A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

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Fractions with Granddad

‘Do you want me to do some colouring or reading with them?’ my father-in-law calls up the stairs.
‘They’re learning fractions at the moment’, I call back down, and leave it at that.
Fifteen minutes later, when I come downstairs, Lily, Katie and Granddad are sitting at the kitchen table, deep in learning.

Katie is colouring in a pizza on a piece of paper, to be divided into equal segments once it’s done. Lily has multiple pieces of paper in front of her, circles and squares. She has moved beyond the halves and quarters that she has recently become comfortable with. Granddad is challenging her with thirds, fifths, sevenths. And when that seems easy, he moves things up a level, challenging Lily to see that 1⁄2= 2⁄4, 1⁄4 = 2⁄8, and so on. Katie’s pizza is ready now (‘Katie’s pizza’…Katie reads it without prompting…horray!) and I join in the fun. We work out how many pieces we would divide the whole pizza into if greater and greater numbers of family members wanted equal shares. All this talk of pizza is making me hungry!

Fractions with Granddad

Fractions with Granddad

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed how the input of other people can lead to sudden or dramatic leaps in Lily’s and Katie’s understanding and skills. Partly, I think this is because of someone else taking a different approach to a problem, and partly because the girls enjoy the novelty and want to impress other people more than they want to impress Mum and Dad.

Katie is generally adverse to learning to read, but in the past few days has been making some progress, usually under duress. When I told Granddad about Katie’s amazing reading, she did a fantastic thing. Instead of scowling, she leapt up, grabbed the book she’s been reading and insisted that Granddad come sit with her in the sitting room so she could read the book to him. And, as I lay in the bath the other night, I could hear Grandma and Katie downstairs, writing together – Katie asking Grandma how to spell certain words and Grandma prompting Katie to figure the spellings out for herself.

Lily had been keen to learn to knit for some time. My attempts at teaching her didn’t get very far, but I was happy for her to get comfortable with the feel of needles and wool. The knitting would come with time and the improvement of her fine motor skills. About a year ago, Mammy came to stay and in the space of 15 minutes Lily’s knitting took a leap forward. Then, this summer, Julian’s mum brought Lily the final step. Lily can now knit (plain stitch for the moment) and is currently knitting a scarf.

Lily has learned to do underwater handstands by observing an older boy doing them at the pool and Katie has learned to cartwheel by observing teenage girls at the beach. I’ve been told I learned to write my name at the age of three and a half, thanks to my cousin Brendan.

Over the past few years I’ve observed the girls learning from adults and from other children, people they’ve known all their lives and people they’ve just met. I’m not fobbing off my duties and pawning off my children’s education onto everyone else who comes along, althought it might seem like it from what I’ve just written! As a home educator I’m always eager to involve as many people as possible in the children’s very informal education. Julian and I have two different approaches, but when we include other family members, friends, and people we meet along the way, the number of different perspectives and approaches to learning that the girls are exposed to vastly expands. The approach Granddad took to fractions was different to the approach I took. He used different words to describe things, he came to the problem from a different angle. I was tempted to jump in and use the words and phrases I had been employing to teach fractions, but I decided to keep my mouth shut, observe and see what happened.

Granddad’s different approach didn’t confuse the girls. Instead, it pushed their understanding of fractions further.

Life is complex and the best way to solve life’s problems are to approach them from multiple perspectives. As adults we engage with people who have different world views and who approach life differently to us. Developing the skills and aptitude to accept and be able to work with those differences is very important. I’m often reminded of my research in Arviat. One hunter would show me a method for skinning a caribou, one seamstress would show me a method for scraping a seal skin. Aha, I’ve got it, I would think. Until I did the same thing with a different hunter or seamstress, and I realised the method one person had taught me was merely one way to do things. There was no universal way to accomplish a task, but rather multiple and unique approaches that worked for each individual.

It inspires me to see how open the girls are to learning from a variety of perspectives and how quickly, when presented with an alternative approach to a problem, they come to an understanding of something that has been befuddling them for some time. As they learn maths, reading and writing from a variety of people they are also learning the very important lesson that there are multiple ways to approach a task and over time they will find the way that suits them.

Post-script: Yesterday morning Lily and I went out for a walk. When we returned home Katie had learned to strip an electrical plug and put it back together again, thanks to Granddad. This morning I had an appointment to see the nurse and left both girls at home with Granddad. When I returned they were both sitting at the table on the patio, screwdrivers, plugs, a disused iron and a broken electric kettle in front of them, busy stripping and wiring plugs! That’s my girls!!

Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?

