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Learning in Freedom

Welcome to Learning in Freedom, a blog all about the learning adventures (and mishaps) of the Allen family. My four children are unschooled, following their interests and passions every day and living the lives of their choosing. The purpose of this blog is to share our every day lives (and my not-so-humble opinons) with anyone interested in stopping by. We hope this will give a glimpse of how natural learning unfolds from day to day......

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Freedom to fly: issue 2

ATC by Ren; "Beautiful Stillness" inspired by song of the same title by Heather Rupe.

Unschooling Mums Jess Chittum and Laura Bowman shopping with children for art supplies during First Friday in Johnson City TN

"The key question isn't 'What fosters creativity?' But it is why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything."

—Abraham Maslow

"Wild and Precious" by Ren 10/09

"In the end, being an artist is really very simple. All you need to do is create... and EVERYONE creates something in some way. You are no exception. Accept the word 'artist.' Use it to describe yourself as well as others. Embrace it. It is a part of who you are. "

—Jessica, on Imagination Tribe

Image by Jess Chittum 1/09

Cool Connections:

Tea With Ren

Wily Walnut: Unleash your inner genius!

Art in Your Pocket

Freedom to Fly
Originally published in Connections Ezine which also published my interview (originally here at Learning in Freedom) with author Ami McKay.

There's a popular song by Switchfoot that I hear on the radio frequently with haunting lyrics: "We were meant to live for so much more, have we lost ourselves? Somewhere we live inside."

It speaks to me of damaged spirits, broken humans who are seeking that wholeness for which we all long. That wholeness we were born with, wholeness that assists us in creating the life we desire and a being that knows the inner self. Somewhere within us all, is that perfect child-being that began this life journey intact. The voice of that child is the key to an authentic life, the path to healing and part and parcel of what makes unschooling blossom.

Maybe it sounds idealistic or overly emotional, but I believe this to be true: that which we love brings color to our lives and gives us focus.

For most of the readers here, our children are one of the foremost passions in our lives. Not only our children themselves, but how to raise them in a gentle, respectful manner, how to give them freedom while sharing information and how to help them navigate the world without the limiting school mindset. Beyond our children, though, what are our driving passions in life?

What catches your eye, makes your heart sing and fascinates you? How are we as parents, being an example to our children about how to acheive the dreams of our hearts?

If we are overly focused on what the children are learning, we might be missing a very important part of this unschooling life—living out the life we envision for ourselves. This isn't an excuse to make any child's needs less important than our own; it's simply a look at how we as unschooling parents can pursue a life of passion while being fully present for our children. These are not exclusive activities; they are an important part of successful unschooling.

I think of the word "excavation" when I look back over my life experiences that enabled me fully to trust the dreams that lay within. The definition I love is this: "To lay bare through digging". Digging isn't always easy work, it can get pretty ugly at times. We all need tools to make this excavation of the inner self a more efficient activity.

An excavation pump is a kind of dredging apparatus for underwater excavation. I like to think of my children as my greatest "excavation pumps"! They tend to stir up all that loose material sitting down deep and draw it to the surface. Sometimes it's silt, but more often I'm getting gold.

Excavating the authentic self is a journey within, but often it starts from outside ourselves. Here are some topics to think about and tools to utilize:

—NOURISH the passions.

—Surround yourself with positive people and role models.

—Prioritize yourself! Making yourself as important as the people you nourish everyday does not mean putting their needs lower. It means that you treat yourself with the same kindnesses you give them.

—Practice self-compassion. Once again, give yourself that which you give others. You want to talk gently and respectfully to your own children, do you talk gently and respectfully to yourself?

—Heal old hurts. Discover where the negative messages come from because they didn't originate with YOU. Was this something your parents told you? Something a teacher said? A societal message? Time to release all negative self-talk and nourish yourself with kindness.

—Pay attention! Notice the colors that attract you, see the details, give credit to the things that fascinate you, look for clues about what that inner child loves.

