Free Range Chickens & Free Range Learning

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“Don’t help, Mom,” Claire says as I go to pick up the three-day-old chick. So I watch instead. It’s peeping helplessly at the side of the ramp leading up to the chicken coop. The mother hen and her other chicks are already at the top but this chick can’t find the way. The hen answers each of its cheeps of distress with distinctive low clucks. After repeated attempts to hop directly up to its mother the chick turns and scurries back, finds the bottom of the ramp, and hurries to the comfort of her waiting wings.

“See?” Claire says. “It’s already learning.”

I’m amazed that a chick that tiny could learn to go away from the sound of its mother’s voice in order to find her, but it did. I guess I still need to trust that things tend to work out fine without well-intended intervention.

Reams of instructional books once languished on our shelves. Shiny packaged educational programs with CDs sat waiting for my children to learn foreign language, history, and math. But they always had better things to do. Sometimes that looked a lot like reading a book on the couch, looking things up on the net, or lying by the pond with the dogs. Other times that looked like gathering oddities from the dusty basement for an experiment. Or like all of us hustling off to a field trip with friends. The textbooks came in handy as references; the fussier educational materials were packed away in boxes to pass along. We knew another new homeschooler would need to go through the same ritual of grumbling over them.

My children have ample opportunities to explore their interests out here in the country. Currently Ben restores old farm equipment in anticipation of running his own farm some day. He’s so busy that some of his projects have become long-term decor out near the beehives. Flowering vines decorate hay rake tines and birds nest atop a combine. Right now he’s making a custom desk out of a circular saw blade for a friend. The garage glows as he welds, one of the many skills he taught himself.

Claire observes everything with a scientist’s eye. She journals about her hikes in the woods, her daily farm chores, and her volunteer work rehabilitating birds of prey. One summer she made a practice of examining a dead muskrat as the decomposition process reduced it to a skeleton. Her descriptions of it (yes, at the dinner table) clearly demonstrated how wondrous she found the natural world, even though her age group is depicted as finding more meaning at the shopping mall.

When Kirby isn’t playing his guitar or bagpipes or computer games, he likes to stroll around with a camera. His photos show that he sees things in a different light. He’s interested in the science and art of sound, and using the money he earned from cleaning stalls at local horse farms he’s made his bedroom into a recording studio. Friends come to record their music. He can edit out the laughter.

Sam, who was once the master of finding snakes and toads everywhere on our property, is now intrigued with greater feats than grabbing hapless creatures. He investigates the engineering behind propulsion systems and then conducts his own experiments. This involves shooting tennis balls, potatoes, or pumpkins long distances (often in collusion with his brothers). He’s been talking about designing advanced fuel systems for cars. And he’s started restoring a vintage Opel he bought with his own savings although he’s not old enough to drive.

While Claire and I watch chickens, she points out how the newly hatched chicks are perfectly suited to learn naturally. Days old, these tiny fluff balls listen and respond to different sounds from their mother which clearly tell them where to find food and when to run for cover under her wings. They range across our property while staying close to their mother. They locate each other through the underbrush, ramble into the pasture under the cow’s feet safely, and come into the coop at dusk as the older chickens do.

“Compare them to chicks we bought from the hatchery,” Claire says.

I see what she means.

Many times we have purchased a batch of day-old chicks and kept them in a large indoor pen. We brought them out of the house each day to a grassy enclosure so they could forage, but the chicks raised for their first two months with their age-mates were very different from the chicks hatched by their mothers and raised with the flock. The confined chicks were more sickly, panicked easily, and were more overtly aggressive or passive. Even after they were released out with the flock it took them quite a while to catch up. They didn’t problem-solve as easily. And it took them longer to react naturally, such as taking flight and roosting in low branches when sensing danger. Overall they were less likely to survive.

Interestingly, agricultural extension offices and poultry manuals insist that the treatment we’ve given the confined chicks is the only correct way. Their expert advice includes maintaining them on a diet of protein-enhanced feed, keeping them under warming lights, and watching over them carefully for their own good. Not being hatched by and raised by a hen.