Out and about education

One of the myths about home education is that it happens at home. People sometimes think it’s just like school but, instead of a classroom, kids sit at the kitchen table all day doing school work. One concern people often have about home education (and people seem to have lots of concerns!) is that home schooled children lack opportunities for socialisation. Of course the parents of home educated children (at least those I’ve encountered) spend a good deal of time planning and organising opportunities for their children to socialise with a great variety of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Home education is a misnomer. Home is just one of the places where children learn, and home educated kids spend a great deal of time away from home. Maybe some kids sit at the table all day sticking to a strict curriculum, but for the most part, home educators follow a very different educational model. Like many of the home educators we have met or have read about, our pedagogy is one of learning by doing. So, in any given week, Lily and Katie probably spend no more than three hours sitting down at a table engaged in ‘formal’ learning. Three hours per week! It might not seem like a lot (it’s not!) but the only things I want them to do in that time is learn some basic maths, reading and writing. Lily’s mastered reading and she enjoys writing independently, so we really only do maths with her now; and we’re still working on the basics of all three skills with Katie. And we’ve all been studying a little Spanish recently.

The rest of their time at home is spent playing and doing whatever they want. What they want to do might be reading, writing, drawing, building, creating, researching (online or from books), imagining, inventing, etc. We might all be involved in a project – sewing, baking, making, etc. Or they might be helping with chores – dishwashing, laundry, cleaning the boat, tidying, etc.

But a lot of our time is spent away from home. The girls help with everyday activities such as shopping and banking and they participate in decisions about what to buy, and so on. Our walks in the countryside are opportunities to learn about plants and animals, and in towns we seek out museums, art galleries, and (free or inexpensive) activities of all sorts.

Now that we’re back in the UK for a (hopefully short) while, I’ve been finding interesting and educational activities for all three of us to get involved in. (Blowing another home education myth – that the parent is the teacher – out of the water. In our pedagogic model, we all learn together, irrespective of age). Right now we’re dividing our time between my father-in-law in Coventry and my mother-in-law in Leamington Spa. Before coming here a few weeks ago I didn’t know either city very well, because I’ve always blindly followed Julian around when we’ve come on short visits and I’ve never had any reason to check out the education potentials. So, from the first day I got back I’ve been discovering a bounty of resources to keep us busy and engaged with the community around us.

On our second day in Coventry, we joined the local library in Stoke. We’re each allowed to borrow 20 books at a time (although I limit it to 5, because I’m certainly not going to carry 60 books up and down the street every couple of weeks!!). But book-borrowing is only one resource the library offers. There are days when we go to simply sit and read quietly in the large children’s section, which also has some art resources. Twice a week Katie and I go to Rhyme Time, for under 5s. Following half an hour of singing nursery rhymes the big play boxes come out and Katie and the other children play together while I sit with the other mums chatting and drinking the complementary coffee! On Saturdays, Lily joins us for an hour of Story Time followed by a craft activity, aimed at 4-11 year olds.

We walked from my father-in-law’s house into Coventry city centre on our first weekend and discovered a resource that we can’t get enough of. The Herbert Museum is one of the most child friendly museums I’ve been to, putting even the RAMM in Exeter in the shade! Right now it is hosting a fantastically joyful exhibition on the history of children’s television, with lots of interactive displays – the girls have dressed up as Scooby Doo, Daleks, Princess Sofia and Robin Hood; they’ve played with famous TV hand puppets and they’ve watched the TV shows Granddad and Dad watched as lads! (UK children’s TV is alien to me. I grew up with Wanderly Wagon, Anything Goes and Bosco!)

But this exhibition is merely the icing on the cake of an otherwise excellent museum. Each gallery has activities that include children and help to bring the exhibits alive. The Old Masters room has a dress-up box for dressing up like the people depicted in the paintings. Last week Lily dressed up as and posed beside King George III. The Lady Godiva exhibit has a story-room attached, where myths and legends from around the world are presented in books and on an interactive screen. There are costumes for dressing up and Lady Godiva-inspired art to do. In the sculpture gallery the children can make their own sculptures using large foam blocks and there are large coffee table books about art and sculpture that children are welcome to sit and browse through. In the Elements gallery we’ve done brass rubbings, touched narwhal tusks, crystals and a variety of exotic seashells, and listened to birdsong. Each gallery is similarly welcoming to children and it will be a long time yet before we exhaust the possibilities of the Herbert Museum.