Last week I was in Albuquerque for the Live and Learn conference. While walking in Old Town a lovely sign with sillhouettes of ravens caught my eye. I thought "nah, I need to save my film" and didn't photograph it. Later, I was browsing through the conference photos and saw that exact sign in someone's photo collection. It looked great! A good reminder to me to trust that which draws my attention.

Another useful tool in my life, has been learning to suspend my judgment of what constitutes "beautiful" or "ugly". Analyzing objects and art from a detached, observational point of view can give our children a chance to gather their own messages from these experiences, without all the baggage that judgment can bring. Observing color, shape, style and form can be done without the personal investment that a judgment brings. Once we proclaim something "ugly", it is rejected and unworthy, closing the doors of learning.

Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, and discussing the finer points without those instant judgments can lead to fabulous conversations.

There may be some conclusion reached later about the object's value or lack thereof, but travel the road of observation and discussion first. You never know where it might lead!

In learning to be observers, we can better support our own children's efforts in the world. If the learning process is more important than the end product, we can trust whatever experimentation is happening at the moment. When a child trusts the parent to honor all efforts, that trust fosters creativity and free expression. Feeling emotionally safe is of utmost importance if the creative self is to develop fully.

As we explore our own interests and passions through the eyes of a curious child, we become better equipped to trust our own children's unique gifts. We can ask ourselves whether the gifts of each family member being honored. How do you honor your gifts to the world?

In our family, we hang art up in frames to give it a feeling of important work. We send letters and cards to family members, regardless of the apparent "worth". We take photos of literally everything, including lego structures, barbie dolls, food we've cooked and other everyday activities. When we take the time to notice the work and archive it in some fashion, it says "this activity is important; I value what you do". I do this for myself as well as my children.

Part of free expression is using the gifts that inspire you the most. From dance and movement (yes, tree climbing is an art form) to arranging your room or house, to facilitating relationship issues, creating art or poetry and much more, these actions are all part of the human need to create and express.

I've found that all my years of schooling generated a lot of voices in my head that told me things like, "this isn't good enough to share," "I'm not nearly as good as _________(fill in the blank with just about anyone else)," or "I'm not that talented." Well guess what? I'm not in school anymore, and I refuse to let those voices define me!

Over at Imagination Tribe, my yahoo group for celebrating creativity, many new members lurk for a while before trying out one of the many art trades. They grapple (as many of us do) with that feeling of inadequacy. The only way through those feelings is to ignore them. Tell them to shush, and move forward in spite of any fears still holding you back from the life you deserve.

Deserve you ask? YES, we all deserve a life that is full and rich and interesting. Your children deserve to see you as the fullest expression of YOU! Not one other person on this earth has your unique combination of talents, traits and gifts. You owe the universe, you owe yourself, you owe your children the gift of being fully you.

"You" is a constantly changing and evolving entity. There is no plateau, there is no mountain-top. Self is a river flowing deep and wide (just like the song), and within that river there is unlimited inspiration for free expression, a continual source of ideas if we can only trust the process. When the inner critic rears its ugly head, we must make a choice. A choice that allows us to heed its message or ignore it. We have the power to choose the messages we live by, and we can choose only positive messages.

If your child said, "but it's not good enough" to some piece of their art that you wanted to hang, what would your response entail?

Think for a minute: would you discuss the frustration and be empathetic about what bothered them, or would you say, "yeah, it stinks so let's not hang it up"? Would you encourage them to understand that part of the creative process is frustration, or would you simply dismiss the art as unworthy? Most of us would never dismiss our own children, yet we do that to ourselves without thought! Please, be as kind to yourself as you are to others.

A tool we used at the Imagination Tribe talk this year at the Live and Learn Conference was a variation on a "burning bowl" ceremony. In a burning bowl ceremony, participants write things on a slip of paper that they want to release from their lives and ,when ready, walk up to a bowl with candle burning next to it. They light the paper and drop it into the bowl, signifying a willingness to release whatever was written. During the IT talk, we simply used a garbage can, figuring the hotel might get a bit suspicious if smoke started filling the hallway! After releasing our negative self-talk into the garbage, I passed around positive affirmations about our creative selves as a replacement for those negative messages. Positive affirmations are stated as fact, and after a time, your mind begins to believe them.

