Monday, September 20, 2010

Wandering Learning

You can click these photos to enlarge them!
My kids are like every other kid: infinitely amazing, if you just look at them with loving-parent eyes. :--)  They have their difficulties and their passions, though, and some things that they manage to totally impress people with.

Both kids are pretty passionate little scientists. They know more about how stuff works, local plant and animal species/habitat/ecosystems/reproduction, and the details of environmental concerns than many adults I know. This also encourages a rather advanced understanding of compassion, community and relationships, and, even more importantly, a sense of their importance in the world, and a feeling that there is an infinity of exciting universe to discover. In short: a passion for learning.

Guess why they have this? Because at least once a week for most of their lives (sometimes much more often) we walk in the forests. It's usually the same forest, even: the park beside our home. We just walk around, there, sometimes build forts, sometimes climb trees, sometimes look for wild food, sometimes are just on our way from one place to another... but always, always, we look at everything around us. And yes, I do know a bit about the forest ecology, myself... but not really enough. We make up names for the things we don't know, and look them up in our books, at home. We look at what various plants and animals, as well as earth, air, and watersystems are doing. We talk about what's happening, and sometimes get so inspired about our ideas that we go home and Google them for more information. We notice the year passing, not in distinct seasons, but in an endless parade of activity, and this is how we learn about the world.

Yesterday we went out mushrooming. We were on a quest for more of the delicious Chicken of the Woods we'd harvested the day before, but found none. So around and around the forest we tromped, scouring rotten logs for the delicious mushrooms, and instead finding centipedes, squirrels, frogs, birds (& vulture feathers!), tiny fish and skeeters in the now barely-flowing creek, another creek that is not yet flowing, again, but which we know is a wide, untraversable stream, all winter. We checked out the trees that have fallen this summer: two big ones. And talked about the different sounds they made (we heard them fall from our house), and talked about the interesting geometry of the other trees they took out in their falls, and how that could have happened. We also found mushrooms; far too many to look up and name, since there are apparently 2 or 3 times as many fungi as vascular plant species, in BC. But these are the few that took our fancy: yellow jelly fungus, artists' bracket and parchment fungi, all sorts of polypores, black-eyed parasols, toothed jellies (we think), acres of some unidentified parasol-like mushrooms, some tiny dark brown unidentified blobby life-form, and finally a bright pink bubblegum-like blob with milky droplets on it. It rather reminded us of a sea-slug! These photos are just from the few mushrooms we took home to identify (I didn't have my act together enough to bring the books or the camera with me, this time). Some other things we noticed on our walk were that most leaves really haven't turned, yet, but the licorice root is starting to be revived from all the rain (it dries out over the summer), spruce cones all over the ground, suddenly, some mushy poop (Was it deer poop? Why did the deer have diarrhea?), banana slugs are out in force right now, and seem to prefer certain types of mushrooms, most of which turned out to be edible, when we checked, and the interesting fact that the Run For the Ferry markers had been forgotten on the trail we followed, home. Oh -- and all that garbage! The dump road, which is the trail that runs through the park, used to be the road to the dump, and naturally is littered on either side (deep into the woods) with garbage of every description, but including a lot of broken glass and old rusty home equipment from 50 to 100 years ago. Interesting to explore, from a historical perspective (we thought the museum should have some of those things), but also we wondered at length why the GVRD didn't clean it up, when they made the park.

Is this going on a bit too long? That is how it is! Endless exploration! How can I possibly distill the learning and exploration we shared in 2 or 3 hours of walking down into one paragraph? I can't! Learning Happens. (I want us all to have t-shirts that say that...) In that one walk the four of us (Mama, Pappa, and 2 kids) made deep journeys in the areas of (to name just the major ones) geology, biology, geometry, physics, math, history, social studies, politics, ecology, and psychology (Why does this walk in the rain make us all so happy? What is it about being out here that is so good for our family? Are all people like this?)

Today I was talking about making our required annual learning plans with our homelearners' support teacher at Island Discovery. We so don't fit the forms!! She knows this. This is pretty much routine frustration for unschooling families (and for our poor teacher, trying to work within a system that doesn't fit the families she's working with), but nevertheless it's a frustration I thought I'd write a bit about, here. Those forms make it seem as though all of our learning can be done by planning! No way! I want the school boards to understand what we're doing; I want them to know that today, while I discussed their ridiculous requirements for homelearners, my 8-year-old son who can't spell to save his life and flat-out refuses to accept traditional education, left the room where his sister was participating in a group activity for grade 1-4's, and stood upstairs near me, pressed between a door and a wall, listening to the class he dearly wanted to join: the older kids learning about the molecules that form DNA. Why does he know and care about DNA? From our walks in the forest.

This isn't really all that new or different; it's the way my mother has always taught preschool to 3 and 4 year olds; it's the way we all learn when we have forgotten our obligations, and are just following our hearts. But somehow we forget that we learn this way. In the rigid social and political systems we've created for ourselves, we forget that we love to learn. We think that learning is about acquiring a set of skills or knowledge; we think it's about being able to conform to accepted norms and becoming acceptable, contributing members of society. Then we spend our lives escaping from our jobs at nightclubs, movies, bars, on mountaintops, in books, dreams, and in front of televisions. We forget that, once, before we went to school, we were learning every day; everything was interesting, and we didn't even want to go to sleep at night, because there was so much to experience, still.

Unschooling certainly has its pitfalls. We live on one income, we are hopelessly ignorant about the trends and fads that other families are spending their energy on, the kids are sometimes ostracized from their school friends' lives when they cease to fit in, we're not used to crowds (though this is partly a rural thing, too), my kids' knowledge-base is definitely different than that of their peers, sometimes we're lonely... and most of all, we spend every day questioning ourselves and our choices -- wondering if we're doing the right thing; wondering if our kids will resent us for this choice; wondering if the government will pull the rug out from under us and we'll fall hard on our beloved forest floor, flailing on our backs like flipped beetles. But this, like most things, turns out to be about trust. We are trusting that this path will lead somewhere beautiful, and so far it has.

Tomorrow we are going to bake cinnamon buns and have a play with some other homelearning kids.

Thank you, universe, for that.


  1. So glad to see you're posting again here.

    I don't have children yet but when I do, I've thought heavily about what kind of education I want them to have. Your blog has definitely helped me realize that unschooling is a rich possibility.

    I can imagine it is difficult, especially without a lot of support from the school system, but I think you're right. We learn so much by doing and by exploring. And honestly, so much of what I was taught in traditional school I've already forgotten because it wasn't interesting or relevant to me. When I came home from traditional school, I did the same things your kids do and those are the things I remember and that have fueled my passions in life now.

    Passion and love for learning are better taught outside of school, in my opinion, and are the some of the biggest keys to happiness, I think.

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

  2. Thanks, Sarah!
    I'm sure that homelearning is not suitable for many people. It's expensive, stressful, and a rather large social and organizational burden for many. But if it works out it's great.

    Unschooling, on the other hand, can happen even for kids who attend traditional public schools. I like that, in our infinite choices and adjustments to the systems we've chosen, we can all create what's right for our own individual children. My two kids are very different from each other, especially in learning styles and social realms. So there's a constant juggle to keep both of them getting what they need. But as long as we're managing, then I'm glad we've chosen this path.

    Thanks for your comment!


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