Aside from small family farms like ours there are few chickens living in natural conditions—roaming freely in pastures and woods without fences, choosing their own food and affiliation groups, living with mixed age flock. (Right now we have 30 laying hens, five  roosters, three chicks, a few geriatric hens.) Even chickens described as “free range” are left inside with a small door open to a cramped outdoor pen to meet that definition. This door can be a single opening inaccessible to the hundreds of chickens in the flock.

Claire, who has experienced both schooling and homeschooling, can’t help but see a comparison. “Doesn’t that remind you of how people treat children? Experts supposedly know what’s right for them. I mean, how can anyone learn if they’re stuck in the same situation all the time? You learn as things come up.”

Confinement education, especially when based on tactics that feel like coercion to students, isn’t a whole education. Children thrive as free-range learners. They want to be a meaningful part of family and community, aware of their place as both givers and receivers. They’re cued to advance the growth of their minds, bodies, and spirits in ways unique to them. Their curiosity prompts them to explore and challenge themselves, gradually integrating what they’ve learned to advance their own possibilities. Although there are worlds of difference between raising children and raising chickens, we can trust that learning freely comes naturally to them both.

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Image: superfry

This is a throwback post, originally published in Home Education Magazine

Help Kids Learn About Business & Finance: 60+ Resources

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“Money often costs too much.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Our society is preoccupied with money, but on the most superficial level. The meaning underlying monetary choices is rarely discussed. Still, right now, we have a profound impact on our children’s attitudes about finances and spending. It’s useful to take a close look at the wisdom behind the choices we demonstrate to them.

Do our spending decisions reflect our values?

Do our careers foster our own abilities?

Who are our financial role models?

What does it mean to have enough?

Do we have ample time for our families, for activities we enjoy, for quiet reflection?

In Your Money or Your Life, authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin redefine a transaction we take for granted, working. They describe it as trading life energy for money. That life energy is subtracted from the hours we have to live. The same goes for spending. If money represents hours of life energy expended, our use of money also expresses how we choose to literally “spend” our time. Not everyone would agree with the authors’ valuation. But most of us recognize the peace that comes of living in harmony with our own priorities.

Here are dozens of ideas and resources to help you raise money-wise young people.

Start budgeting and personal finance early. Some parents prefer to have all family members involved in running the household economy. They draw up a budget, talk over expenses, and pay bills together. This way children come to know what terms like “interest,” “finance charge,” and “invest” mean as they take part in this family chore, even if at a young age they are only putting stamps on envelopes and discussing what charities to support. Involved children are also less likely to wheedle for purchases because they understand exactly what it takes to save for longer-term goals such as a family vacation. And they see how personal decisions impact financial security.

Use real money. Adding up purchase prices, figuring percentages off, comparing costs, and calculating change make more sense using actual money. Practice at home, then empower children to use these new skills at the bank, farmer’s market, and movie theater.

Learn about economics through picture books. Check out  If the World Were a Village by David J. Smith, , Bananas: From Manolo to Margie by George Ancona,  A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert, Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman,  Abuela’s Weave by Omar Castaneda, Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst, One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference by Kate Smith Milway, and Pigs Will Be Pigs: Fun with Math and Money by Amy Axelrod.

Tour local businesses. Field trips open a child’s sense of possibility in their own career aspirations.

Host an entrepreneurial fair. Invite children to create a product to sell. This may be a craft, service, invention, edible item, or work of art. Provide an area to promote and display their wares at a group meeting or public venue. They should have sufficient supplies of their product to meet demand, but as with any business the exact number is an educated guess. You may choose to have start-up meetings beforehand to discuss product development, displays, and other details. Encourage each child to keep track of expenses so they can evaluate the business potential of their product afterwards. Promote the fair to the public, invite extended family, and encourage your group to support the efforts of their youngest business people. Have a follow-up meeting with participants to talk about their earnings in relation to the time and expense of making their product.

Involve young people in a family business. Whether a small-scale Etsy business or a full time company, children can provide valuable assistance while learning what it takes to find customers, keep track of expenses, pay taxes, and build a strong business.

Seek learning relationships with adults who have careers or skills of interest through your own knowledge networks as well as person-to-person learning networks.

Have fun. Invent a new form of currency. Learn about bartering, then try it. Save up for a family adventure by selling things on Craigslist or eBay Turn lunch at home into a restaurant meal complete with menu listings, service, and bill. Write up movie descriptions with viewing times and prices for family video night.