"I am infinitely creative; I am a creative genius"
"I love my life; I create that which I desire."
"I share my gifts with the world; I trust my unique talents"

One of the affirmations came back to me in a sweet way: a new friend at the conference handed me an ATC (Artist Trading Card) that she made with one of the slips of paper. On it were the words, "I can visualize my dreams into reality". What a personal and poignant reminder to trust my own dreams and the process of bringing my gifts into the world.

Because following our own passions is a common topic at the email lists, I've often shared personal anecdotes like the following because they illustrate how unschooling parents can pursue their own passions while remaining in tune with their children. Art is a big part of my life so I'll often use that as an example.

Some of our greatest moments unfold around my home when I'm deep into some project of my own and the kids swirl in (and sometimes back out). When we moved into our home, I set up an art area in the garage. All of our supplies are down there, and it's a huge, happy mess. I made sure to put a desk and chair for smaller people so they can get to paper and other supplies with ease.

One day, I was down there creating spirit dolls when Sierra wandered in and got excited, so I helped her start a doll of her own. Jalen eventually joined us and started painting and stamping while Sierra and I continued working on our dolls.

This is a frequent scenario in our home. I'll be involved in something, and the kids join in as they choose. All of my family members have asked questions about the dolls and given their opinions on different ones. Our interests overlap and affect each other—that's the way interests work!

While I was showing the boys a new doll, they were excitedly sharing their day on World of Warcraft and how they were killing off Alliance characters from a hidden vantage point that left their enemies baffled. They were having SO much fun with it, and we were all able to share the energy of our passions with each other.

Such a huge part of unschooling is the modeling. Do the parents have activities they participate in just because they enjoy it? Do the parents KNOW what their interests and passions are? Are they actively pursuing that which brings joy? I think there's a balance of meeting our children's needs and also having an interesting, full and bubbly life that shows them what an authentic life looks like.

If you have very young children, it's hard to imagine having any time...but it will come. In the mean time, interests can be adapted around those very young children in smaller doses. Those with older children are already in the position to freely share passionate pursuits together, without as many constraints on time.

I strongly believe that parenthood is not a threat to the creative processes, but a predecessor to our best and most authentic work. These beings we have channeled through ourselves and into this world have the capacity to bring out our greatest forms of expression as we nurture our own inner creative child alongside them.


"Imagination Tribe was developed out of a very intense desire for a community of creative souls that could help nourish me. I knew there had to be other women out there, that needed this form of support so I dove in and created a space online. We now have over 200 members and several art trades per month. All ages, all forms of expression and all levels (wherever you perceive yourself on the continuum) of artists are welcome to participate. The underlying theme of imagination tribe is about nourishing the creative genius within. It's a great place to facilitate healing.

Though there are many unschoolers on the list, it is open to anyone and everyone that feels a need for this type of support.

Some of our projects have included a circle journal, regular Artist Trading Card swaps, altered tins and funky bag trades. There's always something new and exciting to choose from, or interesting conversations to be join."

—Ren, on IT

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Economics of Unschooling: issue 1

"We want to buy things that expand our children's worlds, that support their interests, but how far are we willing to take it?"

"There are probably many levels to my discomfort, layers of limited money, my own childhood and the idea of hungry children in other places."

"Guilt, shame or feelings of lack are far greater prices to pay in regards to food than any grocery budget damage. Spending a childhood controlled and portioned will likely result in an emotional cost far greater than most parents realize."

" Seems so simple—letting go of controlling others—but it can be a monumental hurdle when our own childhood was riddled with food (or other) controls. However, the price we pay for our childhood issues does not have to be exacted on the next generation. We have the power to make different choices each and every time we interact with our children."


