Last year I fair near tore my hair out over our first co-op learning venture, Science Club. With the incredibly wide range of ages, abilities and social and educational needs, it was a challenge from the get-go. We did some really neat activities, and for the most part it wasn't painful, but it was always a challenge to even partly engage the half of the group that didn't fit within the age-7-to-12 kinda age-range.
This year we toyed briefly with the idea of doing a world geography co-op learning group. The more I thought about the things that didn't work in Science Club the more I realized that they'd be even more problematic in a geography co-op -- factual information, researching, pencil-and-paper things, crafty stuff. What worked well in Science Club was experiential stuff like walking a scaled-down solar system distance along the road, and digging an avalanche pit, and saponifying vegetable oils to create soap, and holding cups of water without spilling them on a playground merry-go-round. Crafts tended to flop with most of the older kids. Pencil and paper things meant the younger non-readers couldn't really participate at all. Factual information was typically old news for two or three of the kids and totally over the heads of three or four of the others. Out of nine.
So after re-examining the challenges of Science Club, and discussing a Geography Co-op with my kids and getting a resounding "uh, no thanks," we ditched it. Instead my kids were surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea of having a weekly ethnic cooking co-op. If it happened to stray into a little bit of cultural education, that would be fine, but the focus needed to be on cooking and eating. And socializing.
I talked to the other mom. She talked to her kids. They were all enthusiastic. So we decided to give it a whirl. If you've been following this blog you'll know that we've now had three sessions (Thailand, France and New Zealand).
Nine kids from 3 to 15, and two moms, in one kitchen for three and a half hours. It's a little nuts, but it's going fine. The kids can be wild. Sometimes there is whining (someone hasn't yet got a turn grating the ginger...). There always seems to be a kid or two wandering around repeating "what can I do?" We're probably short one or two adults. My kitchen is a fair size, but it's certainly not large enough for 11 people to work in. We spread out into the dining room and it's still mighty crowded. Sometimes we'll lose three or four kids into the remainder of the house. They lose their interest in the cooking and they're gone to play for a while. But they always come back, which wasn't always the case with Science Club. Strangely enough it seems to work.
The preparation is minimal for me. I Google a few recipes and add a few items to my Monday grocery list. There's no fussy planning to try to engage the teens and tots in equal measure. I'm forced to clean the kitchen on Tuesdays, but I should be doing that anyway, and the kids are actually being great about helping get it spotless and uncluttered. But the main reason I'm happier with Kitchen Club than I was Science Club is that I'm not really seeing this as an Educational Activity. Primarily it's about working together, enjoying each others' company, and having a meal. That's education too, of course, but I'm just not focused on the Educational Value -- and that makes it so much easier for me. For me the issue is "is everyone happy?" not "is everyone engaged and learning?" It seems so much less to worry about, and so much easier to achieve.
Kitchen Club seems to be helping with a separate issue as well. We have a bit of a social needs mismatch with the other large family of unschoolers who live down the road, the ones who collaborate with us on Kitchen Club. For much of the past three years, the other family's kids have been hankering for more social contact with my family and my kids than we are really comfortable with. We've ended up saying no a lot, and drawing some clear limits, and while it's never been awkward or hurtful, some delicate discussions have been necessary to prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Kitchen Club is providing a nice compromise -- a scheduled weekly social time, a meal shared, and three and a half discrete hours carved out of our week. It seems to make the other family's kids happy, and because it is discrete and predictable (and over at 1:30 pm), my kids actually seem to enjoy the time.