Play board games such as The Farming GameThe Construction GameMonopolyPay DayThe Game of LifeLawsuit, and CASHFLOW for Kids

Teach kids to budget. Ensure that children make regular monetary decisions. Talk about needs versus wants, perhaps consulting Jennifer Larson’s book, Do I Need It? or Do I Want It?: Making Budget ChoicesAs with other learning experiences, young people need the opportunity to think through their choices, make mistakes, and try again.

You might choose to create three budget categories (long-term savings, short-term savings, donations) with your child. Between you, decide on a percentage of money for each category. If your child decides to change the percentage or the amount when his or her income fluctuates, recalculate.

Encourage budding enterprises before your children reach a typical hiring age. They might mow lawns, walk dogs, help parents entertain young children, sell homemade goodies, help with yard sales, assist with computer service, remove pet waste in yards, move garbage cans from house to street and back, rake leaves, be a child-minder during meetings, weed garden beds, set up/explain electronics, help with holiday decorations, watch pets, sell crafts, etc.

Hold a garage sale or charity fund-raiser. Involve children in all phases from planning to follow-up.

Learn how you vote with your dollars. Research products according to health value, corporate responsibility and other standards using Good Guide. Check out how those statistics are gathered and how ethical shopping choices can make an impact.

Invest. With your child, sign up for a joint account on e-Trade or other low minimum investment company. Choose stocks together and watch what happens.

Track mock Investments. Build a mock investment portfolio with your children. Have them list several companies they choose (perhaps related to their interests or favorite products). Help them locate ticker symbols and current stock prices. Every week, help them record the latest prices along with the date. Calculate the gains or losses. These are short-term fluctuations, so talk about longer term trends as well.

You might start a investment club. Using hypothetical funds, members research stocks and returns, competing for the best results. They may wish to use online stock market simulation sites or register for The Stock Market Game (which charges fees). 

Build skills and experience through community service. Here are 40 ways kids can volunteer.

Seek out finance lessons. Companies dealing in finance such as banking institutions, insurance companies, and brokerage firms may happily offer a speaker for a group meeting or materials for a class. As with any curricula offered by a business, be aware that there may be implied advertising for the company’s services or tendency to advance the company viewpoint. It’s often eye-opening to discuss this aspect with your children.

Make connections with area businesses. Find responsive businesses and career-related clubs willing to offer programs, workshops, classes, and volunteer opportunities for area youth. Your librarian as well as your local Chamber of Commerce can guide you to organizations, clubs and programs. Again, be wary of educational offerings for kids that are thinly disguised promotions.

Look at the larger economic picture (and remember that economic theory is just that, theoretical). Check out the financial platforms of different political parties. Explore how different countries handled the finance sector failures of 2008 (comparing US to Iceland is particularly interesting). Look at measures of income inequality in different countries. Learn about GNP, GDP, and Gross National Happiness.

Pay attention to the news with an eye to the impact on business and the economy. Talk about differing theories on what factors create high prices, inflation, unemployment, and more. Teens may enjoy Economics for the Impatient by C.A. Turner as well as The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume One: Microeconomics
and The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume Two: Macroeconomics both by Yoram Bauman.

Guess where income tax dollars are spent. Draw a pie chart and allocate resources where you think they are spent or where you think they should be spent. Then compare your chart to data based on actual government spending by searching online for “U.S. federal discretionary spending pie chart.”

Draw up a “flying the nest” budget. Ask teens where they’d like to live and what work they’d like to do in a few years. Your son wants to live on a boat and lead adventure tours? Check out houseboat rental costs and what income he might expect as a guide, as well as regular expenses like food, insurance, and phone coverage.

Take a clear look at college and college alternatives.

Participate in the collaborative consumption movement. It’s about sharing knowledge, skills, and resources. This trend not only helps save money and preserve resources, it connects us to people in meaningful ways. It’s part of what’s often called a gift economy. Teens and up can learn more about this by reading Charles Eisenstein’s wonderful book. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.

