Sunday, November 19, 2017

Guided Explorative Projects

Explorative, creative learning is important. But it can be very hard to make happen, especially for those (most) of us parents who were raised in a conventional coercive school system. Two of the biggest issues we have run up against are my own fears of kids not doing enough, and my kids' difficulty in finding inspiration. So over the years I've come up with a few strategies for nudging them along without coercion, and I thought I'd share them with you.

*A note on curriculum: While I'm aware that many of my readers follow a purchased or school-provided curriculum, I think it's important to remember how very little these guidelines actually matter. If somebody says your child should learn the names of all our local planets in grade two, so you ensure memorization of these names and planet features, what is the likelihood that your child will remember them ten years later? Not much, unless the child was and continued to be interested in those facts. However, if the child never knew the names until he was in his twenties, and then took it upon himself to explore and discover them, he'd probably remember them simply because he cared more. It's like that with everything from reading to math skills to social skills. When we perceive a personal need or desire to learn, we do. There is indeed a progression of suggested skills in most curriculum packages, but I have learned from my children that skill #7 doesn't need to be preceded by a teaching of skills #'s 1-6. When the need for them arises, they'll fall into place. And depending on the kids' learning styles, the way things fall into place will differ.

I suppose this article will be useful for different people in different ways. If you're a teacher or a homeschool parent you'll want to adapt to your curriculum; if you're an unschooler or a teacher of self-directed learners, you might want to read this article with the kids and see how or if they'd like to engage with these ideas. Whatever you do - enjoy! And I'd be happy to hear about other ideas in the comments.

The essential thing to keep kids interested is to keep the subject matter relevant. Unless a child has some personal context for ancient Rome or cell biology, it will be of little interest. So start with things that matter. And that's home. Family. Direct experiences the child is having. And you can't provide the experiences to augment the ideas you're trying to teach; you have to provide the experiences first - or better yet, work with experiences the child already has and allow those to lead to new and different places.

Now for the project suggestions:


I have to start here because honestly there are so many amazing books out there that bring our own local spaces to life with wonderful stories and images. From local mythology to children's picture books to adult fiction and non-fiction, there is very little as wonderful as exploring your own world through a passionate author's eyes.

Activities to do with the books include:
  • create maps of the places listed in the books
  • write fan-fiction based on the books
  • create dramatic productions based on the characters or even directly adapted from the books
  • create a tour-guide to the area shown in the book
  • take the book to the specific location where the story takes place and read it there
  • replicate the foods, crafts, or other things mentioned in the book
  • ...etc. Let the book and your kids' creativity lead the way!

This was my kids' giant hand-drawn map of Haida Gwaai, inspired from print-outs, photos, and the amazing book, the Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant. We also wrote to John, since he's a local author, and thanked him for his wonderful book.

Local Map Exploration

Get a very good local map (printed version is better than digital) and hang it on an often-seen wall. Good sources for such maps are often geological survey departments, hiking or orienteering groups,  a map store, or Backroad Mapbooks, here in Canada. Find a map that has topography, creeks, trails, historical and geological features... whatever interesting things you can find. If the best maps you can access are online, find one and have it printed large-scale to hang on your wall, or laminated for table- or floor-use.

The key here is local. You want to find a map local enough and large enough that you can see the location of your house or building as distinct from your neighbour's. This is what makes things matter. You can draw yourselves onto the spot where you live.

The obvious is to start exploring things you find on the map, and letting those explorations lead to new discoveries, but we've also had many fun map-games, in addition to the exploring. Sometimes we got out little toy cars and drove them around on the map, telling stories as we went; sometimes we made map-board-games, where we set out missions to accomplish on the map, and used dice-throws to determine inches traveled between places. For example: Leave home, go to the store to buy popcorn, check the mail, pick up a parcel from the post office, go to friend's house to pick them up, and take them to the beach for dinner. First person to arrive at the beach is the winner! Although in our non-competitive household, we ended up picking each other up from the road as we went by.

Another idea is long-distance treasure-hunting, using the map as a first clue and travel-aid. We once set up a fabulous mile-and-a-half treasure hunt for our daughter's birthday cake. The hunt began in the daylight, and by the time they found the cake it was dark, necessitating a hike up a candle-lit trail to the cake in the dark woods. Of course my job was to hike the cake in before they arrived, turn on the electric-tea-light-lit trail markers, and then light the cake just as they arrived. And yes - forest fires are a concern here. But it was well into the rainy season by the time we did this.

Local Resource History and Manufacturing:

Things don't just come from a store! Hopefully you already shop locally as much as possible, so follow some of those leads. If you see locally-produced goods for sale, see if you can arrange for guided tours of the places they're produced. Sometimes you can even get involved in the production or tending at the facility. Some ideas of this sort are:
  • farms (we once watched a lamb being born at the farm where we buy our lamb-meat!)
  • dairies, including the grazing areas for the cattle or goats, if possible
  • broom-makers, milliners, glass-blowers, shoemakers and other specialty shops
  • breweries, candymakers, and other food production
  • cement factories
  • the local dump or recycling facility - we did a tour of ours once and it was fascinating!
  • mines (including abandoned mine-adits like the one near our house!)
  • fisheries and fish-processing plants
The list goes on and on of course... look at where the objects you buy come from, and see if you can visit! We once discovered that the wheelbarrow we own (the most popular affordable wheelbarrow at our local shop) actually is made in the small Dutch town where my grandmother and father lived! Since it's half-way around the world, we haven't been there, but we sure looked them up on Google Maps! You just never know what discoveries this exploration may bring to you.

Google Maps or Google Earth:

Well where to begin?! Obviously just exploring Google Maps (or Google Earth if you want to get fancy) is a fabulous activity on its own - no guidelines, nobody hanging over your shoulder, handing over expectations or asking you what you learned... just discover. We've found some of the most amazing things, from unknown (to us) remote modern day civilizations, to craters, migrating animals in the Savanna, and even shipwrecks. We also toured our own community in Streetview and found people we know!

But I promised you some guided activity ideas. Here are a few.

How about guided Streetview tours? Yep! Google offers those: Google Maps Treks
You can also use Google Maps to create your own customized maps on My Maps. Consider using this tool for special projects that you set up for your children or better yet that they make for themselves. Some ideas to consider: a treasure-hunt, a map of local pets or babysitting clients, a road-conditions map, or a forest or wilderness observation/conservation map (make field trips into specific areas and detail the condition of the area, animals observed, or places of interest on an interactive map to share with others). You can also use My Maps to track where you've been on your local (or global) adventures! These maps can have multiple contributors, which opens the opportunity for groups of kids to work together on creating useful and interesting maps that are meaningful to them in a local and social context.

One activity I set up for my kids was a Google-based story writing project. I set up a few tables like the one below, providing just enough information for some Google-maps searches that led them to a few vaguely or directly-related places around the world. Each of the sets of places followed some kind of theme or story-line I had in mind, but I didn't provide this to my kids. Their mission was to fill in the table as much as possible or desired, and then to write a story using all or most of the places, things, and details from the table. Don't get too attached to your own ideas that went into compiling the table - if you leave enough information out and encourage your kids to really let loose creatively on a regular basis, the story your kids produce will likely be nothing like the one you had envisioned. Your kids might even discover a different place, business, or item at the coordinates you've given. That doesn't matter - this activity has no wrong answers. There's sure to be something interesting to come out of any solution to the puzzle.

