Learning through play and allowing kids to follow their interests

“We learn to do something by doing it.  There is no other way. “–John Holt

I watched my son focus for close to an hour as he watched and tried to catch a frog at a local park.   He was completely engrossed and working really hard.  No frogs were harmed or caught, but it was such an illustration to me of the John Holt quote above.  He was definitely learning, analyzing, and using everything he knew.

“If it hasn’t been in the hand and body, it can’t be in the brain.” –Bev Boss

Child-led learning works this way.  No agenda from parents or teachers.  My son was still learning, experimenting, and directing me how I could help.  I was there to help if asked, and to share in the experience.  To have a real conversation with him about what was happening.

Right now, while my son is in half-day kindergarten, we still have enough time for adventures.  But it is definitely one of many reason I’m leaning heavily toward homeschool next year, when he’ll be in school all day.  I can’t imagine not having the time or energy to take him to do these things that he enjoys.

I read so much on this topic, and think so much comes down to trusting our kids.  And most people are too afraid to do that.  It’s outside what is accepted practice in the US for educating our children.    But why?  Why is it so hard to believe that kids can know what they need?

And even if we choose that homeschool is the right choice for our family, I think this is still a conversation we can’t ignore.  Children learn through play and hands-on discovery. Choosing to opt out of the system isn’t a viable option for everyone and most children are still being subjected to an educational system that doesn’t line up with what we know about how children learn. Parents are the ones who can change what schools look like and how they treat students.  No more saying, “Well, I’m not hearing anything negative from my child.  So it must be okay.”  All our children deserve for us to stand up and challenge the status quo.


Natalie Chooses World Unschooling and Asking Why

“Why?”

I am asked this several times a day, particularly from my 3 year old. If you have young ones who are talking, you probably hear this all day long, too. I answer the question. She asks why again. And again. And again.

Lake Erie. Sunset view from Vermilion, Ohio. I want travel to be a huge part of our unschooling
Lake Erie. Sunset view from Vermilion, Ohio. This was our beach “vacation” this year.

I don’t want to squelch this curiosity. I answer as much as I can. If I am stuck for an answer, I suggest we look it up online. Kids ask hard questions sometimes! However, I do want the round of questions to end eventually, so I ask my 3 year old “why” back, in the context of the conversation.

“Why is the food I pulled out the oven so hot?” I’ll say. “Do you know why the food is so hot?”

I usually will get a silly answer when I do that. We laugh and move on until the next time someone is curious about something. Later, I’ll hear an earnest little voice say, “be careful, mama. The oven is hot.”

We have no formal schooling going on, at ages 3 and 4. Unschooling and the newer term world schooling (which I refer to as world unschooling from here on out) are my choices for educating my children. And even with their insatiable appetites for knowledge,  it astounds me when they will tell me something I didn’t realize they knew.

“Did you know when ice melts that it becomes water because of the sun?” My 4 year old asked me the other day.

“That’s cool. I didn’t know you knew that!” I replied. When was the last time we talked about it? It could’ve been this summer when I was putting ice in our drinks. Or last winter, when it snowed. It could’ve been from the times I let the kids play with ice cubes and warm water for entertainment.

If you hold an ice cube in your hand, you can watch and feel it melting. You can see the water dripping off your hand. You can taste it. It firmly imprints in your mind exactly what an ice cube does when exposed to warmth. No one needs to sit you in a classroom and tell you that ice turns into water, while showing you a picture of ice melting.

Sunrise shadow play. Learning is playing and playing is learning!
Sunrise shadow play. Learning is playing and playing is learning!

What is World Unschooling?

If unschooling is child-led, informal education, than world unschooling would almost be a specific style under the unschooling umbrella. Traveling is important for stretching us out of our comfort zones and out of our daily routines. It can introduce me, the adult, to new things that I may not have even been aware of before. I can give my children more; more than I have inside my brain. More than my biases of the world. More confidence, more abilities, and maybe more languages.

