the wilderness. But those concepts separate us from it, and we lose sight of our own welfare. Humans are wilderness. We have to learn to engage with it every single day because it is part of our global body - so that even the tiny changes we make matter to us. The changes will be part of us too, and if we engage with our wilderness wholly and personally, we can be thoughtful about how we engage.

So do I feel it's OK for us all to go littering the shores with piles of rocks, pulling the moss off the trees and artfully carving up the trunks of trees? No. And this is a challenge for me. But I feel that being challenged by the ways we engage with our wilderness is very important. I feel it's essential that we go out and play. And while we play we must question (or help those with us to question) every move we make and its impact on the body of the ecosystem we are a part of. 

I sometimes balance rocks. I find it personally rewarding, and also a wonderful activity to help others to engage with a bit of landscape they may have previously walked over, unseeing. As I pick up the rocks I check for animals, algae and eggs living on and under them, and when I'm finished I carefully put them back again. I do this in order to leave things closer to the way I found them, but I also do it because balanced rocks can fall on small animals. I am not sure I'm doing the right thing, but I think the conversation around how we engage with our ecosystem is definitely the right thing.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 2 – Rubus!

This is the second in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin:

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How many times have blackberries scraped big bloody tears from your leg as you simply attempted to access the beach? Or the salmonberries taken over your garden and you spent day after day cutting them down and then digging out their stubborn, tough roots, only to find them growing back again a couple of months later? How many times have you planted delightful raspberry canes and found them soon interspersed with those godforsaken-spiny-blackberries-whose-fruit-is-inferior-and-nobody-seems-to-know-the-name-of?! Ha ha! Me too. But I love these Rubus anyway.

The Rubus genus is well-represented both in our gardens and in our island wilderness. We commonly grow raspberry, boysenberry, and wineberry in our gardens, but in the wild here we also find an abundance of red and yellow salmonberries, black raspberries, thimbleberries, and various blackberries: Trailing, Himalayan, and Evergreen (that horridly vicious spiky-looking one).

All of these are known for their heavenly berries, especially when ripened and warmed by the sun and picked during a hike through the woods. But did you know that you can use other parts of the plants as well? The leaves of red raspberries are well known for their use in teas as a uterine tonic, and black raspberry and young blackberry leaves can be picked, dried, and used the same way. Wear gloves, though – their thorns grow under the leaves as well.

And then there are the shoots. Every spring for hundreds if not thousands of years, the fresh shoots of salmonberry, blackberry, and thimbleberry have been harvested young and tender, often eaten fresh, steamed, pickled, or stir-fried. It’s June, and we’re a bit past this stage of their growth by now, but if you do find any soft flexible cane shoots extending up off the older canes or out of the ground nearby, you can pull your hand along them until they snap off like asparagus. When you’re ready to eat them, peel off the skin and prepare them any way you enjoy asparagus. It’s certainly very different, but totally delicious. And each species (even each colour of salmonberry bush) has a different flavour!

Finally berries.

Salmonberries – first of the wild rubus to ripen, they grow unstoppably all over the place, here – especially in wet meadows and roadsides. Those with exclusively green shoots grow yellow/orange berries, and those with red shoots grow red berries which darken to nearly black as they ripen. Salmonberries taste a little brighter, and with less of a rich flavour than other Rubus berries, although the red ones are sweeter than the yellow. Salmonberries seem to develop the most juicy flavour when they’ve plumped up in wet weather and sunshine, but then they’re so watery that they don’t work well in pies. They’re also a little too seedy for baking, since they lose so much water in the process that you’re left with mostly seeds. Also watch out if you’re picking after a few days of rain showers; they tend to lose their flavour, or even get mouldy inside.

