I adore my kids, and I love to watch them play like this. Noah is wearing just his pyjama bottoms and I watch his pointy shoulder blades wander beneath his skin as he reaches across a tower for a blue block. He is just learning to talk, and we are discovering how much he has learned without us knowing. Erin's hair is a mess; she is still wearing her pyjamas too. But I see how she watches Noah with the same fascination I hold for both of them. She loves watching him learn and is as delighted as he is with his growing abilities. "See, this one is blue-red-blue-red", she says, pointing to a pattern in a tower, "and this one is yellow-green-yellow-green. Let's keep going the same way."
I always knew that young children had tremendous learning potential. I understood that their boundless delight in exploring and creating made them eager to learn in ways they often weren't thought capable. I knew that as a parent I would want to try to tap into that eagerness. I wanted to help my children grow to be confident, contented and capable members of society, and I figured that supporting them in their early learning would build a solid foundation for their continued success in school.
When I was pregnant with Erin, we had the chance to relocate to the small town where we now live. We loved the town, but the move would mean I'd have to give up my job, and my husband would take a cut in income. The town reputedly had a great K-12 school, and looked like a wonderful place to raise children. We thought it the financial sacrifices were worth making: I could stay at home with our children in the early years, and they would have a great school to move on to when they reached school age.
The move worked out almost exactly as we expected. Chuck is a family physician, and although he works only half days at the clinic, he provides one-in-two on-call coverage for the local hospital and its emergency room. It is a lot of responsibility, but much of it entails hanging out at home with a pager, where he is present as a member of the family. I am also a family physician, but I work only occasionally at a well-woman clinic. I now also teach violin to a handful of students a couple of afternoons a week. Most of the time I'm home and with my children and I'm happier there than anywhere. The community where we live is as terrific as we had thought: diverse, creative, warm and tolerant, with a healthy sense of interdependence. And the public school is indeed a good one, inclusive, friendly and innovative.
But Erin will not be going to kindergarten next fall. Instead, she'll be doing pretty much what she's doing this morning. We have started to call it homeschooling.
She has now flitted over to the computer, where Noah has been browsing through a phonics-based pre-reading program and is encountering some difficulty. The piano bench is in front of the computer most days since it will seat two or even three of us at once. Erin is reading well, and Noah is only just learning his letters and letter-sounds, but they enjoy working at things which are not exactly at their level, especially when it means they can do it together. They don't always get along; in fact they've just had a couple of "mouse fights": the fleeting shrieks and wails that occur when they can't agree on who should be in charge of the computer mouse. But these eruptions are quickly quelled without my intervention; they spend all day together and are very well-versed in compromising and making amends.
The computer is a large part of my children's learning. I used to worry about it turning them into overstimulated multimedia snobs who would never enjoy reading or playing outside. I don't worry much any more. We do try to stay away from a lot of arcade-style skill-drill type programs. We have a lot of software that encourages browsing and free exploration, and involves large doses of creativity. I've seen the advantage of computers in giving pre-readers ways to access information and ideas independently. And most importantly, Erin and Noah do seem to self-regulate their computer time. We set no limits, and yet they still spend lots of time with books, do lots of drawing and building, and run around both indoors and out.
On the other hand, we do limit television. Erin has always shown some discretion, but Noah has not. Left to his own devices, he would happily spend eighteen hours a day semi-comatose in front of the set watching programs which would turn him into a drooling zombie. He would refuse meals, bed, even baths. So daytime television is reserved for special occasions. This is one of the few areas where I believe mother knows best. I trust my children to learn, but I do not trust them to distill reasonable values and a sense of balance and perspective from the overwhelming onslaught of popular culture. Not at their ages, not in this age.
Our playroom is our schoolroom. At one end are the stereo, TV, and the dress-up-clothes box. Along an adjacent wall is the piano and the computer desk with the kids' computer. Another wall has a second computer which belongs to the grown-ups in the family, some bookshelves and a large area of panelling which serves as the children's art gallery. The last wall contains the toy cupboard. Up high are things Erin and I occasionally use together: board games like Checkers and Snakes & Ladders, puzzles with lots of pieces, Lego and K'nex. Lower down, but still out of Noah's unaided reach are the Cuisinaire rods and pattern blocks, the art and craft box, the Playdough and magic markers. Below that are the wooden blocks, play dishes, Duplo, and so on, the toys safe for an unsupervised curious 2-year-old. Beside the toy cupboard is a utility table which sometimes gets used for crafts but mostly serves as my sewing centre. There is a big couch in the middle of the room and an old carpet on the floor. This is where we live together, pursuing our activities cooperatively or, more commonly, doing our own things side by side. We like being in this room. We are happy when we are together as a family.