De-emphasize the importance of “stuff.” There’s strong evidence that the more materialistic young people are, the unhappier they tend to be. Research shows that people who hold materialistic values are more likely to suffer from a whole dumpster load of problems. This includes aggressive behavior, insecurity, depression, low self -esteem, narcissism, even physical maladies. And when people place high value on material aims, they’re prone to have trouble with interpersonal relationships and intimacy. Materialism is also related to less independent thinking and lower value placed on being “true to oneself.” That’s a festering mess we’d like to avoid. (For more information and useful ideas, check out Five Ways Frugal Living Benefits Kids.)

 

 

Educational Game Resources

The Bakery Shop is a business game for young children, letting them decide what ingredients, baking mitts, and bakers will keep customers happy.

Coffee Shop is a business game for kids 8 and up. Players need to factor in variables including supplies, recipes, past sales, even weather predictions. Find many more math games at Cool Math.

Sense & Dollars is a set of games challenging kids on what they know about earning, spending, and saving money. Charge, for example, lets students choose luxury objects and pick a payment plan.  It then calculates the object’s real, eye-opening cost once credit card interest is calculated.

International Racing Squirrels provides amusing financial literacy through the trials of managing a team of racing squirrels.

The Great Piggy Bank Adventure lets players pursue goals through smart saving tactics.

Heifer International enables players to create sustainable solutions to poverty.

Sweatshop provides a wealth of real world moral dilemmas as players work to please bosses in the fashion industry.

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Online Resources

PBS Kids Don’t Buy It has a wealth of resources about advertising tricks, the effect of commercials on buying habits, and how to determine what a product is really worth.

The Story of Stuff Project offers programs and resources as well as highly informative videos including The Story of Stuff, The Story of Bottled Water, and The Story of Cosmetics.

Institute of Consumer Financial Education offers quizzes, tips and facts in the “Children and Money” section of the website. 

Interactive Mathematics Money Math lets young people find out what a $1,000 credit card debt looks like over time, how long it takes to double money based on the interest rate, and other personal finance calculations.

Junior Achievement (JA) provides volunteers from the business community to present JA curriculum to groups of students. Junior Achievement Student Center is a teen-friendly site geared to help explore careers, learn how to start up a business, and prepare for higher education.

Young America’s Business Trust is a non-profit established as an outreach effort of the Organization of American States.

Econedlink provides classroom style economic and personal finance resources for learning.

Foundation for Teaching Economics offers resources like videos made by kids, easily accessed benchmarks for the US economy, and teaching resources.

HiP provides tips to help entrepreneurs attract new consumers and organizations interested in supporting, investing, and buying from a new business. (Thanks Nick!)

Print Resources

Beyond the Traditional Lemonade Stand: Creative Business Stand Plans for Children of All Ages by Randi Lynn Millward