Blackberries – sweet, rich, earthy, and a little bit terrifying, if you’ve ever been caught among them. And also the best for baking, which is why you may have been caught there in the first place, heading towards the middle of the brutal thicket, trying to fill a five-gallon bucket for pies. They seem to retain a lot of their juice and flavour when baked or frozen. For fresh eating, I prefer the trailing blackberries, which are smaller and less abundant than the huge invasive species, but which taste sweeter and more precious. Like little diamonds compared to big quartz crystals. One thing to watch out for, these days, is the increasing population of D. suzukii larvae (that’s Drosophila, not David, though you might be forgiven for any confusion…). You may not notice the tiny fruit fly larvae as you pick the berries and shove handfuls into your mouth, but if you freeze them on a tray you might discover many little frozen white larvae protruding from between the drupelets of the fruits. It’s OK. Insect-eating is growing in popularity. Just eat them anyway! They’re the last of the Rubus to ripen in our area, and you’ll want to store them all up for winter.

Black Raspberries – these are far less common here, but if you find them they’re absolutely delectable. So try to! The plants look a little like raspberries, more fragile than Himalayan blackberries, and with smaller leaves and stems than salmonberries. The berries themselves are much darker in colour than cultivated raspberries, but have the same dull waxy coating, so can reflect almost purple in some light. The taste is fantastic, and you’ll likely not find enough to satisfy, so just eat them all fresh and quickly, before they’re gone.

Thimbleberries – ripe around this time of year, tall and green and leggy; home to gall wasps and bane of my garden, and I know people complain about their lack of juice and consequent seediness. They don’t even ripen all at once, forcing us to graze very very slowly… just a few every day. But to me they are worth it all for the flavour. They’re almost shockingly sweet, with both the earthiness of blackberries and the tartness of raspberries. I allow them to grow behind my bean trellis, poking their multi-coloured berries through at the sunshine. By the time the beans grow there, I have eaten them all anyway.

Happy summer, neighbours! I hope you enjoy the bounty of Rubus, this year.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

10 Things I am Learning the Hard Way: A Letter to my Teenaged Children

My dear teenaged children,

Sometimes I parent from a place of fear. I snap at you or threaten you with the most dire potential outcomes of your risk-taking endeavors. I'm terrified that you'll face the same hardships I did at your age - or worse. I'm terrified of losing you; of seeing your beautiful faces harden and grow distant. Sometimes, in struggling against my fears, I am not the parent I wish I was, and I know that my apologies don't cut it. Maybe they make it worse. In my heart I know the best I can do is to lead by example, because my advice is the last thing you want. But the remnant of my teenaged self needs me to pass on the things I'm learning the hard way, just so they don't go un-said. Just so I don't feel so helpless at watching you grow up and learn your own life's lessons the hard way.

I am still learning mine. I guess I'll never stop, and ten years down the road I may look back at these and laugh at my ignorance. But here they are, anyway - a snapshot of the things I have learned or am trying to learn at forty years old. May you live well, and may these things come to you more easily than they did to me.

Always adventure. Adventure is what life is made of. Without straying from the path, we'll never make discoveries; never feed our minds and souls and bodies and civilization. I forget all the time that I love adventuring - and then I find myself running wildly into the waves with all my clothes on, and realize I feel free again. Remember all those times we were ridiculous together? I love being ridiculous. And little adventures are important, too. Adventure can be as simple as grabbing a new fruit from a grocery store or laughing hysterically with a dear friend when it's way too late at night. These little adventures keep me going from day to day, but then I still need to feel abandon, which is why I call out our most adventurous friends and family for late-night silliness or school-skipping skating extravaganzas. Always have some of those friends - the friends who will say 'yes!' - and try to be one of those friends, too.

Trust - but not blindly. You want to be one of those people who says 'yes!', but you want to know where your limits are, too, so you don't become the person who leads everyone else into danger. This goes for trusting yourself as well as others. I have both a very easy time believing people, and a very hard time trusting them. This may come from that nasty feeling of having my trust broken so very many times. It sucks to feel like you've been had! But you have to get back up and keep trusting anyway. Because as soon as you don't trust, you can't trust anything. And then the world becomes a very scary place.

Forgive. You will be had. You will be hurt more than you can imagine. And whether you can find fault in yourself, someone else, or circumstances, you have to let it go. Blame is a sickening torture that will hurt you more than it will help. I have spent years of my life blaming people for the things they've done to me, and feeling hurt again and again and again. Some people naturally carry on as if nothing had happened. I'm not good at just shrugging things off and walking away, so I have trained myself to look at everyone from a compassionate perspective. Whether I understand it or not, there is always a deep-seeded reason for whatever has happened. It's not my fault and it's not theirs. It just is. The pain might still be there, but the blame doesn't have to be. And when you find yourself truly at fault - even for blaming others? Forgive yourself too.

