When we arrived here in New Zealand five years ago, we were welcomed into the Lower North Island Unschooling community so warmly, and we thrilled to BITS to observe their radical way of being with each other. Adult to adult, adult to child, child to child and child to adult interactions were based on a beautiful mutual respect and understanding.
When groups form slowly, certain cultures are given chance to establish. As new people join, they are woven into this culture and it’s easy for people to stay on the same page. Gradually, elders of the space rise up and become pillars of that culture and the group is held, it can rest in some of these shared understandings.
The Lower North Island Unschooling camp was an awesome example of having elders to hold the space, and slow growth to establish these shared understandings.
When groups grow swiftly, or when they want to launch into a space with no exisiting culture or pillarlike-elders to hold the space, this lack of culture, of holding, of shared understandings feels stark! It can be a scary place and new groups and communities can get the speed wobbles. If you were doing group work in the nineties you might remember Tuckman’s phases of growth: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. These phases can take years for a community to work through, and they might work through them many times over! But you can definitely ease the storming part, by communicating HARD.
John Holt describes unschooling as “Giving as much autonomy to the child as the parent can bear.” It’s so true! And it’s perhaps one of the reasons why uschooling families can look so different from one to the other. Some unschoolers have no set bed time or screen time rules. Others have no screen time and only eat whole foods. You can’t come together as a group and imagine that simply because you identify as an “unschooler” you’re going to resonate with all the values present. (Sometimes you do, and that’s cool ‘cos you can just sit around drinking tea and playing the ukulele.)
Here in New Zealand the unschooling community has grown HUGELY in recent years. In the last five years we’ve gone from one or two national unschooling gatherings to six. Almost every camp is booked out weeks before. And at every camp there are tons and tons of new faces. Heaps of them fresh to unschooling.
We found pretty early on with these camps that moving out of the Lower North Island meant we left behind many of our unschooling elders (*waves*) and that we were going to have to work hard to establish our own culture.
So began a big journey, with many, many conversations and circles and notes and drafts!
Before I share with you what we came up with, I want to say that none of this can be superimposed into your community or group. You’ve got to have these circles yourselves. You’ve got to share your own values with each other. You’ve got to work out where your own boundaries are, what freedoms you are able to bear. This isn’t a top down process, it’s got to come from the community itself.
But as a bit of a prompt, here’s what we came up with. You can see it here as a google doc.
Shared Understandings While at Camp
- Co-creation means that we organise and run the camp collectively. This encourages trust, openness, flexibility, ease and self-responsibility.
- We value the contribution (seen and unseen) of all who choose to come to share in the weekend.
- You are encouraged to contribute to the camp in a way that fits the needs of you and your family: some people need to contribute to belong, some people need to belong to contribute. This may mean offering to teach a skill you are passionate about, facilitating a discussion you want to have or just being present.
- This retreat is specifically for those that are currently unschooling or intending on doing so. Those that we invite beyond ourselves to be a part of the retreat will be those that fully support this. This creates a safe place, a sanctuary, for us all to relax, and rejuvenate from the world around us.
- We will respect ourselves, each other and the environment.
- There are times during the weekend that we will gather together to give out information relevant to the running of the camp. Out of respect for each other, we will try to be there on time and be available to participate as needed.
- We regard the Opening and Closing Circles, (meeting together in a circle-ish formation, taking turns to talk), as important elements in the weekend. Being at the Opening circle allows us to participate fully in the weekend right from the start and allows new people to be properly introduced. The Closing circle provides us with a chance to reflect on the weekend together before we head off separately into our individual lives; it leaves the weekend with a feeling of completeness. We will do our best to get to these.
- In respect to the limitations that come with having dietary restrictions, we will endeavor to label shared food and people with dietary restrictions will be invited to serve themselves first.
- We trust that people will take responsibility for their share of paying for the weekend.
Every child has the right to be safe from emotional and physical harm
We want to be a community that offers support to all families whose children who may find camp environments challenging. We will endeavour to approach all parents with an attitude of non judgement, simply offering support. We promote the safety of all children in their play. We will create a culture of consent at camps through empowering children with the words “Stop always means stop”.
We do this by introducing it at all camp welcome circles, engaging with it always if we hear campers not sticking to it, and helping our own children role play and interact with saying the words.
We reinforce it through the introduction of some camp activities and stories/ games around the word STOP and, by choosing to be adults that are true to our own personal boundaries and are not afraid of saying all the “stops” we need to say in our lives!
If a situation arises we will check in with the children involved to query:
- ‘if they are enjoying the play/do they like that’, and ‘if they feel safe.’
If the answer is no, or the situation is already jeopardizing another’s safety, we support taking the following steps:
- Intervene immediately if it is a safety issue or you hear a child saying “stop” to no effect
- Start with a mindset of empathy, seeing each child in the best light, consider there may be possible neurological differences at play.
- It is helpful for one adult to stand with or kneel beside each child as support, encourage them to share what’s going on for them.
- In the case of all children wanting immediate ongoing play, encourage ideas of how to resolve the situation together, acknowledge feelings. Stick with it until resolved.
- To restore relationship at a later date instead, make an agreement of when you will meet again to discuss it further. Then, each move away. Seek the camp safeguarding team to support the upcoming discussion if needed.
