Guided Explorative Projects

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

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

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

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

Now for the project suggestions:


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

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

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

Local Map Exploration

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

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

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

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

Local Resource History and Manufacturing:

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

Google Maps or Google Earth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-1C (31F)

51.430112, -116.462598phyllopod

Use satellite view

Highway 838 Midland Provincial Park Drumheller, Alberta Canada

Maotianshan Shales


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

Use satellite view!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Patience with Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting Up an Unschooling Room


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

Unschooling Supplies? Also no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Limits

Or no boundaries.
No rules.

Nobody telling you your beard is too long. OK, so sometimes people you love tell you your beard is too long, but you love them and you love yourself anyway - and your beard. Because it's just the way it is. And you quietly tell your wife you might always have had a beard except in the beginning you just felt you *had* to cut it. Then you grew up and discovered such rules were not for you.

No limits is nobody saying you can't take your kids out of school to help you at work. Or your kids never had the obligation to go to school in the first place. In fact you've become increasingly uncertain where the line is between work and play and school and projects and love and rest. And that's OK because you've also become increasingly likely to find similar-minded people whose boundaries have gotten so fuzzy there may be no boundaries at all.

No limits on life and love. Like when you think you might play accordion out on the boardwalk and earn a few dollars, and you just play whatever the hell comes out of your growing fingertips (yes seriously - at 15 his fingertips are growing!) and behold there's nobody stopping to suggest you stop making stuff up and play a song everybody knows. Anyway even though you're improvising, some people seem to sing along... with no hesitation. More people with no boundaries. They're everywhere!

Because you're so obviously that open-minded kind of soul who accepts people in all their stripes and colours, because you've been brought up to believe that everyone deserves freedom. And there are no limits on freedom.

That is unschooling, to me.

No limits means that even little kids, like the youngest I'm currently teaching in the Wild Art program, have to learn to set their own limits, because I don't do it for them. This can be a very challenging prospect, both for me as a teacher to kids who aren't all unschooled, and to those kids who find themselves lost without imposed limits. But it's going to have to happen sooner or later, so why not now?

No limits means more danger, more risks, more problems, and... more solving problems. It means more discovery, more tears, and more compassion. It means feral children doing mysterious things in the woods with no recorded outcome, and no expectations. It means freedom. It means these kids aren't going to have to wait until they're in their thirties to discover that shaving was optional; that what they do with their own minds and bodies always was theirs to decide. And the responsibility for creating this beautiful world individually and with their peers is also theirs.

I am always overjoyed to discover how quickly people of all ages step up to the plate, given the simple and terrifying gift of no limits.

Wild Clay Harvesting and Separating

Recently one of my teen groups took an interest in harvesting wild clay, and decided to try refining it.

When we dig up the clay, it's not only quite crumbly, but also full of rocks, dirt, forest detritus and sand.

So over a period of a few weeks, these teens processed some of our local clay into a lovely smooth sculpting medium, and I thought I'd share the simple method they used.

We have easily-accessible clay all over our island, appearing in creeks and gullies, and dumped in shiny blue mountains when we excavate for wells and the like. This clay came from a very small creek. The group found mostly green clay, with a few pockets of a gorgeous pale blue-grey clay that was quite pure already. They used spoons, stones, a trowel and shovels to scrape their harvest from just above the water level, and found various benefits to each. It seems that the best way to collect the clay is to scrape it gently, dragging the side of a spoon, rock, or shovel along as you might drag your hand across bed linens to smooth them. The reason for this is that any digging into the clay removes chunks of crumbly clay that are quite difficult to grind or squish into a smooth lump. Scraping not only pushes water into the top layer, but pulls off such a small wet layer at a time that the resulting clay is much softer and doesn't require grinding or squishing to render it moldable.

Much of what the group collected was in fact crumbling and needed grinding, so once they had nearly half a bucket full, they used hands, a potato masher, and a shovel to grind it up until it was a nice heavy sludge. Some rocks and twigs were already coming out of it, and they removed those right away.

Then they left the clay slop in the bucket, undisturbed, where it settled out. After a week, we returned to find the rocks settled to the bottom, the sandiest clay above that, the smoother clay slip above that, and the water on top. At this point the group poured the water off the top, and the cleanest slip (about forty or fifty pounds worth) they poured into an old pillow case and hung up over the creek to settle again, and dry.