Obviously, this does take a bit of prep-work, but I have to admit it was fun for me. :-) The table below is an example, but if you use this idea, I encourage you to tailor the table to suit your own needs and interests. I usually had the Place Name column and the Address/Coordinates column, but often had other things like "altitude", "local recipe", or "person who lives there", which sometimes included real people in our community, famous people, or scientists or employees whose names I found on websites of the places I listed!

Name of PlaceGPS coordinates or
Street Address
Person, plant or animalWeather forecast
(or other detail)
Other notes

201 Kicking Horse Ave P.O. Box 148
Field, British Columbia

-1C (31F)

51.430112, -116.462598phyllopod

Use satellite view

Highway 838 Midland Provincial Park Drumheller, Alberta Canada

Maotianshan Shales


Youpaotai Rd, Nanshan Qu, Shenzhen Shi, Guangdong Sheng, China A small weed growing from a crack in the pavement

Use satellite view!

Spoiler Alert! If you are wondering what this table is about and don't want to go research those locations, here they are, in order that they appear on the table. This will give you an idea of the theme I was following, on this table:
  • Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation
  • Mt. Field (location of Walcott Quarry; Cambrian fossils)
  • Midland Provincial Park (contains Royal Tyrell Museum and is near to Fossil World)
  • Maotianshan Shales (Cambrian shales in Chengjiang, Yuxi, China)
  • Chiwan container terminal in China

And maybe story-writing isn't your or your kids' thing? Maybe this info will feed into a fabulous painting or sculpture; maybe it will become a theatrical production or a YouTube comedy show. The idea is to give some inspiration and then step back to allow kids to run wild and see what comes out. So work with it until it works for you.

Exploring Google Maps is a bit like air-travel, so here's one last idea, while it's on my mind: get the free flight simulator, GeoFS, and fly from airport to airport, discovering new places as you go! My son has spent countless hours discovering new places both local and abroad. It can be fun to start at your local airport, fly over your own home, and then abroad to locations you've visited before or perhaps completely new places. And of course... there are many types of planes to fly, and some are better at aerobatics than others. It's basically a violence-free reality-based video game. There's a little concern with the ability to talk to other users online, but I'll leave you to your own family's internet safety protocol for that one. Enjoy!

Please do add your own fabulous ideas in the comments. I'm always happy to hear about them, and so are other readers!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Exciting news, here... remember when I reluctantly gave up most of my teaching in order to concentrate on my art career? I still love teaching, and have managed to get a little in, but I really have been working my butt off in the art department, too. And finally I have a big announcement:

It's official! Over the coming eight months I will be collecting stories in south-western BC, Germany and the Netherlands for a new installation called what.home. I've got some big grant applications sent off, a growing list of people to interview, a Kickstarter campaign, and most excitingly this beautiful invitation from Goleb in Amsterdam (photo). Would you like to tell me your stories about home? Find out how at the end of this post. First let me tell you what it's all about!

Globalism, human transience and the prevalence of social media mean that our homes, lives, and thought processes have been fractured into a multitude of soundbites and images gone before we even process them. Our mindscapes consist of a jumble of these pieces, and out of this we are forming our current definition of 'home'.

what.home is a series of interviews about the concept of 'home', how our lives and cultures are affected by displacement, settlement, migration, identity, colonization, and landscape. The interviews will be presented in fragments through social media (@what.home) and as an immersive fractured film installation in Europe and Canada. In fracturing and disseminating the stories of home I am creating a space for viewers to reassemble them into our global conscience, pulling ourselves together across cultural and experiential divides.

My own and my husband's families immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States (but from England, the Ukraine and Ireland, generations earlier), and made the BC wilderness their business and their hearts' home. We are people of European ancestry living on unceded First Nations territory. Stories of our European heritage and emigration are part of our psyches, but so are Salish stories, British Columbia settler history, and the BC rainforest that we know as home.

Everywhere people are affected by the busy moving around of our global population. “Home” has come to mean many things to many people. Currently, as racial and territorial violence increase around the world, and we live here as settlers on a land that isn't even our own, questions of belonging and identity seem to matter very much.

I have been invited to research, develop, and install this work at Goleb in Amsterdam in May, 2018. Goleb is an artist-run project space that works with issues of identity and belonging through its immigrant artist population. Goleb artists have been very active in the areas of home, belonging and identity that I am dealing with in my own work. From Igor Sevcuk to Toby Paul; Go-Eun Im to Bardhi Haliti to Hee-Seung Choi, the artists at Goleb represent a diaspora of experiences of home and identity; all working in related directions and from diverse backgrounds. Together we plan to work with globalism and the rising spectre of territorial tension/injustice.

In the end all these stories will come together as a fractured projection installation at Goleb in Amsterdam and in British Columbia. Yes, it's a huge project, so I am taking it one chunk at a time. Right now I'm booking interviews and making travel plans!

Would you like to get involved? This year I am looking for people of all backgrounds and histories to interview on Bowen Island, Vancouver's lower mainland, southern Vancouver Island, the Netherlands, Bavaria, and between Frankfurt and Wiesbaden in Germany! Please contact me in person through my website and we will arrange to do an interview on a dry day in an outdoor location that relates to the word 'home' for you. Indoor interviews are possible when outdoors is not an option.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

kitten mania

Between the teens and the new feline baby I am getting absolutely nothing done this afternoon, so why not share a bunch of kitten photos? I seem to get more traffic to kitten photos than anything else, so... indulge, readers! Our kitten is undeniably adorable.

Both cats seem to get along better when they're treated equally. So we've moved Blackberry's belongings out of the bathroom and are just giving her freedom. She follows Lughnasa around and attempts to copy her. This results in some incredibly sweet things like the fact that they now both eat dinner with us, and that Lughnasa has taken on the role of mentor. She still lets Blackberry know with a swipe, hiss, or growl, when her behaviour is over-the-top, but she also spends a huge amount of time hanging out near Blackberry and demonstrating things, then waiting and watching in case Blackberry will follow suit.

What can I say. Kittens are hilarious.

Here you see Lughnasa very pointedly demonstrating how to climb around in the tree. Blackberry only followed as far as the main trunk, but Lughnasa waited quite a while to see if she might come further out. Then when Blackberry started goofing around, Lughnasa gave her a little hiss and swipe, and left.

After Lughnasa left, Blackberry didn't know what to do, so just hung around in the tree for a while, waiting. We waited with her.

When the cats' food was separated, each cat was desperately trying to eat the other's food, instead of her own. As soon as we put them in the same place, each began eating mostly her own food, with a bite or two of the other's, for good measure. They also wait patiently while the other eats. No competition, now that we're giving them their freedom to sort out their own issues! Apparently unschooling/free-range parenting is important for cats, too. :-)

We're having to take Blackberry out for more supervised outdoor visits, these days. She's beginning to show signs of boredom and confusion inside (shredding things, chewing cables, peeing on the couch), so her outdoor habituation training has begun! Lughnasa seems happy about this, and is eager to be a patient mentor. Generally after playing outside Blackberry becomes so exhausted that she goes crazy, and needs to be brought in for a big nap. The expression you see here is as she was crossing the border to overtired-mania.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Non-Consumerist Gifts

When I was a teen, I learned about the troubles that human greed would eventually bring us; chiefly through global warming, by the year 2100 or so. I was worried for my grandchildren but relieved that I and possibly my children would be dead by the time anything too scary happened. And I thought it would be a good idea to stop consuming so much. I tried to cut back, and I took pride in buying second-hand, mending and repairing.