I was keen to meet other home educating families in the area and get involved in activities, so I joined a couple of home education Facebook groups. They’ve provided a wealth of ideas for activities in the area. The one we have immediately become involved in is a weekly informal gathering of home educating families in FarGo on Far Gosford Street in Coventry. The gathering is hosted at Allsorts, a magical place, run by a wonderful woman called Margaret, where children (and adults) can indulge in all sorts of arts and crafts, or simply play. The first week the girls made and played with play dough, made block prints, and got to hang out and play with other home educated children ranging in age from 11 months to 12 years old! And I got to hang out with other mums and shoot the breeze for a few hours.

Going to Allsorts for the first time, I discovered my new favourite place in Coventry – FarGo. This old industrial estate has been converted into a site of pop-up shops, second hand shops, shops selling up-cycled, recycled, new, old, organic, and sustainable products. There’s coffee a-plenty, and space for meeting with friends, relaxing and reading, in a very child-friendly space. It’s Shoreditch in the Midlands. My favourite place, apart from Allsorts that is, is The Big Comfy Bookshop – a second hand community bookshop that serves refreshments and some devilishly delicious-looking cakes. Once a month it runs Sheroes, which celebrates female heroes from history; it has poetry readings and music sessions; and I think I need a grandparent to look after the kids so I can take Julian there one night!

Granddad has taken us twice to Ryton Pools and Wood midway between Coventry and Leamington. It’s on the site of an old quarry that has been landscaped and turned into a country park. There’s a huge and exciting adventure playground, a sensory garden, a small but very informative information centre and walks around pools filled with ducks, geese and moor hens. The first day we went, Granddad took us off the beaten track into the woods, to show us where his dad used to hunt pheasants. The woods were carpeted with bluebells and we found badger setts and evidence of muntjac. Our only regret was that we hadn’t come earlier in the day, because we could have happily spent hours playing in the woods.

In Leamington Spa, we’ve discovered the rather formally landscaped Jephson Gardens
which Lily in particular loves because of its profusion of squirrels, bumblebees, pigeons, ducks and Canada geese. She insisted on bringing a notebook the second time we went and decided to survey the wildlife. She made a list of all the animals she had seen in the Gardens previously and then each time she encountered one she put a tick beside it! Watching Springwatch before going to bed every night seems to have made an impression on her. Jephson Gardens also has a sensory garden and The Glasshouse, a hothouse featuring exotic plant species from around the world. Lily was particularly intrigued by the method of pest control used on The Glasshouse – using tiny trichogramma wasps to keep the population of pantry moth caterpillars down. I tell you, the kid’s a naturalist in the making. No, strike that. The kid is a naturalist.

Across the road from Jephson Gardens are the Royal Pumprooms which house a museum and art gallery and an excellent library where we have whiled away the hours reading and doing research.

Besides all of these we have uncovered an endless round of free music concerts in the parks of Leamington, Warwick and Coventry; we’ve been to one parish fête so far, where the girls played games and won prizes, and we’re on the lookout for more fêtes, agricultural shows, open gardens, summer festivals and anything else that takes our fancy over the next few weeks.

We have our quiet, stay-at-home days too. We pitched the tent and camped in Granddad’s garden for two nights, and the girls have been learning to ride bikes, play basketball and badminton at Grandma’s house. They’ve sown cress with Granddad and chard, courgettes and lettuce with Grandma, and they’ve been caring for their plants. It was with great excitement that they added their own home-grown cress to the sandwiches last week!

Given the to-ing and fro-ing at the moment, it’s difficult to develop a routine. But what I have is a diary full of alternative activities, with dates for one-off events and on-going activities, and no matter where we find ourselves, we can always pop along to something or other to meet interesting people, discover something new, a learn a little more about life in the Midlands.

Kick! Kick! Keep going!

A year ago, in the crystal clear waters of Enseada de San Francisco in Ria de Muros, Galicia, Lily swam for the first time. She lifted her legs from the sandy sea bed and splashed and kicked and stayed afloat for two seconds. ‘Just one more time’, she said, and tried again, all afternoon trying and trying again ‘Just one more time’, so that by the end of the afternoon she was swimming for four or five seconds at a time and covering five metres.

But, like everything children learn, her swimming didn’t progress in a smooth linear fashion. There were days when she didn’t want to swim. There were days when she grew frustrated by her attempts and simply couldn’t swim. There were days when she preferred to paddle around with the support of a rubber ring or foam noodle. And there were days when she swam beautifully, making clear progress, wanting to succeed, working hard to push herself to do better. She’s done it all herself. I never intervene or push her. I offer advice and (physical) support when it’s requested. When it comes to swimming, I’m more interested in instilling a love of swimming and playing in water. I hope they learn from the example I set. I sometimes exaggerate my own swimming movements, so they can see the mechanics. But when we are in the water it’s play time. And through play comes learning.