Remember that you are loved and appreciated. It's easy to say that I will always love you. And you've heard it so often it probably sounds like background noise. I also know I didn't believe it when my mother told me the same thing. I thought, "yeah - but if you knew how bad I really am, you wouldn't love me anymore...". That was before I had children. Your Nana was right. She also told me that she never understood how much her mother loved her until the day she had me - and the enormity of the love surprised her. I don't know how to make you understand this. I wish I had understood it earlier myself, but it took my having my own children to even begin to grasp how big love really is. So I'll be patient. It's OK if you don't know how much I love you. I want you to go out and be independent, and I will give you a shove sometimes to get you going, but even if you don't feel it in your heart, please remember that in your parents you have a small army at your back, and ready to welcome you home to our embrace in a heartbeat - no matter what.

And you are still your own best friend. I accept that I will never know you as well as you know yourself. And you will - as I continue to do - seek all your life long to find people who truly see you and love you and put up with your beautiful uniquenesses. But none of them will ever know the exact moment that you need a hug. You have to go out and get that yourself. I will continue to try very hard to be there when you need me, but in the same way that a baby learns to self-comfort, you will learn to calm your own fears in the night, to pep-talk yourself before a performance or interview or date, and to look in the mirror and say 'it's going to be all right'. We'll still be the army at your back, but it's you out there on the front lines of your life.

Be you. And don't ever look back. Don't waste energy on relationships with people who make you feel worthless. You really will be OK without them. You come from a long line of people who keep struggling to be the person other people want us to be. Stop. OK? Just stop. It hasn't gotten me anywhere good. And you've seen the fallout in me, because this is something I still struggle with. I hate to say 'do what I say, not what I do' - I know that's not helpful, and you'll follow my actions more than my words, whether you want to or not. But I'm still working on this one. I've let go of friends and family because I couldn't be the person they wanted me to be, and it is still very painful. I can only hope that in seeing me struggle to make these changes, the journey is a little easier for you. You are both stunningly amazing just the way you are, and the way you will become. Please be that person. I am discovering people in my life who truly love me the way I am - and I know you will too.

Go outside. When all of the above are just way too heavy, get the hell out of there!! You don't have to struggle all the time! Remember those times I took you by the hand and just dragged you out into the woods? There are times when that is the only solution, and I don't regret it one bit, even though sometimes you screamed at me when I did it. Go take your own best-friend-self by the hand and take you outside. Sit under a tree, climb a tree, jump in the mud or the sand or the soggy old leaves or the ocean and just listen to the sound of the world. Feel the moss and the bark and the leaves and stones. Taste the air with all of your senses and just be there. Sometimes I take my camera with me, just so I feel like I'm being productive. Ha. Sometimes you have to trick yourself into being outside, but it's worth it. Just go.

Be patient. You never know what you are missing, while running by. I'm still terrible at this, so I set up systems to slow myself down. Sometimes I take other people with me outside, so that I have to wait for them, and in the process discover new things, and peace. I'm terribly impatient with other people. As you know, it takes your Pappa days, weeks, or years to answer questions or make decisions, and I've lost a lot of good times by constantly looking forward to what was ahead; egging and nagging him on instead of just loving where we were in the moment. You have both taught me a lot about patience, just by being my beloved children, and unfortunately, I think I am passing some impatience on to you. Hopefully I will learn patience better before you're grown.

Create. I don't care how you get creative, but do it. Whether you sing, dance, cook, fold carpets into origami or pancakes into drinking cups, expand your mind by playing with it. Creativity has saved my life more often than I really want to tell you.