When I was in my early twenties, my partner and I understood that climate change was happening much faster than we'd previously understood, and that our future children would most definitely be impacted by it. We expected to feel the effects of our over-consumption by about 2050, when we'd be settling into retirement, and hopefully better prepared for whatever wars, famine, climate change or societal collapse might happen. And we had kids anyway, and we bought them lots of stuff, but I tried to limit my purchases to things that were educational or at least natural and beautiful and not made in countries that underpaid their workers or polluted with their factories. We only bought junky toys sometimes. And miraculously, my partner and I raised two kids who were happy to be given "experiences" or "wishes" as gifts from us and their friends... and they were still inundated with toys, clothing, books and other things, because frankly it's hard to walk down the street without returning home with something, whether it's brand new, from the thrift shop, from the free bin at school, or just found on the sidewalk. Stuff is everywhere, so it was hardly our fault.

In my thirties it became apparent that climate change was happening now, and that any associated plagues, wars, and apocalypse would destroy whatever parts of the world they might by the time our children were adults. And we knew that our own greed and consumption was complicit in this, so we challenged our family to stop giving gifts. We got some hearty approval, some reluctant cooperation, some quiet and not-so-quiet gift-giving-anyway, and some outrightly offended very dear friends and family, who justifiably said that our decision to opt out of consumerist holidays (while maintaining the treasured family gathering traditions we love) was selfish and arrogant, and a slap in the face to people who just wanted to give us gifts because they love us. Thank goodness we're still close to most of these people. If you're reading this, we hope you forgive us. We know the mistake was ours.

We failed. We are now in our forties, and the stirrings of war and societal collapse have been pulling at the hairs on our backs for a few years already. We managed to turn a few people away from gift-giving, got politically involved in efforts to stop consumerism, gave and received a few feel-good 'sponsorship' gifts, and tried very very hard to save the world, while still managing to fill our home with stuff. We also built more storage.

The problem is not gifting. The problem is wanting. This week I was out walking in the crisp autumn air with my friend, shuffling intentionally through the fluffy leaves, and trying to come to terms with the fact that I can't afford a new camera body for my current art project. My friend mentioned a psychological experiment she knows about, where in one asks oneself "what do I truly need?"... and of course ... I already have everything I truly need. I have a home to live in, as much food as my family can possibly eat, clean water, happy healthy children, and good friends with whom to enjoy the gorgeous piece of earth we live upon. Do I need a camera body for this project? No. I knew that already. I just wanted one, and used logic to convince myself I needed one. I also model that unfortunate skill to my children, all the time.

Yup. I'm still consuming, and the fault is mine.

Back to gifts. At dinner today I asked my kids what non-consumerist gifts would make them happy. They said they'd like to do things with us. Dedicated parent-kid time. They'd like to go hiking. They both thought that yesterday's hot chocolate picnic was an awesome gift. "But it wasn't a gift." We said. "Well, you know..." my son ventured. And my daughter explained that a gift has to be something unusual. For example reading a book together isn't much of a gift for a family that does it every night. But for our two teens who have been neglected in this way in recent years, it's a special thing right now. Dessert can be a gift if you don't do it often.

So, following this logic, which seems incredibly solid to me, it seems that gifts are gifts because we rarely do them. Holiday gift-giving has to be ever more extravagant because we buy so much during the year. If we want to survive, we have to stop buying stuff all the time. Then it would still be wonderful to give each other a hike or a good pair of mittens or a cup of hot chocolate for Christmas.

Monday, October 30, 2017

No more bricks in the wall!

Last night I watched Roger Waters perform Another Brick in the Wall (We Don't Need No Education) with a group of local kids. I realized while watching these kids with their heads bowed, then tearing off their jail uniforms to dance in black RESIST t-shirts that since the first time I heard this song, as a child, it was deeply meaningful to me. I remember that I swore to myself I would change the system I grew up in, and at the very least not send my own children into it. Then I forgot about that.

I realized last night that in unschooling my children through thick and thin and a heap of fears and doubts and roadblocks, I've succeeded. I have two emancipated children. I've fulfilled my own dream.

Wow. What an amazing feeling! We are no more bricks in the wall!! Change is possible.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What to Do in the Wild: Ideas for Creative Wilderness Play with Children

One of the biggest obstacles to getting engaged with the wilderness is a lack of inspiration. Kids - especially urban kids - simply don't have the experience to generate fun ideas when they arrive in the wild to play. Teachers and parents, having perhaps not much experience themselves, or otherwise having left wilderness play behind in their childhood, may not know how to help this situation. I'd like to offer some ideas about both preparing to take kids into the wild, and then inspiring them to engage there.

There are some general preparations we can make, as adults, to ensure that our wilderness adventures will be safe and fun. If we are confident ourselves, the kids we bring with us into the wild will be much more confident also, and then we're all likely to get more out of the experience. Most importantly, although I'm going to give some cautionary notes, don't let these things scare you; just get used to looking for them. There are far more hazards in the city, but because most of us are accustomed to these hazards, and automatically keep an eye out for them, they don't pose much of a threat. I promise you that with enough time spent in the wilderness, a similar sense of confidence and ease will develop.

Get to know the plants: Take a camera or a notebook or whatever you need to help yourself engage with what you encounter, and get to know the opportunities and hazards in your area. I recommend a high-quality, photo-rich plant identification book, so that you can familiarize yourself with what you'll find, locally. Spend some time every day identifying plants, until you feel confident. If you discover dangerous plants in your area, don't avoid them; learn about them so you can pass this knowledge onto the kids. It's always better to be informed than sheltered. You never know where or when these plants will be found again.

Get to know the terrain: Try clambering through some rough areas so you get a feel for what you are personally able to tackle, and what the terrain is like, in general. Try out some of the wilderness activities listed below! Keep hazards in mind, so that you become more attuned to them in general. This skill will keep you safer, but more importantly keep your mind at ease, when you're out with your children or class. Some general hazards to watch for:
  • Look up for things that can fall (rotten or dead trees, branches broken off but hung up overhead, large dangerous cones, wasp nests, overhanging loose rocks, etc.)
  • Look down for ankle-breakers and sink-holes (quick-sand, deep holes that may be hidden by ferns, wasp nests and biting ant hills, deep mud, sharp garbage or barnacles, etc.)
Getting to know the terrain doesn't just mean identifying hazards. It also means falling in love with it - inspire yourself! Look to see what you can discover that's amazing about someplace seemingly mundane. Even a relatively featureless muddy bank holds not only a plethora of life-forms, but also opportunities for play. Get down on the ground and explore with your eyes and nose and fingers. See what wonders you can find and let yourself fall in love. The children you eventually bring back to this place will catch your enthusiasm like a steady wind and carry it on.
Get to know the weather: Certain weather patterns can present certain challenges, so checking the forecast and being prepared is always important. Obviously, storms can present hazards (falling trees, flooding, extreme cold, lightning, etc.) that you may want to avoid entirely. But in addition to those extreme situations, unprepared people often run into trouble. Here are some useful preparations:
  • If it's hot, bring sunscreen, water, and plan to be in the shade. Sunhats are essential for programs I run in hot weather.
  • If it's cold, keep active, and keep dry. Even with mittens, hands tend to get cold, especially when building things, so some sort of hand-warmers are a great idea. (Learn how to make reusable hand-warmers here.)
  • If it's cold and wet, don't plan to be out all day, and dress appropriately. If there is any water available (rain, creek, puddles, mud, ocean, etc.) kids will get wet. So waterproof rain gear and good tall boots are important to have over top of warm garments, mittens and hats. Fleece or sheep's wool is best because it dries faster than cotton.
  • If it's wet but temperatures are mild, kids can still get quite cold, as the damp saps the heat out of their bodies. Bring rain gear and a change of clothes.
  • Let kids regulate their own temperature. Make sure they have warm/dry clothes with them, but allow them to wear what they feel is best. They will usually reach for warmth when they need it, and learn from mistakes when they get cold. Keeping kids bundled when they resist can also be a hazard, since overheating is also a problem (and for some kids happens quickly when they're active), sweat eventually also becomes cold, and mostly they just feel disrespected and miserable.
So you're comfortable in the wilderness. You'd probably be just fine sitting there with a book or your phone, or simply taking some much-needed rest from the busy world. But I think we all hope the kids will get more engaged than that. Let me offer a few creative and explorative activities for you to try. I don't recommend taking kids out with the intention of doing any of these specifically, but keeping your mind open to the nature of exploration, and having these up your sleeve for those 'what to do next' moments.