Since Lily’s first tentative but determined strokes in July last year, she can now swim a width of a pool. I don’t know when she figured that out. After watching dolphins one day last year in Ria de Arousa, both girls decided they wanted to swim like dolphins. Katie put her head underwater for the first time (something she now rejoices in) and Lily attempted to emulate the movement of a dolphin – arms by her sides, legs together, face down, moving her whole body through the water. Though she lacks the grace of a dolphin, she now has the confidence to put her head under and swim a short distance. Few things make my heart swell more than the sight of the two of them resurfacing, glistening in the sunshine, water cascading off their little golden bodies, and big grins on their faces.

So Lily’s swimming improved, in an unsystematic and semi-linear sort of way. In early May the girls and I were in the outdoor pool at the youth hostel in Alcoutim (where you can use the pool for free while your laundry is in the washing machine!). Katie had the foam noodle and insisted I provide no help as she slipped in from the side, swam a noodle-assisted width, climbed out and repeated. Lily gingerly climbed in, swimming the occasional width and playing while holding on to the side of the pool. I was on high alert as, at most shallow part of the pool, both girls were still well out of their depth.

After a while, a little boy came along. He was about Lily’s age, but a much stronger swimmer and he could dive properly. I watched Lily watch him. He dove, he leaped and splashed, throwing himself far out into the middle of the pool, disappearing below the surface, resurfacing and swimming to the side.

Lily’s tentative climbing in vanished almost immediately as she tried to copy the boy or outdo him – I’m not sure which. She leaped in, disappeared below the surface, reappeared, swam to the side, climbed out and repeated. Over and over she did this, clearly exulting in this new form of water play. And then she did something else she had never done before. She figured out how to swim on her back. Two new swimming skills in one morning. I was amazed and Lily was delighted.

Later that day and the next we went to the river beach at Alcoutim. With no poolside from which to jump in, Lily used me as a platform, standing on my thighs and leaping in as I crouched in the water. On the second day a boy of about twelve came along. Again, I watched Lily watch him. He dove down, head first, into the water, doing handstands on the sandy river bed. Lily tried and tried but lacked the forward thrust to propel herself downwards. She asked for my help and I assisted by positioning her legs upwards as she went down. It only took a few assisted dives for her to get the hang of it and to touch the river bed.

And what of Katie? Well, here’s the thing. With her usual aversion to any instruction from Julian or me, Katie’s been unwilling to take any friendly advice when it’s offered. She’ll kick her legs but refuses to move her arms. Julian brought the noodle to the beach one day and she discovered the movement potentials of simultaneously moving her arms and legs.

Then it happened. A day after Lily made those dramatic advances in her swimming skills, she decided she was going to teach Katie how to swim. She actually said it: ‘Kate, I’m going to teach you how to swim’. I wasn’t swimming on this particular day, but sitting under an umbrella on the beach, reading and writing. Katie readily agreed to the swimming lesson.

Lily began by holding Katie’s hands, instructing Katie to lift her legs and kick, while Lily walked backwards. ‘Kick, kick’, Lily instructed. ‘Don’t stop’. Both were taking their roles very seriously and there was none of the usual boisterous playfulness. When she thought Katie was ready to use her arms (a couple of minutes later), Lily showed her the proper way to hold her hands, fingers together, hands slightly scooped (Lily herself usually swims fingers splayed and hands flat!). She showed Katie the required arm movements and told Katie to try. ‘Keep going, good girl’, sounded familiar to my ears! The instruction carried on far longer than if Julian or I had attempted it. In a very short space of time Katie was swimming. I couldn’t believe it.

They both called for me to watch (of course I’d been watching over the top of my book all along) and when Katie swam five metres, she stood and gave me two thumbs up. Later, when they came out of the water to dry off, Lily said, ‘Kate, tomorrow I’ll teach you to swim on your back’, a skill Lily herself had discovered 24 hours earlier.

Julian missed out on these days of swimming, so I enjoyed watching his surprise when he next came swimming and discovered that both girls could now swim and Lily had mastered diving and swimming on her back.

Like virtually every aspect of their home educated lives, the girls learn far more through play than through formal instruction. They learn at their own pace and when they are ready. At 4 and 6 years old, I care far more about cultivating their enthusiasm and passion, whether that’s for swimming or the natural world or reading or maths. Learning from and with each other and from and with other children and adults through play and encounter is our path to lifelong passion and desire for learning.

‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood’ – Fred Rogers.

‘For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play’ – Penelope Leach.

Observing and learning

DSCI3940Katie says she doesn’t want to learn. What she means is she doesn’t want to be taught. She’s learning all the time. She’s four, she can’t stop herself. She refuses most formal attempts at education: sulking, clamming up, monkeying around or storming off whenever Julian or I offer an opportunity to read or write or learn some basic maths. She even resists games that might have an educational purpose, so we have to be very subtle. If she gets the slightest whiff of something being ‘taught’ she gets mad.

Yet the other day, when I asked Lily ‘What is 4 times 3?’, Katie whispered in my ear (while Lily was still thinking) ‘12’. And when left to herself, she writes letters and numbers, spells a few words aloud, and solves number problems.

While it’s generally not helpful to compare siblings, or any children – one was doing this by this age, so why isn’t the other one – I think observing differences in learning styles is instructional. And Lily’s and Katie’s learning styles are radically different. It’s difficult to put those differences into words. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, and methods used to facilitate Lily’s learning have not worked with Katie.

Lily seems to progress gradually, going from step A to step B to step C. She takes constructive criticism and wants to please us by doing good work. We can look back over a month or a year and (if we were so disposed, which we are not) plot the steps she has taken to get from where she was then to where she is now.

Katie, on the other hand, can give the impression that she is not learning anything, until one day she does or says something that stops us in our tracks and we scratch our heads and ask ‘When did she learn that?’

Her handwriting went from chicken scratches to legible seemingly without any intermediate steps. While Lily’s writing gradually improved over time, after Katie’s first attempts she sulked and refused to write for months. Then one day took up a pencil and her chicken scratches had become writing. I guess in the intervening time her manual dexterity had improved by doing other things like drawing, colouring, painting and using cutlery.

And then there was the day when Julian was showing her some animal words on flash cards, and asking her to spell the words aloud. At first she seemed not to know. Indeed, she kept saying ‘I don’t know’. But then a light went on in her head and she seemed to realise that if she told Daddy what he wanted to hear, then he would leave her alone to get back to the fun stuff. She rolled her eyes, put her hands on her hips, sighed and flawlessly spelled the words on all the cards Julian held up to her.

As parents who take sole responsibility for our children’s education, dealing with such different attitudes to learning can at times be challenging. While Lily generally enjoys written and mental maths and writing stories, lists and letters, we have had to learn to give Katie more space to learn on her own. Formal approaches to teaching don’t work (or at least they don’t work at present – they may work in the future). But more subtle forms of learning – playing, helping with number-based chores such as laying the table, sharing out food, following recipes, etc, all allow her to learn without realising she’s being taught.

The rest of the stuff that isn’t reading, writing and maths – the geography, history, science, art and languages – are all the stuff of our day-to-day lives that we all learn together, each one of us delving in at a level appropriate to our ages and life experiences. Katie is gradually making her way to independent reading, writing and maths, but she’s taking quite a different route to that taken by her sister. Julian and I are learning to step back, give her space and trust her to learn in a way that makes sense to her.

What becomes of home schoolers?

Waiting to catch the bus from Malaga Airport to Almería, I struck up a conversation with the man standing beside me at the bus stop. Half British-half German, he had just arrived on a flight from the UK where he was visiting his daughter, a stem cell biology PhD student at Oxford University. We talked about our reasons for travelling to Almería and this led to the man telling me about his family’s move first to Spain in the early 1990s and later to the Dominican Republic. For about four years his children attended school in Spain, but when the family moved to the Dominican Republic, the children still pre-teens, he and his wife took the decision to home educate. As a result, his children had no formal secondary school education, nor had they ever taken exams. And here was one of them about to complete a PhD in stem cell biology at Oxford! He told me about her path through university, from her acceptance for her primary degree at Sussex University based on a written application and a CV that demonstrated a depth of practical biology experience way beyond her tender years, to the particular difficulties she faced as a home schooler entering the formal education system for (practically) the first time, and how she ultimately excelled in her chosen field.

It was a timely encounter, coming only days after a great many people had expressed interest in Lily’s and Katie’s education. The TV and radio interviewers had asked me questions about home education, leading to interest amongst blog readers, and discussions with family and friends in Ireland. On a few occasions in the past couple of weeks I have been asked what will happen if the girls want to go to university or want careers that require university degrees. I’ve been asked if our plan is to never send them to school. And I’ve been asked how I know they are learning the ‘right’ things at home.

I suppose I’ve attempted to answer these questions in different ways in blog posts before, but it’s an ongoing conversation and, as the girls grow older, my consideration of these questions changes.

