We live in exciting, progressive times. We have access to stacks of emerging research that allows us to make far better decisions about how to live, parent, work in ways that nurture well-being and happiness. There are whole movements of people diverging from the status-quo because we are armed with evidence, we have a confidence, a determination to choose something different. Something that suits us better. We are opting out of traditional careers, a broken housing model, a military-industrial schooling system.
My family and I have made a bunch of decisions along these lines lately. We’re excited when we find others who have too, but we’d never judge others who choose not to.
And then someone comes along, points the finger, lumps a bunch of stuff indiscriminately in with a bunch of other stuff and mocks everyone that questions any of The System. Ugh. yeah, I’m talking about that article in The Guardian. Don’t read it, just get the gist:
“it is clear that some parents are subjecting their children to ideological nonsense that they term “non-schooling” or “delight-based learning”, in which there is no curriculum, structured learning or testing; instead, children are encouraged to “learn through living”. This is an outrageous state of affairs. We rightly argue that children worldwide have the right to attend school, so why not here? Home-schooling should be banned in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.”
How, HOW, did this poorly researched, dogmatic article get past the editorial team at the Guardian? Non-schooling?!
I thought it would be interesting for people who clearly have no understanding whatsoever, and also people who are simply intrigued by how children learn, to take a look at the application I have just had approved (last week!) by the Ministry of Education to unschool Ramona. In the UK families don’t have to fill one of these in, in other countries homeschooling is actually banned.
There are quite a few families here in NZ who choose not to fill one in. I quite enjoyed writing it all up, but make no mistake, every unschooling parent I have ever met (and I realise I haven’t met them all!) has done all of this thinking before they have pulled their kid out of school.
I am grateful that there are influentials out there who can read this and understand that learning through living isn’t something to sneer at, but is a wholly fulfilling, joyful, creativity-promoting, intelligence-developing way to spend a childhood.
The form is made up of of prompts, people are largely able to fill them in as they want. The large text indicates a section that has been asked for.
Official Unschooling Exemption from School Application Approved October 2016
Our family is made up of myself, Lucy, and my husband Tim. Our eldest daughter, Ramona, is 5 and she has a little sister, Juno, who is 3.
We live on a farm surrounded by Department of Conservation land having moved here two years ago from London, where I am from.
Tim is a teacher by trade with degrees in geography, management and a post graduate diploma in teaching. Currently he is working on establishing our small, off the grid farm and doing some youth work and life skills teaching in the local town.
I have an undergraduate degree and an Msc in Social Policy and have spent most of my working life working on climate change awareness and policy change campaigns. These days I work as a freelance writer, contributing to websites and magazines, and have authored two non fiction books.
Ramona is an enthusiastic and gregarious child. Ramona loves people and makes friends easily with people of all ages. Ramona loves to converse; she has picked up the art of story telling and asks insightful questions. She is also determined and we have watched her become adept at something new in a matter of hours. When people ask her if she goes to school she says “I am my own teacher!”
Ramona does not have any special education needs.
Our Home Education Approach
We have spent the last few years researching how children learn best and observing our two children learn all sorts of important things and we have come to feel confident that we will be able to provide an ideal environment for our children to learn at home.
We think that almost every moment is an opportunity for children to learn, and that, with a deliberate, supportive setting, children will learn everything they need to learn and far, far more. Terms for this include “unschooling” or “natural learning.” We also like the term “self directed learning.”
There are four pillars to our approach:
Projects and learning goals are set by the child and learning will move at the child’s pace. Adults can absolutely contribute project ideas and, in fact, it is the adult’s role to “open the doors” on a child’s interest; to help them access the full scope of their subject matter, But no topic is forced upon the child and there is no pressure to attain goals at a pace set by the adult.
The best sort of learning is holistic rather than compartmentalised. Every subject there is to study comes with a context and as holistic learners we will look at the big picture and the surrounding topics in order to deepen our understanding.
We are at our most able to learn when we are comfortable and happy, and we absorb things at a deep level if they are rooted in curiosity! We therefore prioritise play and storytelling, we follow up those sparks of interest our children have and we create a lot of space for fun. (Children are naturally good at this – Ramona entirely on her own account counts everything, adds it up, subtracts and multiplies; giggling with glee!)