The Economics of Unschooling

by Ren Allen

When we begin this homeschooling journey, a lot of us think about the cost of books or movies or other “educational” materials. As we move towards unschooling (for those of us that didn’t get it right away), we start to look at costs a bit differently. We want to buy things that expand our children's worlds, that support their interests, but how far are we willing to take it? How many items do we see as frivolous or unnecessary? How many day to day costs are we factoring into the journey? Is our accounting realistic, and are we really being supportive of our children at the economic level?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as I examine the deeply ingrained messages I received as a child. One day, as I stood in the kitchen scraping food into the composting bin, I was surprised how the feelings of “wasted food” began surging up. We have never been members of the clean-your-plate club, so why the uncomfortable twinges when throwing food away? There are probably many levels to my discomfort, layers of limited money, my own childhood and the idea of hungry children in other places. When I break it down logically, however, based on my unschooling lifestyle, there is no such thing as “wasted” food. Every meal my children eat is part of their life experience. Every new food they try, every ingredient they learn about, every item we cook together is part of their learning.

As I was having these thoughts, I wondered how much money a typical home schooling parent might choose to spend on a health curriculum. Probably more than all the food my children “waste” in an entire year! Eating and food are part of my children’s learning experiences as much as anything else. They are learning with the real thing, with actual FOOD, rather than some prepackaged curriculum designed to teach them about health. More than that, the learning that happens from these real life experiences goes so much deeper than simple nutrition. From Japan, wasabe and sushi, to composting, worms and seeds, my children are learning about the rich connections to their world (of which food is one part) as they build an internal model of the universe.

Composting has helped ease my guilt about throwing food away. We go to “feed the worms” each night, and my children are learning about another connection to their world and to the lifecycle. From an economic standpoint, feeding the worms is making new compost for our garden, saving us the cost of purchasing fertilizer or compost for the plants we’re going to eat.

When we're planting vegetables, or digging in the dirt to find worms, Jalen, fascinated with the plant's lifecycle, frequently asks, "what is this going to grow into?" We often meander our way through the wild backyard, picking blackberries and discussing the many interesting insects we find eating the food with us, later looking up actual names like "Jumping, Daring Spider" (yes, there really IS a spider that bears such a name!).

Giving my children freedom to listen to their bodies in regards to food, trusting them to know how much and when they want to eat, probably adds up to more money spent on groceries. I could dole out portions and meals and save money temporarily, I’m pretty sure. But, what are the long-term consequences of such actions?

If we think of in terms of financial cost, freedom makes a lot more sense.

What does one trip to the psychologist's office to treat an eating disorder cost?
What does a diet cost, buying the meal plan or the books or other accoutrements?
What does a health club membership cost?
A trainer to help you lose weight?

How about a childhood lived in freedom, listening to one’s body and learning its signals?

A childhood spent learning about food in its many forms and how one's own body responds to varying foods is a fabulous insulator against potential problems. The cost of more groceries or more time spent in the kitchen seems well worth it when one considers the alternatives.

Which brings us to the emotional costs of limits. Guilt, shame or feelings of lack are far greater prices to pay in regards to food than any grocery budget damage. Spending a childhood controlled and portioned will likely result in an emotional cost far greater than most parents realize. Every choice we make, every action we take has some kind of cost attached to it. What price are we asking our kids to pay each time we take action? Or, rather than making withdrawls, are we paying into the relationship bank with kindness, respect and freedom of choice?

Food controls do exhort a price on our children, a price that will cost more in the long-run, not only to the self-awareness of our children, but also to the relationship and to the physical balance that's denied in the process.

Food should be a celebration of life. Ideally, it is a source of pleasure and connectedness, not stress. Even with a smaller budget, approaching food and nourishment with an attitude of abundance will do so much for the level of calm and peace in a family. Portioning and worrying and talking about what one does not have isn’t going to help children feel the warmth or joy that a family exploring food with an open mind can create.