Money Sense for Kids by Hollis Page Harman

The Complete Guide to Personal Finance: For Teenagers by Tamsen Butler

~~~~~

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

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Image: kkart.deviantart.com

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

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School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

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Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

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Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

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Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

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Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

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I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

No Parrots Here

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Image CC by 2.0 Ajari

Parenting would be easier if my children wanted to learn about the same things that I happen to love.

I once had the naive assumption that they would naturally develop my passion for environmentalism, muckraking journalism, anthropology, applied ethics, messy art, alternative medicine, and satire.  I knew these passions weren’t genetic, my parents were into playing bridge and visiting historical sites.  But I figured my children would absorb my fascination by osmosis.

Nope. More like reverse osmosis. They seem to feel that just living
with me is exposure enough to those topics.  More than enough.

I play tapes of peace songs and world music despite their feigned death throes.  I take them, all right, drag them, to tiny art galleries, odd ethnic restaurants, wildlife sanctuaries and community service projects. They point out that they’ve never owned hand held video games and on that basis alone could be considered culturally deprived.

I occasionally read periodicals aloud hoping to discuss important issues with them, which has caused them to say, “She’s ranting again.”  My grandiose art schemes, such as building a catapult to fling paint onto huge canvases, ala Jackson Pollack, are met with rolled eyeballs.  I only need to look serious a brief moment before my daughter alerts her siblings, with warnings like, “Oh no, mom’s launching into another sermon.  I think she’s on number 127, the Deeper Meaning of Things.”  I concoct homemade tinctures of herbal remedies which admittedly aren’t taste treats, but aren’t cause enough for them to call the kitchen Mom’s Evil Laboratory.  You get the idea.

They are certainly their own people.  They seem instinctively drawn to what I’m not. I can almost hear the screech as my brain cells are continually forced to expand to include their interests.

Several of them actually like organized activities like scouts and 4-H.  This requires meetings where I have to sit in a folding chair and behave myself.  I prefer spontaneous, free form events, like “Hey, lets paint a mural on that wall.”

I hide it well, but secretly I’m squeamish.  Naturally they bring me snakes, toads, beetles, spiders, and slugs.  They expect me to fawn over them.  I can only do a passable faux fawn.

I like safety precautions like helmets, seat belts, and peace accords.  My 10-year-old son adores skateboards, stunt biking, and tree climbing.  He plans to be a pilot. He talks to me about airfoils and ailerons.  I’d only fly if I were being awarded the Nobel Prize. Even then I’d probably ask if it could be delivered.

I’m a vegetarian.  Naturally, my daughter is smitten with dissecting.  She wants to be a forensic pathologist.  Supportively, I’ve purchased poor innocent creatures floating in formaldehyde, procured eyeballs and hearts from the butcher shop, even taken pictures of the gore she calls anatomy.  She proudly showed her grandmother the virtual autopsy web site.  My mother was intrigued.  I restrained myself from asking, “What happened to playing bridge?”

I have trouble with technical details.  I even require assistance getting film in and out of our vintage 35 mm camera.  I finally recognized this as an immutable fact after indulging myself in a few temper tantrums over broken film. Of course my oldest is a ham radio operator, builds authentic model railroad layouts, fixes our 1949 tractor, and stuns his boss into silence with his ability to fix highly exacting equipment. When he was six he patiently explained to me how to program the clock in our car.  I forgot what he said AS he was saying it.

I’ve been known to slip into situational ethics from my pillar of universal truths at times, but I’m always caught by my youngest.  “Why do you talk about cherishing all life if you want to get rid of the wasp nest in the attic?” he’ll say sweetly with seven-year-old logic.  “Why do you let the phone go to voice mail?  Isn’t that like lying?” Okay, maybe they are learning what I have to say, but I wish they wouldn’t use it against me.

Occasionally I’ll get their grudging admiration for silly feats, like my useless mental compendium of decades-old song lyrics or my willingness to sass authority figures. But more and more often we find that our interests intersect.  I can’t help but be awed by the uniqueness of what they find fascinating, and they can’t help but understand what I thrive on.  Best of all, we laugh together.

Parenting would be easier if they parroted my interests, but that would be indoctrination instead of exploration.  I’m glad they are their own people.  We all lean toward what helps us grow, like eager plants inclining towards sunlight even if it shines from different windows.

reprint from Home Education Magazine

School Violence Led Us To Homeschooling

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We became homeschoolers suddenly. One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home right before the first class of the day. The teen who’d been harassing him had just showed him a gun, saying it would be his last day to live.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but remove him directly from his classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year my son told us what he heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed. I assumed they were baseless.

