Unschooling: Am I Failing My Kids?

My nine-year-old son sat staring at his comic book, lengthily, before raising his eyes to meet mine in the glassy glare that has always alerted me to my failings. He told me his friend, who was a year younger, was already doing grade five math. 

"So?" I said, wanting to reassure him, but already knowing that the river of his disappointment would overcome my small boat of hope before it launched. "You're unschooled. We don't even know what level of math you do. Who cares."

His eyes pierced me, and he muttered, "I can't even do math."

I knew it wasn't true. Sure, he would probably test 'below grade level' if we tested him, but I disagreed with testing, and besides, though he was ignorant of long division at the time, he was able to Google a useful formula and calculate the speed at which his theoretical space-station would need to spin in order to simulate earth-gravity for those on-board. I didn't really have any concerns about his ability to 'do math'. But his eyes told me that I had, indeed, failed him. If not academically, then socially. Or maybe in supporting his sensitive heart and competitive nature. There's always something. My boat was sunk.

I've been consulting for unschooling families since the beginning of the pandemic, and by far the biggest and most common reason people call me is because they're afraid of failing their children. I struggled with that so much, myself, in the earlier years (and off and on even now that my kids are grown!) I struggle with it as a teacher, too, and I'm pretty sure it's actually most parents' niggling deep fear. 

I think we always want to do the absolute best we can for our kids, but the truth is we can't ever know what the best is for each individual kid, and for our family as a whole. We won't even know when our kids are grown if we've done what might have been best for them. All we can do is to keep an open heart, an agile mind, and work through every challenge as it arrives. But picking through our human insecurities and finding ways to re-imagine them is kind of my life's work, so I've decided to dig into this one a bit. Every one of my thoughts won't apply to every one who reads this, because we're all unique, and in that uniqueness is an infinity of different possibilities and outcomes. So don't take this essay as advice, please--just some thoughts on our mutual journey and a jumping-off place for your own thoughts and conversations. And be reassured, although this list may bring up many deep-seated fears, I'm going to talk about how to overcome them later on.

Have I set my kids up for failure if they want to go to school (or quit school) later on?

Luckily, in most places, if you have the legal right to homeschool your kids, then you also have the legal right to send them to school, later on. Some systems make you jump through hoops in order to determine appropriate placements for new students, but some also make coming and going from school quite easy. And regardless, we can rest assured that many kids leave school for a variety of reasons (travel, illness, poverty, or exploring different education options) and manage to return when the time is right. The system is always willing to take kids back. 

Then there's the fear that kids will be 'behind' if they join school later than their peers. From the experiences I've had as a parent and also witnessed in other eclectic homeschooling families, I can say this is actually rarely the case. Sure, there will be differences between our home/unschooled kids' experiences and the schooled kids' experiences, but every school year begins with quite a bit of review, and home/unschooled kids are often quite skilled at harnessing learning opportunities. They 'catch up' quite quickly. 

The bigger issue I see here is the possibility of failing our kids' learning and self-esteem in general by succumbing to our own fears about 'grade levels' or 'keeping up' or 'being behind'. These competitive thoughts often lead to our kids feeling insecure about their learning. My son's insecurities about math were absolutely rooted in my own 'encouraging' him to practice math. I thought I was being mostly positive, but my actions made him aware that there was a bar he needed to reach, and he always felt in danger of failing. That's really no different than the very visible bar that school-going kids are expected to reach, so I'm not going to kick myself too much for bringing it into his world. Still, since my conviction that competition and coercion is detrimental to learning was a big part of the reason we chose to unschool, I really did fail myself, in this case. And my son's ongoing insecurity about his own intelligence is the result.

I don't know if [insert educational philosophy here] was the best choice for my child!

It might not be. Maybe you chose unschooling and now your kid is passionately yearning for the excitement and rigidity of the school her friend attends. Maybe you and your child researched the hell out of all the school options, then maxed all your credit on 'the best school', and now you're all miserable. Both of these situations have happened to me. Things change. Things can change. And the way we navigate these needs and unexpected changes with agility will be the greatest lesson to our kids. And after it all? Our kids will almost certainly blame us for choices we made that didn't serve them. That, too, is an opportunity for growth. How we work through our feelings of regret and uncertainty as a family is another of life's greatest learning opportunities.

I'm antisocial. How can I socialize my kids?

This one is hard for me. I have really deep social insecurities, and I passed them on to my children long before we even considered educational options. Unschooling, and being a part of an incredibly small homeschool cohort, was in some ways easier for me, because of the possibility of forging closer relationships with fewer people. But it was also devastating to all of us when friends moved on to school, or other communities, or just other friendships. My kids have witnessed my depression upon realizing that close friends had moved on, and this didn't help their social confidence at all. My experience with this led me to see, yet again, that the way I navigate this challenge is hugely important to how my kids will grow. Yes, unschooling in a small community amplified this problem for us, but that just gave us a chance to meet it, head on. 

My kids and I talk a lot about our social lives; our thoughts and feelings about why we or others behave the way we do. They know I don't have many answers, and frequently I have learned more from them than they have from me. As a whole, these conversations are one of the most important things we do. We all know that our house is the place we can safely air all our thoughts and feelings, that we'll love each other no matter what, and that we'll always have our hearts held, here. Dr. Gabor Maté "believes that most mental health conditions originate from unresolved childhood trauma" (Human Window, 2020). We can't avoid emotional trauma, but we can work to resolve it. So, rather than hold back about topics that challenge or frighten us, we talk about them. I'm not a psychologist and I'm not confident in my understanding of humanity, but I am my children's confidante, and that means it's my job to support them and to take their social and emotional journeys with them. Wherever we go, we go together. At least there will be someone there at the end of the road, holding their hand.

I'm no good at [insert subject here]. What if my kids want to learn things I know nothing about?

In my consulting work as well as on homeschool and unschooling discussion groups, this question comes up often, and in many different forms: 'My daughter is interested in sewing clothes, but I have no idea where to begin!' 'My child is asking to learn to read, and I don't know how to teach them.' 'I failed math in high school, how can I teach my kid at home?' In fact, the reason my son was so worried about his math level was likely because he sensed my own and his father's lack of confidence in math. I really don't understand much about math, but his father studied engineering and physics in university. His actual skill may have passed on to his son, but so did his lack of confidence. The confidence we lack as parents is normal, but it's also a detriment to learning, both for ourselves and for our children.

This issue is complex, but relatively simple to solve. First of all, we need to dismantle our thinking that learning is a top-town dissemination of knowledge. Many of us were raised in the school system and/or at home to believe that that's how learning works, but this system no longer serves our population, and even school boards across the world are beginning to change. While it's entirely possible to seek out a more experienced person as a guide or mentor in a specific subject area, that person is still growing, too, and there is always more to learn; more to share, and more ways to grow than just by collecting knowledge. The best mentors are just sharing their enthusiasm for learning with others. As parents, we can be those best mentors simply by finding some kind of enthusiasm as we go on the learning journey with our kids.

The learning can be direct, where we (or our kids) seek out information and learn it through whatever means suit us best (my own kids have variously accessed local experts, online courses, YouTube tutorials, in-school classes, and library resources). But it can also happen through undirected exploration and play, which happens to be how most of my kids' lifelong passions and skills have developed. The point is that my own skills were not needed for any of this. Maybe, especially when they were younger, I helped them access the resources they needed, but I didn't have to actually understand the subject matter to do so. My enthusiasm was for supporting their learning--whatever that was. I was the excited buyer-of-microscopes. I was the diligent driver-to-the-library. I was the supervisor of Googling, and the provider of the computer. I was the lady who made the muffins and insisted we were going to eat them in the woods, because I like the woods, damnit! That's our role, as parents: to be unflinchingly passionate, supportive, and true to ourselves. This is how our children learn to do the same, and how they learn to learn.

