Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Why don't more parents believe in their ability to educate their children?

Have you ever known anyone who has suffered from a stroke? Or a long illness or injury? Learning to talk, walk, lift limbs and move them again - these things we take so much for granted can take months and months of struggle and effort.
What our babies and toddlers learn is often overlooked or underestimated. They do a similar feat and it is no wonder they get frustrated! Learning to walk involved falling down, over and over. It involved bumps and bruises, tears and tantrums, hurt pride and a willingness to get up again and again.
It's funny how we just trust children to do these things with support, in a really natural and easy way. I mean, we know it's NOT easy, but we scaffold all these major transitions and cater for them domestically and in a non-trained way and treat school as the place where kids learn the real stuff, the hard stuff. But THAT is the hard stuff. Parenting a child and helping them learn to use a toilet, patch it up with a friend, get themselves dressed, or learn how to calm down after having a nightmare - that's the hardest stuff of all.
Yet when parents take the leap and decide to home educate, they often get really scared. Suddenly, having helped their child do the hardest things in the world, they don't feel qualified or expert enough.
Want to know a secret? Learning to read and write and memorise stuff is, in comparison to learning to walk, a piece of cake. Anyone can do that stuff! Not so easy when you expect or demand children to do it at a very very specific age... or against their will.... but when allowed time and freedom to learn at their own pace, it's a doddle!
Parents have happily outsourced the education of their children to others for a relatively short period of history. Before that children managed perfectly well to become quite proficient at all kinds of things.
But we live in a different era now. The explosion of information and the internet makes teachers of the traditional kind redundant. Anyone can teach themselves nowadays by reading books, watching documentaries, completing ecourses and surfing around on youtube educational channels. Even simple play is more complex and educationally rich than ever before. Families are free to draw on the expertise of a plethora of different people in their communities and beyond. There are interactive, hands-on museums, home ed groups that meet regularly to do sports, visit museums, learn drama, play music together, all sorts of things. Every area is different and of course, there are after school clubs and activities of the traditional kind - scouts and swimming and so on. Home ed has never been so easy, with yahoo groups for support and even facebook communities of home educators to support, advise, inspire and guide one another.
Until people actually do it and take the plunge, it seems a very daunting thing to do. We have been hoodwinked into thinking education must be a formal thing, taught by teachers who have studied subjects to a very high level - the truth is information is no longer held by a few elite key-holders. The keys belong to everyone now. Anyone can find out and study anything they want to know very easily.
Are children motivated to learn? Intrinsically yes they are. They are wired to make connections and piece together what the world is, and how things work. Squeezing that learning into 9-3 on demand in a schooly manner is a harder job. But if you relax, and take the approach that children have their entire childhood to discover this stuff, if you trust that they will come to it when ready, then they just do. They do because the world just IS interesting! It is full of wonder. It is literally wonder-full. It is full of surprises and secrets and discoveries yet to be made. With home ed, instead of focusing on the 'right answers', families can pause to really explore the QUESTIONS themselves, looking at many answers. This is the beauty of home education.
Answers are limited within the school system to what the examiners of the day, deem to be correct or worthy. With home ed they become limitless.
Home ed challenges you to think creatively around things. It helps children to become solution-focused, rather than focused on problems. When you start to think like this you soon find a way of bending around problems. Your thinking gets bendier, full stop! You stop seeing the limitations of things and try and work out alternative ways of getting to where you want to go.
This attitude helps home educated teens get into colleges and universities and apprenticeships, and helps them actually stand out from their peers in a positive way. People often think their children will stand out in a detrimental or negative way because they were home educated, but in fact it can be a real plus to skip out on the usual route, which every other kid has done, sometimes without any real passion. When a home educated kid wants a job in something or they want to do a course, it is usually because it is driven by a sense of real purpose or passion.
I have written this post to encourage people to really believe in their children and themselves and to not succumb to feeling patronised or undermined by folks who have invested their own belief in the traditional school system. Of course children can get educated that way very happily and many will do well. But if a parent resolves to educate their child at home, they should know this one thing - home educating your child is one of the most rewarding, life-enhancing, pleasurable and easy things you can do. You don't need a degree. You don't need to know every subject. You don't need to invest hundreds of pounds in reedy-made curriculums.
You just need to trust in your kids, trust in the flow and process of learning in all its unpredictable glory, trust in people, trust in life. Open up to possibilities. Find ways to bend round things. Look for positives, for solutions, for the things that make your children happy and make them light up.
Home ed has so far (been going at this for 13 years) been the most incredible learning adventure for our family. I hope this post inspires others to take the plunge and bend round the things in their life that are making them unhappy, including, if appropriate - school!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blooming in our own good time

People have been asking me recently about how we unschool and how it works, and what to say to those who doubt that children will really learn in this way.