Things to Do:
Water Play: If you can get to water (or if you can't escape it), use it! It's not only a fabulous resource for learning about physics (I'm not suggesting formal lessons; just freely playing with flow and permeability is highly educational), but is also a wonderful way to bring people together. Maybe you all get together with a common goal of diverting a creek, or of creating a little pond. Maybe one person is delivering water for another's sand or mud-construction. Maybe the rain just soaked everyone and now you're huddled in a grotto eating lunch. Or maybe you're all just jumping and rolling in a flooded meadow. Whatever it is, take precautions (watch for strong current in creeks or signs of kids becoming too cold), and have fun!! Once you get used to the idea of being wet, you can play and explore with abandon.

Climbing Trees: A tree can be a wonderful vantage point, as well as a unique ecosystem to explore. It also provides a great opportunity for muscle and skill development. So educate yourself about safe climbing practice. Good climbing trees are reasonably open near the trunk (not too bushy), while having enough branches to easily climb. They are flexible, strong, healthy trees, with branches generally at least as big around as your upper arm. Always test branches before putting weight on them; always make sure you're hanging on in multiple places, so that if you begin to fall, you'll still be holding onto something. Always keep your weight near the tree's trunk. And don't panic. In our area (the Pacific Northwest), some excellent climbing trees are young healthy cedar, Douglas fir, and alder. Some brittle trees to avoid climbing are maple, hemlock, and anything dead or dying.

Generally, I think it's important for kids to get themselves into trees. If I have to help them up, they haven't gained the confidence to climb safely, or to come back down safely. So I may give advice about technique or suggest good-looking foot-holds or climbing-routes, but I don't lift. And yes, I do also climb trees myself, while making sure that when I'm with young kids, I can still easily and quickly get to them if needed.

Digging: Using hands, sticks, flat rocks, or even shovels, digging can be a fabulous activity. There are wonderful creative and explorative opportunities in the holes excavated, the pile of dirt created, and whatever may be found in the dirt, while digging. Digging might be towards a specific goal, like harvesting clay, creating a sand-castle, or play-mining, but it might just be for the joy of discovery. Some dangers around digging are harming the roots of trees, or creating instability in a slope. Keep these things in mind, but otherwise have fun!

Building: Build whatever your imagination can dream up, using whatever materials are available (without killing plants or disturbing too much habitat). Sticks and branches are familiar materials for forts, walls, and bridges, but try some other things too: Mobiles (using rope, string, or vines), sculptures (sticks lend themselves very well to making forest fairies or tall human-like sculptures, and improvised handmade tools and musical instruments. Rocks can be wonderful for building dams, rock-houses, rock-stacks, and inuksiuk. They can be used to line fire pits for real fires or play, to support structures, and to divert water-flow. Both sticks and rocks can be used in conjunction with all manner of mud, dirt, moss, and clay to create sturdy structures. One word of advice for the well-being of the environment you're using: It's important not to take more than can quickly regenerate. Pulling out lots of ferns, branches, or moss can be tempting, especially when they seem abundant, but too much taken causes serious harm to the environment. For example, too much moss removed from the trunk of a tree or the forest floor will prevent water retention in that area and may cause the tree to weaken or die. Pay attention to the ecosystem you're working in, and respect it.

Pretend Play: Any imaginative game you can play in the house can be easily moved to the wild. You don't need to bring any supplies; costumes can be made of wilderness materials (leaves, grass, bark from dead trees, and face-paint of crushed grass, mud or clay), and props and tools will similarly be improvised. Take any inspiration and see how you can make it work in the wild. Alternatively, let the wilderness itself inspire you! Look around and imagine something fantastic. A couple of weeks ago one of the boys in the group I was leading found a big crumbling rotten stump, spilling its orange and brown powdery remains onto the forest floor. Instantly it seemed to him like the mother-load of cheese, and he began "mining" for cheese. Soon he was delivering all sorts of different types of "cheese" to his friend, who opened a "restaurant", serving amazing-sounding meals (mostly of cheeses) upon fancy bark-plates. This particular pretend play lasted for two afternoons, and we are all now a little more knowledgeable about cheeses, restaurant entrepreneurship, and decomposing forest materials.

Music and Drama: Whether you start a random beat-box on an echo-ey mountainside, a drum-circle around a hollow-log, a puppet-show with leaf-and-twig people, or theatre sports in a sunny glade, the wilderness is your stage. Take advantage of the wide open spaces you find to get loud and exuberant. Sometimes I also use performance as a way to bring divergent groups together, to bridge social difficulties, or to refocus when kids are getting tired. Have a few great stories in mind for moments like these, or allow the wilderness to inspire a new story. Some of the older groups I've worked with took a whole week or season to create a play and movie entirely in the wild, even sometimes bringing a projector, multiple extension cords, and a large flat sheet (screen) into the woods for a film-showing. Anything you can do inside can be approximated in the wild, usually with great discoveries made in the process.


Thanks for reading through this article! You now have some ideas for kids to do in the wilderness. But remember these are ideas for YOU. No child is going to be naturally engaged with something new that their parent or teacher is clearly not engaged with. I can't tell you how many times I've taken groups of people out in the wilderness and seen the kids look up at their parents or teachers, often woefully under-dressed, standing around on their phones or assuming an aloof stance at the edge of the play area. Don't be that grown-up. Tell yourself to let go of your adult inhibitions.

You're going to get dirty. You're going to get wet and tired, with splinters in your hands and tears in your eyes. You are going to haul your grown-up body to places it hasn't been in years, and lie it down on the ground. You'll go home with twigs in your hair and mud or moss or sand in places you never imagined. Take pride, because then you will be an accomplished, trustworthy mentor and explorer.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Patience with Democracy

We recently brought a kitten into our home, on the advice that this would help our three-year-old cat's loneliness. Well, it's not the kitten who's afraid and reluctant to connect; it's the older cat. This sweet, careful, and exceedingly tiny kitten takes every opportunity she gets to come close to the older cat and introduce herself. Sometimes she goes up and sniffs the older cat's nose, which generally leads to growling. Mostly, the little one approaches quietly to a safe distance, assumes a small, still position... and waits.

This has been going on for about a week, and the little one's patience seems to be endless. We humans (and probably she herself) know there is a potential friendship, but as long as the older cat is not open to it, it's not going to happen, so the little one sits and waits.