Talking to the man at Malaga Airport made me think of all the different ways that people are home educated and, just like more formal types of education, there are as many different career and life outcomes as there are people who have been home educated. His daughter’s experience reminded me of people – famous and not so famous – who have been home educated or unschooled for some or part of their childhoods, of the different forms their education took and of the careers they have forged since.

Feminist columnist, novelist, screenwriter, memoirist (need I go on?) Caitlin Moran was taken out of school aged 11 and home educated with her seven siblings; novelist Margaret Atwood didn’t start school until (by some accounts) age 11; US President Theodore Roosevelt was educated at home by his mother until a tutor was brought in to help prepare him for Harvard entrance exams; inventor Thomas Edison was home educated; so was US President Woodrow Wilson; so was model Sophie Dahl. When my knowledge of famous home schoolers dried up, Wikipedia provided an enlightening list.

I only know one adult home schooler personally (if there are more of you out there, set me straight). She is a friend who was home educated for five years in her pre-teens while she sailed around the world with her parents and brother. Her five years away from formal education probably influenced her decision to take a degree in marine biology. I met her when we were both studying for Anthropology PhDs. In the past few years we have met quite a few sailing families with children who are home educated as they explore the world with their parents aboard their floating homes.

Each encounter with home education is different, as the practice fits around each unique family situation. Some families take a formal approach, using state curricula or curricula of their own devising, working to a timetable each day. Others are at the opposite end of the spectrum, giving children complete freedom to follow their own interests. There are children who never go to school or university; there are those who attend school in their mid to late teens; there are those who dip in and out, attending school only to take specialist classes – chemistry, say, or music, where schools provide resources unavailable at home. (In Devon, where we lived prior to moving aboard Carina, children have the option of attending school part-time. We considered its usefulness for older children with regard to language classes, science laboratories, and so on. I wonder do many home schooling families avail of this option?)

My children are six and four years old. I don’t know if they will ever go to school. We don’t have a master plan. I don’t think most parents who send their children to school (apart from those horrid pushy ones) have a master plan. I certainly don’t think my parents knew when I was six years old that I would one day go to university. As home educators, all we can do is encourage a love of learning in our daughters, facilitate their interests, and provide them with the basic skills needed to go out and explore the world on their own.

Friends, family and blog readers have lots of questions about our decision to home educate. I like and encourage those questions because (a) they help Julian and me to think through and give voice to our decisions and (b) they lead to conversations with people who have not encountered this form of education before. But we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions!

What we do know is that home educated children generally fare as well in life as formally educated children. Their social and educational experiences are different, but, as Eileen Kane, my first ever Anthropology teacher told us in my first ever Anthropology lecture back in 1990, difference is not deviance.

It’s always encouraging to hear how other home educated children have fared, how their home education has stood to them as they have moved into adulthood. And we encourage people to keep asking questions and keep the conversation going. But don’t be surprised if you question is answered with another question!

One year a-reading

It should come as no surprise to you that I’ve once again been thinking about reading. I’ve gushed about the joys of reading in blogs posts before here, here and here, and I’m about to do so again. But I’m also going to gush about the amazing learning capacities of young children. I’m in a state of pleasant shock most of the time, from observing how both my own children and other people’s children learn and develop so quickly.

A year ago, Lily started reading independently. Before that, Julian and I had read with her, encouraging her to sound out words and use her ‘reading finger’ to follow the story. But shortly before her fifth birthday, she discovered the joys of reading all by herself. Her first real foray into independent reading was with the Elephant and Piggie series of books by Mo Willems. My friend Angela gave us two books from this delightful, hilarious and touching series about a friendship between an elephant and a pig. The simply drawn pictures capture, with a couple of strokes of the pen, a range of emotions, as the two friends experiment, ponder, play and deal with some tough issues (What do you do when birds build a nest on your head? Or when a whale steals your ball? Or when you are invited to a party for the first time?). The language is simple – a few words on every page, word repetition, and font changes to convey changing emotional states.

epBy mid-March of last year, Lily had mastered reading these two books on her own, so I picked up four more from the series at Barnes and Noble when I was in Manhattan (it’s an American series, and not easy to find in the UK). But, in the ten days I was away in New York, Lily had graduated to more complex reading material. That’s not to say that she didn’t still love Elephant and Piggie. She continued (and continues) to read them to Katie, and Katie is now learning to read from them too.