- Let parents know what unfolded, if they were not informed already, so they can bring in some follow up of agreement made around safety
- At the discussion make a co-created agreement about how this situation could have unfolded more positively
- Practise the new scenario
If you or your child have any concerns or experience an incident please immediately share this with your Safeguarding Team here at camp:
(photos of each camp’s safe guarding team)
Sexual Abuse Prevention at camp
A year ago I was struck by a poster a local charity had asked me to make. It asks each person to consider how they are making sure children are protected from sexual abuse in all the different situations they are involved in – camps, churches, parties, sleepovers, workplaces.
It hit me that I hadn’t applied all I knew about a culture of consent to a very important area- our unschooling camps! Each year I help organise three camps for hundreds of people. It was time I raised consent with this wide gathering. I was nervous, because it’s a horrible topic to raise in a place that is so joyful and peaceful. But I knew it had to happen.
We organised a workshop at the next camp and six of us sat down to draw together all of what we knew about sexual abuse prevention and consent culture. It has been an incredible experience. Partly because now we have a robust document which I can share with YOU in case you run camps/ youth groups/ family gatherings. But also because a couple of things have happened to assure us that we were absolutely right in putting our effort into this. Firstly, an adult disclosed that she had been abused by someone at a homeschool camp when a child. This is so, so tragic. But it was also confirmation that even the places we think are the SAFEST because we are with OUR KIND OF PEOPLE can never ever be absolutely safe. Secondly, at the next camp we held we introduced this document and asked, at registration, every single person to read it. During that camp someone disclosed an incident of abuse that happened elsewhere and our safeguarding team was able to help them take this to the next stage. So what follows is our document but you can see the google doc here.
Credit: Life Learners Aotearoa 2018
Every child has the right to be safe from sexual abuse.
In NZ one in three girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 16. It doesn’t have to be this way! We want to change the culture, and that means bringing some awareness even to our beautiful places like camp.
Here is some stuff for you to consider:
- Stop ALWAYS means stop. It’s a powerful word and if someone says it, even whilst laughing or having fun, we always respect it.
- Avoid situations where a single adult (non parent/ care giver/ designated adult) is alone with a child in a tent/ room/ toilet. Call another adult in to be present.
- Parents, if heading to bed make sure there is an explicitly designated adult to care for your child if they want to stay up – make sure your child, and the adult, knows who they are.
- Children, if you feel uncomfortable with anyone or in any situation find your parent or a safe adult.
- Stop ALWAYS means stop. It’s a powerful word and if someone says it, even whilst laughing or having fun, we always respect it.
- Consider using the proper names for our body parts, this has been shown to be really helpful in sexual abuse prevention.
- No secrets – secrets nurture a culture where predators thrive. Opt for surprise (which are always revealed in the end) instead of secrets. Encourage a telling environment. You can use birthday parties as an example of a good surprise and help them understand that a good surprise is something everyone will find out about soon. Let them know that they should never have to keep a secret about touching or about anything that makes them feel scared. You can reinforce this message with a poster on your fridge.
- No touching each other in places where their togs normally go.
- Always trust your instincts around people or situations. If you feel uncomfortable find your parent or a safe adult.
- Check in with your kids throughout camp, ask if they feel safe.
- Wherever there are children, we use ‘The 3 touching rules for private parts’:
- It’s OK to touch your own;
- It’s Not OK to touch someone else’s; and
- It’s Not OK for someone else to touch yours
Talk to children about ‘yes’ touches (those that make them feel safe, good and that they can tell anyone about) and ‘no’ touches (those that make them feel confused, overwhelmed, unhappy or that someone asks them to keep a secret). ‘Yes‘ touches can make you feel happy like cuddling the cat or your favourite soft toy. ‘No’ touch can make you uncomfortable, like pinches or getting hit. Explain that some touching can have both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ feeling like when you swing too high on a swing or are tickled for too long. Let them know that if they ever get any kind of a ‘no’ feeling from something someone does, that you would like to know and that they will not get into trouble for telling you about it.
What to do
If you or your child have any concerns or experiencing an incident please immediately share this with your Safeguarding Team here at camp:
(names and photos of safe guarding team)
If you witness anything that gives you concern:
1- intervene immediately
2- report immediately to your safeguarding team (above)
3- Perpetrator will be asked to leave, camp meeting will be called and all necessary follow up will be commenced with police, other NZ unschooling camps and communities and families involved.
One of our peeps, Ange Fraser has turned these into giant posters that are laminated and travel from camp to camp. It is an incredible resource.
We still have conflict and trickiness and overwhelm happening at our camps. This is part of being human. These bumpings and the challenges of figuring out how to move through these bumps with grace and understanding are an ever present companion to humankind. Our shared understandings aren’t a magic bullet, but they at least start us off on the same page and give us a process to work through.
When we come together at weekly meetings and five day long camps, we are given this beautiful opportunity to grow together, and through this, become more fully ourselves. Figuring out how to be together, even though we hold different values and have different shadows, is part of our evolution as a species! Working out how to be in community moves us closer to the abundant and generous beings we are meant to be, and away from the scarcity-motivated, competitive consumers that capitalism would make of us!
What a magnificent invitation.
PS You can see a video of our latest unschooling camp right here
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