Every month when I write these posts I begin by looking through my pictures to remind myself what we've been up to. This month, doing so has been particularly heart-wrenching.
We spent most of August in Singapore with my brother, his wife and their son and daughter. My niece and nephew are very close in age to Cherry and Violet, in fact the four of them are separated only by two years and nine months.
I can confirm a gang of four children aged two, three, four and five is a WHOLE LOT OF FUN. I'm not entirely sure what that has to do with home education, but for me the undisputed highlight of Singapore was allowing Cherry and Violet to spend three glorious weeks playing with their cousins with wild abandon.
(I can also confirm that it is logistically impossible to get an in-focus photo of four children aged two, three, four and five)
Just thinking about it now chokes me up slightly. The fun, the freedom, the play - the play! Hours of play. Play between all four, play between two pairs, play between three while one played separately, but endless, endless play. Play is what it's all about for us, there is nothing more important.
It's fascinating to watch. Not the play itself per se (although it had its moments) but the dynamics between the children, how they learn from one another, influence one another, inspire one another. How knowledge transmits from child to child through osmosis. Lily, my niece, learned about space at school last year and is utterly fascinated by it. I brought two budding cosmonauts back from Singapore, who know that we live on Planet Earth and the planet with rings around it is Saturn and that Jupiter has big storms. I will come back to space later as obviously it has influenced our activities this month, but firstly I wanted to record a couple of things that became very clear to me while we were away.
Firstly was the adaptability and general, to coin Peter Gray, educability of children. Cherry taught herself to swim within two weeks, and I do mean taught herself. Cherry has been swimming easily with armbands for years now but never had a swimming lesson or any other form of instruction.
She learned to swim by going to the swimming pool, being in the swimming pool, observing other children, experimenting with her own body and finally, by dogged persistence.
Watching her, I felt a little embarrassed at the amount of times in the past I have worried about 'putting her off' or about her 'giving up' on something. I have always been quite keen not to interrupt or disturb my children when they are playing, I don't want to break their concentration and a part of me worries if I do, they won't be motivated to return to the task at hand.
But, much in the same way when she decided to learn to ride her bike no amount of clattering falls could deter her, no amount of water up the nose, thrashing about ineffectually before sinking like a stone and other general and sometimes uncomfortable hindrances could stop her.
I read a lot about unschooling while we were in Singapore and watching it in action, watching Cherry decide to learn something and apply herself until she had mastered it, felt like a living breathing demonstration of everything I was reading.
In the nicest possible way, there is nothing unique or exceptional about my older daughter. She is, as are most four-year-olds, a bright little girl but she is not unusual for her age, developmentally or otherwise except perhaps on the high end of the sensitivity and emotional velocity scale, with an imagination and tenacity to match.
It's my firm belief that most children - not all, admittedly, but most - would be perfectly capable of learning to swim in this way if they were given access to the resources they needed, time, and adequate supervision without intervention.
That's a very long-winded way of saying, I think unschooling does work. If you're not familiar with the term, it's basically self-directed learning. For some, it means allowing the child to do whatever they want whenever they want. For others, myself included, it means exposing children to a range of stimulus, activities and experiences, most of which occurs in everyday life and your immediate surroundings, and allowing them enough time and freedom to interact with those surroundings and learn what they need to know.
So in a hot country full of swimming pools when your cousins and all their friends can swim, it means learning to swim.
I should add at this point that Violet did not learn to swim (without armbands), she was not yet three when we were in Singapore and while I'm sure there are two-year-olds that can swim, for her it was a little early. She did however become markedly more confident in the water, learn to float on her back, and learn to dunk herself underwater and sit on the bottom of the pool. So I guess I would add another caveat to that, to me unschooling is exposing your children to a range of stimulus blah, blah, blah and they will learn what they need to know when they are ready to learn it.
And yes, I firmly believe that applies to literacy and numeracy too. We live in a literate and numerate world. Children are surrounded by words and numbers and they will, if given the exposure and the time and the freedom, learn to interpret and use them when and how they need to, and when they are ready. Of course that might not happen by age four, as we demand here in the UK.
(In fact the likelihood is that for most children it absolutely won't happen by age four, hence phonics.)
The second thing Singapore convinced me of was a child's natural and inherent desire to learn. I have to admit, sometimes when I read blogs by unschooling or homeschooling parents and they talk about self-directed learning I feel a bit sceptical. Really? Their child wanted to learn all about something totally academic and National Curriculum-approved, all by themselves?
But when Cherry and Violet started asking questions about space, and poring over books about space, and memorising the names of the planets then role-playing and pretending to BE planets (Violet is Earth, Cherry is Saturn, I'm Mother Sun and Noel is Jupiter, in case you were wondering) and talking to one another about planets and telling stories about planets, I saw it for myself. It's absolutely 100% true. Children do want to learn and they don't need to be prompted or pushed and really why should they? Space is fascinating. Did you know that if you could find a volume of water big enough, Saturn would FLOAT? Let that blow your mind for a moment. Speaking of blow, Saturn has winds of up to 1,000mph.