How to Support Our Kids:

Our kids are watching us, and they're learning 'how to human' from every nuance of our lives and behaviour. Working through our own insecurities is always the best work we can do, as parents. We will most definitely fail our children. All we can hope is that we've done our best to model resilience, agility, and a kind, supportive heart, so that when our failings rear their heads in our children's lives, our children are prepared to meet them with confidence, and grow.


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Why My Son Quit Science and How to Raise a Scientist

My son out exploring with his botanist grandfather.

We're systematically destroying our culture's love of and faith in science through the way we're teaching and parenting. When I was a kid I knew I couldn't do science, because I wasn't smart enough. Also I didn't have glasses. And when I finally did get glasses at about fourteen I'd realized that science was uncool anyway. Like my shameful glasses. Except for geeks. Geeks who were actually good at science were super-cool, and beyond my league. I could barely bring myself to speak to them, even when we were paired in biology class. Until I married one of those guys (they're almost always guys, right?) and raised some kids, one of whom, from the age of about seven, wanted nothing more than to attend university NOW to study theoretical physics. That wasn't an option for a young kid, so we unschooled our way into his adulthood, and everything about my understanding of science changed. I learned a LOT from watching how my science-passionate kid explored the world, how he was encouraged and discouraged and, ultimately, how our system fails both our kids and science. I'm going to lay it all out here, including, at the end, the list of resources I think are essential and nice-to-have for encouraging a love of science in all of us.

Dictionary.com says that science is "systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation." Look at that. Observation and experimentation are literally enshrined in the definition of science. Nowhere does that definition say "following instructions" or "memorizing facts". It definitely doesn't say "knowledge gained through performing boring pre-determined exercises where the outcome is already known". Of course, we like to call those boring, pre-determined exercises "experiments", but they're not experimental in any way, and I'm not going to pretend, here.

What We're Doing Wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this fabulous lecture that kids are born scientists, and the first thing we do as they start wreaking havoc with their scientific exploration is to stop them, because the chaos is inconvenient for us. He also says "we don't have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids, because they want to keep order in their households."
Taking the Exploration and Experimentation out of Science
Back to my son's experience, here's what happened. At nine years old, unschooling from home, he designed an interstellar space station, complete with a plan for the human population, sustainable onboard environment, and calculations to simulate gravity for that onboard environment. At thirteen, he took an admission test for an early-entrance program at the local university. He was younger than most kids there, and wasn't admitted to the program, but was encouraged to return the following year to try again. He declined. Over the next few years he became more and more adamant that the usual highschool graduation would have to be his route to studying physics, and so he pursued it, graduating a year early, and then attending a local college to beef up his collection of science and math courses. At the end of that year of study, he received his rejection notice from the university. Despite a couple of awards, excellent grades, and an honours graduation, he was rejected again from the university he'd longed to attend for most of his life. And shockingly, he was relieved!

Wait--what?! His whole family was ready to console him, and he blithely told us he didn't really want to become a scientist anymore anyway. How did this happen? Well... school happened to him. When he was a kid, science was about questions, exploration, and discovery. School made it about rote memorization and regurgitation. "Experiments" became a process of proving someone else's billion-times-already-proven theories. It was academic theatre. There was no inspiration or passion at all. He realized and explained to us that his creative exploration was more suited to a career in design.

How many of us have had our inquisitive nature killed or redirected by the school system that took the inquiry out of science? What would science be like today if we'd all been encouraged to participate? How would our social and technological evolution be different? Would we still stereotype scientists as elite, affable, or socially inept geeks with oversized glasses?
Stereotyping and Persecution
Why are science geeks almost always guys? Why geeks? Why glasses? Why is science uncool? These stereotypes seem to be as old as time, just like misogyny, religion, mob mentality and a thirst for power. 
Science is power. It means discovering new things; understanding how things work and developing methods for working with them and harnessing more power. That's why so many scientists have been persecuted. If you want to discover who's shaking things up, look for the guy on the stake, whether proverbial or real. People whose knowledge threatens to change the status quo (or unseat those in power) are silenced by whatever means necessary, from Hypatia to Galileo to many more modern scientists currently jailed, humiliated or disappeared following their work on controversial subjects.
But it's not only those in power who reject science. At the level of the lower classes (far from positions of power), scientific discovery heralds change, and that's pretty scary to those who walk the precarious line between starvation and survival. All the what-ifs of progress and change can be terrifying. And in the extreme, desperate people seek comfort and community in rejecting the norm, entirely, championing ideas like flat-earth and other conspiracy theories. These are people who've had their personal agency crushed by a system that told them science was for those at the top. Those uncool smart people with glasses. They were told they weren't smart enough for science. So they made their own "science." And I think not many of us wants to go down that road.

From perspectives of power and powerlessness, it's easy to see how science education for the masses has become the dry, uninspired wreck that it is in most public schools. The public school system was created over a hundred years ago to build a population of obedient, follow-the-rules workers. It was created to feed a growing consumerist society that needed cheap, dependable labour. People at the top don't want their positions of power threatened by the lower classes getting too inquisitive, and those at the bottom know that the food on their tables depends on keeping their noses down. 
Science Tied to Capitalism and Consumerism
The irony is that the technology developed in the rise of industrial consumerism has now displaced the need for that obedient work-force, and it's likely that the majority of jobs in the coming decades will require inquisitive, creative thinking--not obedient task-completion. This presents a way forward out of the educational quagmire we're now living in. It's time to shift the focus of education in general towards creative thinking, free exploration, and delightful discovery.
Besides, as the lower classes are no longer needed for the jobs now done by machines, the social pyramid is crumbling, and those on the bottom would like a new kind of geometry. So there's the question of justice. I think the only way to achieve a just society is for knowledge and discovery to be shared. Open-source technology is becoming more and more expected as the pitfalls of capitalism become undeniable; as capitalism-caused climate change makes technological advancement not just wonderful but urgently needed. And the sharing of knowledge makes global technological advancement even faster. I think the stereotypes and fear of science will fade away as our culture experiences change at an exponentially faster rate, and we become accustomed to a life centred more on agility than on stability. Then, with flexible minds, we can embrace science.
School Constructs: Facts vs. Questions 
Childhood is a big romp of explorative learning. Whether our kids attend a brick and mortar school, study at home as homeschoolers, or lead an unschooling lifestyle, they're exploring to learn, and learning to explore. Playing with baking ingredients, construction tools and materials, personal care products and even fire are exciting for kids because they inspire explorative play. Kids mix products and see what happens, they burn things and see what happens; they build and break and experiment and... see what happens. It's that exploration and discovery that creates learning, and even more importantly a desire to keep learning. That desire is the spark that my son lost in his journey into high school science.
When we, as parents or teachers, present things as already-known facts, we remove the need for our kids to explore, themselves. In doing so, we teach them that exploration is unnecessary or, at worst, unacceptable. We take all the spark out of science.
The most disastrous thing parents and teachers do to science is pretend that it's about facts--things that are already known. It's not! It's about questions! Sure there are answers to the questions, and thousands of years of other people's discoveries to explore, but it's the questions that are interesting; and discovering the answers... whether or not the questions or answers have ever been discovered, before. It's curiosity and the excitement of discovery that leads to science. Some questions are answered by researching other people's answers, and that's OK, but only if the initial curiosity came from the researcher. And curiosity comes from freedom to explore and experiment. As soon as we take away freedom to experiment, we take away the spark of science.
Pre-Determined Kits and Activities
Seriously. I can hardly even discuss this topic it makes me so frustrated. Cross wanton capitalist consumerism with the strangling of scientific exploration and you have pre-determined "science kits". Yuck. These are shiny, polished, packaged activities for which the method and outcome are already determined--usually described or illustrated right on the box. Kids look at them and know exactly what they are expected to do. And so often they know they'll face the disappointment of their teachers or parents if they veer off into actual experimentation with the components of the kit. 
These kits feed our consumerist desire to look like the saturated, tidy, smiling family in the photos and post something similar to our kids' Instagram accounts, but they also take the science out of "science." They're disastrous. And the instructions on how to use the components are disastrous, too. When presented with activities where the outcome is already known, we lose our desire to explore. 

