Natural Learning with Mary Anning

Mary Anning

I have lots of observations I’ve wanted to think and write through on my blog, but I’ve been busy training to be a CASA. So far, it’s been intense, but also energizing and inspiring.

I’m posting with a picture Daphne has been gradually drawing in the evenings when she’s not tired enough to go to sleep. We first got interested in Mary Anning when we listened to an episode of the excellent podcast Brains On! about dinosaurs. Mary Anning was one of the most important paleontologists of the 19th century, beginning with the ichthyosaurus she discovered at the age of twelve. Our curiosity piqued, we’ve been reading books about Mary Anning (this one is our favorite) and watching videos about her life. Netta has especially looked for videos that show how Mary Anning was struck by lightning as a baby! In the process, we’ve discussed fossils, dinosaurs, and the discrimination Mary Anning faced as a woman.

I’ve been kind of amazed recently to see how learning flows naturally with only a bit of support from me. After reading and learning about self-directed education and unschooling, I trusted or at least hoped that would be the case, but it’s still surprising to experience it.

Other topics we’ve been passionate about in 2018 so far include komodo dragons – the komodo dragon at our local zoo got a deer leg to eat (swallow whole!) for his birthday – and big numbers, like millions, billions, and gogols.

Siren Call of the School Bus


Netta says she wants to go to kindergarten in the fall. She wants to ride the school bus with her best neighborhood friends, two girls who are now in kindergarten and first grade.

I’ve spent the past year learning about homeschooling and self-directed education, becoming increasingly convinced of all the benefits of this approach. So I’m having a hard time with Netta’s choice. Also, Daphne emphatically does not want to attend second grade next year, and she and I are both unsure what homeschooling would look like without Netta.

Still, I think it’s extremely important that I respect Netta’s desire to try school. (When she’s eighteen, I don’t want her to tell me that I wouldn’t let her go to school!) So I am in the midst of organizing piles of paperwork in order to register her for the fall.

Honestly, I’m hoping that she’ll try school for a week, realize that most of the day isn’t spent on the school bus, and opt for homeschooling. But I intend to honor whatever decision(s) she makes, with the extra information and perspective she gains from attending school.

I’m reminding myself that it’s wonderful she is so open to new experiences, so willing to get excited, and optimistic about what the world has in store for her. In life, that’s probably more important than any educational model.

John Holt and Fantasy


I’m writing another post about play because I’ve been thinking a lot about my kids’ and their friends’ amazing capacity for imaginative play, hour upon hour – and the challenge for adults (me) to hold that space for play, in an environment that doesn’t necessarily value children’s play beyond age five, certainly not as their main activity.

In December, I read How Children Learn, by John Holt. I don’t know what took me so long.

Even when fairly convinced of the benefits of play, it can be hard for us adults to understand what is happening when children are involved in imaginative play. Among John Holt’s brilliant observations, he writes about how children “use fantasy to make sense out of reality, make a mental model of reality that works.”

While developing a set of wood blocks to facilitate logic games, Holt’s friend Bill Hull invited kids, mostly five-year-olds, to play with the blocks in his lab. He found that if the kids were immediately given tasks, they worked “without joy or insight.” If, on the other hand, the kids played first, so that “some pieces would be mommies and daddies, some children; or they would be houses and cars… then the children would make various kinds of patterns, buildings” – then, when the children had “taken these materials into their minds, mentally swallowed and digested them, so to speak, they were then ready and willing to play very complicated games, that in the more organized and businesslike situation had left other children completely baffled. This proved to be… consistently true.”

I’m reminded of a quote from The Gardener and the Carpenter, by Alison Gopnik (I heard it on an Exploring Unschooling podcast episode, and I would like to read the book): “Children are tuned in to details of how of how parents act that you may not even notice. For example, preschoolers notice whether you say, ‘Let’s see what this does,’ or ‘Let me show you what this does.'”

I plan to make use of these observations whenever I want to introduce a new game, toy, or other activity into our house. Homeschooling is so interesting!

Snow Play

snow play

I’ve been conscious of not filling our days with too many scheduled activities in this first part of 2018. And I’ve been thinking about how our homeschooling requires a really firm belief in play: not just that it’s important to include a little in the late afternoon, but that it should be central, the focus of our days.

We Belong Together

we belong together

We joined in the We Belong Together campaign, kids writing letters to Congress to keep families together. We don’t encounter immigration issues in our daily lives, but this campaign was an opportunity to talk about it. We watched the video on the website, about an inspiring girl named Leah, several times. And I ordered Mama’s Nightingale, by Edwidge Danticat, from the library, as it offers a hopeful message about the power of children’s voices.

we belong together

Our Own Stories

Fare of the Free Child

I asked Akilah S. Richards if she had any thoughts on my post Fragility and Freedom in Self-Directed Education.

An unschooling activist, Akilah Richard’s smart, wide-ranging podcast, Fare of the Free Child, pushed me to finally try homeschooling. It continues to guide my husband and me. As she describes it, “Fare of the Free Child is a weekly-published podcast community centering People of Color in liberatory living and learning practices.” I highly recommend it to anyone interested in alternative education and intentional living. Like Peter Gray, Akilah is a co-founder of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. Read more

Screen Time or Media Literacy?

media literacy

What parent hasn’t agonized about screens at one time or another?

I don’t want to discuss screen time here, though I’ve thought about and discusssed it plenty. In the past year, we’ve shifted from very limited and controlled iPad time; to almost complete freedom, inspired by unschooling ideas; to my reasserting my role as guide, encouraging my kids to think about how they want to spend their days.

But I’ve started to think that media literacy is a more important topic than screen time. Read more

Fragility and Freedom in Self-Directed Education

self-directed education

Recently, an acquaintance posted an article on Facebook titled “The Fragile Generation.” Her post, from the Libertarian journal Reason, quoted Peter Gray from the article. Gray is a psychologist, whose book Free to Learn, and articles on the importance of play and self-directed learning, influenced my decision to explore homeschooling with my children. My interest piqued, I saved the article to read later.

When I read the article, I was dismayed to find musings on freedom and fragility in childhood and young adulthood used to advance a different agenda altogether. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered these conflations before, and it motivated me to write this rather uncharacteristic blog post. Read more