When we returned after another week, the clay hadn't dried as much as we hoped it would in the pillow case, but had settled nicely again, a layer of heavy sandy clay on the bottom, smooth sloppy clay in the middle, and slip on top. We easily scooped the best quality clay from the top of that in the bag and divided it among us.

Most of the group chose to use their sloppy clay to paint with, but some of us brought some home, where it will dry a little more (on a cloth-covered board) until it's a good working consistency.

Although this activity was, as usual, conceived by the group, I delighted in facilitating, and in seeing so many positive learning outcomes of the process. Most obviously, group working skills were developed, but so too were skills of problem-solving, improvisation, and process development. Working hands-on promotes a deeper understanding of the nature of this ecosystem, its constituents, and its changeability. When you separate out the layers of the forest floor you become familiar with it in a way that is deeper than mere description and images can convey. History, ecology, and engineering are integrated. And of course, when you're doing this exploratively, you are engaged through the process of genuine discovery. This activity was also a great opportunity to change a material that we regularly walk over without concern through a process of very simple refinement into a material that many people purchase in plastic bags. I think this not only strengthens our connection to wilderness, but also to our own ingenuity. Together these are part of what makes us human.

Tools for Improvisational Play

Sometimes I bring tools into the wilderness for play. Sometimes the tools are conventional, like a shovel and buckets for harvesting clay, but sometimes they're strange. And invariably, it seems that the strangest tools bring out the most creativity!

Yesterday, during a free-range exploration that ended up in a creek with a wonderful sandbar, I offered the following:
  • a whisk
  • a pillowcase
  • a tin can (opened in such a way that it had no sharp edges)
  • a steak knife
  • string
The whisk, knife and string, despite being initially the most enticing tools, were actually abandoned in the first few minutes. Using mostly the pillowcase and tin can, along with whatever they found in the wild, the group of six pre-teens worked collaboratively to conceive and create a very functional bridge over moving water, and to separate the sandbar into two islands.

The sandbar cleft was hard work, and they improvised fantastically, using the pillowcase (with various combinations of sand, mud and water) as a bucket, battering ram, and scraper-shovel. The can was useful for digging, prying, scooping, and throwing water.

The bridge-building was very challenging, since the flow of the creek washed out most of the sand, mud, and wood they threw in. But after much experimentation, the group succeeded in securing a large rotten log with sticks, so that the water could easily flow underneath while not disturbing the positioning of the log. They stabilized both ends of the log using bark, mud, sticks, and pillowcase-fulls of sand. After many crossings, the bridge became increasingly stable, and the kids were mightily proud of their work.

The Mystery By the Creek--Solved!

On a nearly-sunny January afternoon, I and a group of Wild Art kids stumbled upon something we'd never seen before: About twenty little round calciferous half-spheres, deposited a few meters away from a creek. Not exactly uniform but almost, the little things were approximately 8mm diameter, and seemed similar to sand dollar skeletons. They looked a little like covered buttons. However, when we broke one open, the inside appeared to be solid, comprised of pinkish calcium carbonate. As for other clues in the area, the half-spheres were found on a bit of pristine forest floor, surrounded by needles and cones, about a meter or so above the flood-level of the creek. The only other item of note in the area was the claw of a signal crayfish. We puzzled about it for quite a while, and took a few home to research.

The most obvious thing to do was to consult Sue Ellen Fast and Will Husby of Ecoleaders, who are extremely knowledgeable about freshwater ecosystems. In addition to being some of the kindest people I know, they are also my neighbours, so I took some of the little half-spheres by their house and Will had a good look. Will has easily cleared up some previous Wild Art mysteries, such as the identification of our local signal crayfish, freshwater sponges and freshwater fingernail clams. However, on examining these little half-spheres, he was stumped.

So off to our local facebook forum, where I could easily post a photo of our mysterious find, and get some responses. I also personally emailed the photo to a few other knowledgeable locals and the curator of marine invertebrates at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Understandably, most people looking at the photo thought they looked like mushrooms or seeds, however Sue Ellen had done a vinegar test and confirmed they were indeed calcium carbonate, so mushrooms or seeds seemed out of the question. Other suggestions ranged from urchins to discarded candies or drugs, fossilized berries, concretions from garbage left in the park, or tiny geodes. We all see through the lens of our own experience!

And then, unexpectedly, the answer appeared in my email. Will had come through, after all, having followed a hunch, based on my finding of a crayfish claw, nearby. What we have found are gastroliths! Will says “they are found in freshwater crayfish (and) are part of a system for conserving calcium used in making their exoskeletons.” He speculates that they were part of an otter's poop, which was left on the creek bank before being eroded by rain and leaving only the gastroliths behind.