Love. Thank goodness you are both proficient at this skill. Please ensure you don't lose it. Love can be frightening, and challenging, and just plain painful. Love can tear you to shreds. But if it couldn't, it wouldn't be worth it. Don't ever become afraid to love - everybody and everything. Even the people you would like to blame. Because love really is the answer to everything. Love will lead us through all of the other things I've just talked about. Love will hold us together when we're falling apart. It's life. It's God or religion or salvation, or whatever you want to call it. It's the one-dimensional strings that hold us all together, bound to each other and every other tangible and intangible thing in the universe. You, my beautiful children - in all the good times and the bad times we've known - you taught me that. Thank you.

Love, Mama.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Unschooling to School... AND BACK AGAIN!!

It is with great relief and joy that I finally formally announce that, after two years of independent school experience, we're going back to unschooling. Since we made the decision after spring break, Tali has begun to get his passion back, and both he and Rhiannon are becoming more giddy as the days go by, and as they make exciting plans for the future. Unschooling is not without challenges, of course, and we've been asked a few questions about this decision, so I thought I'd answer them publicly.

How will they graduate?
First of all... they might not graduate! I could easily start listing the many options for unschoolers to achieve highschool graduation, but the technicalities are different depending where you live, so Googling the topic or connecting with local homelearning resource groups would be your best bet if you're interested in this. What I can tell you is that it's OK with me if my kids don't graduate. At least one of them will probably attend a university, because that's what he wants, but both of them are more interested in their long-term life goals and following their passions than in stepping up the ladder. Many careers don't depend on university, and many people benefit from university courses without enrolling or pursuing degrees or certificates. Both of my kids have already followed online university courses for free, simply because they were interested.

The world is changing - it used to be that libraries, universities, and some other institutions were the go-to places for information, knowledge, and success, and only available to the privileged. But it's not that way anymore. The internet has opened those things to everyone. Not only are universities free to attend in an increasing number of countries, but even in countries like ours where they continue to be expensive, they offer ever more and more for free to the public. The internet has made many such resources available to people in remote places, and has provided a venue for connections and conversations that might not otherwise happen. In other words, the richness of learning, development, and ingenuity that used to happen at universities is beginning to spread out via the internet, and I expect that by the time my kids are in their late teens, the campuses of the world will be more like the world wide web.

What if they do choose college or university? 
There will still be some benefits to having physical labs and gathering spaces, of course - both for my physics-obsessed son and my pop-star hopeful daughter. So how will my kids get into such spaces if they choose to? Well, it turns out that unschoolers have some advantages when it comes to university application. There are also lists available of American and Canadian schools that are known to accept homeschooled/unschooled applicants. (I know these lists aren't complete, because our local university, UBC, has definitely accepted unschoolers and is not on that list.) With the growth of unschooling popularity, I can only imagine that the welcoming attitude towards unschooled university applicants will continue to grow, as well. My kids have a little bit of experience with presenting a portfolio, and are both becoming interested in leaving an online trail of their work and innovations, so I have little doubt that their entrance into universities - should they choose to go that route - will be a natural step on that pathway, when the time comes.

In 2011 Peter Gray did an interesting survey of grown unschoolers' journeys into the worlds of post-secondary schooling and careers. Most interesting to me was that it appears to make a noticeable difference whether kids were fully unschooled or only partially unschooled - and possibly not in the ways you might guess: Psychology Today article.

Don't they need a broader influence?
It's definitely true that unschoolers can miss out on all the specific influences and ideas that come from big schools - unless they attend one, of course. And I have known a couple of unschooling families who stuck very close to their own small circle of friends and activities, and whose kids may indeed have had a narrower view of the world than some others. But this kind of narrow view can be taken by schooling families, as well, and in my opinion has nothing to do with unschooling. I know both unschooling and schooling families who make an effort to experience many varied things, and we do this ourselves, too. I think it's essential that kids have freedom to choose their own paths, and with that freedom they need to have doors opened for them.

In order to open those doors for our kids we include them in almost everything we do (to the detriment of parents-only dates, unfortunately), and we allow them a lot of freedom to explore in the world and online. To keep them safe online, we have installed wired internet service in our home, and it's not available in their bedrooms. They understand that it's not because we don't trust them, but because we want the internet to be a public thing in our home. It keeps all of us accountable and safe. And plus - it means they often discover new things while reading over our shoulders! To keep them safe in their physical travels, we've accompanied them on bus-trips (once even observing from afar as they made their way through the slightly complicated city bus routes and transfers), to help them develop safe behaviour and confidence out there. After that we just clasp our hands together as all parents do and hope with all our hearts they make it through life relatively unscathed!