My human little one has been going through a similar process. She spent about a year and a half turning one of her favourite books into a script for a musical, then presented it to her theatre group and had it approved. After nearly two years of intense work, she had just finished the casting process, and was digging into the big job of co-directing her first play... when issues of race and representation came up. She's a girl of European descent adapting and directing a very Chinese play with mostly white children, on unceded Coast Salish territory. As settler parents, we thought this was wonderful! I was so proud of my girl for taking an interest in other cultures. But not all parents in our daughter's community felt this way, and the theatre group has tumbled over and over trying to grapple with the issues, to resolve racist connotations, to take white privilege into consideration, to make sure that the play is deeply rooted in an understanding of Chinese mythology and history, and that the lead roles are not primarily white. Everyone concerned with this issue thinks s/he knows what's right. Everyone thinks that if everyone else would just see clearly, all would be sorted out. Everyone is also open to change, to consideration and to keep coming back to the table until the issues are resolved. And of course the play is on hold until that happens.

It's a serious disappointment for a child who has put so much heart and effort into a project, only to find that she has a lot more work to do. Even for an adult this would be upsetting. But despite this setback, my daughter pointedly attends every meeting, considers every point of view, and is in this thing for the long haul. Seeing her bravely take on this challenging process, I am now far more proud of my girl than I was when all she had done was write a fabulous script.

And of course a number of people have told me that our choice to unschool, or our daughter's specific theatre program are the problems. People suggest we quit - find something better. And you know what? That's enticing! It's always easier to turn and run away, and I have certainly done that in situations where I felt I could make no headway, or simply was too immature to stay. But we are working hard for democracy in education as well as in the world, and that requires us to stay the course.

Democracy isn't an easy thing to achieve; it's not a set of standards or a system one just steps into. It requires work and acceptance and patience and most of all compassion. It requires listening to others even when we think what they're saying is stupid.

Democracy is part of every day for all of us. The issues can be small, or overwhelmingly huge, and we often make great sacrifices in waiting for others to come to the table, but until they do, no progress will be made. No matter the differences and apparent insurmountable odds, nothing gets anywhere healthy unless all parties come together, of their own volition, with a desire to move forward. This is why we unschool, why we parent openly and honestly, and why we keep reaching for democracy.

Look at those cats' faces. While admitting I surely don't know what's going through feline minds, it seems I see the little one expressing calm, curiosity, and a little fear. The older one is expressing indifference and rejection. The little one is just waiting for a sign of hope. Every time she gets one, she takes a step forward, and if the older one growls, she steps back. Literally: baby steps.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Forest Therapy

You may have heard of Forest Bathing, or Shinrin Yoku. The miraculous power of the forest to calm and to heal seems to be gaining popularity. From Japan to Europe to North America, there are various guides, retreats, and programs available to help you connect with the forest, and make use of these wonderful healing powers.

In case you are skeptical about this, do check out some of the documented evidence. A  Chiba University study found that “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” (Pubmed)

Children in the Wild Art program are just like all people in all communities: sometimes they have difficult days. Whether the problem stems from physical illness or injury, social/emotional struggles at home or at school, new and awkward situations, or just a plain old unexplained malaise, kids arrive with an assortment of attitudes. Today when I arrived to pick them up after lunch, one was running and jumping across the table-tops, one was quiet and removed, two more were sliding gleefully across the wet porch, unconcerned about the group's desire to get going, and two were patiently (and then less-patiently) waiting to go.

Enter the forest. Or, to be more precise, we entered the forest. It took about ten minutes for the group to settle into an exciting, engaging, and creative couple of hours. They built little clay houses, harvested clay and mud from the creek banks, built three impressive dams and various other creek and creek-side creations, and sorted out all manner of social stumbles ably and compassionately. In the calm, productive atmosphere of their forest play, they were able not only to take into consideration the needs and ideas of their peers and the technical constraints of their creations, but also the needs of the forest. In the video below you'll hear one of the kids call out across the creek to others who were collecting moss for plugging a dam: "You're wasting all the moss from it. You can't take that much, or the whole tree will die." He was referring to something these kids learned from me last year: that the moss on our trees and rocks is part of the trees' water-retention system, as well as a vital substrate for many other living things, and that taking too much from one area will deprive the tree of too much water, before that quantity of moss is able to regenerate. You'll hear the kids agree, and move on. I loved that this sharing of advice and information was going on without judgment or shame, between a few kids who are quite new to sharing this space with each other.

Ahhh... the healing power of the forest. What a gift.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Teens Take Over

I am currently wearing a pink ribbon on my wrist. It is intended to humble me. More on that later.

My teens are now participating in an intentionally democratic group educational experience. That sounds rather vague, but the vaguery comes more out of the complexity and open-endedness of the arrangements than from lack of determination. Let me try to explain!

The other day I arrived early to pick up my kids, and ended up sitting in on the sidelines of their meeting. They would have preferred I wasn't there, but I was glad to have witnessed part of this special event. About thirty teens shared their plans and dreams for the coming year, and attempted to create a schedule of activities. It's a deeply complex process, as each participant has different long-term goals, and somehow they have to design their schedule, meeting spaces, social groups and activities in a way that works for everyone. The most inspiring part of all of this was to see the teens take over the process. There were a handful of adults helping, but their openness to guidance from the teens meant that the teens truly did control the process, and came out of the whole thing not just feeling empowered, but legitimately in power of their education.

notes from the teen meeting
Some of the teens in this group have solid life plans; some of them have vague intentions, and some couldn't care less what lies over the horizon. Some of them are trying to achieve a high school diploma; some are working towards non-diploma career pursuits, some are just ignoring formalities entirely, and at least one of them is hoping to go to University without ever checking off the highschool diploma boxes (yes--this is possible, though not always easy). All of them were focused on setting up a year-plan that would make them happy both in the moment and in the long run. Among the many activities suggested by the teens were the following:
  • photography class
  • food safe class
  • beekeeping workshop at a farm
  • general adulting class
  • rock climbing
  • first aid certification
  • biology 11 class
  • attending university lectures
  • building movie props
  • creative writing feedback group
  • heckling bad movies
Listening to the sixty or so suggestions and the many kids signing up for each one truly made me feel joyful. As a group, these teens not only bravely put forward challenging and sometimes unconventional ideas, but supported each other in making them happen. Most of them engaged effectively in the conversation, and as a mother I felt honoured to watch my two children reaching this precipice of independence.

Teens need to take control of their own lives for a number of reasons. Biologically, that is what they are naturally doing: moving on to a life independent of their parents, and participating in all the activities that adults do. It might take them a while to get the hang of it all (hence, I suppose, their desire for a general adulting class!), but that's just another reason for them to get on with it and take their independence - by force, if necessary. Most of our teens' souls are crying out "let me go! I don't need you! Let me do it myself or die trying!", while a deep ache in their hearts cries "Wrap me up and rock me to sleep, Mummy!" or "Look after me!" or "Look at me!!!" And the drama caused by this tension is part of it all. Some teens embrace this drama; some don't, but it's going to happen, regardless. The drama helps them gain the independence they need. Our teens need our praise and support and advice and they need us to help them pick up the pieces when things fall apart. But they also need to feel like they're capable of doing it, themselves, and they can only become capable by trying.

Back to the pink ribbon I now have tied around my wrist. I've been fighting a lot with my kids, recently, about the messes left behind, and their often-dramatic way of refusing to clean up. With pop music and/or accordion-playing filling my ears, with the flow of friends and food-messes and project refuse all over the place, I often feel besieged in my own home, and I have not been the serene and accepting parent I wish I was. Still, I want them to do these things! I want their lives to be rich and loud and boisterously busy and inspired, and that's exactly what they're doing! But four people with different needs under one smallish roof is always a challenge. Because I'm their parent, I've been trying to corral them, and I've been unschooling now long enough to know that's counter-productive. Watching my kids gamely manage their own education and social lives has reminded me that not only are they successfully doing everything I hoped they would, but I can't force them to clean up. They'll have to get there on their own. It's what I wanted, but it's hard to let go. Parenting is humbling.

