The Fun Is In the Finding

That's a line from one of my very favourite children's books, The Finding Princess, by Sue-Ann Alderson. The princess makes increasingly impossible demands of her parents and grandparents until, in a fit of frustration, she tromps off into the wilderness to find for herself what she needs. She finds joy. She finds a life full of adventure and discovery, and certainly more intrinsic value than the life she had in the castle. It's a simplistic children's book with a very important life-learning message.

When I was a kid, my parents had the whole Encyclopedia Britannica as well as at least a decade's-worth of National Geographic magazines upon our bookshelf, which I referred to for many of my perplexing questions. I have great memories of researching ear-shapes by examining the ears in various portraits I found in those many books. I don't expect that the person who chose the portraits had any idea how useful they would be to my grade eight ear research, but I have never forgotten that particular exploration. Sometime during high school it was impressed upon me by a teacher that the reason for the work we were doing was to transfer the information from those books and others into my mind, so that I wouldn't have to look it up anymore. What?! And that was the end? No way. The books - I knew for certain - existed to preclude the need for memorization! Now we have the Internet, and it's more evident than ever how pointless it would be to begin memorizing. The task, clearly, is to learn to explore, to learn to navigate, and to learn to process information critically, with an astute awareness that there is no one correct outcome. The joy and the value is in the journey.

If I present my kids with a desired outcome, they generally balk, unless they perceive the outcome to be of immediate use. If I present my kids with a question, they usually get intrigued. If I present them with a question that is designed to lead them to a particular outcome, they usually follow along for a bit, until we all get side-tracked and end up somewhere else entirely. Interestingly, though, when I work with a group of mixed schoolers and unschoolers, I see some very obvious distinctions: The kids who have no intentional unschooling experiences (usually those who have always attended full-time school programs) look for the hidden lesson or goal in everything I present. Instead of exploring the question, they wait to find out the answer. Many also grow uncomfortable when it becomes clear that there is no predetermined answer or outcome. After a day or two with the group, they learn to navigate, usually by trying out some hitherto 'unacceptable' behaviours, until they realize that they truly are in control of their own experiences, and adjust to the group. It's an amazing transformation to see, and I consider it one of the greatest personal gains from teaching: watching kids discover their own innate value. One of the most difficult things for me, as an unschooling parent and teacher, is to always answer questions in a way that inspires investigation instead of in a way that points to an answer. Needless to say, I read The Finding Princess often.

Six Hours in the West Coast Wild

So here's how it works: You pack up some tasty foods and a bunch of water; maybe an extra sweater or a hat, and you put on all your toughest rain gear.

And you go:
From the canopy to the forest floor there is SO much to discover.

Like testing the depth of the mud on the edges of a rainforest sphagnum fen. The moss in the mud at the bottom of this fen releases methane bubbles when poked, and the water draining out the other side smells decidedly of sulfur. These kinds of things you notice when you have endless time to explore. Moss farts.

If you journey further downstream, you might find evidence of a century past, when people logged this place. They left grooves in the hillside, springboard notches in the many many giant stumps (far bigger than the base of any trees here now), and even a corduroy road like this one, used for hauling those ancient giants down to the ocean to be floated away.

After all this adventure, poking around the bog and fen, playing horse and teeter-totter on the fallen trees, and exploring the creeks and vegetation, you might find yourself hungry for lunch. Where better to go than straight up the steepest, greenest bluff, rising a hundred feet right to the top of the shorter trees and out into the brilliant sunshine? It's only a five minute climb, but you will be sweaty and hungry when you get to the top.

At the top of that big bluff, sitting in the yarrow, reindeer lichen and the salty ocean wind, looking down at the forest canopy and glimpses of the creek you just came from, you could talk about the deep and not-so-deep meanings of life. Because, after all, today you are really living.

And anyway life is beautiful.
It's amazing to look at.

Amazing to touch.

And amazing in its variety and cycles.

It's just amazing to be a part of it.

This outing was part of the Wild Art Program. More information on the Wild Art page.