The supportive setting provided by the adult includes being willing to answer the bottomless amount of questions our children ask, able to recognise that every moment is a perfect learning moment, recognising all the resources available and being wiling to access them on behalf of the child and, finally, being curious about life themselves! Tim and I see ourselves as learners too, throwing ourselves into new areas of interest, and feel like this enthusiastic modelling helps provide a good environment for learning.
Ramona is an avid communicator; articulate, fascinated by new words and quick to incorporate them in to her vocabulary. We read a huge variety of books, made possible by twice weekly visits to our local library. Ramona often chooses books designed to encourage phonetically based reading skills, and we always have one chapter book on the go. Tim and I are enjoying introducing her to some of our own favourites from childhood- Ramona is becoming a Roald Dahl fan.
We will continue to ensure Ramona has access to great reading material. And we will certainly employ ways of making learning to read fun when she is ready for that. We did download the Reading Eggs app but Ramona is sensitive to external pressure and it was quite an unpleasant experience for her! We want to respond appropriately when she is ready to move on to the next stage of learning.
Ramona has shown some interest in writing – primarily perfecting the “R” in her name, and being able to type in the password on our laptop! We recently bought a typewriter from the second hand store and she has enjoyed finding the letters that she cares about. She recently listed all of the families initials followed by the numbers that represent their ages – this tells me she has the foundational understanding that letters and number are a code for giving and receiving meaningful information.
She is recognising letters and noticing patterns in words but is far less interested in this right now than the actual creation of sentences and stories, songs and poetry.
We are involved in Playcentre which has encouraged us in our use of Te Reo. We have also enjoyed getting to know some families through the regular unschooling family camps who speak primarily Te Reo in their homes. We also listen regularly to Te Reo waiata on Anika Moa’s albums which has helped us all learn some of the basics such as colours and numbers, and have a Te Reo Memory Game which is helping us learn animal names. We are in conversation with a Paeroa Kapa Haka group and feel excited about getting involved with that and perhaps having the opportunity for more immersive Te Reo learning.
Short term goals: to put together a book of the poetry she has written, to establish more Te Reo in our lives. To continue to support the blooming of passion of reading and stories.
Ramona loves music and has made playlists and cd’s with her favourite songs on them. We are always looking for new music and playing tracks from a variety of genres. We have made music together using the programme Garage Band on our computer, and she often writes poems which might turn into songs, accompanied by the ukulele. We have a variety of instruments that are easily accessible.
We have a huge range of arts and crafts available and we often work together on huge murals on ply or specific projects such as designing and sewing clothes for her dolls.
Ramona was fortunate to try out a kids pottery class when we were travelling through San Francisco last year. She absolutely loved it so we have kept a supply of air drying clay on hand. She really enjoyed using the wheel and the kiln for completing her piece so we have begun talking to some professional potters who are just completing their large studio about the possibility of a homeschooling pottery class there. They used to run a kids pottery workshop in Auckland so we feel really excited about that possibility.
Ramona also attends a Musical Theatre class in Tauranga fortnightly. They play improvisation games and work towards and end of term performance. We feel confident that if Ramona shows even more interest in this area that this theatre will provide a lot of opportunities for development.
Short term goals: to begin attending a kids pottery workshop and build more skills in that area. To continue to take up opportunities as interests emerge.
Ramona takes a huge amount of interest in how the world works. We spend huge proportions of every day in scientific discussion! Weather, our natural environment, bodies, baking – all of these things prompt questions about what makes things work.
Part of unschooling is about being willing to answer questions to the best of your knowledge, and then directing children to other resources when necessary. We have a great library of encyclopaedias based around particular topics and Ramona knows she can go and get the relevant book so we can investigate together. Ramona recently hurt her shoulder and she went to the shelf for the book about bodies and looked up the mechanics of the shoulder. She discovered it hurt because, while the shoulder joint is a ball and socket join, it has a lip of bone that prevents the arm twisting too far up!
She has also learnt a huge amount from watching documentaries- we are all working our way through David Attenborough’s volumes of work. Ramona often references them – pulling out facts from the Life of Plants or Life in Cold Blood.