What about socialization?
Ah, yes. Well... socializing, at the moment, is the one true challenge of unschooling. At least in our small community it is. There are very few kids our kids' age who are free to socialize during the week, and there's still a small but not insignificant amount of derision from community members around our choices.

Which brings me to my terminology gripe, and a much bigger issue. "Socialization" means "to socialize" ... as if it is a thing one does to one's children. Like we might bastardize or customize or equalize them. My kids don't need me to socialize them. Being social is human nature. And they're different in the way they do that! My daughter is passionate about spending time with friends. She has many friends and she thinks about them all the time; she looks at most things in life through a social lens. My son would rather process things alone. He has a few very treasured friends - the sort of friends who are like cousins to him, even when he doesn't see them for years. He appears to be very lonely, sometimes, and sometimes he even feels lonely. But going to school for two years has made him lonelier. And that's the bigger issue.

Tali went to school because we wanted him to have more social interaction. We thought that his penchant for spending time alone or just with the family was making him miserable, and school would solve that. So he chose a lovely little school where he already knew a few of the kids, and his uncle is one of the teachers. It's a good school with high moral standards. He never faces the kind of frightening bullying that he has encountered in passing at other, bigger schools. The teachers and some of the other kids are thoughtful and supportive. And things were all right for a while. But gradually Tali's own feelings changed, until despite spending five days a week in a large group of kids, he now feels that he doesn't have any friends. He doesn't feel anymore that he's happy to be the person he is, but that there is something inferior about him, in the way he exists in the world. I remember that feeling very well. That feeling is the reason we chose to unschool in the first place. That is the feeling from being at the bottom of the social heap. And it is nurtured by the default situation of school.

A school of kids is like a school of fish: a homogeneous group of little beings, seen by the powers that be as a whole. Of course the teachers see the individual students, and the students see the individuality in each other, but the school has to make choices that benefit the whole. So the grade sevens go with the grade sevens to all the same classes, and the grade eights go with the other grade eights to the other classes, and at lunch time they go outside for lunch, but it's difficult for the two groups to merge because they've been separate in all the other activities. Outside at lunch, or in the corners of the progressively free-range classrooms, kids grapple with the social ladder, and take every possible shortcut to the top. They passively and not-so-passively intimidate and threaten each other; they compare their successes and failures, and they turn their backs on the kids they're using as rungs for climbing up on. In class-time, kids are evaluated and graded, which separates them into further categories, and no matter how unique they are, and no matter how much effort the teachers put into celebrating their individualities and strengths, they will still be part of the whole, and they will know where they sit on the social ladder. To some extent this happens in the adult world as well, but we have the freedom to leave the situations that don't serve our needs. At school kids don't have this freedom. Because they exist as a school of children.

So here we are, nine years into our unschooling journey, and now I can finally say we are going to "un-school". My kids never had to un-school, before, because they had never been to school. We parents certainly un-schooled ourselves and will always be doing so. But now that our son has fully participated in one of the best schools our region has to offer, he will also have the opportunity to un-school himself.

Of course, his journey will be much simpler, because he's not forging a new path; just making his way back to a path he has traveled, before. And he's doing it with great delight. He has already made some plans for next year - plans that will give him opportunities to be social with other teens! And he has begun countless new projects as the sparks of curiosity and creativity that drove him during the many years before school seem to have reignited.

stuff my kids are doing...

Since we committed to go back to unschooling again, both kids are much more inspired about life, and both doing things I'm proud of. So... how about a bit of kvelling!?

Click to enlarge and read this. He made this in school while he was supposed to be working on a group project about riverside development. He diverged...
And here's a group of beautiful friends making their first music video.

Also, Rhiannon is still healing from her wound. Two days ago (after 21 days!) a stick delivered itself out of her knee, and yesterday she got her stitches out. The wound isn't closed yet, and she has to soak it at least twice a day, but she's much more comfortable now, and can do pretty much anything, although she's using crutches for longer walks.