I've been a home educating parent for 13 years and over the course of that journey I have walked a long road of discovery, and my understanding and definition and experience of education has evolved a lot over that time. So I'll try to explain my own observations and philosophy as best as I can.

When we first started out on the path, we had just two kiddos and they were not yet school age. I had no idea at the time that one day I'd have five children and they'd all be not just home educated but in fact unschooled.

I really hate labels and in some ways I don't like defining ourselves as unschoolers, because people can get so tangled up in philosophy that it rules and defines their life. Which is what some people actively want. And that's fine, for them. For me, I find it's just the best description of what we are doing and how we are living for the greater part of most days and as a rule of thumb, I agree that leaving kids to their own devises is more conducive to meaningful learning than trying to force knowledge down their necks.

So how did we end up in this educational scenario where we don't have a timetable... or subjects... or terms... or 'year x' and being so relaxed about learning that we are not even remotely trying to replicate school?

In the beginning, I wrongly assumed like lots of people do, that unschoolers 'do nothing' or 'slack off' and that it was just a very lazy way of living. And viewed from one perspective, unschooling IS a very very relaxed way of living. Which makes some people really uncomfortable....

Travel during term time is no problem for unschoolers!
I realised pretty early on that when you sit a child down with workbooks, no matter how engaging you try and make it all, that knowledge can quite quickly forgotten, unless the child is actually interested and truly ready for that knowledge. It's like trying to force feed someone whether they are hungry or not. I was astonished to find in the early years of our home ed life that having spent hours trying to cover certain things, only a month or two later the children had entirely forgotten it. So I stopped using workbooks, and started relying instead on the other materials we had in the house.

Over time, we built up a very different kind of curriculum based on free play and discovery through experimentation. Instead of teaching spelling through books, we just bought books and books and more books and filled our house with them. We read stories to the children a lot. We invested in audiobooks so that the children could enjoy the pathos and drama and intonation and musicality of language and stories. We took them to the theatre to feel and see and hear stories in a way that was alive and vibrant and multi sensory. We played lots of board games, which have all kinds of writing and lettering and numbers on them. We bought apps on the iPad that were fun and actively sought out games that would involve maths or spelling or critical thinking without feeling remotely 'schooly'. Scribblenauts alone has sparked hundreds of "how do you spell x/y/z" questions! We bought science kits, craft kits, and invested heavily in construction toys of different kinds. We watched youtube videos of science experiments of different kinds and found a world of fun websites on all kinds of subjects. We let the children play and play and play and build on knowledge and make connections for themselves between all the different resources at their fingertips.

Without heavy instruction or a systematic approach using all the current tricks of ramming phonetics down their necks, the boys have all learnt to read, at different ages, and at different times and in their own very unique way. Currently our six year old is the latest to join the reading gang. I've seen first hand how pointless it is expending energy trying to teach them to read before they are really ready (frustrating for them and us) and by contrast, how easily they have learnt when it has been on their terms, at a time that was right for them, and when doing things that interest them.

Because we haven't pushed it on them, they find reading a really rewarding and fun activity. It seriously took some nerve to be so relaxed as to allow one of our sons to reach the age of almost 9 before he properly learnt to read, in the face of so much social expectation and myths about children's intelligence,  but now, just six or so months later, he has a voracious appetite for books, and has consumed more than 20 Pokemon paperbacks in just the last couple of months. He can pick up any book you like and read it, and one of his favourites are National Geographic Kids Magazine and The Magic Treehouse series. Because we trusted he would do it in his own good time he picks up books because they are interesting to him and because he feels excited by them. Anyone who meets him will tell you that he positively beams when he talks about how much he loves to read. What is really lovely is that he feels that he totally owned that process - it happened because it was sparked by an inner readiness, an inner drive that was curiosity, need and desire to do it. How many kids can say that? How many boys at the age of 9, actively love reading, and tell you so with shiny eyes?

We have made a really big effort to take the children to see and experience the world first hand by going travelling all over Europe in our motorhome, visiting all kinds of interesting places and meeting all kinds of interesting people. They have encountered folks with such wide-reaching passions and been taught informally about all manner of things.... Joining up the dots of how the world works, how people tick, gaining skills,  and all in a really relaxed way, on out own terms and without stress - it's just the most natural thing in the world to learn when you act like school doesn't exist!