The pink ribbon is to remind me that peace is more important than a clean home, or than keeping control. I look at it and remember when they were infants and I hoped with all my heart they'd be who they are today. In this mess, we are arriving at our destiny. I can only hold on for the ride, hold on to my heart, and hold on to my babies when, inevitably, they drape their giant bodies over me for comfort.

And sometimes when I need a break I bring a cup of tea over to my parents' house and chat with my mother. Her house is much quieter than ours, and her temper rather less volatile. But it wasn't always this way. Once she parented teens, too. And we all survived.

Monday, September 11, 2017

9-11: Have We Learned Anything?

Do you remember where you were sixteen years ago, today?

I was at home. My husband, who was working from home, was told by a colleague to turn on the news, and we did. I remember standing there staring at the TV. I remember watching people run through dust and smoke, and wondering whether my cousin was in that New York mess (she was; but escaped before knowing what was happening). I remember feeling a visceral panic in my body; my veins pumping and my hands on my belly. I was pregnant with our first child.

The one clear thought I remember having - repeatedly - was 'what world have I brought you into'? It was a boundless, undefined fear.

My husband remembers not really believing the twin towers collapsing was real, and, once we accepted it had happened, he still didn't feel that it would have any direct impact on our lives. It did, as it turned out, probably contribute to the collapse of the company he worked for. He appeared home one day with a cardboard box of his office supplies, and job-free. And yet we moved on.

As time goes by we rehash and relive and re-imagine such traumas. It was the government. It was the terrorists. It was poor sad people jumping out of windows. It was heroes. America is awesome! We get used to such traumas, like old wounds whose scars are hardly noticeable but always there for looking at when we need a reason to grieve or to fear or to get angry. We wrap the traumas in layers of love and delight and forgiveness because if we didn't we couldn't carry on. Our children get older and come home telling us about nuclear proliferation and corporatocracy and desertification and we tell them Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows! Everything is Awesome! We usher our babies back out into the world with joy and hope because it would be horrible to do anything else.

And our children grow. And the scientists are projecting doom. And the climate changes just like they said it would do, so we write them off and find alternative science. And forests burn and earthquakes increase and storms like never before decimate our civilization. And war.

And the artists are projecting doom; even Hollywood is warning us at every turn, and Warner Bros plants fear in our hearts: Our whole civilization will go down if we don't break from the status quo and see past the shiny facade. And we and our kids go home in our SUV eating popcorn and singing Everything is Awesome!!!

We find leaders who wrap themselves in gold and shout Everything is AwesomeGreat!!! Trauma after trauma after trauma falls upon us, and our stomachs drop, and our dreams are pocked with terror, but we wrap it up in glitter and birthday parties and fun trips to the dollar store and fun family vacations because if we didn't we couldn't carry on.

Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows!! It would be horrible to do anything else.

Our children grow, until they're teens, and we pack their schedules and keep them locked up and safe, but at night they sit on their many devices scrolling past the news about shootings and election fraud and hurricanes and drought and thousands dying in flooding in ~*Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows*~ Where is Bangladesh? They share videos of themselves talking to their cats. Everything is Awesome!!!!

It has been sixteen years since the day that I held my tiny son in my womb and feared for his future. I've done everything I can imagine to raise my kids to be strong in the face of the world I brought them into, but every day I see the old scar and I poke at it, and I wonder if I did the right thing, and I don't know where we're going, at all. And I look into my children's eyes and I feel helpless. My mind has only so much capacity for grief and fear. At my house this morning, rain has cleared the smoke of this year's devastating wildfires, and through the screen of sun-speckled leaves outside my door I hear the neighbours getting on with their business.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

When You Smell Smoke...

Isn't it odd how things creep up on us? We've been seeing the signs for all of my life: climate change (then called global warming) was something we 80's kids knew was coming, but we were waiting for more "signs". We were told that as it progressed, as fear and eventually drought and sea-level-rise and food shortages happened, humanity would fall into civil strife. Eventually there would be an even bigger gap between the rich and the poor. Eventually there would be slow but widespread panic, as people noticed the signs and began competing for resources, power, and land, and eventually it would all devolve into collapse, and we'd either fall into war or climb out via revolution. Maybe both.

Smoky red sunset as the wildfire smoke blanketed our island this summer.
The trouble is that every time we see the signs, every time these predictions work their way slowly into reality, they're like these wildfires that keep popping up all over the place this summer. We here on the coast hear the news, see it coming in bit by bit. We see the odd person bravely go north to help with the fires, and eventually the smoke drifts down to wrap us in its embrace, until our eyes sting and our throats tense, and we complain about the smoke and share sad stories of friends of friends whose livestock died or whose houses burned. But it's so much easier to go back to our beach dinners and festivals and family road trips, to lean on all our many privileges or blinders and just keep going, because we don't know how we'd fix it all anyway. Somebody else is doing that for us. We keep seeing the smoke drift in, but we're accustomed to it now. It's hardly different than last week.

The war or revolution will happen this way too: creeping and drifting until we're accustomed to it, like the smoke. Yes: Timbuktu, Quetta, Charlottesville, Ouagadougou, Konduga and stupid prejudiced quips by ignorant little men are acts of war. Each of these is a blanket of smoke billowing down through the valleys to tell you something is happening out there. When you sit down with your kids to help them understand white or financial or gender privilege, or when you make an effort to shop at the native-run lumber yard just because it's native-run, or when you choose not to buy that thing you don't really need... these are acts of revolution. Each of these is you looking up to the smoke and blowing some of it away.

Revolt. We can do it. We are doing it. We *must* look back in twenty years and know that we each individually did everything we could. Because when billions of us are doing that, we will BE the change.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Unschooling on a Budget

Have you seen those articles proclaiming that unschooling is a privilege of the wealthy? In some respects I agree with them. The way our culture works right now means that in order to get ahead (or just break even) financially, a family must have at least two full-time working parents, and send their children to school. I know plenty of parents who openly call their children's school "babysitting". We are pressuring our governments for more affordable childcare, because, frankly, many of us can't afford to live without it. The privilege of staying home with our children is increasingly only for wealthy people, and homeschooling or unschooling requires a parent or other caregiver at home during the first ten-to-twelve years, or so. Add to that the fact that a great unschooling lifestyle includes a lot of exploration, which is often interpreted as travel and other such expensive experiences, and you have a very, very expensive proposition.

But I don't believe it has to be this way. If we want to change the way things are, somebody's got to take the first steps. It's not only the landscape of education that's changing, but the landscape of employment, shelter, and community - and there are some things about these changes that benefit each other.

Working from home: With the rise of huge corporations, working from home has become more difficult to imagine. For the past hundred or so years, entrepreneurship has dwindled, and schools raised children to fit into the "work force". But things are beginning to swing back again, as more of us want to work with our own passions, and to develop careers from our own hearts and minds and homes. Sometimes this means working for an employer remotely, as my husband does twice a week. Last time he went job-hunting he began his letter with the preface that his children were his priority, so he would always be home for dinner, and he would work from home at least twice a week. A few employers scoffed at him, but he quickly found someone who admired his integrity and openness, and he's been with them for ten years, now - home for dinner and working from home twice a week. Now that the children are older, I am managing to work a couple of days a week, and between the two of us we juggle the rides and meals and attention that our children need.