Peace and joy are more healing than any food of which I know. Healthy relationships, in which all members of the family are respected and given choice, create enough harmony to overcome any ill-effects of the “junk food” so many parents worry about constantly.

This is not to say that all foods are equally valuable. They aren’t. But when a loving parent is creating an environment of abundance, in which healthier choices are consistently available, there need not be worry about the “balanced diet.” Children will balance themselves quite nicely given a wide range of choices. All the worry and stress surrounding food choices is robbing people more than the actual “junk food” would.

From an economic standpoint, what is the price of freedom? What is the price of joy and peace in a home?

Judging by the stress level inherent in so many families, I’d wager it would fetch a pretty high price, yet we can have it for the cost of detaching ourselves from other people’s choices. We can have it by honoring ourselves and our children, listening to our bodies and letting go of worry.

Seems so simple—letting go of controlling others—but it can be a monumental hurdle when our own childhood was riddled with food (or other) controls. However, the price we pay for our childhood issues does not have to be exacted on the next generation. We have the power to make different choices each and every time we interact with our children.

Nagging voices about waste often have as much impact on our attitude towards food as nutrition. Another way we choose to spend money on food in my family, for example, is on “experiment” items. My children always love getting into food items and making goop or some strange witches' brew. I used to have a hard time watching my food get used that way. My solution? Purchase specific items just for that purpose.

I buy the most inexpensive flour, baking soda, vinegar, eggs and food dye (or whatever else they need) in order to supply my budding geniuses with the tools they need to build their curiosity. We’ve had egg drops from the deck, very strange looking “soup,”, some major vinegar/baking soda explosions and flour/water mixture plastered to everything in the kitchen!

Every time I felt that old familiar “but it’s being wasted” voice rise up in my head, I just thought about what one “educational” book would cost. I thought about the mere pennies spent on the flour and compared that to some workbooks or manipulative. Cheap flour wins every time!

Thinking about the economics of my children's choices has helped me release any angst over the projects and use of materials. Supporting whatever fascinates them at the moment leads to real learning, the kind that will be theirs for life. The cost of providing that is minimal, really, when I think of the money we could spend on experiences and materials that wouldn’t truly be their own.

I think of my husband's attitude one day when he saw them smashing watermelon, milk, tomatoes and banana into a bowl for “soup”. They were so proud of this concoction, smiling and telling me all about the features. Markus walked into the room and said, “did you know they’re wasting food?”

“No, actually dear, they’re USING food,” I responded. In the wake of his comment, I could see the joy vanish for an instant, a brief cloud passing over their eyes. But, Daddy moved on, and the experiment continued joyfully. My children looked to me for affirmation, and my smile reminded them that the experiment was worthy. This moment was a good reminder to me that my choice of words about their projects, my judgments, and messages are SO important to filter. The money used that day will be forgotten. The empowerment Jalen and Sierra felt from making their very own recipe will stay with them.

So really then, what is the cost of unschooling?

The answer, of course, is going to vary drastically from family to family, depending on available resources. How we think about these costs, however, can really transform the support we’re lending to our children’s interests. When certain costs rise up, I sometimes cringe, but when I start comparing whatever item is drawing attention, whatever interest requires some support, all I have to do is think of it in school terms. Maybe that sounds crazy, but this comparison allows me more fully to embrace the financial impact of this unschooling lifestyle.

For instance, when Jalen is passionate about a movie and all the toys or characters that go with it, all I have to think about is the cost of preschool. The monthly school fee is far greater than all the desires he could have in a month. His world is expanded to a much greater degree by having his choices supported than by being sent to some institution.

When Trevor wants another video game or computer part, all I have to do is think about the college prep courses and schooling that so many parents would rather spend their money on. Trevor's education is his own, and I have no doubt that his learning is more fluid, more adaptable, and more useful to him both now and in the future than that of many of his schooled counterparts.