Ramona is really into mixing up potions so we often look for experiments that achieve different results such as mixing vinegar and baking soda. We have also made soaps and shampoo using ingredients we have and choosing herbs from the garden.
There are so many great resources out there for young scientists – including programmes on the internet and our local homeschooling network who run science workshops each week- as Ramona grows we will continue to help her build on her knowledge. Ramona has had a huge amount of fun with the Star Gazing App on our iphone- spotting all the planets and stars and constellations.
Short term goals: to craft up a solar system in their play room, to explore more reactive ingredients for potions. To be ready to take up new scientific interests as they unfold.
It has been fascinating the watch Ramona’s interest in maths unfold. It shouldn’t be surprising as maths is such a basic part of everyday life. Over the last few months she has begun adding and subtracting – often around food, making sure that every body gets the right about of biscuits. She is getting to understand multiplication and division; we will hear her say under her breath “Six biscuits and three people… the biscuits will need to be split into three piles… that is two each!” She does this throughout the day, checking in with us when she has landed upon an answer that doesn’t make sense to her.
We bake a lot which lends itself to maths, at the moment she is simply counting out cups and half cups and quarter cups, but this will soon develop into grams and kilos and will require her to delve into bigger numbers. Already we have begun halving recipes and doubling them and this is such a natural way of getting the foundations of maths.
Short term goals: that she will continue to associate delight and fun with numbers and maths. That we will continue to take up opportunities to expand learning in this area.
Eco-literacy and Physical Education
We believe that a hugely important area of development for children is discovering their place within the natural world. To this end we prioritise learning about and looking after the animals on our farm, Ramona often helps out with farm chores such as feeding the chickens and ducks and collecting their eggs. We also have cows and goats that require moving and feeding.
We recently established a nature play day where we take our young children into an outdoor environment for a full day of playing freely in the bush, to pick up bush craft skills and begin to recognise the native plants around us and discover their uses. We hold this once a fortnight.
We spend a lot of time outside looking after the garden and exploring our local environment, from this blossoms ecological learning and fosters a love of, and respect for nature.
Most of Ramona’s physical education is in a child’s natural movement, playing in a natural setting. Ramona is also very keen on her fortnightly gym class and rollerblading which we do whenever we can but especially each week at the Waihi Sports Centre. Over the last 18 months Ramona has taught herself to ride a bike and to swim incredibly competently so we create as many opportunities for this as we can.
Ramona has had a love of horses for two years now which we have helped her explore through choosing library books and getting out the “Keeping Up with the Kaimanawas” television series from the library. A year ago we took the plunge and enrolled her in horse riding classes. She does this fortnightly and is thriving learning about horse care and grooming and natural horsemanship, she has ridden bareback and begun going over small jumps. It is encouraging to see how Ramona has flourished under the tuition of someone skilled in an area we aren’t and we are excited about Ramona doing more of this kind of thing in the future.
Short term goals: that she will continue to grow in confidence in her roller blading and biking and horse riding, to continue to increase in her swimming skills, build a new array of bush skills and knowledge and really shore up her awareness of how powerful and strong her body is. That she will continue to grow in motor skills and enjoyment of sport and her environment.
We currently document Ramona’s learning journey through photos and journal writing. We plan on digitalising this soon.
It is really important to us that Ramona feels good and hopeful about all she is learning and all she is able to do. We want her to feel confident about the opportunities available and that she will be able to fulfil her own goals and ambitions with our support. At least once month we will check in with Ramona about how she feels about her learning and progress and make changes as required.
Long term vision
Our hope for Ramona is that she will be intrinsically motivated to achieve anything she wants, that she will have a strong understanding of all the opportunities available to her and that she will maintain her love of learning for her whole life. Our hope is that Ramona will be able to identify what it is she wants to do and know she has the support and inner strength to achieve it, be that formal education, a passion or a profession.
In our region/ within driving distance:
Bay of Plenty Home Educators Network- workshops, weekly classes, science competitions, weekly socials, maths clubs. We already attend several of the activities and are excited about all the opportunities in the future.
Playcentre and the variety of children and grown ups and resources there.