While I dream of a longer, immersion style travel, starting somewhere in Europe, our travel is currently far more humble. We have been going on short weekend trips, along with regular trips to our local zoo and new (to us) parks. We are hoping to take our kids on their first international trip before the end of 2016.

Even if we can’t travel internationally this year, we can go to one of the natural history museums in our state. I’ve never seen a dinosaur skeleton. Neither have my children. We can visit a different zoo and see living animals we haven’t seen before, such as a hippo. Hippos are amazing and deadly creatures and they fascinate me!

Right now, I want to introduce them to the world I know, the world I don’t know, and always encourage them to keep asking why.

ABOUT NATALIE

Natalie started the travel blog blissmersion.com in April, 2016. Blissmersion is combination of the words “bliss” and “immersion, because she loves combined words almost as much as she loves alliteration. Longer, slower, immersion travel is her goal because she wants to show her children the world. Blissmersion is the collection of their travel adventures, as a family, and also of Natalie’s past travels.

School volunteering made hard

I always thought I’d volunteer at my children’s school when the opportunity arose. I do remember as a kid not really liking it when my mom would be in my school volunteering, unless I could be with her. But generally I was glad she was around, and glad she was involved.

I had my first volunteer opportunity to volunteer for a PTA walkathon that was held during school hours. It was hot and rather horrible, honestly. My son had a huge meltdown once he realized I was there.  He was miserably hot and when he spotted me, his emotion let loose.  After the walkathon he refused to go back into school. The event was really bad, so I can’t really blame his reaction. It was hot, kids were begging (and not being allowed) to stop walking before they had completed the mile walk. Several straggling kindergartners got lost in the woods during the walk.  There wasn’t enough supervision, so kids were fighting after the walkathon, throwing their snacks and water at each other.

I actually chose to sign him out rather than force him back into school. The teachers let me decide, and the secretary said it was fine and noted how hot it had been during the event. I hadn’t expected his reaction and wasn’t really prepared to deal with it. I’m not sure I made the right decision but it was the decision that felt best at the time. But now I’m really second guessing whether I can volunteer in his classroom at all.

His teacher asked for parent volunteers to help in the kindergarten class while they work on their work stations. But the work stations don’t occur in the middle of the class time, and I’m not sure my son will cooperate when it’s time to for me to leave. I would really, really like to view the classroom dynamics for myself and witness the atmosphere that my son complains about so much.  So I’m really trying to figure out how to make volunteering work.

I know many kids don’t react the way mine do. Most seem happy to see their parents and just as happy to have them leave. But if you have a child like mine, I’d love to hear how you make it work. Do you volunteer at your children’s events and school?

It’s Okay to Say No (Even if you’re a kid)

We were playing at the pool one day recently when several adult family members stopped by. One of them directed my son to demonstrate how he recently learned to jump into the deep end. My son said, “We’re in the middle of a game. I can’t right now.” So the adult said to the cousin he was playing with, “You show how you can jump in.” And she went right away without comment and climbed out and jumped in. And I understood it. Because it’s what I would have done (and been expected to do) as a kid.

I fully support my son’s right to defend his play. He wasn’t rude. We’d never question an adult who said “I’m in the middle of something, but will be with you when I’m done.” As an adult who has a lot of difficulty speaking up for myself and saying no, it is actually a skill I am working hard to help my children develop.

“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

I’ve realized something recently as well. As much as we support our kids in their learning to voice their opinions, say no, and stand up for themselves, one of my kids has a much easier time doing it than the other. I can’t really take credit for doing more than not squashing this instinct that he was born with. It is who he is. He bravely stands up for the choices he makes and for what he feels is fair. We’ve surrounded him with situations and people who have supported him in that endeavor, like his wonderful preschool teachers. But a lot comes down to who he is, his personality, and his temperament.