So what is a well-meaning teacher or parent supposed to do? I have good news. There's a LOT we can do, and some of it even can include shiny store-bought kits. But the good ones.

My fifteen-year-old son's chaotic desktop: Collection vials, yeast experiments, and parts of various electrical and biological experiments.

How to Do Right

Free Exploration
It's hard to let go of our adult desire to guide kids' exploration, but actually that's the best work we can do, ourselves. Generations of unschoolers as well as a few democratic schools have provided ample anecdotal evidence (though I've never seen any rigorous formal inquiry into this) that kids who are allowed to explore freely, unhindered by adults' expectations and demands, end up having not only a similar academic ability to schooled children, but also a greater ability to work independently, more success finding meaningful employment, and a greater love of learning. That was enough reason for me to do the work of de-schooling myself, and making way for this kind of learning for my kids and students.

Let Them Be Bored
But how?! What do we give them to do? Well, that question--especially when backed up by little faces whining "I'm boooored" in the background of our Zoom meetings--is actually one of our greatest hurdles. The answer? We give them nothing to do. Boredom isn't a problem for us to solve. That's up to them. And when they learn to solve it for themselves, they'll have already set themselves ahead of the kids with the pre-determined science-kits.

Of course, our kids' boredom might cause too much interruption for us to carry on our own activities. Maybe we have to set our boundaries, and make sure our kids have a rich environment to explore. Partly, that means accepting danger, chaos and mess as part of our lives, and--importantly--also keeping boundaries around our own need for clean spaces. Maybe this means there's an experimenting/play/rumpus room, and a tidy, peaceful room. Maybe it means we agree as a family or class to do a big clean-up every day at a certain time, just because some of us have a need for a peaceful space. 
And by "we agree" I don't mean that we adults decide what will be done without consultation, or with a sham of consultation that actually amounts to coercion. I mean we discuss our needs in an equitable way that allows each of us to present our needs and our ideas for resolution. All of us have needs that can be presented and discussed as a whole, respectfully. That's how it works in a democratic school, and it can work that way in a home or school classroom, as well. Though I will admit as a teacher and parent, that it's far easier to do with with a classroom of not-my-own kids than with my own family late at night when I'm tired and grumpy and have let my guard down. Overcoming that is part of the work I have to do as a parent.

Natural Consequences
My needs aren't more important than my kids' needs just because I pay the bills or have a greater understanding of consequence. My kids have very important needs, too, and are developing their understanding of consequence through discussing our needs, together, and through having their own needs voiced and respected. Kids' sense of personal worth is reinforced through having their needs heard and considered. But what happens when we come up with solutions that fail? Natural consequences!

Natural consequences are teachers to us all. When we experiment with fire we may discover all kinds of interesting things. We may get burned. And guess what? That's science! We all experiment with our behaviour as much as we do with our physical surroundings, and through observing the consequences of our experimental behaviour (maybe a friend decided to go home early; maybe we ran out of time to make dinner; maybe our partner no longer trusts us) we make discoveries. We learn! That's science! 

My son and his friend experimenting with their homemade forge.

Materials for Scientific Exploration from Toddlerhood to Adulthood

So how can we encourage scientific exploration without those dreaded kits? More important than the specific materials we have is how we present them. 
The concept of "strewing" is often talked about among homeschooling and unschooling parents, and even used in many classrooms. Generally speaking, strewing means to scatter items of potential interest around the house for kids to discover: books, games, toys, craft or construction materials, etc. This can be great or awful, depending how it's done. 
I've seen plenty of Instagrammable "strewing" photos in homeschool groups: A perfectly clean natural wood table with a curated selection of art supplies and a brand new "activity book" laid out with a special treat, for example. That's not an invitation to explore; it's an invitation to tell Mama what a beautiful set-up she made, and then work tidily in the book with the provided materials while enjoying the treat. A more productive way to "strew" the same activity would be to simply add the (hopefully open-ended) activity book to the heap of books already in use, and go to the kitchen to bake the treat--experimentally. Maybe the kid will find the book. Maybe they'll play Lego. Maybe they'll join the parent in the kitchen to experiment with baking, or maybe they'll lie on the floor painting their arms with flour and water they took off the counter. Maybe three years later they'll pick up the strewed book and use it in some unexpected way. We cannot possibly know or direct the learning that will come out of good strewing, and that's just as it should be. As parents and teachers we need to open our minds to the natural consequences of strewing.

Are You Still Waiting for the Materials List?
I hope by now I've made it clear that our homes are already full of wonderful explorative materials; that there is no "right way" to teach science, and that the best of all worlds is an open-minded parent or teacher and time to explore. But we do live in a material world, and I'm going to give you a shopping list, just to make us all feel more satisfied.

I'm making different lists for different age-groups, not because they're not absolutely interchangeable, but because it's a bit easier to get our heads around, and, to be honest, people in specific life-stages do gravitate towards specific things. 
Please keep in mind with every single one of these suggestions, that it's only useful if we maintain total freedom of use: how, when and where to use it should be totally open for experimentation. It should always be OK to mix materials in new ways. That's often where creativity and novel discovery come from! Of course, sometimes some family discussions on safety and respect for others' property are warranted.
Early Childhood:
  • trips to the library, and an unending supply of ALL KINDS of books
  • musical instruments and sound-makers of any and all types with no attached expectations. Some libraries lend instruments, and parents of young kids are often trading around an assortment of interesting instruments as well.
  • an always-available assortment of art and craft materials (see my separate post on this)
  • cardboard boxes, ramps, large paper brochures, blankets, cushions and other materials for building in the house
  • shovels, rakes, buckets, and water for playing outside in the dirt, forest floor, or sand
  • freedom to cook and bake in the kitchen with appropriate supervision but as much freedom as possible for experimentation--be prepared for creations to be inedible! 
  • Duplo, Lego, Keva blocks, Zome, marble runs, or other similar open-ended building toys. Instead of keeping the sets together as they came, dispense of the instructions and create a mixed box for free-play.
  • dolls, stuffies, and materials for house or care-giving play. "Real" tools like brooms, rags, kitchen tools and baby supplies are great for playing, too!
  • fabrics and sewing supplies
  • endless outdoor explorative play (see separate article, here)
  • time spent with a diverse range of different people
Middle Years:
All of the above, plus:
  • a good quality dissecting microscope (we got ours from Westlab.com)
  • a good quality telescope for astronomy or wildlife viewing
  • a little pocket jeweler's microscope that can be brought outside
  • a bunch of exciting chemicals: sulfur, stump remover, matches and books by Theodore Gray (especially Mad Science and Elements)
  • a fire pit
  • materials for electrical and electronic experimentation: discarded electronics from local recycling centres to take apart, some basic breadboards, wiring, and related components; perhaps a big transformer and some guidance on related dangers
  • petri dishes, measuring glasses or beakers, agar powder for growing molds and bacteria (again, with some guidance)
  • an inexpensive waterproof camera
  • access to wood and metal shops
  • Internet access. I'm not a big fan of screen time, but it's the world our kids live in, so the sooner they're able to have unfettered access (with lots of family discussion and good role-modeling by parents) the sooner they'll be able to master it and use it safely. Some of my kids' greatest self-determined learning has been through exploring and publishing on online platforms.
Teens Into Adulthood:
I always wondered how my son would manage in university, without having gone to school. And although it happened that school caused him to lose interest in studying science at university, we know of quite a few unschooled kids who went on to excel in university studies, including in sciences. We also know that many accomplished modern scientists were homeschooled or unschooled, and that Elon Musk educates his many children by encouraging open exploration, as well. So by now I've abandoned my fears about university and am witnessing my son develop a nascent career in 3D rendering, using many of the resources listed, here. 
The trick to learning exploratively through these resources is to allow inquiry and discovery to lead our progress, instead of the expectations of others. The same can be done through university, by allowing ourselves to change course when the need or desire arises, or to use resources in ways for which they may not have been intended. 