But there's also the option of quitting the corporate agenda entirely: Some people have in-home businesses, such as daycare, music teaching and production, graphic design, tutoring or farming, and these allow them not only to stay home with their children, but also to involve their children in these businesses... and after all... that's just another great experience to grow from! My children often join in or volunteer with the programs I teach, and they've also had some great experiences helping me with gallery shows and tours. I know kids who help at their parents' retail shops, and who accompany their parents to gardening job sites. All of these are worthwhile experiences that blur the lines of education, home, and employment.

Living frugally: Obviously, saving money is as important as earning it. My family is managing to save money in various ways, from owning one very used vehicle, to growing some of our own food and dispensing of expensive things like the dryer and single-pane windows. We are fortunate to rent a small house from my parents (which means that in the current horrifying rental squeeze we haven't lost our home or even had an increase), but I know of other families who have kept accommodations affordable by renting very tiny apartments in the city, moving to (cheaper) rural areas, home-sharing, or spending part of the year road-tripping while sub-letting their apartments. We also get most of our electronics from the free section at the recycling depot. Sure - they're not always great, but we've managed to supply our growing computer needs this way.

You might wonder how we afford all the wonderful adventures that are the supposed perks of unschooling. We don't! And we're OK with that. We attend mostly free events like festivals and wilderness outings, concerts put on by family and friends, and free (or by-donation) museum days. We also look for unconventional experiences like tours of industrial or education complexes, and sometimes we just walk into shops and look around. Explorative learning is everywhere - from the back of the pebble under your foot to the bottom of the receipt you find in the ditch. Keeping an open mind about what constitutes a 'learning experience' will make all kinds of free experiences absolutely valuable.

Less travel: While we know that some unschoolers afford fabulous journeys all over the world, we gave up on the idea of travel, with exceptions: I once managed to work one of my art projects into a road-trip, with free accommodations, which allowed us not only to visit all kinds of lovely places along the west coast, but also to attend our first and only unschooling conference... which was amazing. (Again, work, family-life and learning are one.) We have also been saving up since the children were babies to take them to Europe and meet their family, there. It's a long time coming, but it will be worth it when we finally go! And in between, we make a couple of small camping trips in our own area every year, and many fabulous day outings. There are so many wonderful things to discover in our own backyard, that we are a long way from having seen everything, and we haven't missed traveling at all!

Supplies and resources: As our kids explore and get interested in various things, it can be tempting to provide them with heaps of resources to support those interests. When my son spent years trying to teach himself parkour and rock-climbing, I looked into some lessons, or membership at a climbing gym. But we couldn't afford them, and that was just something we had to give up. These things happen, and we have to accept that not everything is within our reach. Going to school wouldn't have helped that, anyway, since we may have had more money, but less time.

We have made some larger purchases, like a microscope, accordion, and guitar, as well as music lessons and a (used) mountain bike. We've also found great ways of supplying ourselves through thrift shops, the recycling depot, and our local facebook exchange group. We have used many free programs for academic study online, from university courses to language learning programs to coding, math, writing and science programs. Joining online groups is a great way both to connect with others and to discover these resources. But amazing things often come from our own community. One kind local resident donated his telescope to our physics-impassioned son, and a neighbour with serious electrical skills made Tesla-coils with our kids and some friends. You never know what opportunities will pop up if you just look around and keep an open mind. What you find may not always be exactly what you thought you wanted, but sometimes it'll be better!

Yes - Unschooling requires sacrifice. But so does having children. And we assume that the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices. I gave up my career and a good chunk of future income in order to unschool. My husband and I committed to renting indefinitely, with no plans to purchase a home. But look at the big picture: here we are, happy with the way things are going, and without a regret in the world. It's just a matter of shifting priorities and learning to see the glistening rewards in the kaleidoscope of every day.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Setting Up an Unschooling Room


No you're not. If you are, you're not unschooling. So... no.

Unschooling Supplies? Also no.

Because of the way so many of us were raised, with the notion that learning happens at school, and school happens at a school (or in some other designated time and place, like a class field trip or the dining room table), we parents often still long to provide such a wonderful nurturing space for our kids to grow. Remember supply-lists? And new clothes shopping for September? I do!!!! Because of the scripted and often gorgeously new and shiny way our school year begun, we want to offer such delights to our children. We want the shopping sprees! The shiny packages of all matching pencils and erasers and pretty binders and pencil cases!! And new shoes. I want these things.

So we find ourselves drawn away by the ads in our mailboxes, the back-to-school manic glee; the big eyes of our little ones (and not-so-little-ones) as they pass displays of 'supplies' they actually don't need. We see our homeschool friends posting smooth bright photos of their homeschool rooms, all sparkly and colour-coordinated, with books full of information lined up on the tidy shelves, above little woven cubbies with their children's names, and we long for such orderly wholesomeness.

I am here to remind you that this is what we are escaping!

Remember why we unschooled in the first place? Unschooling means unscripted learning. It means unfettered learning in every place, all the time, without boundaries of any kind. Unschooling means learning happens everywhere, and with every thing. In fact... that's not really unique to unschooling; that's just the way people learn: always. The difference with unschooling is that we encourage and trust that process instead of trying to corral or direct it. We break down the walls of traditional schools. Which means, both figuratively and literally, no walls. No boundaries.

Boundaries defining the space for learning? Nope! Boundaries defining the tools used for learning? Of course not. Boundaries defining age-appropriateness? Nope! Subject areas? No way!

Your children will learn like you do: by finding some interest and following it - be it sewing or horticulture or minecraft or script-writing or peanut butter sandwich making. They will explore and discover and learn, and they may even benefit from some of the traditional "school" supplies... but you won't know ahead of time how those things will most helpfully be arranged on a shelf, and you won't be able to predict what to bring home until the things are needed, anyway. Unschooling means a lot of jumping around and learning from what happens to be in front of you, as well as learning to navigate the big wide exciting world of resources that is everywhere. This is what will give our children the skills to navigate the rest of their lives, anyway.

This is not my children's, but my own book shelf. These things matter to me because I have gathered them along the way as I needed them. And I'm willing to share... but mostly nobody uses them except me.

So next time you walk past the school supplies display and stretch your neck out to take a whiff of that binder-plastic, or run your fingers along the spiral-binding on the notebooks, just keep on going. When and if your kid needs that stuff, they'll have it. When they need a quiet corner for reading, they'll find or create that space, too. There is nothing in human physiology that requires these things for learning, and nothing in the Earth's rotation that requires such purchases to usher in September.

Back in the days when there were more unschoolers in our community, we used to have not-back-to-school parties. That was a pretty awesome way to sidestep the back-to-school frenzy and celebrate our choice to unschool. I guess I'm recommending some good old rebellious partying to soothe the tingly longing caused by those pretty social media postings of our schooling friends.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Dolls Matter

Dolls. I have so many stories. I still have my first dolls, hand-made, two-foot-tall cotton ladies with the most lovely dresses, whom I named Dorfy and Cinnamon-Rose. Dorfy, being the biggest and strongest of my dolls, eventually sat under the growing pile of her little charges, and kept them safe while I was away from the house. Cinnamon-Rose eventually went to my younger brother, who renamed her Friend.

Paulus, the baby-doll which my mother apparently bought at a discount because he'd been accidentally stained with permanent marker in the store, was my favourite. He slept with me every night, and travelled with me to visit my Dad until I was a teenager. This is a secret I kept safely hidden until some other teens discovered him in my bag and pulled his head off. In one of multiple such emergency surgeries, my mother sewed it back on. It never mattered to me that he had a line on his back, or that his neck had a bit of hard plastic and a stitch-line around it. Didn't matter that his cheek was scraped by a bit of too-abrasive scrubbing on my part, or his toe chewed off by my beloved dog. He was my baby.