Erin attended nursery school two mornings a week for a while when she was four. This was before we had really decided to homeschool, and we saw it as a useful way to help her separate from the family and prepare for public school. We have a good local program, and although she was a bit shy she managed fine, an sometimes even quite enjoyed it. But she found the fast-paced shifts from one activity to another frustrating, as she was rarely done exploring something when it was time to move on. And the rough, rude and competitive behaviour of the other children often bothered her, even when it wasn't directed at her. Her relationship with her younger brother deteriorated as she spent the afternoons trying on the types of behaviour she'd witnessed in the morning. For a while we thought she just wasn't ready for nursery school, so we left it up to her whether she attended or not. She rarely chose to go, and the less often she went, the happier, more grown-up and self-confident she seemed. Eventually we just had to question why we had her enrolled. So now she learns exclusively outside a classroom, and we like having her home.
She is still a little shy. It's a personality trait, one that she shares with both her parents. Not many people see her dad and me as shy these days, but we were both that way as children. But going to public school had no effect upon our shyness, except perhaps to encourage us to develop inappropriate ways of compensating for it. Erin's shyness is not related to any lack of self-confidence. It's just that in large group situations, she prefers to learn by watching, rather than by doing. In fact, she does quite well in groups of other children these days, at least when there is a diverse mix of ages and interests. About once a month we attend a homeschooling get-together, and she horses around, shrieking and giggling with a throng of a dozen or more three-to-twelve-year-olds. She especially enjoys relating to people one-on-one though, and has a number of friends she sees regularly. Only one of them is close to her age; a few are a year or two younger and many are older, either older children or special adult friends to whom she relates respectfully and with great joy and ease. I like the fact that she can relate to people on various levels, in different types of genuine relationships.
Noah is now happily playing at the kitchen sink. Although he's made some effort to push his sleeves up they are soaking wet, but he doesn't seem to care. He's pouring water from saucepan lids into measuring cups and funnels and strainers. In "eduspeak", he's exploring fluid dynamics and the concept of conservation of mass, testing hypotheses and drawing conclusions. Erin has put some music on the stereo and is dancing around the living room. Is that "phys. ed." or "dramatic arts"?
The kids have just eaten lunch with their dad and he has gone off to work. If we are lucky, he will be home by six and we will have supper and the evening together. On a bad night we might not see him before bedtime. The unpredictability is a trade-off we accept in exchange for having him at home more than we might otherwise. Our income is much smaller than that of most physician-families but we live quite comfortably. We don't take expensive vacations, and we only recently bought a second vehicle. But we have plenty of money for the things we believe are important. I think we have achieved a fortunate balance: we have a reliable source of a income but have managed to learn a little bit of voluntary simplicity before getting caught in a workaholic, acquisitional spiral.
It helps to live far away from the temptations of readily available retail sources. It is a little more difficult to spend money foolishly here. We have lots and lots of catalogues, especially for books, toys and software. We browse a lot and buy a little, and Erin shares our love of catalogues. She has learned how to use an alphabetical index to look things up, and she is getting better at dealing with the numerical estimates and logical algorithms required to find a specific numbered page among a thousand. When she began to show interest in the Sears catalogue last year I had naively wondered what good could possibly come of hours spent looking at photographs of children's clothing and kitchen appliances. Now I see what she has learned.
I had expected that when they were very young, my children would enounter learning at every turn and would greet this learning with passionate excitement. This indeed proved to be the case. I watched them walk and talk and brush their teeth and ride trikes with determination and delight and incredible learning efficiency. I began to think a lot about the seemingly inevitable dwindling of this enthusiasm. I knew it would probably fizzle out over time, and I wondered why.
The more I thought about it, and the more I read, the more it seemed that the status quo of age-stratified, cash-strapped, one-size-fits-all public schooling might be at least partly responsible. I wondered about the segregation of children from society within schools, and the marginalization of children in our culture, where they are important chiefly in their role as consumers, present or future. A hundred and fifty years ago children were first and foremost members of the family and the community. Any formal schooling they did fit secondarily within the context of their importance elsewhere. School might serve as an important adjunct in the life of a child, but it was not its defining element. Nowadays once a child reaches the age of five or six school is what he does and who he is. It seemed to me that at about the time most children enter school, they begin to lose their zeal for seeking out knowledge and skills unbidden. Was this a cause and effect relationship?