The Nature of Belonging

Yesterday my son's school hosted a public talk with renowned ethnographer, Wade Davis. He seems to have been just about everywhere, met so many remote peoples and lived so many amazing experiences and his stories tumble like little avalanches, one setting off another. He told the rapt group of kids that he once lit himself on fire and shook the hand of a voodoo priest. He made the priest laugh. Middle-school mouths were agape as he talked about an Innu man who made himself a shit-knife, butchered a dog to make a sled, and rode away into the night, and the time he brought back through customs a suitcase made of African pop cans and containing all the strange ingredients to make a powder that would turn people into zombies. He talked about Polynesian sailors who know when land is beyond the horizon by the way the waves hit their boat - and they know which islands are making those variations, too. His favourite food? Well he's had lemon-flavoured sauce that was actually ant sauce, but he had a French girlfriend once who was a really good cook... He spoke about the diversity of humanity; the great tapestry of unique answers to the question who are we?, and a deep connection to place.

He touched a few times on the assumption that our western technology makes us more advanced than others; that we consider it a thing to strive for, but that perhaps it just happens to be the world we're immersed in, and ours is simply different than the technology of others. This led me to think more deeply about why I feel so good about taking people out in the wilderness, here. It's because it's my culture. The trees and the moss and the weather and the way the water flows are the bowl that holds my life, and the sharing of that connection is our culture. I feel a deep sense of belonging here, and I enjoy feeling my community in our unique place; remarking on the tiniest discoveries and the changes that happen through the seasons, the living and dying and rotting and growing of this place that we are a part of.

Interestingly, it seems that our culture equates a connection to the land with lower class, lower sophistication, or "quaintness". We hold humanity to some different yard stick than the rest of earth's animals, imagining that intelligence includes a separation from the land and our earthly nature. We revere people who practice modern medicine more than we do biologists, despite the obvious fact that both professions are inextricably linked. Those of our society who actually work with the land are usually among the lowest-paid. We put a lot of value in education that steers us toward urban life. In urban landscapes, rivers are diverted, buried, and forgotten. Forests are razed. It matters more whether we remove our body hair and apply lipstick than it does that we feel the frost coming. The dance of the sunlight filtering through the natural canopy is lost to us. Even the wind and weather patterns have been changed by our "progress", and for many of us are no more than a nuisance, now.

There is such a thing as Nature Deficit Disorder.

We're having a municipal election in my community, and my main concern in thinking about who to vote for is who understands the land we live on. Luckily, there are a few candidates who I regularly run into in the woods, here. There are people among us who hear the differences in rainfall, feel slight temperature changes, and know by the smell of the woods when the mushrooms are coming. There are children who can climb 100-foot trees without fear because they know the ways different species of branches grow, flex, and snap well enough to navigate them. There are children and adults out every day, going off-trail and into the woods, and being a part of our home.

We do have a land-connection, still. We are finding ourselves again. Having invented cars doesn't mean we have to use them. We are finding our walking feet again. We are finding our connections to the place we live on, live in, live under and live because of. In an age of germicides, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, we are discovering that were it not for the microbes that make up our bodies we would not live at all. With discoveries like the epigenome and entanglement, we are realizing that what we do truly does define us, and truly does effect every other particle in the universe. We matter. We are finally beginning to understand the significance of what Carl Sagan so famously wrote:
All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff. 
~Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973.

The post-oil age is going to be an age of redefining our culture, rewiring our minds, and reawakening our hearts to the essence of our own home and being (because they are the same thing), and to the enormous potential and responsibility that comes of living with instead of upon.

Following is a talk given by Wade Davis in 2007. It's quite similar to the one I saw yesterday. Enjoy! (If for some reason this YouTube video does not appear, you can also see it here:


So here in British Columbia, nobody in the public school system is in school, because our provincial Liberal party has precipitated a strike. I think it's pretty fair to say that the vast majority of parents here support our teachers, who are asking for nothing more than the means to do their jobs well. Even our beloved children's entertainer Raffi has spoken up on the issue.

We homeschoolers and unschoolers also have teachers. 
Some of us have children in the public school system or at private schools. Some of us whose children don't attend any school are supported by wonderful teachers through Distributed Learning and other programs. Some of us are also teachers, ourselves, either as union members or not. Most of us have in some way benefited from a wonderful teacher, and I am quite certain that support for teachers is nearly universal. Whether our children attend school or not, we are all members of the same community. We support the teachers who, in living with us and in supporting us and our children, are essential to our community's wellbeing. It's critical that they are given the means with which to do the jobs they have chosen with all the passion and skill they do.