As with strewing, the point with these activities is not to provide a pathway, but to provide a rich matrix in which our open minds can explore and grow. I unexpectedly learned to cook Pakistani foods while doing respite care! You just never know what may materialize in a rich, explorative life.
  • open university courses either online or through brick and mortar schools
  • university or trade programs
  • interesting and unexpected jobs
  • online exploration through YouTube and other platforms
  • experimenting with tools (software, woodworking/metal/automotive shop, camera, etc.)
  • clubs or discussion groups
  • volunteerism
  • homemaking/home-building
  • pet care
  • farming
  • building relationships
  • raising children


To Conclude with a Neat and Tidy Package

Back to my son. His life is nothing like I thought it would be when he was a gregarious nine-year-old trying to get to university and I was a proud but ignorant parent. But I think it's a good life. After he quit college and declared the end of his pursuit of a physics and engineering degree, he reverted back to free-form explorative learning. He taught himself to play and compose on piano, and then eventually with synth and computer. He veered into the world of 3D rendering, and after two years of intense exploration and some online courses he sourced for himself, he's now developing a career as a digital artist. His most popular pieces? Spaceships. You can take the boy out of science, but...
As parents and educators we want to see our children succeed, and the way we measure success is set by our own experiences. But the limitations of our own experiences are roadblocks to our children's advancement. We have to let go of our own supposed knowledge and certainly our expectations in order to allow our children to succeed on their own terms. 
In the bigger picture, our children are the next generation on the trajectory of humankind's evolution, and we can't predict what tools or skills they'll need on that journey. Human advancement has always followed the path of ingenuity rather than the staid and unchanging path of what-we-already-know, or who-wants-to-stay-in-power. It's always the explorers, the inventors, and the heretics who advance science. Science needs these people. The way to raise a scientist is to encourage exploration, invention, and breaking all the rules.


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Why Public Art by Kids Matters so Much

There's a rambling little debate going on in my community right now about what kind of mural should go up on the lock-block retaining wall that acts as the de facto welcome sign to our island. This wall faces the ferry dock, and forms the north side of the pedestrian walkway from the dock to the rest of the island. This is the plain concrete wall that, for generations now, has welcomed commuting adults and teens, newcomers and old-timers as well as untold numbers of tourists to our small island. Sometimes it sports blackberries trailing down to catch our shoulders as we pass by, sometimes obscene or public-shaming graffiti, and almost always an assortment of hardy edible weeds that pop out from its crevices. But most noticeably, it's a boring grey wall of concrete lock-blocks.

The Nex̱wlélex̱m/Bowen Island lock-block wall, as it was once painted by local kids.
Photo by Singne Palmquist

Once this wall had a vast mural painted by kids from the local school--each block was painted with scenes of local wilderness or animals. Another time there was a big plywood mural of the island and local information, painted with students from our middle school. Yet another time, the wall was the stage for a temporary piece of public art made by one of our local artists, which peeled and disappeared over time. For a few years now, it's been just a boring grey wall of concrete lock-blocks. 

So now there's a call out for proposals from artists who would like to paint it, and an ongoing debate about whether it should have been offered to the island's children. I'm an artist; I'd love to have my work up in my own community and in fact have been talking with other artists about a collaborative work depicting local wildflowers for this wall. I love the idea of something that pleases and educates at the same time. But now I'm going to champion kids' art, for this wall. Because I think the many benefits of a mural painted by local kids far outweigh those of a more polished, "adult" mural.


One of the best ways we can build sustainable community is to encourage engagement and concern for home and community. We need people to care that this is their home and feel that it deserves looking after. We care about things we feel ownership of. Kids feel ownership of their artwork--especially artwork that was designed and developed by them and displayed publicly in their home.

Why not just put their artwork up on the fridge? Well we can, of course, but not "just". It's not the same as being given the respect of one's community by being welcomed to paint right on our most visible wall. Being welcomed by one's community is, of course, the nature of the meaning of "home", and we want our kids to feel at home. We want them to grow up with the idea that this is their home, that their home matters, and that how they engage with it matters. We want them to feel seen; to feel responsible; to feel that what they do makes an impact on their home and future. So we have to give them that responsibility.

Imagine how it feels to children who painted the wall, say, in grade five, to then be walking past it twice every weekday on their way to and from school in grade eight. Some will tease each other about it; some will feel embarrassed, some will ignore it, and some will feel a quiet or even loud sense of pride. Almost all of them will feel connection. They'll feel a sense of belonging. Maybe they'll walk down to the dock to meet visiting relatives, and escort them past the mural they painted. Maybe they'll take selfies with their contributions. Maybe they'll move away and come back to find their marks still here, a few years later. 

Not every child will have an opportunity to paint this wall. Maybe just one or two grades, and maybe it will be repainted every five years. But the kids who didn't paint it may have siblings who painted it. They may just have witnessed it being done and feel the tendrils of connection reaching out. They'll know that this mural was done by and in honour of the children of our community, and they'll feel valued.

Nex̱wlélex̱m/Bowen Island plywood info-mural painted with local youth.
Photo by Singne Palmquist.


As a parent and educator I'm quite horrified by the many ways children are silenced in our culture; their ideas and skills unvalued, as they're seen as "still developing" in the system that is meant to develop them. Have we forgotten the meaning of development? It means growth. Children are not vessels into which we dump our own ideas for eighteen years and then trust to follow along like good little citizens. Children are growing people with their own ideas and skills and values, and they learn from experience. 

Everybody learns from experience. You can read as many manuals as you like about how to fix your appliance, but the first time you actually open the appliance up is when you really start learning. So what do kids learn by painting a mural in their community? So much. 

They'll learn simply from experience about materials: what type of paint is needed for this project? What chemical properties make it suitable and why won't classroom acrylics do the job? What types of scenes are acceptable, and why? Why has the council requested local flora and fauna, and what exactly are our local flora and fauna? What is the political and social work that goes into a project like this? And all the various applied maths, sciences, communication and language skills that come as a matter of course in the creation of this mural. 

Why can't they just learn those things in school? Why can't they paint the school walls? Why does this painting have to be making a visual chaos of our lovely manicured community? 


Chaos = Development

Because growth, development, and learning need chaos to thrive. It was the chaotic and random assortment of elements that evolved to become life as we know it, today. It was and is a chaotic assortment of peoples, places, climates and experiences that make humanity as we are, today. It was the chaotic rambling experiments of toddler-hood that gave our children the chance to develop skills they now depend on, like language, social skills, gross motor skills and dexterity. They learned all of those things from observing and experimenting, free-range, under our benevolent supervision. They didn't learn them in a school, from textbooks. They learned them because they felt at home in their homes, and made big messes and had big accidents. Our homes were chaotic. Now our kids are older, and it's time for them to be out in their wider community.

Our children are part of our community, and they are our community's future. Instead of being tucked away, seen and not heard, they need to feel they are part of it, so they can grow and thrive here.

Kids' mural on lock-block wall at the Alert Bay ferry marshaling area.
Photo by Emily van Lidth de Jeude


We look after what matters to us. If we want our children to grow up to look after their home and community, we need to allow it to matter to them. 

We used to have an old cherry tree near the lock-block wall in the cove. Kids would climb it and hang out there, waiting for their commuting parents to walk off the boat. But eventually someone injured himself falling out of the tree, and then the tree was deemed too old, so was surrounded by fencing, off-limits to our kids. Now the area has been beautified as part of an effort to create a more visually-pleasing entrance to our community. There are all sorts of gorgeous plants there. I love them. But do the kids? Do they care about a tidy garden that they were expressly excluded from, and forbidden to play in? I asked my kids. My daughter says, "It's just another place you can't go." And how long before that garden is a dumping place for their litter and midnight beer cans, because it was never something they cared about in the first place? We look after what matters to us.