My son’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kid. My son used sarcasm as his defensive weapon. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to the taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted my son told me these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if groups of teens assembled, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down, admitting that it might be safer if we homeschooled. My son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. Plus, I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our four-year-old already knew how to read but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced homeschooling kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how essential imagination is to innovative thinking, how freedom to play is vital for creativity (and fun!), and how pursuing their own interests can translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold. The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

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(Image: artamusica.deviantart.com)

This piece originally appeared on Wired.

How To Learn From Experts

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Image: drumminhands’ flickr photostream

Successful societies have always respected what the the wise can teach us. But it’s not easy to learn directly from people whose grasp of any subject well exceeds our own, in part because person-to-person learning is easily supplanted by online engagement.

I spend plenty of time staring at screens, yet I know from years of facilitating non-violence workshops that something important happens as we discuss, practice, and hone our skills together. Real learning is like a spark transferred. Going online is practically a reflex for us, but if our learning is confined there what’s lost is rich perspective and valuable hands-on experience.

If you know where to look you can find sculptors, farmers, astronomers, welders, storytellers, clock repair experts, and cartoonists right in your community. Let’s take my hometown of Cleveland as an example. I can learn glass blowing at the Glass Bubble Project, eviscerate and stuff a rat to look like a tiny tie-wearing butler during a taxidermy workshop at Sweet Not Salty, apply Brian Swimme’s cosmology to my life direction at River’s Edge, march with the Red Hackle Pipes & Drums band as I learn to play bagpipes from a former Pipe Major of Scotland’s Black Watch, let kids partner with working scientists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s future scientist program, volunteer to rehabilitate injured birds at the Medina Raptor Center, and learn to make handmade books at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Museums, libraries, colleges and universities, cultural and ethnic organizations, recreational centers, and plenty of other places in your neighborhood are brimming with great workshops and classes for adults as well as kids.

This can happen more informally as well. As homeschoolers, we’ve found it doesn’t hurt to ask people to share a little of what they know. A steel drum company owner welcomed our group for a visit. He explained the history and science of drum-making, talked about the rewards and risks of entrepreneurship, then encouraged us to play the drums displayed there. A NASA engineer took us through a testing facility and showed us how materials are developed for the space program. A potter talked to us about the nature of clay, taught us how to form vessels on a wheel, then invited us back for the opening of his kiln to see our creations emerge.

We’ve spent days with woodworkers, architects, chemists, archaeologists, stagehands, chefs, paramedics, and many others. Despite offers of barter or pay, we’ve gotten all this expert instruction for free. People rarely turn us down when we request the chance to learn from them. Perhaps the desire to pass along wisdom and experience to the next generation is encoded in our genes. If someone possesses knowledge or abilities you’d like to gain, try asking. (Ask them to share their interests, not “teach” to get a positive response!) And don’t forget to look close to home. You might master pinochle while spending time with your brother-in-law, learn coding from your niece, gain new appreciation for fly fishing from your dad’s business partner, go bird-watching with your neighbor, and as we all know, learn more from your own kids than you’d ever imagined. I call these knowledge networks. Here’s how to activate yours.

Of course, there are plenty of platforms promoting person-to-person wisdom. Here are a few.

DIY and Maker movements have opened all sorts of avenues, with Maker Faires happening in more and more places. (Not in your area? Check out the Mini Maker Faire Starter Kit.) Find hackerspaces like NoisebridgePumping Station OneNYC ResistorTechShops, and Artisan’s Asylum. Or start your own hackerspace.

Trade School is a barter-based learning space, meaning you don’t have to pay to learn. You might barter for a class with a homemade pie or art supplies or research help. The founders describe it as “a global movement for community, connection, and educational justice.” The first Trade School was started by three friends in a NYC storefront in 2010. Now self-organized Trade Schools are opening up or running in places like Milan, Cologne, Virginia, Oakland, Singapore, New Delhi, and Paris. Want to start one in your area? Here’s how.

The Amazings offer non-traditional workshops and classes set up by ”amazings,” people over 50 with a passion to share what they know. Their site explains, “We want to make learning more fun, more friendly, more social, and more personal.” So far they have 45 people offering expertise in areas such as bookbinding, perfume making, foraging, carpentry, jazz guitar, philosophy, and corset making. The first branch is based in London, but they’re open to starting more around the world.

FreeSkools are created by participants. There’s no central organizing manifesto on one site or in one book. Some are informal gatherings to share knowledge, others are active networks meeting in parks, living rooms, and community centers. All are devoted to learning freely. You’ll find them in IthicaSanta Cruz, and dozens of other cities in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. Check out piece in Yes! about what to consider when setting up a FreeSkool.