I thought we had it all figured out and were really doing something right—ha! And now my daughter is old enough to be in similar situations. And she’s asking a lot more questions about what other people would like her to do. She has a lot harder time making decisions. She is a very sensitive child, definitely a highly sensitive person (HSP), but in a very different way than my son. Other skills, such as sharing and empathizing, coming easier to her. She reminds me so very much of me. And I’m realizing that we will see over the next few years if the supports we’ve put in place help her to develop confidence in her skills as well. Our own nature vs. nurture experiment. But I’m doing everything I can to support nurture.

“We learn to do something by doing it.  There is no other way.”  John Holt

I want my children to know themselves better than I knew myself. I also want them to be able to express their interests and beliefs with confidence, as well as to stand up for themselves when those beliefs are challenged. So I’ll support them in practicing now.  There’s no better time to start.

To School or Homeschool, that is the question

I’m still struggling with the question of school or homeschool for my kindergarten-aged son. He’s been in public school kindergarten for 3 weeks now, after we decided to give it a try for the reasons I outlined in this earlier post.

School–What I’m struggling with:

Rewards—my son has been in a wonderful preschool classroom for 3 years where teachers never used rewards to gain children’s cooperation. I find myself going back to Alfie Kohn’s quote, “The more compulsive the use of positive rewards, the bleaker the underlying view of children…” The teacher actually said at her curriculum night presentation that she couldn’t imagine the children being helpful, considerate of others, and listening if she didn’t use the rewards system. Multiple children, mine included, are struggling with the fairness of the rewards. My son told me last week that he got a sticker for helping someone find something in the room. His response was “now I know what to do to get a sticker!” The focus for him is now on the sticker and not why he should be helpful and kind in all situations.

Punishments—my son’s preschool teachers also never used punishments to gain control and cooperation either. He learned that everyone, kids and adults, make mistakes, and that we do what we can to fix our mistakes. So while my son should be getting to know the teacher and his classmates, instead, she is wielding time-outs sitting in front of the class to shame them, as early as the fifth day of school. When multiple parents questioned her use of time-outs, she quit using them. However, she also took away even more freedom from the kids, and took away all talking privileges in the classroom. Our school district as a whole uses a shame based behavior management system, instead of one of the many research-based positive behavior management systems out there, such as Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model.

Lack of respect for students—my kiddo is really struggling with being treated less than respectfully by the adults. He really dislikes silliness, and there’s been a lot of it. Forced performance, forced hand-holding, forced participation.  Being told to “hug yourself and hold a bubble” rather than just asked to be quiet and keep your hands to yourself. There has been no time for the students to get to know one another or their teacher to help foster a sense of community and cooperation.

I had high hopes of my son being welcomed into school by a warm and kind teacher who would create some excitement about being there. Instead, he keeps asking me to call and tell the teacher we moved.

The Little People School House from my childhood.  My kids love it, too.
The Little People School House from my childhood. My kids love it, too.

School–What’s been positive:

Schedule–Getting back on a schedule has been a good thing for us. I haven’t figured out what our schedule would be like if we were homeschooling. He only goes 2.5 hours per day, so it isn’t the whole day. Also, he goes in the afternoon. It might sound extreme, but if we had to get there at his school’s very early morning start time, our decision probably would have already been made.

Friends–My son’s best friend is in his class, and he wouldn’t see him much otherwise.  They do play after school on the playground sometimes, although they don’t have recess or time to play during school.  And we see a lot of neighborhood friends both on the way and at pick up every day.

Homeschooling—my latest thoughts on the positives:

More time—While being back on a schedule has been a good thing, our school time is in the middle of the day and it’s all we can accomplish out of the house most days.

Developmentally appropriate—going at our own pace, following interests, playing!

Homeschooling negatives:

One negative I’m still struggling with regarding homeschooling has to do with my particular kid. He won’t play without me when I’m present. Play dates are hard and rarely go smoothly. But he loved playing at preschool, where they had a very long free-play period, supported by respectful adults. I’m not sure how I can replicate that situation. Maybe a great sitter, but we sure haven’t found it yet. And school doesn’t serve that purpose either, since they don’t actually get to play, or even talk.