So how about a playground? What if we put in a playground at the ferry terminal, and the kids can play in blissful harmony with the commuters and traffic and beautiful gardens. Sure, but what kind of playground? Is it creative, dangerous, messy; fun? Because those are the things that make a playground worthwhile. Imagine an area full of tools, wood, climbing-trees and ropes; dirt and shovels and paint. That would be an amazing place for feeling belonging, learning new skills, and developing a sense of responsibility. But these playgrounds tend not to be condoned, these days, because of the chaotic look of them in our otherwise manicured landscapes, and because parents are afraid of danger. But danger--risk-taking--is essential for learning and for developing a sense of responsibility.

Another section of the Alert Bay mural. Photo by Emily van Lidth de Jeude.


If we never take risks, we can't learn to manage or mitigate them. Learning is all about taking risks, and risky play is a big part of progressive education all over the world. Just like babies learn to walk by taking risks and falling, teens learn to navigate social situations by taking risks and making mistakes; suffering heartbreak and social exclusion. We take risks as adults when we choose partners, careers, or make big purchases. We learn from all of those risks, and that's how we grow as individuals and how we evolve as a species.

Our kids are part of our communities; our species. They need to take risks like painting a public wall or climbing public trees so they can learn how their community works. You know what the boy who fell out of the tree learned? In addition to some of his physical limits, he may have learned that he was valued in his community, when he was seen, held, and tended to by an adult who was not his parent. 

Kids who paint walls take many risks, in choosing what and how to paint, in consulting with their peers, their supervisors, and their community, and they take social risks in walking past the mural they painted every day for a few years and navigating the conversations that arise. They take personal emotional risk in putting their artwork in a public space and facing the opinions of their community. And that social risk helps them to grow into their community--to become a part of it, deeply and permanently because they grew and thrived there.

A community that sits in stagnant contemplation of its perfectly manicured surroundings is not growing, thriving, or evolving. And who wants that?

It's not only kids taking risks in this scenario. It's us, too. It's the adults who give the kids our most prominent walls to paint and just trust them. That's a huge risk, especially for those of us who are quite afraid of the chaos of childish experimentation. But it's a risk we have to take if we want to grow as individual adults or as a community. Is it like giving our living room wall to a bunch of monkeys with paintbrushes and walking away? Maybe. But I'd rather have something unexpected that I can learn from than live in a stagnant community. It's a risk we have to take if we want to grow. 

As a community we are growing. Our kids quite literally are our future, and if we want them to grow into responsible adults who care about their home, then we need to make them a part of it, now.


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Playing In the Wilderness Is the Core of a Good Education

Discovering a gigantic (and partially slug-eaten) mushroom here in Canada.

My first outdoor art class was rather an accident. I was working with a group of kids from the American School in Wassenaar, the Netherlands, and decided we'd make a mural to revitalize the wall of a local underpass that at the time was covered with white supremacist graffiti. Taking the kids outside to paint the mural they'd designed was just the obvious next step in the process, and it required the city to drop off a ladder and high-vis barricades to keep us safe from passing cyclists. The city obliged, and we cloistered ourselves up against the wall and painted that mural.

But really we had to stand back quite frequently to look at the job we were doing, which meant stepping out of the barricaded area, across the busy bike-path, and onto the unkempt grassy area beside the overpass. That's where we took breaks, where we sat in the long grass and weeds and chatted, ate our snacks, pondered the mural, and generally did the work of assimilating all the learning that comes with designing and then painting a large mural in a public location--and confronting racism as a group of culturally displaced children. There, in the grass, we found little beetles climbing up the blades; we dropped breadcrumbs by accident and wondered about the safety of picking them up to eat them. We watched all the cyclists zooming by between us and the mural, and we soaked up the sunshine on our faces. We talked about neo-nazis, flowers, bicycles, the various countries we came from, different species of flies, the American School, flies stuck in paint, and languages of racist graffiti. I was nineteen, and really had no idea what I was doing with these kids, as a teacher, but the act of teaching taught me.

Scrubbing algae, tire-dust and graffiti in preparation for painting.

It took me quite a few years, more art classes taught for practical reasons outside, and parenting my own two kids into an unschooling paradigm before I realized the importance of that time spent sitting on grass in Wassenaar. I didn't originally take my classes outside because I knew it was the best place to learn. I took them because it was a place to let off steam; a place to find interesting textures for rubbings, collages, and still-life arrangements, or just the place we had to be to make the big art. Back in those early days I didn’t realize we were doing so much more than art. I took my own kids out just to escape the monotony of our living room, and the boring routine of meals, diapers, nursing, and play time. We did meals, diapers, nursing and play time in the forest, and let me tell you—that was not boring! And it wasn't long before I realized that we didn't actually need anything other than a snack and a spare diaper to go into the woods—that what we were doing there was so much more than just home in the forest: it was everything. Very soon, books, toys, and the stroller were irrelevant, and sticks, mud, water and plants became my kids' playthings. And playthings are learning tools. It wasn’t long after this that I started taking all my art classes outside for at least half our time together, and realized what I’d been missing, all along: connection.

The ecosystem that surrounds our curated homes is vast and complex and interconnected. It’s the seeming chaos that we tried to tame with our cities, boxes, and rules, but in actuality it’s the perfectly-tuned balance of millions of organisms, ideas and functions that we have not yet nearly achieved with our human-made system. Every concept humans dream up has roots in our basic understanding of the world and its natural systems.

Human-Designed Environment vs. Wilderness

The confines of a classroom or home are the curated attempt at a kind of intellectual ecosystem by a species that has become accustomed to putting things in boxes: to looking so hard at one object that we forgot to see the context it exists in. We put everything in boxes. We hang alphabet posters on the wall, keep fish or hamsters in a tank on a shelf for observation, and keep a stack of books, papers, or laptops for recording our observations. In this, we teach ourselves to exclude. We teach ourselves not to consider the wider context of whatever we’re seeing, because we’re afraid it’s too much for our small minds to fathom.

But our minds want to fathom! Our minds need to expand; to take time to sit and observe and wonder; to take subconscious note of all the millions of things that happen in the wilderness, from the slope of a leaning tree to the plants growing on top of it, to the smell of the soil, the mechanics of wings, jaws and elytra to the taste of sap. Our minds draw the connections between these millions of things long before we could ever articulate them.

One of the greatest tragedies of the current education system is our need for documentation and evaluation of learning. Students and teachers spend so much time documenting, testing, and evaluating that there’s no time left for sitting out in the wilderness, just assimilating. I can understand that, given the centralized nature of our system, the people at the top want to be sure every child is receiving the same instruction and meeting the same standards. But this is old. We’re progressing beyond the industrial society this system was designed for, where humans are needed to follow directions and work in factories. We’re on the edge of a new enlightenment, where the work we do with our minds is valued as much or more than our ability to assemble products. We don’t need the over-simplified, over documented fact-sheets of the industrial age, that break reality into such small pieces that it’s meaningless in the big picture. Our minds need a rich environment full of wonder, intrigue, and uncertainty to grow. The wilderness offers that.

Boxes vs. the Big Picture

As unschoolers at home, my kids were welcome to play and explore whatever interested them, free from the school system. But the fear I developed growing up in that school system led me to buy them a series of workbooks designed for their grade-levels. At some point my son was working on the science section (the only section he was willing to look at), and became furious. “This is a stupid book!” he declared. “They don’t know anything!” He was talking about the page that claimed killer whales eat other whales. He knew they ate salmon—at least those whales inhabiting our area at the time. And he knew that other killer whales ate seals and sea lions, but he didn’t care because they weren’t anywhere near us. I tried to explain that transient killer whales might, in fact, eat smaller whales, so maybe the book wasn’t wholly wrong. But both of us were dismayed at the description of something we knew to be a very complex system, as something so simplified as to be incorrect.

Humans are forever trying to make things simpler to understand them. It’s definitely simpler and less risky to put something in a box for observation than it is to go get to know it in its natural environment. If you put a killer whale in a big box with a smaller whale, I bet it would eventually eat it. But then you wouldn’t know anything about either species at all.