Local Library – books and dvds
Local op shops for supplies and learning about money
Local artists, studios, musicians and potters
Local environment – our farm, river and the DoC land on our doorstep
The coastline for fishing, kayaking, surfing and swimming
Auckland Art Gallery (we visit for each school holiday kid focused exhibition)
Local museums and temporary art and craft exhibitions
Wifi – for learning on the internet, youtube tuition and learning apps
Netflix – for learning through animation and documentaries
Spotify – for discovering new music and expanding musical knowledge
A well stocked craft cupboard
A type writer for recognising letters and making words
Good pens, note books and a desk
An easily accessible book shelf of great books
Many tools and skilled adults to facilitate learning
A vegetable garden – the girls grow their own seedlings and nurture them, and pick the veggies for eating.
Farm animals to care for and learn about
A large selection of toys for imagination play
A large selection of card games and board games for playing with family and friends
A lap top and an ipad for technological literacy, typing and learning
Her own digital camera for art projects
Kitchen ingredients and recipe books (several times a week she chooses a meal or cake and executes that task with assistance from me)
When we moved here one year ago we began learning about the history of the place. One of the DoC walks that begins at our back gate takes you to the Karangahake Gorge, past all the old mining relics. As we went along we read about the mining history and Ramona enjoyed exploring the mining tunnels and the huge pipes and mechanics that they used to mine the gold. This was a great way to learn about the historical role of mining in New Zealand. We also recognised the impact on the natural environment – comparing the mined place full of new forest to a spot further up the valley full of ancient Kauri trees. Over dinner with a new neighbour we learnt a lot about the history of gold mining in the gorge and Ramona has a lot of questions for him.
We took another walk, this time up to the Victoria Battery and spend a whole morning playing amongst the enormous relics. We visited the old kilns and the Karangahake museum where we learnt more about the history, but also the process for extracting gold.
Ramona’s interest in the history evolved into an interest in the gold itself, so she began looking for gold in our river.
When we did the earth works for our home we uncovered a lot of quartz rock. Together with her dad and a friend they hand dug out a huge rock and moved it onto our deck. For the last month Ramona has headed out there once a week with a chisel and a pair of goggles to flake off bits of the most glittery rock, which we now have on a treasure shelf. As her and her friend worked on the rock they discovered that striking it produced a spark, which then led us on to a discussion about flint and early, primitive ways of making fire.
Two weeks ago we visited Auckland museum where we were delighted to discover samples of rock from the Karangahake Gorge just like the ones we dug out! They were in the kids section so there was lots of accessible information for Ramona to learn about the geology around rocks like hers. We decided we would take our rocks up there and have a chat with one of the museum staff members about Ramona’s particular rocks.
This special project began eleven months ago and is still going. This last weekend we attended the spring Unschooling family camp and we participated in many of the workshops- one of which was macramé. We learnt how to tie knots in string to create baskets for jewellery and Ramona and I are considering turning some of her quartz rocks into jewellery.
To me it is a great expression of unschooling – led by the child’s interest, with adults opening the doors of opportunity to delve further in. It is long term and it is totally holistic – there were no isolated pockets of information that don’t fit with an overall picture of the world and how it is all interrelated.
“As regularly as”
I thought it might be helpful to provide an overview of what each fortnight looks like. Many of the formal activities we do are on a fortnightly basis so we try and manage the rest of the week so that there are certain rhythms we follow, while providing a flexible and varied schedule. Each fortnight we spend 20 hours in formal, paid for classes or activities we have registered for and committed to. Every fortnight we spend around 30-36 hours in activities that are particularly “learning based” – that fit with the learning areas I have described above. On top of that, I estimate that there is another 20 hours spent socially- in conversation with each other, other adults, peers, from which I believe an enormous amount of learning occurs. And then, after that there is only free play! Which, for a five year old, is crucial for intellectual and creative development and possibly even the best form of learning for Ramona right now. In short, I am confident that the environment we are providing for Ramona is as good as that which she would receive at school.
THAT’S IT! ALMOST 4k WORDS! Sheeeba!
As a reward here is a brand new video of our most recent unschooling camp, a place where all the unschooling fandamalies get together for the most fun everrrrrrr. ***contains a swear***