(Of course those sceptical about unschooling will then pounce with A-HA! But as you said, space is INTERESTING. What about TRIGONOMETRY? How are unschooled kids supposed to learn THAT? To which I think I would respond, it's not really top of my list considering my children are four and just-turned-three, but should a time come when they need to learn trigonometry, either for personal reasons (HIGHLY UNLIKELY, I SUBMIT) or most probably so they can pass a maths GCSE, then they will be of an age whereby they will understand that this is knowledge they need to acquire in order to progress, and therefore they will learn trigonometry. Yes, probably in a classroom. Because quite frankly where else does one need trigonometry? Also, I would add that as the owner of a C grade at Maths GCSE, I remember NOT ONE SINGLE THING about trigonometry, so in the grand scheme of things, how useful was it, really? But I have that piece of paper that proves that I 'learned' trig. Also note that I might not remember any of it, but I can spell it, because my brain retained information around words and how words are formed because it felt interesting and important and sure enough, I grew up to be a writer, author and editor. And no, I didn't learn to spell and the basics of grammar in lessons at school. I learned it WAY before I was 'taught' it at school, by reading loads and loads and loads and loads of books because that's what I loved to do.)
This all seems to be turning into a bit of a missive about unschooling, so my next point is a bit embarrassing in that we're not fully unschooling in the truest sense. Maybe Noel and I are still too controlling and afraid to trust our children, maybe we just feel the modern world has its demands and challenges, but we are not ready to hand over all the responsibility for learning solely to our children. We want to guide them with projects and use their interests as a window or gateway into wider learning. So this month we introduced them to papier mache (remember that? THE MOST fun, SO messy) and we made a papier mache Planet Earth, and a Saturn complete with ring-ish rings.
We will be adding to our little solar system this month until hopefully we have a complete set, but we will see how long the girls' interest holds. The beauty of a project like this is it's something we can come back to in the future and do again in a different way - we could do one to scale, for example, or try and make them a little more realistic. I don't think Saturn is that pink!
That's another really nice thing about homeschooling - the freedom to have layers of learning. Cherry and Violet may well tire of space quite soon, having learned everything they want to know for now and their interests may meander elsewhere. But in the future, they will probably come back to space in another way, and the knowledge they have gained will be retained and available to them to build upon. They won't have to consciously recite the names of the planets every night diligently to remember them. That knowledge is significant, and therefore it will be absorbed and stored, ready to be utilised in the future. The human brain is phenomenal, isn't it?
The allotment has continued to provide lots of food and opportunities for learning, with harvests of raspberries, rapidly ripening tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and some massive green pumpkins that are slowly turning orange in the late summer sun. Cherry and Violet both want their own patches of allotment to work, so I will be digging over their patches and helping them establish some crops. The allotment has also led to some conversations around classifications - that great human obsession - at Cherry's initiation, as she was curious to know if a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable. I asked what she thought and she correctly identified it as a fruit, ditto avocado.
We read more Enid Blyton, a LOT of Horrid Henry, some Beatrix Potter, some My Naughty Little Sister and the absolutely charming My Father's Dragon, recommended to me by the lovely Adele. At the end of August Violet turned three and we spent her birthday at the Science Museum, which was very exciting. We watched an iMax movie about Planet Earth, filmed from the International Space Station, which was incredible for me, let alone the kids, as I'm not a cinema-goer so I've never even seen a movie in 3D before. We also had a bubble show and learned about the history of flight and if the children show interest, I thought a hot air balloon could be a great project for us this month.
But mainly in August Cherry and Violet played, and I observed them play then read magazines and drank tea and loved every second of it. When we got back from Singapore we caught up with lots of friends so every day brought a different picnic and a different theme of play. It's all been very outdoorsy and lovely and punctuated with lots of homemade jam and crumbles and a bit of camping and other late summer fare.
August was actually a really big month for us, for a lot of reasons. No doubt I will write about some of them another time. September will hopefully be quieter, as Cherry and Violet are very obviously quite tired from our travels and adventures. Although having said that we will be going camping with a bunch of homeschooling families from one of our groups, so that will no doubt be highly exciting all round. But I also hope this month we will settle a little more into the home aspect of homeschooling.
I have reframed my thinking around 'being at home' a little more. I think I have sometimes felt compelled to take Cherry and Violet out a lot, to give us something to do and often, to give me some space and a change of scene. I am conscious that if I want them to settle into learning and life, we need some stability and I can't keep dragging us out for days on end.
I also tend to drop everything - including housework and shopping - to go and meet friends, firstly because I want to but also because I get anxious about 'socialising' and want the children to have and play with lots of friends. Some of the reading I did this month helped me calm down a bit and really brought home to me the benefits of time at home, settled and quiet time to allow the children's focus and interests to bloom. Of course we will still want to go out and have fun, but I feel able to approach time at home a bit more positively and worry less about loneliness and isolation. I can see the benefits of our home as a grounding, calming entity and I see time at home as less of a desperate 'last resort' and more of a confident and positive choice.
September is just about my favourite month. I adore the turn of the season and the happy, cosy months as autumn rolls into winter and all the excitement and glitter of Christmas. 'Starting' home schooling - in that Cherry would have gone to school this month - feels exciting and challenging, and I am looking forward to it. But this summer was glorious, Singapore was the highlight, and I am surprised how much I am really, really going to miss it.