Boxes are more predictable, and we like predictable. The trouble is that the world and everything in it is not that simple. So in boxing everything; in teaching our kids “the simple facts” of, say, anatomy, combustion engines, or long division, we ignore the greater context of not only how these things fit into the vast ecology that we’re a part of, but why they matter. That’s why it’s OK to forget them when the test is finished and we move on to the next subject. They were never important in the big picture because we never saw the big picture: The ecosystem of everything.

The thing is, though, that that ecosystem is the context of our lives. We didn’t come from nature thousands of years ago and then progress beyond it with industry and technology, we are nature. We are the ecosystem, and our minds, unbeknownst to us, are naturally evolved to live in, observe, and understand it. Everything we are is the same basic particles that comprise a killer whale, a turtle; a beetle, or a piece of sandwich fallen into the weeds and digested by microbes, on the side of the bike path in Wassenaar. Everything we have built came from nature. Not just the raw materials, harvested unseen behind a slim screen of trees by the highway, but also our ingenuity. It comes from nature. It comes from people walking through the wilderness getting to know it; people living for thousands of years in their own ecosystem, learning and understanding the ecology of that place until they know how to heal themselves with specific plants, actions, and technologies. Humans learned medicine from the wilderness, and then learned to make it into pills. I learned about my own body’s anatomy by butchering rabbits with my family, as a child. Humans learned engineering from stacking, digging, and weaving pieces of wilderness to make homes and all other manner of ingenuity—like birds build nests and bears prepare dens for winter. Children build forts and mats; crowns and shoes and gardens in the wilderness. And this play is where they learn the core skills they need to become engineers, physicians, caregivers, fashion designers, mathematicians, and politicians.

That’s a lot of things to become! And you know it’s just my random little list. It looks like hyperbole but it’s really a gross understatement. I can’t think of a single career that wouldn’t be ideally begun in the wilderness. Why? Because our minds are capable of more than we know, and more than we can articulate. In sitting, playing, or living in the wilderness we give our minds space to learn. That’s why we learn better, there.

Natural play in the forest.

The Whole Picture: Interconnection

Getting to know our own ecosystems isn’t quantifiable. It’s not really so much about seeing or learning more as it is about seeing the interconnection of all things. What was missing from that infamous killer whale page in my son’s workbook was indeed just a lot of information, but more importantly it was the connection between all that information. Salmon is to killer whales what smaller fish are to salmon. And our local residents prefer chinook salmon. But where do they find them? And how do they interact or share territory with the transient (now Biggs) killer whales, who eat pinnipeds, dolphins and minke whales? What do minke whales eat? Who eats their poop? Oh yeah—whale poop is the fertilizer of the seas. Like rabbit, horse, and chicken manure on my garden. Like deer poop in the forest, and the leaves and berries that went into it, feed the ferns, trees, and the grasses that later were picked for the robin’s nest; the corvid that later stole the robin’s scrawny babies to eat; the blue eggshells that fell to the ground to be gnawed by insects and harvested for calcium. The picture goes on and on forever. It’s not just big; it’s whole. Try to put that on a spreadsheet and send it to the ministry for documentation of learning.

Really. I’ve tried. As an unschooling parent still enrolling my kids in a DL program in order to access community resources and group activities, I had to quantify my kids’ learning on paper once every term. I learned very fast that what my children were learning was absolutely unquantifiable; that an “education” in our province constitutes a list of checked boxes, but that what my children understood of the world was much more important. School-going kids also understand far more than is noted on their reports; more than they are seen knowing, by a system inclined to look at them mostly for the purpose of checking boxes. They understand the social connectivity of their class and school, of their families and the landscape of the places they are given to explore. If we want our children to know more about the world, we simply have to give them more places to explore. And if we want them to really become comfortable and fluent in complexity, we have to give them plenty of time exploring in the wilderness.

Exploring: Curated Experience vs. Free Play

Exploring doesn’t mean hiking along a trail. I mean, it might, if that’s where interest led you. But it might mean going off-trail, crawling into the underbrush, or sitting down to dissect a pile of bear poop. It might mean sitting smelling the wind, and maybe it’s autumn, and the wind carries a musky smell that turns out to be a very large rutting deer watching you from afar. He saw you first because he’s accustomed to this wilderness and used to noticing the changes. You’re the change in his wilderness, and now you’re a part of it. And you discovered something you didn’t expect when you sat down to smell the wind.

When kids play in the wild without direction they probably learn more than they would if the play was curated. Most times school kids are taken outside to play, the play is directed by a teacher. Maybe we play capture the flag; maybe we sit and read our books or go on a scavenger hunt. These aren’t harmful activities, but in the expectation of specific activity, they don’t leave much room for exploration. We learn to see outdoor spaces as locations for performing human-designed activities, as opposed to ecosystems to be a part of. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Take a group of kids into the woods with no expectations, supplies or instruction, and leave them to play. They will use their previous experiences, their broad complex understanding of the world, and their inquisitive minds to take stock of the situation and adapt. They’ll explore their surroundings. They’ll use whatever objects they find around (clothing, sticks, leaves, water) to act out and explore their ideas. It’s a lot like documentation, but freed from the constraints of ministry check-boxes and expected reporting methods, it will look like play. It is play. And it’s essential for learning. Just like in playing, a crow learns where the robins are nesting and where he might find his next meal. He learns how to slide in snow and dig for grubs. Play is essential for learning. In playing with kids in the forest, I learned the best things I know about teaching.

The wilderness provides the best playground for our imaginations, because it’s complex enough to house all our ideas. It provides the best place for learning, because, when we give ourselves time to just be there, we can discover and come to understand—intrinsically—the roots of everything. Without constraints on space, complexity, or imagination, we really can be wholly educated. We can become everything we want to be.


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Why I Let Kids Play Without Rules in the Wilderness

The first thing I do when I meet with a new group of kids in the woods is sit down and talk. I like to hear what they're hoping to do in the wilderness and what their expectations or concerns are. Then we talk about rules. Well, more to the point, I talk about our lack of rules. I say, "You can do anything you want, and please keep yourself and all the other living inhabitants of this forest safe." 

In that one statement, I hand over the reins. Some kids are excited at discovering new freedom; others are terrified, as they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, or just plain stunned and unsure what to do without a clear path. So we talk some more. There are always lots of questions, both right off the bat, and continuing throughout our time, together.

"So can I eat Colton's cookies?"

"Well I don't know. Why don't you ask Colton? Colton, Do you feel safe?" (You never know. Colton's mouth is full of cookies; maybe he swallows, and shares the cookies! Maybe he just says 'no'.)

"Is she allowed to climb that tree?"

"Yes of course. Do you feel safe up there?" ... "No? It seems she needs some coaching to come down."

Or maybe I see someone hauling moss off a maple tree, and I ask them to consider why the moss is living on that tree and how the act of pulling it off might affect the other things living in the woods. (The moss may die, the maple needs the moss to retain moisture, and the various plants and insects living in the moss need it, too.)

We do a LOT of talking. We do a lot of considering. And by "we", I truly mean the group; not the condescending "we" of adults who really mean "I". The kids sometimes police each other, and we talk about that, too--how having responsibility and independence means also allowing others to have their own. Usually after a day or two the group is comfortable being in charge of their own actions. This is when all the magic really begins. 

The Cheese Restaurant was magic like that. I was just settling into a forested hillside with a group of eight-to-twelve-year-olds, looking at one child's collection of snails on a piece of bark, when another child called frantically from about thirty feet away: "Stop them! Stop them!" It was the kind of panicked-sounding cry that actually made me jump up and hurry over, to where two boys were passionately destroying a large, rotten Douglas fir stump. 

I collected myself again, and asked nonchalantly how they were doing. They responded with guttural sounds, orange powder of wood still flying in all directions. In a couple of minutes they'd already pulled apart about ten percent of the stump. So I pulled out my secret weapon, started digging in the orange powder, and cast my eyes all over the place until I found something cool, then said excitedly, "Oh wait! Let me save this millipede!!" I pulled it out and held it up.