Skillshare is like the eBay of localized education. You can learn what you want from someone in your community as well as teach others what you know. Some of the classes offered right now are Building Mobile Apps for Android Devices, Rock Poster Design from Concept to Execution, and Launch Your Startup for Less than $1,000. There’s a fee and many of these classes aren’t taught in person, but online.

The School of Life is teeming with great stuff. They feature secular sermons with big thinkers talking about big ideas. Classes by experts with titles like How to Be Creative and Finding a Job You Love. Bibliotherapy: basically book prescriptions custom-designed with your reading history, dilemmas, and desires in mind. The place is also teeming with activity beyond the sit still and think variety. There are engaging programs with transformative potential and weekend adventures developed by scientists, artists, and others. Oh, and what they call Utopian Feasts. So far there’s one in London with a branch opening in Australia. Not in London or Sydney? Start up something similar in your community.

Citizen Circles are small groups of people who meet to learn together for a limited period of time with an emphasis on collective learning and action. There’s no fee. Some Citizen Circle topics have included women as social innovators, systems dynamics, exploring indigenous knowledge, and design thinking. There’s plenty of information to help you start your own.

(un)classes are casual ways to meet and learn from local people. So far the idea has taken root in the San Francisco area. Any fees go to a designated charity and participants walk away with new knowledge as well as new connections. A recent class taught how to make gnocchi while benefiting the area food bank while another taught documentary photography while benefiting a scholarship program.

School of Everything, based in the U.K., connects those who want to learn with those who can share what they know. In Glasgow, for example, you can find instructors to teach you Mandarin, classical piano, acting audition techniques, hypnosis, and the tango. Some instructors charge for classes, others do not.

Go ahead. Get your hands right in that dirt, clay, dough, or paint as you build your expertise. Feel the spark. There’s else nothing like it.

Image: drumminhands' flickr photostream

Image: drumminhands’ flickr photostream

Growing Up Sarcastic & Self-Sufficient On The Farm

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Isabelle the cow. (Image: Claire Weldon)

“Come here Slug Weasel,” my daughter commands. Obediently her youngest brother does as she bids, helping her carry 50 pound bags of chicken feed to the barn on our little farm. They chat pleasantly on the way.

By pleasantly I mean he doesn’t just point out that her flip-flop clad feet are dirty. He says that they are festering toxic bacteria unknown to science and should be classified as biological weapons.

She doesn’t just notice he’s squinting, she pretends to worry about his sudden exposure to sunlight and insists that swiveling in a computer chair probably doesn’t afford him the musculature to carry more than the weight of his own hair. They laugh and talk all the way to the barn.  I smile in adoration.

I was raised to be quiet and deferential to others. (Fist-shake at outdated values.) Perhaps as a direct result, I wanted to insure that my own children felt free to be themselves. Homeschooling has given us that freedom. Natural learning and all sorts of friends serves as an antidote to cultural factors relentlessly trying to pressure young people into sameness.

There’s not much sameness going on here. My four offspring can fix old tractors, diagnose a chicken in respiratory distress, compose a bagpipe tune, design custom air cooling systems for computers, discuss the chytrid fungus currently decimating amphibian populations, randomly quote from old Futurama episodes, weld sculptures, and roast fantastically spicy potatoes. They get science on everything. They don’t, however, pay attention to fashion trends or celebrity gossip.

We’re all still in headlong pursuit of our interests. But now that everyone is older I’m left with wonderful memories of early learning, the kind that shifted easily between relaxation and adventure. We read for hours together sprawled on couches, managing to get out of pajamas and into clothes before lunch if we had places to go. My kids launched into ambitious projects, from building a trebuchet that propelled pumpkins across the pond to entering a national science contest that landed them prizes including a visit with an astronaut. Other equally ambitious ideas, like making a hovercraft, were more notable for their humorous failures. We gave homemade gifts that stemmed from woodworking, sewing and soldering projects. Other gifts, like a handmade theremin, were not as well received. We called exploding experiments “science,” invited everyone we knew for large-scale projects, threw strangely amusing parties, jaunted all over for concerts and plays, maxed out our library cards each week, hosted an international guest for six summers, and whenever possible learned directly from people who thrived on work they loved.

It’s not all in the realm of memory. My grown and nearly grown kids seek each other out for hours long discussions as well as weeks long backpacking trips. Conversation around the dinner table is a gallery of fervent opinions, esoteric interests, and very dry wit. I’m still smiling in adoration. Well, I’m also smiling because someone else carries all that chicken feed.

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Fowl demonstrating free ranging. (Image: Claire Weldon)

This post originally appeared on Radio Free School

Getting Science On Everything

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crystals of vitamin B6 ( CC by 3.0 Josef Reischig)

 We spread thick layers of science on everything at our house. Yes, occasionally it smells.

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

encouraging young scientists, love of science starts early,

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbo charged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. They insist I look at video clips that go on much longer than my attention span. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family. By the time the youngest was 11, my head was the smallest.