Me on the merry-go-round of indecision
Me on the merry-go-round of indecision

The summary for now:

I’m sure to anyone reading it seems that I’m leaning heavily toward homeschooling.  Why am I not doing it yet? Some of the reasons still hold true from my original list. But the biggest reason is that I just don’t know yet. The first 3 weeks of school aren’t the most true representation of school.  I’m hoping that as the year progresses they get to have more fun and freedom rather than less. But only more time will tell.

Why preschool was the best decision for this homeschooler at heart

I love the idea of homeschooling, and have been researching it now for several years. I’ve visited co-ops, met lots of homeschooling families, and been active in homeschool groups online. But I still sent my kids to preschool.

I didn’t actually start out with any thoughts of homeschooling. My son started preschool at 3.5 because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. He had a lot of separation anxiety, so I chose my preschool based on that one fact. And it was possibly my best decision ever. Our preschool had wonderful articles on its website about how they dealt with separation anxiety. That they actually did deal with it, and talk to the kids about it, and let parents stay in the class or in the hallway as long as they felt was necessary. And while we visited and liked the school, it was really that one fact that got us there.

But even once I was interested in homeschool for our family, we stayed at this wonderful preschool. My kids and my parenting have benefited so greatly from being at this preschool and among the teachers and community. And there have never been any worries for me, because the school is a shining example of developmentally appropriate practice. My kids have learned such amazing things that I truly believe will help them into adulthood, through play in this supportive environment.

They’ve learned to speak up for themselves and to stand up for themselves. They’ve learned to make choices on their own, and be responsible for themselves and their belongings. And they’ve learned that they can trust and rely on adults other than me and my hubsand. We don’t have family around that helps care for them, and I want them to know that there are other trustworthy adults that will treat them with respect, take care of them, and even like them! They learned that all their feelings and emotions are valid. They learned to deal with conflict and rejection, all while being coached along by supportive adults. They learned that they can really be themselves and people will still treat them respectfully, even if they aren’t all friends.

I can’t imagine our lives without this wonderful school in it. I feel very fortunate that we we found it and my children were able to attend.


Opting out of standardized testing in kindergarten

I did it! I opted out of the first standardized test for my kindergartner. It is a huge relief to have the letters in and be done with the first of many decisions.

I’d been researching and debating for quite awhile about the state-wide, beginning of year testing. It starts immediately and continues through the first 2 months of school. I searched and found very little information available regarding opting out. There is very little information available about what the assessments really are. I spoke to several kindergarten teachers, and a couple were quite helpful. I spoke to people on opt-out pages on facebook, but had minimal success there, as most focus is on the tests for upper elementary grades.

The test I opted out of is a kindergarten readiness assessment. It is mostly one-on-one with the teacher, and because of that fact, many people seem to think it’s okay. But while the teacher spends hours administering these tests one-on-one, the class has a substitute teacher. So when they should be learning to love school with their welcoming teacher, kids are instead spending their first school days with a sub and being tested on what they know before they’ve learned anything at school. One teacher said that her students do poorly because none of them have been to preschool. But it seems that children like mine, who go to wonderful, play-based, developmentally appropriate preschool are also at a disadvantage. They have not been force-fed early academic skills because that is not what 3 and 4-year olds should be doing. But yet my anxious kid needs to go “show what he knows.” To what end? Parents said to me that they think this testing is a good way for kindergarten teachers to learn where the children are and what they need to learn. But what did teachers do before this testing? They got to know their students. My son’s class will be quite small, which is just a lucky fluke for us in public school. So that excuse holds no water in his class. The teacher can definitely get to know the students she will have without a standardized test.