A happy set of circumstances conspired to put me in touch with the possibility of homeschooling. Our wonderful diverse community turned out to be the sort place where homeschooling was not regarded as the fringe activity of hippies and religious fanatics. I met several homeschooling families, and I met older homeschooled children who still had their enthusiasm for life and learning. I liked the parents, I liked the way in which they related to their children, and I really liked the children. The luckiest circumstance, though, was probably Erin's birthday. She was born at the very beginning of the year, which meant that she just barely missed the age-cutoff for Kindergarten enrollment the year she was four. We were given an extra year at home, a year in which to "try out" homeschooling. It was like a bonus year, a risk-free trial. We would pretend we were homeschooling, and if it didn't work, we would have lost nothing.
Nothing changed when we began our trial year of homeschooling. We used no curriculum, we made no schedules. We had no routine of daily study, and we did nothing which looked like school. Erin slept in, ate lunch in her pyjamas, fought with her brother, looked at books, played on the computer, danced in the living room, practised her violin, helped me fold laundry and jumped on the furniture. She did regular five-year-old things.
But she was learning! The more I watched, the more I saw. I made an effort to help her capitalize on her own interests but did little more than support her. If she asked a few questions about something, I would suggest the resources she might use to explore it further. We might sit down and read together a bit, do an internet search, or hit the library with a list of research topics. Her excitement about a new baby in the family grew into an incredible knowledge of human embryology and obstetrics. Her interest in a globe we purchased led to a consuming passion for world geography. She wanted to learn to read and attained remarkable fluency almost overnight. And now that she has had experiences in pursuing particular interests, she is beginning to make her own decisions when exploring new areas. She will tell me she needs a book about castles, or a computer program about history, or some coins to practice math. She does much of her learning independently now.
Nothing changed when we began our "homeschooling" year, yet everything changed. There is now no looking back. Our homeschooling experiment is no longer an experiment. It is our way of being a family. The further we travel this road the happier and more confident we become with it, and the less chance there is that Erin will fit well into a public school environment. She knows herself very well now, and she knows when her needs are not being met. She has strong ideas about how she learns best, and she is invariably right about such things. She's academically well ahead of her agemates, and the gap is widening. Things are going so well, we could not possibly risk throwing it all away to try kindergarten next year.
I truly trust my children to learn what they need to learn, and to approach that learning of their own volition, without a fixed external structure. I've been told that this sort of child-led learning requires a real leap of faith. For me it is not a leap. It is an extension of faith. I have the luxury of dealing with children who have never been to school and have never been expected to learn things they were not interested in or not ready for. I had faith that they would learn to walk and talk and use the toilet without being institutionalized under the care of paid coaches, so I see no reason to stop trusting my children's desire to learn just because they reach their fifth birthday. I nurture my faith in them, and they make it easy. They nurture this faith by proving over and over that they deserve it.
Those of us who have been through the public school system are wont to wonder how a child could possibly come to learn the tedious necessities of education without being compelled to do so. It seems impossibly idealistic to expect that children will actually want to memorize the definition of latitude and longitude lines, or their multiplication facts. It seemed impossible to me too, but I am watching it happen. Erin is as interested in learning about these things as she is in learning how to ride a bike or tie her shoes. Children have an incredible drive to make sense of the world around them, and unless they are pushed into learning things in a way that is convenient for someone else, not them, they seem to maintain this drive even when it comes to those areas we adults think of as tedious.
But although I am amazed my what my children choose to learn, I still occasionally need to be reassured that I'm not depriving them of some vital teaching. It is natural, I suppose, for parents to worry frequently whether we are doing all we could for their children. My unschooling philosophy suggests that often the best way to do more is to do less - to resist the urge to guide or direct my children when they do not want my help. But it can be hard to let go of the urge to push, to teach uninvited, to build an artificial formal structure to satisfy my needs and not theirs; I am, after all, a product of the public school system myself. So I have found a wonderful source of support in the form of an on-line e-mail list of Canadian homeschooling parents. Here I am free to learn vicariously from other families' experiments and mistakes, and revel in the reassuring triumphs of other people's children. I am reminded that other wonderful children do awful things from time to time, and that my worries about my children "missing something" are common but unnecessary. The evolution that many families undergo from a structured curricular approach to a more trusting, child-led philosophy is probably an evolution I would have undergone slowly myself over a period of several years. Instead, with the help of my e-mail friends I have been able to reach a comfortable, and, I hope, fairly mature synthesis quite quickly, without a lot of trial and error.
