I wrote this in January, then held off posting it here in hopes of getting it published elsewhere - somewhere that pays. It didn't cut muster, so finally I'm posting it here. ;)
As homeschoolers, we get plenty of curious looks and almost as many questions. When people ask me how we school our children, what curriculum we use, what standards and schedules we follow, I enjoy saying, "We make it up as we go along."
OK, so that might not be the most socially responsible answer, but it gets their attention. Then they hear me when I explain that we build upon our children's interests to provide a comprehensive, meaningful and memorable education. Rather than sit at the kitchen table for hours on end drilling facts and figures, the education our children receive often involves some sort of travel, either to nearby beaches for tide pooling or three states away for a walk with Lewis & Clark, a dinosaur dig, a self-guided tour of Native American sites or experiments in the geothermal formations of Yellowstone.
Most of the time, the response is a mouth agape, a mind racing, and finally a comment that goes something along the line of, "I wish we had done that when I was in school."
Of course, we're not "in school," but our entire family manages to learn new, interesting and, more importantly, memorable lessons that have meaning not only our family, but in the larger picture. Even at their tender ages, our kids talk about their experiences in minute detail for years following our return home.
So how does this experiment in experiential learning work? First, we listen to our children. Next, we make a safe, responsible plan that meets our children’s interests and our family needs. Finally, we go with the flow.
Last year as neighborhood kids purchased new backpacks and school shoes, pencils and binders, our 6 year old said she wanted to learn more about Native Americans. I have relatives in Utah, so we loaded the girls and headed toward some of the best pictographs in North America. Our self-guided tour began with a visit to the Lost City Museum in Overton, Nevada where we saw pottery and other artifacts collected from lands now under Lake Mead. We hand fed a variety of fish on the Virgin River, experienced an autumn heat wave camping in Valley of Fire State Park.
We continued to southeastern Utah, an area rich in pictographs so accessible even a child could reach them, which led us to discuss preservation of the past, and the importance of self restraint. We carried on to Vernal, Utah, where we visited the Utah Field House of Natural History before heading out to Dinosaur National Monument where the kids spotted fossils at every turn. While visiting our relatives, we experienced an autumn cold snap, snow storm and the ensuing change of foliage colors, something completely foreign to children raised on the Central Coast of California.
Oh, that sounds like a great trip, but where does that fit into the state curriculum, we've been asked. I try not to sigh as I come up with answers that will appease the curious: history, biology, conservationism, earth science, geography, meteorology not to mention ample reading on the road, for fun and for more information about the places we were experiencing. The girls also keep journals during these trips, so penmanship and grammar are involved, not to mention their own experiments in visual art.
Other trips have included: a ride on the rails from our home on the Central Coast to Washington State where we enjoyed participating in the final leg of the Lewis & Clark reenactment; a 3,000-mile minivan tour of Washington including a tour of Chief Joseph Dam, a hike to a glacier in Mt. Rainier National Park, hikes to waterfalls in the northern Cascades, swimming in Puget Sound and a visit to an incredible private collection of dolls; witnessing geothermal events in Yellowstone and wildlife in Yosemite.
Sometimes I wonder if these trips are too much for our little girls. I wonder what they're getting out of these miles on the roads and rails; what they'll remember. Finding the answer is as simple as watching them play.
Shortly after returning from our Washington State tour, which included two weeks of migratory tent camping, our girls were playing in the back yard when the 5 year old ran inside, grabbed her play tent, and passed me again on her way out. She didn't ask for help, but started unpacking the bag. When her 3-year-old sister asked to help, our older daughter began showing her how to lay out the tent, insert the poles and push.
Is setting up tents the important lesson they've learned? Not really. Look more closely and you’ll see very young children who have already learned to work together, to teach each other, to listen, to pay attention, to tackle a challenge and see it through, to set a goal, however small, and meet it.
Will they remember our hike to the glacier or washing their stuffed animals in the icy waters of the Ohanapecosh River? I don't know, but if they come out of our home education with a sense of adventure, a love of learning, a willingness to risk failure in their efforts to reach their goals, there are no better tools any teacher can give them.