I looked at our school district website, and there are 3 other assessments expected of kindergarten students before the year is out. 4 standardized tests in kindergarten. Why have we let it get here? I’m writing in the hopes of increasing awareness that these tests even exist, and that we as parents can opt out for our children.


A parent’s view of kindergarten assessment

I posted recently about how we are planning to try kindergarten for my son even though I’d truly love to homeschool. Today was his kindergarten assessment, a 20 minute meeting with his teacher to “tell what you know,” as I heard another parent put it. We did go today, because as I said in my other post, he will have a teacher new to the district and his assessment was with her, so we’d get to meet her. In many districts where we have friends, the assessments are done by a random teacher, and honestly, if that had been the case, we would have been out of town the week of assessments.

I had spoken to the previous teacher to ask if I would be allowed to stay during the assessment due to my son’s extreme separation anxiety, and she said yes. So I emailed the new teacher ahead of time to let her know, and she also agreed it was fine. However when we got to school today, she said if I stayed in the room, she’d have to reassess him again once school started when I wasn’t there. I’m guessing that’s due to rules with standardized testing. But what a way to undermine both teachers, parents, and students. Teachers can’t choose to allow a parent to stand across a room in a spot where the child can’t see him or her? Are we not all adults here? These assessments are assessing where kindergartners come into school. Is someone really thinking we’re going to “cheat?”

I was able to stand outside the room, but still where I could see. I actually don’t know if I was far enough away for it to “count” or not, which leads me to the thought that maybe I should opt my son out of the state kindergarten assessment at the beginning of the school year anyway. Today, he was asked a bunch of academic skills type questions, and maybe that’s the problem with me staying…that I’m not supposed to know what was asked? Again, something is wrong with that situation as well.

I liked his teacher-to be. She seemed kind and interested in getting to know my son, and we had a pleasant conversation after the assessment. But the whole interaction left a sour taste in my mouth. So many of the points I worry about with formal schooling came up just in this quick half hour at the school. Early academics, parents “needing” to be away from their children for schooling to “count,” the homework assignment we received today that has to be brought back on the first day of school.

There were also discouraging events surrounding these assessments, like the parent of my son’s classmates humble-bragging on facebook complaining, but also letting everyone know their 5 year old is already reading. Other parents comparing notes on whether they got “feedback” on how their children did. Because, you know, school is one big competition, right? And maybe you’ll say I’m just worried or jealous because my child is reserved in new situations and isn’t reading yet. Maybe that’s even a little true. But it doesn’t make it any less true that I have real reservations about the culture that I’m sending my child into. It’s going to be a big culture shock for us both, I’m afraid.

Homeschooler at Heart

About a year ago there was a post online discussing school options. Someone there used the phrase “homeschooler at heart” and it really resonated with me. I realized I am most definitely a homeschooler at heart. Does this knowledge mean I’ll homeschool my kids? I don’t know yet.

What it means to me is that I know I could. I know that my kids would be fine without school in their lives. It means I want a life for my family where we spend more time together than they spend with other adults. That my husband and I get to decide how and where we spend our time. It means that I know my kids can learn everything they need to know from me, the other adults in their lives, and outside resources we can access for them.

It comes down to both freedom and trust. Freedom to be in control of my family’s schedule. Freedom to let my kids be kids. Freedom for them to follow their interests in depth rather than learning what’s going to be on a standardized test. Freedom from doing something just because everyone else does it. Freedom to travel if we can. Freedom to discover who they are free from the confines and pressures that come with typical school. Freedom to develop at their own pace.

I trust that my children were born to learn and that they are learning all the time. I trust that when their brains are ready to learn how to read and write, they will learn. I trust that all of us learn best when we are interested in and enjoying what we’re doing. I trust that my kids will learn what they’ll need to be successful adults even without school. I trust my children to make decisions about their own interests and lives and to have a say in what and how they learn.

We have a lot of decisions ahead of us. But as far as schooling and learning go, no decision needs to be permanent and we can always try something new. And there is freedom in that fact, too.