And then there’s the front yard. By the garage door a headstone leans. It has nothing to do with Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural. Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. He thought it was funny to make it a two-fisted drinker. I’m plotting to put a trumpet in one of the metal man’s hands so it looks like a rowdy jazz player. And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.

raising scientists, natural curiosity makes scientists,

Science shouldn’t be confined to a formal study. My husband and I have never worked in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity, heading in all sorts of directions.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then picking up handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied.

When one of my boys was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and on occasion unintentionally left those fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so intensely curious and active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame that compelled him to disobey. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warming about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn but can be conquered in the presence of a parent.

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened.  One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one.

My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable of discovering anything they want to know.

Respecting A Child’s Urge To Discover

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misspenthopesxx.deviantart.com

The kids had a bunch of boards, some old nails, a hand saw, and a few hammers. They also had the two most important ingredients, the desire to make something and the freedom to do so.

They spent an afternoon planning their tree fort, enthusiastically arguing over whose plan was best. Their first few attempts failed spectacularly. They were undaunted, even bragged a little bit about the noise the boards made falling down. Several of them asked family members for advice. A few others paged through books and watched YouTube videos as they tried to figure out basic construction techniques. They started again, measuring more carefully as they built a frame. The process took much longer than they’d expected but they stuck with it. When they ran out of materials they scavenged tree lawns on garbage pickup day, dragging back pieces of wood. They got a few cuts and bruises. They were proud of those too. As they worked they talked about how they’d use their clubhouse. It didn’t occur to them how much they were learning.

Conventional thinking tells us that children benefit from the newest educational toys and electronics, lessons, coached sports, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these advantages. They do this because they believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more their children will benefit.

But learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close. Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking That’s true of a baby as well as older children and teens.

Young people are also cued to ignore information that is too simple or too complex. Research indicates that people are drawn to learn from situations that are “just right” for them.  They may make plenty of mistakes along the way, just as babies fall when learning to walk, but facing those challenges and making those mistakes are pivotal steps in maturity.

It’s also well-known that a child’s natural motivation tends to diminish in adult-led activities. Unless they’ve been raised on a steady diet of ready-made entertainment, children are naturally drawn to free play. They pretend, make up games, daydream, wonder, and launch their own projects. They are discovering not only the world around them but a rich inner life as well.

Of course adults are vital to young people’s lives. They provide safety, guidance, love, and much more. Kids know they can ask trusted adults for help or advice. They do so more eagerly when they recognize these adults won’t overwhelm them with information, quiz them on what they are learning, or take over. Adult responses simply need to stay in proportion to a young person’s request.

For an example of how powerful the drive to discover can be, let’s take a brief detour to two Ethiopian villages. These places may be rich in intangibles like family and tradition, but they are poor in every other way. The illiteracy rate is practically 100 percent. There aren’t even written words around for children to see: no books, no labels on packaged foods, no street signs. That’s where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project dropped off 1,000 tablet PCs with solar chargers. They weren’t handed out in a school, but to kids. The devices were pre-loaded with English-language operating systems and software that tracked how the tablets were used. The boxes were taped shut, with no instruction given at all.

In less than five minutes, one child (who’d never seen an on/off switch) powered up a system. The kids collaborated as they learned. Within a few days they were using 47 apps per child, within five months they were taking pictures. That took a while since the kids had to teach themselves to hack Android because the tablet cameras were mistakenly deactivated. The OLPC project is finding, all over the world, that kids are learning to read and speak in multiple languages. They easily search, program, and connect using inexpensive tablets. These kids are also teaching adults in their villages to read and use computers. They’re doing it without adult instruction.

So how did our fort-builders do? They had three sides framed and were working on the fourth when one boy’s father stepped in to help. His help may have been welcomed if they’d asked or if he simply contributed to the team effort, but this very well-meaning man decided the kids weren’t doing a good job. He took over, telling the kids to re-do some of their work and to build the rest of it according to his instructions. They did, but without much gusto. The resulting fort was more sturdily built yet they only used it a few times.

A year or so later they scavenged some boards from it to make a go-cart, and then another go-cart. This time they welcomed the help of another child’s grandfather who worked alongside them, learning together as the project unfolded. Their enthusiasm had returned.