The other direction I reach for support is backwards, back into our own family's brief history of homeschooling. I have always watched my children's learning intently and proudly, and since very early on I have been writing about what I see. I write most exhuberantly when things are going well, or when I've just witnessed an unexpected or welcome transition. Sometimes these writings are simply notes to myself. Sometimes, for fun, I write down what we've been doing using healthy doses of "eduspeak", couching everything in technical learning terms to give it the look of something official and school-ish. Sometimes my writings are part of letters to other parents or friends or family members. Whatever the form, the computer has made it easy to save it all. So when I am worried about what we are (or more likely, are not) doing, I can browse back through all these words and find some very reassuring things which remind me what wonderful, bright, capable learners I have. I can always look back and see the big picture.
We don't seem to have yet encountered too many problems; what we do changes all the time, and so we are not likely to get into a rut. We make an effort to carefully balance any scheduled activities with time spent at home with nothing particular planned. Because we live in a rural area, the scheduled activities the kids have been involved in, like swimming or art lessons, usually involve an hour or more of driving time, so we find that one trip a week is about all we can manage. Generally these activities are daytime programs with other homeschooled children. The contact with other children is great for Erin and Noah, and the informal chatting with other parents counteracts any sense of isolation I might feel. Since we don't have access to a large variety of activities and clubs, we find a variety of things to do around home. We do few of them regularly; rather, we do them when we feel the desire or the need. Some days we definitely need special plans to save us from each other! Our special activities are rarely "canned" kid-activities. A couple of our current favourites are cookie-dates at the local sandwich shop, and picnics in the back of the minivan. It is winter, so we have to be creative.
Today, for instance, is a sandwich-shop day. While we are there, we say hello to the steady trickle of community members who meander through. We see retired schoolteachers, potters, accountants, other parents with toddlers, unemployed handymen and other homeschooling families. All these people recognize my children and stop and say hello. We feel warmly included in our community. Afterwards we walk along the lakeshore together for a few minutes. Erin and Noah play hide and seek. We notice some early signs of spring. We talk and talk and talk with each other. Erin, as usual, dominates the conversation.
When we get home, she disappears to her room for a while. When I check in with her an hour later, she is sitting on the floor surrounded by books, and is browsing through a National Geographic. I casually ask her what she has been reading. She smiles and tells me she hasn't read anything. This is our little joke. She is proud of her reading, but feels uncomfortable when adults, including even myself, draw attention to her abilities. I can imagine the tactics she would use to avoid drawing attention to herself in public school. She would probably fool everyone there. Fortunately, I am in on the joke, and she is okay with this.
There is no doubt she is a bright child. In some ways this makes homeschooling easier. She is an independent learner at a very early age, and we already have early reading and mathematical learning challenges well in hand. On the other hand, by homeschooling her, we are robbing her of the opportunity for virtually assured academic success in the public school environment. And sometimes I am plagued with guilt about enriching her environment, making her brighter and more advanced than she would be without my intervention. Am I trying to hurry my children along an accelerated learning course so that they can get ahead of their peers? Do I feel my kids are too good for the public school system?
I hope not. I have considerable respect for our local public school; given the inherent limitations of public schooling, I think they are doing an admirable job. For families who cannot manage to homeschool, or prefer not to, I think they provide a reasonable option. But I am grateful that we have the option we have chosen. I do not wish to rush my children along a curricular path so that they can finish high school early and prove themselves and our approach superior to public schooling. I don't see education as a linear path at all. In some ways I think schools push children into things too quickly. I want my children to be able to reach their full potential in each phase of their lives. I want them to live as children, not as adults in waiting. Childhood shouldn't be eighteen years spent getting ready to do something else. It is a real part of life. Developmental stages are not milestones to be passed by as quickly as possible, but the building blocks of full personhood. I want to enable my children to grow to their full potential at each developmental stage, without feeling the need to rush ahead to the next stage. My high expectations are for depth and breadth, not velocity.