"What?" They stopped tearing at the crumbling stump and looked at my outstretched hand. "Gross!" 

"It's not gross. It's just climbing on my hand. Want to hold it?" One backed away and the other stuck out his hand. The millipede cycled its flow of tiny legs across his skin and he shiveredhas he felt it. The other boy approached with a large piece of bark and suggested he put the millipede on, with the cheese.

"Cheese?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm having a cheese restaurant. This is cheddar." And he dumped a handful of orange powdered wood onto the piece of bark, next to the millipede, who immediately sought cover in the powder."

"You ruined his home", moaned the child who had originally called me up to stop these boys from breaking the stump. She looked shaken. In an effort to diffuse the situation, I suggested that he would probably be fine, and maybe when they were finished serving him for dinner, they could return him to what was left of the stump. They hardly heard me, because they were already gathering more "plates". 

Within a few minutes, these two boys had a bustling business going, serving cheeses of all varieties on plates to customers who paid with fern leaflets (or rocks, for extra-rare specialty cheeses). The child who was most concerned for the safety of the millipede began "harvesting Swiss cheese" from the pile of powder at the base of the stump. The millipede was forgotten and likely eventually made its way back to the stump, which had become the wall of the Cheese Restaurant, for the full half hour or so that it was in business, before other endeavours took priority for the restaurateurs. 

Did these kids destroy a bit of nature? Yes, they did, but they naturally turned their play into something less destructive when they realized there was a living thing in that bit of nature, and they did it without my direction. They went home feeling proud of their restaurant, happy about their play and discoveries, and, most importantly, more deeply connected to the ecology of their home. That connection is a kind of magic that will stay in their hearts forever, that will lead them to think more carefully about the effects of their actions, and that will lead them to feel more independent and secure in all that they pursue.

In giving kids freedom to explore, we give them space to learn. They learn how to be safe as they explore their own limits. They learn how to handle their bodies in space when they're allowed to play in the creeks and the trees and get stuck in the mud. They learn how to manage their social interactions when they have unhindered space for free play and conversation. And when they are charged with the responsibility of keeping the forest safe, too, they learn to see, understand, and value their ecosystem, as well as their involvement in it.

Is it dangerous? Absolutely. It's risky play. And as we know, risky play is essential for learning to be safe. It's dangerous for the ecosystem, too. That chunk of stump pulled apart will indeed cause some creatures to die, or at the very least to be displaced. And more damaging will be the impact of the continued use of particular locations in the wilderness, where our footsteps and clambering over logs and tree-climbing will, over time, leave noticeable bareness and changes in our path. This is a chance for teachers and parents to point out these changes; to notice our own human impact and compare it to, say, the impact of deer. 

Deer rip stumps apart, too--especially when they're rutting. They even rip the bark off living trees. So why don't we see large areas of the forest just rubbed smooth by this activity, the tree trunks bare, the moss dead, and the ground turned to mud, as it does under the feet of children after ten days playing in the same location? Because deer keep moving. They step lightly. They graze only the tips of leaves in many places instead of devouring whole plants or communities of plants, not only because it's healthier for them to eat a variety of foods, but because that means the plants will keep growing, to be eaten again, later. They interact with their ecosystem in a way that is sustainable, because it's their home, and they need to survive. It's our ecosystem, too, and we need to practice interacting with it, so that we can learn to act sustainably. Giving children freedom and responsibility to engage on their own terms with their environment ensures that they will get the practice they need to become responsible, thoughtful stewards of their home.


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Five Huge Unschooling Mistakes I've Made

Has your kid ever looked at you in earnest, and accused you of causing them problems by unschooling them? Mine has. And it was in that moment that all the indignation and arrogance I'd built our unschooling life upon totally collapsed. Because indignation and arrogance might have given us the courage to jump out of a system that wasn't working, but in the end they were just walls we built around our hearts to keep us from the vulnerability of life. Some of us unschoolers needed those walls to protect us as we built this new world, but now it's time for the walls to come down. I have made lots of mistakes. Now I want to own up to them, and grow.

Mistake #1: Succumbing to Self-Doubt

Actually, my reaction in that moment, a few years ago, when my son told me I had set him up for failure by unschooling him, was to question everything I've done as a parent and to cave in. It's a great thing to question ourselves, to evaluate, assess, and make changes, but there has to be an end to it. At some point very soon in the questioning we need to adjust course (or not) and keep on steering the ship. Instead, in that moment, I told myself I'd failed. I told myself I'd destroyed my son's life. He calls me dramatic and he's right! I mean, there's place for drama in the world--I'm an artist and writer, and I know that drama is often the key to reaching people. But when the people is your kid, and the reaching needs to be done with a supportive and steady hand on the wheel of his life, drama is not the way to go. Yeah. I bombed that. I basically let go of the ship's wheel and hid in a corner for a few weeks. 

Unschooling being what it is, he already had the freedom to steer his own ship, and he really did quite well, getting into a groove that worked well for him, and forgetting all about that day he had blamed unschooling for whatever the frustration was, at the time (we have both forgotten, by now). But unschooling is really largely about leading by example, and in that time I unfortunately set an example of succumbing to self-doubt--something that my son already struggles with, and which I desperately wish I hadn't modeled so well.

Another way that we often succumb to self-doubt is defensiveness. Other parents or family members question our unschooling choices (or lack thereof) and out of fear, self-doubt, or frustration, we get defensive. A little explanation can go a long way in educating others, and that's definitely a good thing, especially when making social precedent for others to join our journey. But when we get wrapped up in trying to defend the place we are in the journey, it's hard to keep moving--to carry on the actual journey. We can get stuck in that defensive place, and that's not the great big adventure unschooling was supposed to be!

Live and Learn, as they say. The learning is easy, because, as unschoolers know (or are trying to remind ourselves, constantly), learning just happens. It's the living--or sailing, to return to my previous analogy--through all the rough seas and mistakes and course-adjustments that happen along the way that can be challenging. But we're up for a challenge, right?

Mistake #2: Protecting our Kids from Challenges

It seems obvious, when you look at a title like that. We know our kids need to face and overcome challenges in order to learn and gain confidence. But watching them trip and fall and not rushing to catch them before they hit the ground is another matter. Or not clearing their pathway right from the start to avoid them even tripping in the first place. I've done that. OK, I still do it!

I'm so guilty of this that after all nineteen years I still catch myself doing it almost every day. I'm OK with the big things: hearing my kid's plan to attend a school program that I don't really like, and buckling in for the ride, for example. But in the moment, I have very little control over my own mouth, and find myself constantly forecasting problems that I think my kids should avoid, or advising them on ways to keep safe, or be successful in their endeavour, etc. My son made himself a great keyboard tray this morning, and was struggling to fit it into his desk. I just had to advise him on what I felt was a "better" way to design it. Gak. What does this constant advice do to my kids' confidence?! I know very well what it does. It kills it. I walked into the problem he was well on his way to solving himself, and reminded him that somebody else knows better. What the hell?! I only know better because his father and I made a keyboard tray for that same desk, ourselves... and figured out the challenges, ourselves! And we did this at a time when we were gleefully living away from our parents, free to make our own mistakes, and learn from them.

Seriously. Like I mentioned before, living and learning sometimes seems to take a lifetime. I wish I had held my mouth shut this morning. He probably would have made a great keyboard tray that might have been very different from my design, and possibly even better suited to his needs.

Confidence-shattering is not the only harm caused by protecting our kids from challenges. Having a life devoid of struggle, strife, and challenge, or--alternatively--a life in which somebody else was always ready to solve their challenges, leaves kids unprepared to meet the challenges they will inevitably face, in life. It leaves them looking for solutions from other people instead of exploring and trusting their own ingenuity. It leaves them less resilient.

Now, as an unschooling parent, I've been told many times that my kids need to face the bullying and hardship of school so they can "toughen up", but that's not what I'm talking about. Toughening up isn't becoming resilient; it's building a hard shell, and that doesn't seem very healthy to me! I know. I've had a hard shell all my life. I don't want that for my kids. I want them to feel so confident, so resilient; so intrinsically strong and ingenious, that they can be vulnerable and live their lives without fear. That is resilience. 