Our social life has evolved very much too. We have all learnt so many lessons about ourselves and what situations we enjoy, who we feel comfortable with and who we don't and how to handle that. We no longer force the kids to join clubs they're not interested in just simply so they can make friends with random kids, but have relaxed about trusting in the kids to simply form friendships more naturally and in a less contrived way. Being a gang of five kids is pretty cool for even just those days in at home, as they are a close-knit and are good friends for the most part, but they also play very happily with any new kids we meet, and have a regular gang at home ed group that they knock about with and have done for some years.

The kids have started recently getting involved in online gaming playing with some friends in a server and using Skype to chat for hours in the evenings. I wish we lived nearer to friends and it can be a pain having to drive everywhere to meet up with our really close friends, but I'm glad that we have such a spread out tribe, and it makes for a more diverse social scene than perhaps the school playground where kids tend to gang up and stick in small cliques of children very similar to themselves in age and social class etc. I think our HE world represents a good spectrum of different types of folks with different philosophies and a high ratio of adult involvement which keeps things (for the most part) friendlier than the average playground might be. Sometimes situations arise within the community that everyone learns from and when people inevitably don't get along, we learn to deal with that, which is an important lesson for later life. I do feel it is a gentler and more nurturing environment in which to discover some of these realities of life, and processing the complexities of human behaviour is a difficult process enough so I am pleased the kids have a chance to do that within the safety of a fairly small community that has a high ratio of caring and watchful adults to keep things happy and safe.

I had no idea Finn could sew because he has always resisted being taught - then he goes and makes this... just because he wanted to!

It's hard to have faith but I am witnessing for myself that whilst we can create an illusion of being in control of a child's development, it's a process that will happen when it is believed in, and simply supported. We all know that using tweezers to try and open up the petals of a flower before it is ready, is unnatural, and that if we want a flower to bloom it's so much better to water the plants and feed them and try and create the right conditions for them to flourish. And then sit back and be patient. Nor would you expect all the blooms on a bush to open on the same day!

As William Wordsworth put is so beautifully

"How doth the meadow flower it's bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its very root, and in that freedom bold"

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poorly babes, yummy things, cool new games and happy music!

Since we got back to England last week the kids have picked up some nasty viral bugs that have been doing the rounds... Bleh! So there's been a lot of fever and vomiting going on and even a meningitis scare. Indie was rocketingly hot all day yesterday and complaining of a violent headache, whilst being sick over and over... when he said he felt dizzy and like he was sinking into the floor I properly panicked so we had a trip to hospital with him. The doctor confirmed it was an airborne virus but not meningitis - he said the way you can tell is that with meningitis a child won't be able to raise their chin and neck backwards or look up... good to know this kind of thing, it's useful for future reference. Poppy and Herb are now ill, Herb has been puking all day, Poppy seems to just have the high temperature but no sick. She's been glued to me a lot this week and I can barely so much as go for a wee without her. It's been an intense week, I tell ya!

So there's the worst of it, but what happy things have we been up to?

We've been rediscovering the joys of baking - Herb obtained his granny's recipe for flapjack, which is THE best recipe in the world, and made a batch on his own. I helped Indie and Alf to make cakes to sell at home ed group (before the kids got ill) and we spent time doing the maths to work out how to price them. Indie and his friend Rosina made a chocolate fudge cake with icing which was delicious.

Herb played chess at home ed group and beat everyone he played against. I played chess against Indie (9) and had a mini internal debate as to whether I ought to go easy on him and do a few 'oopsy silly me!' type moves to give him a chance, but decided no, I will fight him properly because it's patronising and won't help him get better at playing. And then he actually beat me!!!

Finn has been working on a board game that has been gestating in his mind for some time, and gotten into Skyping his friends and playing online role-playing games with them.

Alfie has been loving an app I downloaded on the iPad called Thomas was Alone.

It's a simple concept but so so brilliant. I am amazed at how good he is at working it all out, what goes on in that mind! What's particularly cool about this game is that the characters in the story need to work together so they can all complete their mission. Pretty true of life, huh?

Poppy has been nursing lots and extra cuddly since she came down with the virus and really enjoyed a session when we watched a whole bunch of Caspar Babypants on YouTube. We hadn't seen this one of his before... I think it'll be stuck in your head and you'll be humming it in no time. Check out his other vids too. We love CB!