But There's No School this Week! 

Politics aside, what to do with the extra home-time seems to be the question of the moment. People are out there scrambling for curriculum packages to occupy and educate their children during the strike. Of course I've been contacted by some readers (and by my sister) for a post on this. I suspect my answer is predictable:

Most people unschool all summer. By that I mean that when school is out for the summer, kids are given opportunity to follow their passions and inspirations, to join their family on work and play adventures, and to participate in activities like camps, workshops and other adventures that they don't have so much time for during the school year. That's basically the definition of unschooling. If daycare isn't an issue (and I'm aware that for many it is), then why not keep unschooling? 

We had an interesting and unexpected reassurance this week when our 12-year-old son did his first ever test, and appeared to be far ahead of grade level in the things he does a lot of, and just barely meeting grade level in the things he never does at all. And best of all: he came out of the assessment test happy and excited to have had the experience! If that's the result of 7 years of full-on radical unschooling, then all my fears have been officially put to rest. We're thrilled for him to have the "school experience" he's beginning this year, but pleased that our daughter is still unschooling, and that they've both had the opportunity to follow their own hearts for so long. I feel like this strike, despite all the reasons it shouldn't have to happen, despite all the truly good things that teachers do for our children even with their very meagre resources, is an opportunity for more kids to follow their hearts for just a little longer, and take advantage of the beautiful blossoming that can encourage.

Go into the Wilderness!!!
I can't stress enough how important I think this is. It will always be number one on my to-do list. It's raining, today. So get out in the rain! And if you parents can go along for the adventure, do it!! My kids' lives have been defined by the time they spend exploring, walking through, and playing in the woods and riparian areas around our island. We go out into the wilderness with an expectation of stopping to look at whatever piques our interest, and the most interesting, meaningful conversations we've had have happened out there. Expect to get dirty. Expect to stay longer than you intended. Expect to sit down in a creek and play with the flow of water. You might know in the back of your mind that this is physics play, but don't push the "teaching moment". Just enjoy the play. When your kids watch you discovering as much as they do, they learn instinctively that exploration and discovery is good, and this will set them up for a lifetime of learning. 
If you can do this for every single day of the strike, you don't need the rest of this list. :-)

Open-Ended Creativity
Of course, you can do this outside as well as inside, but if you're all too wet and tired, have come in for your lunch and hot drinks, and crave some quiet or dry indoor time, then get creative at the table! Or the floor. Wherever it is, clear the biggest area you can, and pull out whatever can be used creatively: Blocks and other construction/sorting toys; paints, glue and whatever scraps and materials can be glued or painted; fabric, yarn and sewing supplies; papers and envelopes for sending letters (don't coerce them to write - if all they want to do is wrap up a lovely little glued piece of yarn and put it in an envelope, then that is a wonderful step ahead on their journey to communication - enjoy it!). Maybe you will find yourselves sprawled out in the creativity space telling stories. That, too, is a wonderful opportunity to learn. "Teachable moments" will abound - let them. And see where they take you and your children, without needing to direct them.

Get Dramatic
A few weeks ago my daughter and her friends spontaneously became human CD-players. They made themselves paper "CD drives" and a collection of paper "CD's", and sat covered in blankets which also hid a collection of instruments, underneath. The CD's were inserted into the drives, and the blanket-CD-players bopped around with every style of music you can imagine. You never know what materials will be useful for this play, but dress-ups, blankets, craft supplies and basic instruments are good things to have around. It's also a good idea for parents to be available as an audience, when needed. The important thing is give the kids space for their play. This kind of play is essential to their development of social literacy, and we can cause a lot of confusion by being too involved. Even as a teacher, I only step in when difficult situations arise, or when my participation is requested. And then I mostly act as mediator, helping them to find their own resolutions and ideas.