Andrew Hosie of the Western Australian Museum explains on his blog that “the calcium provides strength to the exoskeleton so that it can support the animal’s body, give the claws their pinching power and to protect it from predators. As crayfish (indeed all crustaceans) grow bigger, they must periodically shed the exoskeleton and form a new one. To start a new exoskeleton from scratch would require large amounts of new calcium. The hormones that drive moulting (referred to as ecdysis) trigger calcium carbonate to be removed from the exoskeleton and starts forming a pair of these gastroliths in the stomach. After the crayfish has moulted, the gastroliths are reabsorbed and used in the strengthening of the new exoskeleton. Only freshwater crustaceans form gastroliths because unlike seawater, freshwater has very little dissolved calcium salts, so in an effort to retain calcium, crayfish form these little gastroliths, or even eat the old exoskeleton.” He also tells us that “pharmaceutical companies are actively researching the use of gastroliths to treat osteoporosis related conditions.”

Isn't it wonderful how one mysterious discovery can bring people together and open our minds?

Wild Art Exploration: One Clear Day

Such a rich and wonderful day with two groups of Wild Art kids today, that I thought I'd share it as a photo montage.

The teen group went to check out the old dump site along the Dump Road, and we saw a shimmering orange puddle where rust and oil leaches out from the dump pile.

From there we headed up to Everhard Creek, where we used spoons to harvest some clay. That was about all we had time for today, but we've hatched a plan to return next week with a bucket, and try filtering the clay.

The younger group returned to the forest village they'd begun making the week before, and carried on creating things to sell at their shops and restaurants. One group led a tour to a beaver lodge, and later became petty criminals, robbing the shops and calling the 'police' on each other. We discovered some as-yet-unidentified little calciferous things (photo included), and returned very wet and muddy - the perfect ending to a great adventure!

That's the robber escaping on the left, and his 'boss' sitting carving a stick in the shop the two of them created.
These are the unidentified little calciferous semi-spheres we found on the forest floor.

A 'fire pit'.
An abandoned cedar crown.

Cedar crowns for sale at one of the shops.
Unidentified (maybe heron?) prints.

The beaver lodge! Entrances are barely visible on the left and centre-right, behind a few large sticks.

Risk-Taking Is Essential for Learning to Be Safe

Looking at bubbles in the ice and a watery landscape underneath.
For as long as I can remember, I've been hearing mumblings of concern over the increased safety-restrictions placed on our children. We like to talk about "when we were kids" and how our lives were so much freer; so much more dangerous. "And we turned out just fine." But when it comes to our own kids we're still terrified, placing ever more layers of armour on them and keeping them ever closer, ever more restricted in their movements. We read great articles about how necessary it is for our kids to explore and take risks. And then we see them heading out without a helment, freak out, chase them down, apply helmet, and tell them not to go out of our sight. Or something like that.

I'm not immune to those struggles, as a parent. But because I teach, and am thinking every day about how to engage people I work with in healthy, dangerous play, I have the opportunity to keep reminding myself why it matters to let my children take risks.

Frozen ditches!
Last week I took a couple of groups of kids out exploring ice. We talked a lot about ice safety, how to recognize dangerous areas, and how to deal with cracking ice, to avoid falling through. We looked down and estimated the thickness of the ice based on bubbles and twigs that were frozen into and floating under the ice. We also cautiously went out on all fours and bellies, exploring the ice, knowing that it wasn't likely strong enough to stand on, but learning to gauge the danger (how deep was the water under the ice? how thick was the ice? how concentrated was our weight? was it cracking?). In some places the ice did crack, and the kids had to safely navigate away from the more dangerous areas as they discovered them. They also stomped around on some shallow areas and stomped right through some of the ice, into the mud.

I feel that this dangerous play is essential learning - it enables the kids to take risks in relative safety and to learn from them. This is not only essential for wilderness activities, but also for life in general, since so much of what we learn requires risk, and it's nice to be able to mitigate the severity of the risks from a place of personal understanding. I feel this leads to greater safety, and in my experience with teaching I have definitely seen that the more cautious risks children take, the more confident they become, and the less severe their stumbles are, when they make them.

PS: Ever hear of belly hockey? The correct rink for this is a 2-inch thick layer of ice over a couple of feet of murky creek water. Grab yourself some nice sticks and a chunk of wood for a puck... and have at it!