elephantandpiggieBut with what seems to me lightning speed, in the space of only one year, Lily has gone from reading Elephant and Piggie to reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and his Boy and last night we started Prince Caspian. Sometimes I read one chapter to her and she reads the next one to me; other times I read a chapter to her and she reads the next one silently to herself. Every night she falls asleep with a book in her hands.

lionThis is not easy literature for someone who is not yet six years old, and though she can read all the words, I am not sure how much of the content she understands. It is my first time to read the Narnia books and I find they deal with issues of duty, honour, friendship and betrayal. They contain joy and beauty, but also death and torture and pain. But Lily’s level of understanding is not important. She gets such joy from reading and she brings her five-year old wisdom and life experience to bear on what she reads. If she chooses to read these books again in one, five, ten, twenty years from now, no doubt each subsequent reading will be coloured by her experience and wisdom at those different points in her life.

She is a voracious reader, oblivious to the world around her when her head is stuck in a book. She’s deep into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, has read a couple of Clarice Bean and Horrid Henry books, various Roald Dahl books (The Twits, Matilda, The BFG, etc), and numerous others.

Although I am thrilled that Lily has a passion for reading, what really amazes me is that I see in her the facility that all children have to learn new things quickly and easily. Children Lily’s age do this all the time. With Lily it’s reading. With other kids it’s maths, or art, or music, or building things, or natural history, or archaeology. Given the conditions to follow their own interests and explore the world around them, children have a natural desire and a voracious appetite for learning. We’ve all met a five-year old who knows the scientific names and characteristics of fifty dinosaurs, or who knows as much as a professional archaeologist about ancient Egypt. Nobody teaches kids this stuff. They follow what interests them, often until they’ve exhausted the possibilities or until they happen upon something else that interests them more.

What I find truly extraordinary about children is how quickly they develop proficiency in things that, if we are lucky, we adults can only learn with far greater effort and over much greater periods of time. Children aren’t scared of making mistakes in their self-directed learning, and they don’t have an end goal in sight. They learn simply because they love the thing they are doing – they love adding numbers up, or drawing tractors, or finding out every shred of information about Man Utd, or reading.

If we adults could approach our learning with such abandon and joy, and such a lack of self-consciousness or self-criticism, then maybe we too could learn more and learn better.

Toys, typing and a transmogrifier

In February last year I published a blog post entitled 9 essential items for happy live-aboard kids. The items consisted of toys or things designed specifically for play, such as Lego, Play Mobile, jigsaws, the dressing-up bag and play dough; and other things such as books, buckets and spades, and craft materials. A year later, with the girls a year older, and now that I am in the midst of a monster spring clean, I thought it was time to reflect on what on-board stuff keeps the girls happy these days.

Lego

Lego

Lego is the old reliable present for birthdays and Christmases (I was even given Lego on Mother’s Day) so our collection is growing. Since last year the girls have become more independent when playing with Lego and no longer need us to help them make things. That doesn’t mean they no longer want us to join in their Lego play. One day last summer I sent them into the aft cabin, where we spread the Lego bag, with the challenge to build a fantastic coffee-making machine. Seven months on they are still competing to invent ever more fantastic flying fire-dousing underwater coffee-making machines.

2014-10-31 08.03.54The dressing-up bag has been added to, with new tutus and ballet slippers added to the nurses’ outfits and witches costumes of last year. Despite that bag brimming with dressing up possibilities, Lily and Katie seem to prefer dressing up in stuff lying around – our woolly hats, gloves and neck-warmers; tying towels around their necks to be super heroes or characters from Frozen; using woollen braids to transform themselves into Rapunzel.

And while I’m on the subject of stuff lying around, I think the most cooperation and the least fighting happens when they are playing with non-toy stuff. They can play harmoniously for hours with the ropes, scrubbing brushes, buckets and cloths up on deck, planning and acting through all sorts of scenarios that may or may not include their soft toys and plastic dolls. They’ve even taking to acting out, on the pontoon, with all sorts of props, stories from their books. Lily reads the stories, line by line, and together they act out the scenes.

Granny’s cast-off camera inherited by Lily last year has proven a wonderful addition to the boat. They both use it, and have recently discovered the video function. They now record each other singing and acting out scenes from movies and in recent weeks we’ve been going to the beach where Lily has been attempting (with limited success) to simultaneously direct, film and act in her own movies!!

There are some notable changes from this time last year in what keeps them happy. The first is reading and writing. Lily has become an independent reader and she can sit or lie on her bed for hours reading silently to herself or aloud to Katie. She has also become an independent writer and, when the mood takes her, she sits at the table or in one of the cabins, and writes – letters, song words, transcribing from nature books, etc. So, merely supplying her with the tools she needs to write, and leaving them within easy reach means she can write whenever she feels like it. Earlier this week she wrote me an angry letter, asking me to stop telling everyone about her and the man she met on the street.