Lose the Schedule
If you just looked at this list of three suggested activities and mentally sorted them into time-blocks for a day at home, know that you're not alone. Our culture is carefully moderated by schedules and rules, and we depend on those things to keep us in line! But unschooling is about letting go of those restrictions and following our hearts into new and exciting territory. If your children have disappeared in the woods and it's lunch-time, and you've set up an awesome craft-space for their expected return... go check in on them. Maybe they would rather have a picnic in the rain and continue their play than come in. Maybe your awesome craft-space will be totally unused, and you'll have to use it yourself! And that has to be OK, sometimes. Having a lack of schedule won't ruin the kids for school - they'll fall back into line when it becomes socially prudent to do so. But meanwhile that morning adventure that carried on for 3 days will be something wonderful to hold onto, and you never know how it may have influenced the rest of their lives. You might even have to bring them dinner and a tent.

Crafts for MLA's
Finally, with enormous thanks to my friend Tom, whose genius idea this was... Crafts for MLA's! 
You can find your MLA's address here (search and then click the name for the address), or you can find our esteemed Premier's address, here. Let's let our children sent the government little gifts of their own gorgeous voices. Christy Clark is a mother, too.

This strike doesn't have to be a negative thing. It's an opportunity to give our children a voice. It's an opportunity to let the people we elected know that we believe in giving our teachers the resources and circumstances they need to do the wonderful job they want to do. Let your kids send whatever they want. Not only does this open up wonderful opportunities for discussion about politics, school, and human rights, but it will give our provincial Liberals a beautiful reminder of the kaleidoscope of valuable young persons who benefit from and depend upon the public school system in our province. Our teachers see these expressions of our children's hearts and minds, and are passionate about helping them to grow and learn from a place of joyful discovery and inspiration.

Working with our Hearts and Minds

Whether our children attend school or not, and whether or not we engage with the public school system, we are all valuable members of the same greater community, and deserve to be supported in working with our hearts and minds. Let's make a point of doing that during this strike and always, and supporting our teachers to do the same.

10 Essential Educational Toys

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

Great Science Toys

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

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

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

Ha ha ha.

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

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

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

Inspiring Toys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uninspiring Toys

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

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

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

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

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

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


Preteens and Teens: How to Play

We seem to have an idea in our culture that we need manufactured objects for play. Even when we do play outside, we tend to stick to manufactured spaces like parks, sports fields, trails, etc. It seems so bewildering to imagine what we would do without these things. But kids don't have that problem.

The things the kids in my world get up to with a bit of wilderness and no rules are really quite beautiful. They develop the most complex socio/economic systems which basically mimic those of their parents. They take whatever the wilderness offers them and weave it into their play, taking on various jobs, trading for services, objects and 'money' (this week it was alder catkins), hiring each other and volunteering, maintaining the spaces they create and filling in their world with creativity, philosophical/moral conversations, and a whole lot of laughter.

These aren't 6-year-olds. These are 9 to 13-year-olds. They are squatting bare- and boot-footed in a creek (above), diverting clean water for a handwashing station, and creating moss-on-bark sponges to scrub their handmade wooden planter pots which they plan to sell at the pet (slug) and variety store over to the right, on a log. On the surface, to those of us accustomed to the commercially-available expectations of preteens, it looks like their play is childish. But if you really pay attention you see that the things they're working through here are in fact very mature. I heard conversations ranging from impacts of climate change to fair wages to questions of morality in petting zoos and circuses and ethics of catching wild animals, to gender equality, particle physics and nutritional values of wild foods. Really. With 0 adult input, these are just a few of the conversations that came up in 4 hours of wilderness play, yesterday.

I could not dream up these things. I can only give them space to do it themselves.

This is what happens when you leave the manufactured toys, spaces and rules behind and leave kids to play with nothing but time and lack of constraints. Oh -- and some wilderness at their disposal. Some trees to climb. Creeks to get muddy in. Nobody standing around injecting teachable moments or safety concerns.

Kids don't need us to tell them how to play and learn. They need us to get out of their way.

Parenting is Like Cooking

"Parenting is a lot like cooking. 
You follow a recipe if you don't feel confident. 
Once you do you use what you have in the 
cupboard and do what feels right. 
It's really a matter of paying attention."
~Lyn van Lidth de Jeude