People find homeschooling in different ways, and for different reasons. I didn’t even know it existed until I went WWOOFing in Spain about fourteen years ago with my now-husband. We lived with a family in the remote Alpujarras mountain region. They practised self-sufficiency, permaculture, holistic management, co-sleeping and homeschooling.
Inspired, we took all of these practices on board. I believe they are all linked, integrated and very much fit in with our life philosophy of moving towards self-sufficiency in all things (i.e. taking responsibility for our own health, food production and children’s education). I homeschool because I believe my children learn best when they are self-motivated, self-directed and truly connected with and interested in what’s around them.
When our children came along natural learning began from birth. Babies and toddlers learn in a very natural way when they’re in a home with caring, interested adults. They learn to walk and talk without the need for formal lessons.
If you choose to homeschool, your children can continue to learn perfectly well in a home setting. You don’t need to be a trained teacher. You do need to observe your children, talk to them and find out what interests them (permaculture principle no.1), then support and provide resources so that they can learn what they need to, at that moment.
For instance, when our eldest child decided that she just LOVED horses (I could relate!) we got every book out of the library on caring for horses. We watched movies on natural horsemanship, we rode friends’ horses and we joined the local pony club, without a pony. About six months later a beautiful old pony came to live with us. What followed was a few years of pure pony enjoyment, and lots of learning.
The horse phase has passed for now, and birds are a continuing interest for my eldest daughter. Again we found the resources she needed to learn about birds through books, internet searches and talking to bird owners. We did some research and ended up with a lovely cockatiel which my daughter adores and is currently learning how to train (it’s amazing what people have trained their cockatiels to say on YouTube!).
My children have done classes in woodwork, metal-smithing, gymnastics, swimming, art, and piano. We have found mentors or ‘teachers’ to support the interests they had at the time. You don’t have to fill up your homeschooled child’s life with outside activities, but it is a way for them to socialise, learn from others and gain a range of experiences. And you don’t need unlimited resources to homeschool. Some of our lessons were swapped for produce – there are creative solutions.
I did a part-time PDC last year, and because we homeschool one of my daughters had the opportunity to join me in some classes. She loved learning about water capture, aquaculture, local tree species and garden planning. Best of all she met some like-minded permaculture people that she has continued friendships with.
We also run a small business from home. I teach traditional food skills such as making sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, sourdough bread and bone broths, and natural cheese making. If nothing else, my children will go out in the world knowing how to keep themselves healthy through growing, preparing and cooking their own food. They love to harvest the cabbages and pound them for sauerkraut, and watch the chemistry in turning milk fresh from our cow into delicious cheese.
Of course the learning is much broader than this. There is financial planning – creating a budget and monitoring it – seeing how the cash flows in and out of the bank account, and how to adjust business and marketing strategies to control this. They not only see Mum and Dad working to provide a home for them, they are actively involved in it.
One of my children runs her own face-painting business. She has done many market stalls, a few kids’ parties, field days, and has even set up at the local park. She does it because she loves to paint faces. A bonus is that she has made enough money to buy a few major items for herself that I wouldn’t have otherwise spent money on. And I’ve noticed her confidence in dealing with people of all ages continues to grow.
Natural learning also happens through conversation. Everyday conversation – around the breakfast table or while washing the dishes. The most interesting conversations happen in the car while we’re driving. I’ve had in-depth conversations with my children on local and federal government, climate change, sustainability, recycling, and people and their relationships. Their understanding of and concern for their peers, their community and their planet is quite mind blowing.
For the younger children, a lot of natural learning happens when they play. Learning through play is a well-known phenomenon in education and psychology. And by homeschooling, children have the opportunity to play A LOT. Observing the imaginative play of my children is one of my favourite pastimes. They are able to process, in their own way, events that have occurred; for example, a favourite family pet died, and their play for the next week was around recreating and processing that event.
They learn a great deal through daily life – staying healthy, caring for their own stuff, looking after a pet, growing food. But the most valuable lesson, and the one they have the freedom to learn at home, is learning how they learn. When a child is self-directed they learn in their own way, and they can find out what works best for them. This is a skill they will carry for the rest of their life, giving them independence, confidence and a love of life-long learning.
‘What about those biggies – school subjects such as reading, writing and ‘rithmetic?’, you may ask. In our natural learning family I’m happy to report that these things happen – naturally. We don’t do sit-down lessons or follow a learning schedule. We do read books every day – and magazines, newsletters, websites and letters from Grandma. This leads to children reading on their own. Their motivation is intrinsic – it doesn’t come from someone telling them what to do. Writing gets picked up very quickly around birthdays in our house: when my children really wanted to write a list of potential presents, and people they wanted to invite for a party, they quickly learned how.
Maths? Try using a recipe to cook without using fractions. Try measuring up and building your own wooden storage box without adding, subtracting and dividing. Maths is covered over and over again during daily life, often without the children being aware (except when Mum excitedly points it out!).
Clockwise from below: It’s all action at the beach on a ‘school’ day; Hand raising poddy goats gives us
any a biology lesson; Milking our house cow is a daily job, for someone! Photos by Emily Stokes
A typical day in our natural learning family
We get up when it suits us, although we’re fairly early risers and have cows to milk and chooks to feed. The children sometimes help with the outdoor chores. They are beginning to realise that to live vaguely self-sufficiently they need to help out, otherwise they might not see Mum all day.
We eat breakfast together at around 8 am, then clean up and work out what we are doing for the day. We spend about three days of the week out in the community, usually for activities (gym, woodwork or piano) or meeting up with our homeschool group – we are a very social bunch and get together for informal gatherings at least weekly.
Our home days involve plenty of time out in the fresh air, being inspired by nature. If we’re not tending the animals or working (playing) in the vegetable garden, we might find time to climb trees, jump on the trampoline or swim in the creek in summer. If we’re indoors, we do craft (such as knitting, crochet, painting, drawing or making cards), or games (such as building with LEGO, Minecraft or board games). We also spend a lot of our time reading, writing letters, cooking and of course the inevitable housework.
There may be any number of major projects on the go at any one time – constructing a cob tiny-house, making a mini-film on the computer or crocheting the biggest and best granny rug to enter in the local show.
During the day there is always time for observation, reflection, discussion of and recording our learning. The children absolutely love poring over the pictures and stories in their past ‘yearbook’ – a scrapbook for each child, which becomes a physical record of their learning.
Of course homeschooling is not all idyllic, joyful moments. There is that housework that I mentioned, and there seems to be an awful lot of it when you’re at home all the time. And while you don’t need to be a teacher to homeschool children, you are their most obvious role model. They will learn the morals and ethics that you live out every day, which means that you need to be very conscious of how you conduct yourself: they watch and learn from you.
Finally, to allow natural learning to happen you need to learn to let go of your conditioned view of education. Learn to really listen to your children. Learn to trust in them, and trust that they will learn what they need to learn at the moment that is right for them.
But you don’t have to be everything to them. You can find mentors, people in your community who want to help teach your children. My children are currently learning how a woolly cardigan gets from the sheep to the human body, in a very practical way: caring for the animals; helping in the shearing shed; cleaning the wool; then carding, spinning and knitting it to make a garment. This is from a gorgeous neighbour who loves wool-craft, and is kind and patient with my children.
And what do my children want to be when they’re older? The eldest is coming up to teenage awfully quickly. They have talked about university. They have toyed with world travel. One is saving to buy her own home. At the moment though, when they turn eighteen they all want to go WWOOFing …
Emily Stokes homeschools her children and runs traditional food workshops near her permaculture/ holistic management inspired property in Southern NSW: see www.fermaculturefarm.com