My Dad owned a toy store for most of his life, and through him I learned quite a bit about what he considered "wholesome dolls". He never sold Barbies, American Girl Dolls, He-Man or Cabbage Patch Kids, but instead stuck close to Waldorf and other more "playable" baby dolls. He explained that "playable" meant children could connect with the dolls on their own level, with their own emotions, and their own narrative. Dolls shouldn't come with a pre-ordained backstory or emotions; they should have a neutral personality, so that they can assume the roles dictated by children's imaginative play.

Children's imaginative play is not always nurturing, as I learned from my friends who dismembered their Barbies and incinerated G.I. Joe dolls. And it wasn't until I had my own children that I discovered how important children's experience of dolls can be.

my son nursing Aslakay and Paulus
I bought my son his first doll when he was almost two, and I was soon-to-be pregnant with his sister. I took him to the department store baby-doll section, and said he could have a look and tell me if he liked any of them. He considered a very cheaply-made Cherokee collector doll, until his eyes landed on a lovely little black baby doll, with which he was smitten. "OK", I said, wanting to be sure he was certain of his choice, "let's check out another store and we'll come back if this is still your favourite". He perused the babies in the next store disinterestedly, until he once again discovered the same little black baby doll, and begged me to buy it for him. Well of course I did! His choice was clear. He named his baby Aslakay - also something he was unwaveringly certain of, although to this day I have no idea how he came up with it. Other dolls came and went, but Aslakay was the only doll he ever really loved. He changed him and nursed him, told him very exciting stories, taught him to play trucks and to roller-blade and to dance ballet, took him for wonderful backyard adventures, and fathered him very carefully.

My daughter never had dolls. She only had babies. She cuddled and talked to them before she could stand. She dressed them, fed them, counseled them, sang to them, took them everywhere with her, and even put on a years-long series of dramatic events such as rock-concerts, baby-circuses, and baby-coronation-ceremonies with her closest friends and their babies, who were 'cousins' of her own babies. The social scene between those babies was quite complicated! One day during a baby-circus training session (three 9-year-old girls and their acrobatic cotton/plastic babies turning flips and flying trapeze under the magnolia tree), my mother heard the lyrics to their show-music from her front porch:
Hey girl, open the walls, play with your dolls
We'll be a perfect family
When you walk away, it's when we really play
You don't hear me when I say,
Mom, please wake up
Dad's with a slut, and your son is smoking cannabis

No one never listens, this wallpaper glistens
Don't let them see what goes down in the kitchen

~from Dollhouse, by Melanie Martinez

It was alarming, to be sure, but those girls' play was allowing them to work out their questions in the world, to see themselves as caregivers and to question their own experiences, development, and opinions. Because dolls are people. And a human's constant work is learning to engage with and understand other people.

baby circus training session
"Me" - self-portrait by my three-year-old son
That's the thing we have to remember about dolls: As humans we are drawn to engage with other humans, and dolls represent humans. Vincent Reid recently proved that the human fetus preferentially engages with face-like visual stimuli. That's right: in the womb - even before we are conditioned to receive love and nourishment from humans with faces - we already seek to engage with them.
Humans have been making tiny humans for our children for millennia. We see faces and bipedal figures in everything from pancakes to tree-trunks to constellations. We want to look at other humans, and we want to bond with them. Children's early figurative drawings often look like big faces with arms and legs.

So shouldn't it matter what sort of humans we're bonding with - and how? Do an internet search for 'doll', and you will discover a myriad of options. Wait... first let's refine the search to exclude sex dolls, zombie dolls, and fragile porcelain artworks. You won't find soldier dolls immediately, but they're readily available, if that's the kind of role-model you want for your children. And they're no less personable than that $375 Bamboletta Forever Friend you've been eyeballing. In 1989, Hasbro tried to declassify G.I. Joe action figures as dolls, in order to avoid trade tariffs, but it was a no-go:
"... the individual personality of each of these figures, as evidenced by his biographical file cards and physical characteristics inviting "intimate and manipulative" play, 703 F.Supp. at 946, indicates that these figures are not comparable to the identical, immobile faceless toy soldiers of yesteryear that were sold in groups of a dozen or so in bags." 
~US Court of Appeals Federal Circuit, 1989.
While I don't like soldier-dolls, I can see that for some children they would be appealing. Just like my daughter and her friends were exploring ideas of domestic crises in their Dollhouse Baby Circus, children need to deal with experiences of war. We have a choice of how we facilitate those sorts of engagement. Dolls not only allow our children to explore and work through their own experiences with dramatic play; but the sorts of dolls we choose for them can influence the way they deal with those experiences.

As soon as my son could speak in partial sentences, he began telling us about his life as an "old man" before he "died", "lying on the side of a road", as he claims to remember. He talked about what we now think is somewhere around Lake Chad, where he was "a man with brown skin and black hair". At first these stories seemed absurd, then terrifyingly plausible, as he detailed a life that, when I Googled, became a perfect description of a place and time he had never experienced in the two years since he exited my womb. So I decided to just believe him - whether the stories are his own memories or some sort of quantum memory-exchange I'll never know, but it was my job to just listen and respect. For years, he talked lovingly about the house he and his wife lived in; how she made mats out of big grasses and he put those on the house for walls; how they had a fence to keep crocodiles out. And he told us that the soldiers came to his island with sticks and killed his wife and everybody else in his town. He escaped on a boat with his daughter Imapa, and he missed her very much. He talked about Imapa most of all. Having no experiences like those he shared with me, I was of little help to him in his quest for connection about these memories. Is it any wonder, then, that the doll he chose in the department store was the only baby doll with brown skin? He needed to play out his memories; he needed another opportunity to love the child he lost. Or so I imagine, and it doesn't matter whether I'm correct, or not.

my son changing Aslakay at his baby sister's change-table
Aslakay is a brown doll with a cloth body and plastic feet, hands and head. His body has been stained from the baby-wipe and washcloth cleanings performed by his two-year-old father. He's not the fanciest doll; not made with the kind of love that is tangible in some of the handmade dolls. But he's real. His face is the face of love that my tiny son needed in his life, and that is what matters.

When my daughter's dearest baby, Mimi, was lost on an outing with her plastic cousins, my daughter grieved. She grieved for over a year, losing interest in her other babies, and crying inconsolably at night. This event gradually led her and her friends to grow into other forms of play: board-games, theatre, art-making and magazine production, and an increasing amount of teenager conversation that is frankly as mysterious to me now as it was when I was a teen. But even without dolls, the bonds these children formed over their babies are still tight.

If you were hoping for a list of recommended dolls, you're not going to find one, here. I can only suggest that, if you're considering buying a doll for a child, it would be nice if the child can be involved in the choice. The doll your child needs will be as unique as your child, and as loved. The doll you give your child will represent his past and his future; his loved ones and himself, and only he can know what doll that is. It will be treated the way your child is treated by those in his family and community, and it will be the face of his dreams and fears and joys and sorrows.

my six-month-old daughter talking to her brother's baby
"The doll is symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self. Superficially, it is just a doll. But inversely, it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger Soul-Self. In the doll is the voice, in diminutive, of old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. In this way the doll represents the inner spirit of us as women; the voice of inner reason, inner knowing and inner consciousness."
~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run with Wolves