By mid-afternoon, public school is finished, and that means that my violin students will begin to arrive. They often seem exhausted and poorly focused. These children must try to cram family life, violin lessons and practising, meals, homework, play, and any other extra-curricular activities into a few short hours in the late afternoon and evening. Several of their parents are schoolteachers. I try to be diplomatic: "I realize you have a lot on your plate right now but please try to get a little more practising done before your next lesson." Part of me would like to scream "no wonder you don't have time to do what I ask, you spend all day at school!"
On the two afternoons a week I teach lessons in the basement studio, my children stay upstairs with their grandmother or a homeschooling teenage friend who babysits for us. These relationships are very important to them and they look forward to my teaching days. Erin sometimes comes downstairs and listens to part of a lesson. She is friends with most of my students and is learning violin herself now, so she really enjoys watching. Even better, though, she likes playing with these children after their lessons. Noah, too, has special older friends among my students, and they both love getting the chance to play with these children for a few minutes before or after their lessons. In Erin and Noah's world, it seems most children play the violin. This is a misperception I am happy to encourage.
When I finish teaching and return upstairs, Erin is glowing happily. She has been playing board games with her grandmother and I can tell she has found the afternoon especially enjoyable. "You look happy," I remark. "I'm having a good day," she replies. She seems to know herself quite well. Perhaps all young children do; they simply lack the linguistic tools to put their knowledge into words. I hope she will find it easier to remain true to who she is than many of the young girls I see around town. In some sense I shelter my children in the hope that they will be protected from some of the negative effects of popular culture. I do want them to come to terms with the world at large, but I think that the world ought to be given a PG rating, just like a movie: "parental guidance recommended". I will let my children see this film, but I am going to watch it with them.
Noah is bouncing around rough-housing with one of my violin students who doesn't seem ready to leave quite yet. I am chatting with the student's mom about music and parenting issues and public school and birth order; we are good friends, all of us, and it is a warm, chaotic time. Eventually they drift out the door and I start trying to get supper ready. Usually it is Erin who helps, reading a recipe aloud, measuring the rice, or stirring the soup, but today Noah is the one who pulls a stool over to the counter. Erin is back working on the Duplo museum.
Chuck arrives home from work in good time. After supper, he and Erin play board games for a while. Then she works on the computer, first using a drawing program, and then exploring some human anatomy images. We have one anatomy program designed for 5-9-year-olds and one intended for physicians. She uses both. How much she gets out of the adult program is anyone's guess. We don't test her knowledge. We don't ever intend to do this. We know she can learn. Her motivation to learn is that she wishes to understand the world, not that she wants to please her parents or earn good grades.
All of our children are night-owls, but Erin is especially so. She enjoys the quiet winding-down time she can spend with her parents after the younger two are in bed. She watches the news with her dad. From where I am sitting I can see their two heads, side by side on the couch, brown and blond, big and little. She asks questions about what she sees, and they discuss government and crime and terms like optimism and immigration. I am always impressed with Chuck's explanations to Erin. She asks a lot of tough questions about delicate issues. He is honest and respectful in answering, but still manages to say things in gentle terms a five-year-old can deal with. After the news Erin asks to go to bed. It is too late to read aloud together tonight. Lately we have been missing our read-aloud sessions. I vowed they would not stop when she became an independent reader, but we've been slipping a little. She doesn't seem to be missing them, but I am, and Noah too. Tomorrow I pledge to find a few minutes to read to them.
I take a few minutes for myself to reply to some e-mail. Much of our communication with extended family is by way of e-mail now. We are still in the process of bringing some family members on side with our decision to homeschool. We have said we are "seriously considering it, at least for kindergarten". We know that the proof will be in the pudding, that what is happening with our children will show them that we have made the right decision. We have met no direct opposition, just some gentle concern, and we don't anticipate any difficulty in the long term in defending our homeschooling choice. At times I feel so enthusiastic about it that I want to hurry the process and convince everyone now, but I know that time and gentle persuasion will work much better. Erin is already playing an important role in this persuasion. A slightly mis-spelled e-mail to grandma and a gentle naivete about sex-stereotyped pop culture argue strongly for our case.
The house is very quiet now. The hard drive on the computer whirs. The giant cedar trees outside swish in the breeze. The creek, which will be running hard once spring thaw starts, is just another, more distant hiss. Soon the deep snow will be gone and the outside world will be our classroom too. Erin has plans. She wants to learn about birds this summer. She has taken the bird guide to bed.