Sierra has gotten very excited about watercolor paints lately, and the paper is not exactly the least expensive paper you can find in the art store. She adores nicely textured watercolor paper. We stand in the aisle, touching, comparing, and discussing the features of each paper. How we crave that 300# cold pressed sheet! Instead, we buy a tablet of 140# and call it good…for now.

When the cost of the paint or paper causes me to shudder, I think about the cost of a painting class. What would I be willing to pay for Sierra to sit down with a group of children in a class situation? Why would that hold any more value than simply supplying her with the proper materials and trusting her to find her own way into the world of art? How would most teachers understand her desire to paint exactly what she chooses, in the way she chooses? Would they trust her own processes more than their desire to teach? What kind of materials would they provide for a group of nine year olds? I bet it wouldn’t be decent quality paper or Van Gogh paints!

I can provide that and more for a mere fraction of the class cost, and I’m happy to do so. The look in her eyes and the joy on her face is something I treasure. They tell me that these materials are money well spent, regardless of any final product. Exploration and process are more important as she continues to trust her own efforts.

Thinking about what I would be willing to spend if my children were using a curriculum, attending private school or participating in “educational” activities has allowed me more joyfully to fund the things that really matter to them.

What are the costs that get supported in your home? What are the costs that are harder to swallow? Are you truly honoring the choices that your children make? I find it useful to ask myself these questions time and time again, as I continue to make different choices that help me grow into being a better parent.

Rather than an investment in school or curriculum, I've chosen to invest in my children, in their interests, their passions, their real lives. Some of the items I have struggled with affording at one time, but now make a bigger effort to juggle are things like

* Video games and game systems;
* entry fees and memberships for parks, museums, galleries etc.;
* magazine subscriptions;
* books; never had a problem supporting book buying in general, but what about when they want a $20 Audubon guide or a $30 Dungeons and Dragons guide?;
* extra gas to explore more in our area;
* movies.

These are just a few examples of what our “curriculum” consists of as natural learners. With my schooled mind, I still find it easier to get excited when they want a globe or science kit or geography book. Yes, that schooling is still part of me and probably always will be. But, I can choose to ignore the brainwashing and embrace the fullness and richness of getting outside that narrow box. Trusting and supporting my children’s curiosity has helped quiet those voices from my past.

Ask yourself, is your child’s joy enough to convince you to spend the money? Are you looking for a certain result or outcome with money spent? Does the money you spend come with strings attached and expectations?

Our children's happiness in exploration should be enough. Their freedom to try something new should be enough. Experimenting, dabbling, and discarding are important parts of the learning process. These explorations don't have to lead to great paintings, well-known music or a new business proposition; the fact that they’ve added something to their internal model of the universe means learning is happening. Those experiences are theirs, and the likelihood that they will draw upon those experiences later in life is very high. Trust the process, support the process, and take joy in the fact that by giving them materials to explore, you’re avoiding the truly high cost of schooling which often exacts its price in the form of crushing creativity, sense of self, and joy in learning.

Paying attention to our own inner dialogue and responses can be crucial in this unschooling journey. I remember the night of my Birthday this year. My sister had wrapped my gift in an assortment of tissue papers, all brightly colored and inspiring thoughts of art projects. The children gathered at my house joyfully snatched up the amalgam of paper and started sculpting it into “clothes” and creatively smashing, tearing and otherwise using it. My first reaction was “Oh wait you guys, I want to use that for ATC’s and altered books.” The reaction surprised me. I thought to myself how much tissue costs. I could pick up an entire pack of lovely colors at the Dollar Store!

In the meantime, the tissue WAS being used for art projects as my sister gently reminded me. The most important kind of art, the stuff that swirls up out of joy and interest in the moment. If I had to replace $10 worth of paper, it wasn’t worth interrupting their play. It was just tissue paper—inexpensive, easily replaced, and oh-so-fun in the moment. Interestingly, we have used it in projects since that night; the crumpling it received has only added an interesting texture.