Although I'm still struggling to allow my kids to fall, I'm all good on being there to commiserate or snuggle them when they're picking themselves back up again. Unschooling gives us the chance to really live with our kids, and if we can master allowing them to meet their own challenges, we're in the wonderful position of being their support team.

Mistake #3: Comparing

The whole school system works on comparison. No matter how hard our amazing teachers try to nurture the unique skills and needs of every child, they work in a system that requires them to evaluate our kids. This kind of evaluation requires some kind of a measuring stick, and by nature that means comparison. The root of our whole school system is therefore competitive, and that's exactly why many of us chose to unschool. But then we got our kids at home and panicked that they weren't "keeping up", or that they'd struggle should they ever need to join the system. 

Remember, most of us were raised in the system. We're terrified of failing, of allowing our kids to fail. Those fears are deeply ingrained and didn't just get left behind when we stuck the word "unschooling" on ourselves. They are firmly rooted in our every word and action. In fact, some people even choose to unschool because of the reported competitive advantages it gives kids in adulthood. But then we forgot that the competition was so dangerous.

To me, the biggest benefit of unschooling is the fact that we can separate ourselves from that kind of competition and live by our own intrinsic values. It gives us the opportunity to make our choices based on our own moral and intellectual standards--and by "us" I mean parents and kids separately. Unschooling means that kids are defining their own goal-posts, their own compasses; their own personal evaluation criteria. Every time we judge them, or even worse, compare their achievements to others or to some kind of outside expectation, we take back that power from them, along with their impetus to lead themselves. 

Sometimes we're comparing our kids, even without words. I can't tell you how many kids I've taught art to who walked into my program with the idea that they couldn't draw, or that they only knew how to draw one specific thing (usually a cartoon character). You know how they became that way? From guided art projects, where either the book they learned from or the adult they were with set up an expectation for them to follow. Maybe they succeeded and their work was comparable, but more likely, since the book or example-drawing was made by an adult with much more experience, they saw all the dissimilarities between their own work and the example, and they felt defeated. Luckily, teaching art was something I did for a long time before I had kids, so I managed to stop myself from creating situations where my kids would compare their art to mine, and the results were amazing. My son used to draw the sounds that the instruments made! "Tell me about your drawing," I would ask him, and he would say, "It's a drum!" This drawing he proudly held out consisted of many many repeated lines. He was drawing the sound of the drum. If I had shown him how to draw a drum, he would have copied me, but the genius--the uniqueness of his own experience of learning to draw--would have been lost. He grew up and did teach himself to draw visual representations of what he saw, but he did so without self-criticism, fear, or road-blocks, because in that one respect I was able to give him room to be himself, uncompared, un-assessed, and unhindered by my expectations.

Partly, for parents, this issue comes back to self-doubt, and defensiveness, again, because when we're already struggling with our own fears, we're more likely to turn tail and run, or to dig down into some kind of defense. Getting stuck in a competitive mindset leads to fears of failure, self-doubt, and possibly over-protection. All these things are intertwined, of course, and it's hard to move on from one without tackling the others.

Mistake #4: Not Enough Time with the Same Group of Kids

This, unfortunately, is a challenge that most unschoolers face, and many--including us--fail to overcome. The nature of unschooling is to be following the needs of each individual kid, taking them out of situations that aren't suitable, and experimenting frequently with new activities and interest groups. Obviously, this sets kids up for an ever-changing array of relationships, rarely having time to settle into long-lasting relationships, to tackle and overcome the challenges of long-standing relationships, and to make all the personal growth that these experiences would have afforded. It takes many years of shared experiences for kids to build deep connections, and kids without a consistent cohort miss that. It is even more challenging for families who live in rural areas than it is for urban families, who likely have more access to regular programming and a larger unschooling community. 

Our family lives on a small island just outside of a big city, so while we did develop bonds in a community of homeschoolers when the kids were young, it wasn't long before most kids in our group either went to school or became busy with an assortment of other activities. Both of my kids were very lonely, and due to our unschooling convictions we were reluctant to put them in school. We did try out a couple of different alternative programs over a two-year period, but in the end both kids pulled out for a variety of reasons. My kids did end up attending a democratic school on the mainland for a few years, and really found their people, there, but by then there was so little time left of school that deeper connections were very few. Consequently, my two never spent more than about three years with the same group of kids and, while they've made a few very treasured friends, they really missed out on the experience of growing up in community. Of all the mistakes I've made, this one was possibly the most harmful. 

I still don't know how to reconcile in my mind the choices we regret with our educational philosophy. The only options that would have given my kids a consistent cohort of friends over many years would have been to ignore our educational values and send our kids to mainstream school, or to move or commute to the mainland for a significant portion of their lives, thus losing connection with our island home and their extended family, who also live here. Would those options have been equally damaging? I can't know. This is a horrible dilemma that I know many unschoolers face, and I think the truth is we just can't ever know how things will work out. On the whole, I think my kids are OK, and we controlled the damage as best we could over the years, but it's still a deep regret.

Mistake #5: Vilifying the School System

In the middle of writing this article, I had a beautiful long talk with my brother, who is a teacher of grades six to nine in our community. We talked a lot about politics and education, his work, and the struggles of teachers and parents in the increasingly divided, challenged world. And goats and chickens, but that's another story. I have a deep, deep respect for teachers. All three of my mothers were teachers in some capacity (preschool teacher, elementary art teacher, and high school educational assistant). I have taught art and wilderness exploration in a number of different schools, sometimes working with teachers to integrate with their activities or the curriculum. If I criticize the school system, I do not do so lightly. I am extremely critical of the system as a whole, and the speed at which it is changing, given that for my whole life I've been witnessing good teachers trying to make changes that still only scratch the surface of the problems. I'm very serious about my criticisms. They're a big part of the reason we unschool. But I sometimes veered into vilification when my kids were younger, and I regret that, now.

There were a number of incidents with schools that made me angry, over the years. I sought to link programs I was running with public schools, or to integrate schools with homelearners, or to ask whether my kids could join for certain programs but not the whole school experience, and was frequently shut down. I think feeling rejected often makes people reactive, and it did me. But even worse, I felt I could offer something to the whole community by making these connections, and when my ideas were shut down I felt the system was arrogant, ignorant, and harmful. That made me really angry, and I often told my kids about it. Now my daughter tells me that at a certain point in her childhood she was worried about going to pick up her friends from their school because I'd told her so many negative things about it that she felt unsafe. 

I'm sorry. I unequivocally apologize. That was a terrible mistake, and I truly plan never to repeat it. That school I vilified to my daughter was my school. Sure, they rejected my unschooling family, and still ignore my emails offering programs or volunteering, but damnit, we're a small community and that was the school I attended, myself. It's our school. People I love teach at that school, and we share many philosophical ideals. Countless children I adore attend that school, and my careless words during a couple years of my children's lives left them with many more years of distrust in one of the most important institutions of our community. More than that, my words made unschooling appear adverse to mainstream schooling, and actually I fervently believe that unschooling is a stepping stone in the betterment of mainstream schooling. As an explorative learning consultant, some of the people I work with are teachers in mainstream schools. Many of the readers of my articles are mainstream school teachers and administrators. My apology is deeply felt because, as so many of us in the education world know, we're not at opposite ends of a scale; we're all in one big soup together, and we need to be working together, not against each other. 

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I considered calling this article "Unschooling Regrets" but here's the thing: We all make mistakes, and if we learn and grow from them, perhaps we can avoid regretting them. It may have taken me a long while to see the benefits my family gained from these mistakes, but in the end I'm glad we had the opportunities to grow. Because that's unschooling: the whole family, the whole community, the schools and the teachers and the self-doubting, arrogant unschoolers just running and tripping and getting up and learning, together: All the hands on the wheel, all determining our course. All the things we do matter, and we're always learning, together.

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