She is also changing her hairstyle. I promised her this as a sort of indulgence after the protracted injury and recovery and many boring hospital days. Stay tuned! It will be rather unique!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

how and why to use technology in a forest school

One of the draws of forest schools is the fact that many are 'unplugged'. At a time when our culture is becoming exponentially more digitally connected, we're noticing some pitfalls of being too connected. We are seeking ways to ground our thoughts and experiences, often literally by going out on the land and leaving technological devices behind. I think this is great, but I also think technology has a place in forest schools.

At Wild Art you'll definitely notice fewer electronic devices, which isn't even so much of an expressed rule as a matter of practicality when we're traipsing around over logs, through creeks and swamps, and up and down trees. We're too busy using our senses to bother with devices that require hands and mental focus. But there are exceptions.

It's important to me that wilderness is not just an escape from the rest of our lives, but that it is integral to our lives. That means that we have to let wilderness into our homes and technology from our homes into the wilderness. This way our thoughts and learning have no boundaries.

At Wild Art, a whole-world view and self-direction are paramount. Of all the things I hope people will learn at Wild Art, I hope most that they leave with a sense that their own engagement with the world matters. And technology is a part of our world. Banning it would be futile, and worse still, would force it into dark corners, where there is little support. So just as I welcome any conversation topic during the time we share together, I welcome technology.

Watches, visual aids, cell-phones and cameras are by far the most common devices among the kids I work with. Watches allow the kids to keep track of their own time, and sometimes help them understand the world around them (movement of the earth; weather, and even reflection and light as they play with the sun bouncing off their wrists). Visual aids are usually brought by me. I have a nice pair of binoculars, and flashlights are sometimes helpful, but the best of them is a pocket-sized 60x microscope that I carry around for looking at anything and everything that suits our fancy. Cell phones aren't that common. Many kids have them, but leave them behind for fear of damaging or losing them in the woods. I don't have one myself, and although occasionally someone pulls one out to check the time, take a photo or arrange a ride home, I rarely see them. I think that reception is pretty poor when we're in the forest out here, anyway. And cameras.

I love cameras. I document Wild Art days myself at least once a month, and sometimes the kids get involved with cameras, too. Getting new perspectives on the things we look at is always a great way to engage, and using cameras can be an excellent way to find and explore new vantage points. Camera-use also often means thinking about communication: Not only does it matter what we are communicating with our photos, but how does the photo-set up influence the viewer, and how does our own perspective influence the photo? All of these questions (and many others) come up and scatter widely into other areas of life. Even just the social interactions that arise from sharing our vantage points, our technological ideas and understanding, and our creativity are valuable. And this is all when the technology is on the side. What about when it's at the core of the group's inquiry?

Recently one of the Wild Art groups made a movie. It was a natural path to take, since their engagement had been mostly social, comedic, and with a lot of talk about video games they had been playing at home. So I embraced it and suggested movie-making. They spent the next four weeks developing and filming their funny idea, and this is the result:

(Thanks to these wonderful teens for allowing me to share their movie!)

They also presented their movie in the woods, using a projector, a king-size sheet, about a hundred and fifty feet of extension cords, and some ropes, sticks and rocks to set it all up. It seemed to me like a fabulous combination of technology and wilderness.

But what about the wilderness? Doesn't all this technology take away from our engagement with it? Maybe. But it also deepens our engagement. When we work and live in the wilderness, we can't help but be deeply familiar with it. Just like you know the feeling of your favourite pillow under your head, you know the different feelings of sitting on various types of moss and bark if you've spent enough time doing so. You know what species of tree branches will work best to hold up your bed-sheet movie screen, and what age of fern-fronds will be strong enough to tie a knot with. You know which twigs you can break off for convenience, and which are still alive and better left alone. You not only become familiar with the species of plants, insects and other animals that you cross paths with in the wild, but you become aware of their habits, their habitat, and the way these things matter and intersect with your own life. You will be an integral, engaged, and conscientious part of the world. And after all, isn't that what we use technology for?