As unschooling parents, we can do a lot to change our ingrained reactions and beliefs in life. When I have an internal reaction that does not jibe with my current lifestyle or belief system, my children don’t even have to know. I can carry on these dialogues internally to further my understanding and make choices that don’t inhibit the joyful blossoming of learning that happens in our home.

Comparing costs and considering the impact of these choices helps me weigh what is truly important in our family. Self questioning is one more tool that assists me in releasing irrational behaviors from my past that are no longer helpful as my family and I pursue the path of unschooling, creating an environment that enables curiosity, joy, and learning to blossom naturally.

Natural learning does have a cost attached to it. So does school. In choosing this unschooling path, we are choosing to put our money into people, into interests, into passions, into the things that really matter for each of us. I look at myself as an investor. I invest time, money and creative energy into helping my children explore their world more fully. I am investing in them as human beings. Human beings who have the potential to affect change in this world. Human beings who aren’t crushed by school thought and the paralysis it can bring. Human beings who will have the ability to see their passions as the most important path in life and who possess a deep inner knowledge that learning is a life-long endeavor. Along the way I am also investing in my own passions and interests alongside them. My children know what it means to honor those inner urgings because they see it played out from day to day as we all learn together and apart.

The economics of this unschooling journey affect us all, regardless of socio-economic status. If we can choose to see the world as a place full of opportunity and new experiences and view ourselves as a creative force that can change our reality, then natural learning can unfold more joyfully in our homes. James Russel Lowe once said, “Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.” Let us all strive to sculpt more beautifully and mindfully the life that we possess, with money, time and energy given to that which makes our own and our children's souls sing.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Crystallized learning: issue 0

"When a child asks a question—
maybe just a simple one like 'what are clouds made of?'—they are picking up a sweet particle of information that is meaningful to them at that moment."

"Information that is meaningful for their journey is not taken lightly but explored with wonder and awe."

"By choosing to unschool, I am giving my children the ability simply to enjoy the journey rather than to seek some unknown destination that falsely promises an end product."

"I see my children’s learning, and like the sugar crystals, it is multi-faceted and beautiful, reflecting unique bits of the wonder-filled universe around them."

Crystallized Learning
by Ren Allen

As I stirred sugar into my Darjeeling tea this morning, I pondered just which sugar cystal was the one that caused my taste buds to perceive sweetness. If I dropped one crystal into the cup, I wouldn't notice it at all. If I continued dropping crystals, one at time, eventually my taste buds would pick up the sweet flavor, and I would have made a success of morning tea. How many crystals does it take? Which crystal denotes success? What if one of those crystals went missing, would I even know?

I looked at this bag of sugar, this organically grown wonder of mankind and thought about knowledge.

School says we need certain crystals, dropped into our brain in a certain order or they are useless.

School says we ALL need the same amount of crystals at the same time in life in order to be a success.

School says the crystals they give us are valuable, but the crystals you gather in your free time are not.

School says crystals must be memorized and spit back, rather than swirled around, tasted and digested at will.

School is wrong.

Grains of sand, snow crystals, cubes of salt and sugar, floating dust motes suspended in rays of light. These are all things with which we are familiar, but pay little heed. Unless you are building a sandcastle, playing in the snow, baking, growing sugar cane or have some love of dusting, these tiny particles are just another part of the background hum of life.

When a person learns about how water refracts light, that's a tiny bit of information that may not seem connected to anything important at the time. But if it interested you, and you learned something, that’s a crystal of information you just added to the tea of your life. When you pick up a magazine and read something that piques your interest, that's another crystal. When a child asks a question—maybe just a simple one like "what are clouds made of?"—they are picking up a sweet particle of information that is meaningful to them at that moment.

Unschoolers know that these seemingly tiny and insignificant bits are actually part of something very magical: learning. Real learning. Learning that stays with you for life. Learning that slowly, over time and with nurture, begins to sweeten and grow and saturate all that you do. Learning that fulfills the needs of the learner, that assists them in their unique life journey. Learning that brings joy and desire for more experiences. Learning that is meaningful not only for the learner, but for the world.

The "crystals" we pick up from day to day would probably seem insignificant to most of the world. My children ask questions, conversations swirl up, play evolves and interests are tickled. Every day they're living a rich, full, inquisitive life—really living.

Living involves not only exciting "aha" moments, but also day to day activities such as getting dressed, eating and performing daily household tasks. Recognizing the importance of every moment, every interest and question is the key to an unschooler's crystal collecting. Who knows which crystal will begin to saturate one's life with passion? Who knows when that one extra bit of information will lead to something grand?

And if it doesn’t lead to something grand? Well, there are plenty of crystals in the cup, sweetening the whole deal. Isn't that enough? Isn't a desire to know something valuable in and of itself? Isn't that what life is about? We question, ponder, pontificate, muck about, play, seek and make new discoveries. That's what we humans do. We search for answers, and in the searching we find out that the journey is what matters. The process of living itself lends a richness and depth to each day; it is within the journey of living well that we find the greatest meaning.

To take the analogy further, I started thinking about these particles in their natural state. When we stand on millions of grains at the beach, we are standing on a former mountain. We don't usually remember that fact, but a grand and large monument of nature was slowly worn by Father Time and Mother Nature giving way to its smaller particles, providing a lovely cushion for waves and feet, a protective habitat for living beings and plantlife.

When humans gather particles of knowledge, seemingly disconnected, they are wise to remember the grand and monumental mountain that is being built. Every tiny piece of information is connected to every other piece of information in the universe. All of it counts. All of it adds to the framework of the unique journey called life. Every grain is a part and parcel of something grand--try to see the mountain within, try to grasp these grand connections through the eyes of an life-long learner.

Then, there are crystals—reflective, intricate, complex bits that fascinate us. When I think about all the bits that school tried to force into my being, I think about something one-dimensional. This force-fed "knowledge" had little meaning for my life's journey and did nothing for my joy factor. Interest was not the fuel for learning; it was the whim of the school board, the teacher and a history steeped in bias and agenda. I see my children's learning, and like the sugar crystals, it is multi-faceted and beautiful, reflecting unique bits of the wonder-filled universe around them.

As a person gathers knowledge for the sake of passion, fueled by interest, their knowledge has a richness, depth and character to it that is complex. Those bits and pieces become part of them in a way that is deeply meaningful. In discussion, I can hear the excitement and joy in my children's voices, see that light in their eyes that lets me know these bits and pieces are relevant and meaningful. They are not some memorized, useless factoids to be discarded after a short time but an intricate structure of personal knowledge that is built with zeal.

By choosing to unschool, I am giving my children the ability simply to enjoy the journey rather than to seek some unknown destination that falsely promises an end product. My children’s lives are their own; their dreams and passions belong to them, and in gathering the bits that matter, they are showing me that natural learning is grand and simple all at once. The light that emanates from them awes me to silence.

The things in life unschooled children take for granted have the potential to change the world. They take for granted the fact that learning is FUN. They take for granted the fact that the adults in their lives treat them with respect and honor their uniqueness. They take for granted the fact that they have access to the things they love, the places and people they enjoy. They take for granted their unschooling lives because it's what they know and live every day. Learning is just part of living. Adding a tiny bit of knowledge to their cup is what they do every time something excites them or grabs their attention. Information that is meaningful for their journey is not taken lightly but explored with wonder and awe.

It makes for a very sweet life indeed.


Ren Allen has been homeschooling since 1996 and is an active supporter of unschooling both online and in her local community since 2000. She assists those newer to unschooling through an online discussion group and speaking publicly whenever possible. Passions include helping people explore their unique creativity through art classes, makeup artistry and creativity workshops. She also enjoys art, writing, travel, herbal medicine, gardening and eating truffles with a good cup of darjeeling. You can find Ren at imaginationtribe or unschoolingbasics, at her website learninginfreedom.com or by emailing her at starsuncloud@comcast.net.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wigging out at ARGH!

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