Scan_20150123 (2)Katie has taken a leaf out of her sister’s book, and she likes to ‘read’ and ‘write’ too, and I’m sure is only a matter of time before those words on the page make sense to her.

Only very recently they have both developed an interest in the laptop and use it for all sorts of reasons. They play games on the Internet; Lily now has her own email account; and they use Word and Paintbox and other programmes. The Internet games they play help develop their mouse skills and we generally direct them to maths and language games. But they are equally interested in content that isn’t strictly designed for children. They’ve been intrigued by the Mi Vida Loca Spanish language programme that Julian uses and have been learning Spanish from that; and Lily’s taken a few typing tutorials to learn to touch-type.

Teddy bears and the dolls are regularly strewn all over the boat. Before I get into bed at night I usually have to do a sweep of the bed, to remove tiny Barbie shoes, handbags, shells that have been transformed into jewellery, bits of Lego and who knows what else.

They need so little to keep them happy. They keep themselves entertained and transform whatever they find lying around into some imaginative prop for whatever game they are playing. I recently read an article by a woman who travelled across Canada with her husband and three young boys for over a month. She decided not to bring any toys AT ALL on the trip. She wasn’t sure she was making the right decision. But once the trip got underway the boys never complained of boredom. Instead they played with what they found around them, cooperated more, fought less, and talked more to their parents.

transmogrifierAs all children demonstrate to us, they make little distinction between what’s a toy and what’s not a toy. Children just want to play, and anything can, as Calvin would say, be ‘transmogrified’ with a sprinkling of imagination.

Get a job!

Recently, someone with our best interests at heart suggested that our lives would be easier if Julian and I had permanent jobs. These would provide us with financial security, give us something on which to focus our attention, and provide structure to our lives. We could still have a boat, save up our holidays and go sailing in the summer. This put me in a reflective mood and I asked this person for permission to use our conversation as a jumping off point for this blog post.

It’s true that in our current situation we lack financial security. But are we so different to many two-income families? My parents both worked, they were careful with money, and yet money was always a worry. Before we had children, Julian and I had a joint income of £64,000. But it never seemed to be enough. Back then, of course, we knew exactly how much money would appear in our bank account on a certain day each month. We knew the bills would get paid and we didn’t give much thought to how much money we spent on food and going out. These days we don’t know how much money (if any) we will earn in a given month. But I don’t think it has made our financial worries any greater. Rather, our financial worries are different. We no longer have the expense of running a car, paying rent or a mortgage, and paying electricity, telephone and water bills. We have other expenses, but they don’t even compare to our expenses when we lived on land.

These days we have to work hard to make our meagre financial resources stretch far. Some might think it burdensome to spend so much time comparing the prices on tins of tomatoes or weighing up the cost of a night spent at a marina versus the cost of motoring to an anchorage when there’s no wind by which to sail. But this is our work. These minute considerations allow us to live this incredible sailing life. If I wasn’t pondering tins of tomatoes I’d be giving essay-writing advice to a 19-year old undergrad. It’s just a different form of work.

Our way of life requires careful thought, planning and frugality and the replacement of time-saving devices and methods with manual and time-consuming labour. But without permanent full-time jobs, time is on our side and currently we undertake these boat maintenance and household chores in the warm January sun of the Costa del Sol, the beach a two-minute walk from Carina, a hulking orange mountain dominating the skyline behind us. We can leave when we wish and sail to wherever we choose, making anywhere our home. It feels like a pretty good life to me.

But having had this conversation about the benefits of permanent employment, I pondered the alternative to the life we currently live. Of course Julian and I could be in full-time permanent employment. There’s nothing to stop us. Academia is what I know and love and Julian has the research skills and experience to work in academia or in the private or public sectors. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent job doing anything other than academic Human Geography/Anthropology. Why should I? It’s what I’m trained for. The academic life is a wonderful one, and I have to admit I miss all those intellectual conversations and debates that serve to fertilise the seeds of imagination. I miss my super-smart friends and colleagues, the opportunities for travel, the visits to the pub. I even miss my students some days!

But let’s imagine a scenario – based on my own experiences and on those of friends in academia. There is a side to academic life that makes the family life I desire almost impossible to achieve. Academic couples are frequently forced to live far from each other – in different cities, countries and even continents – as finding two jobs in the same university or city is often an unattainable dream. Julian and I lived apart when I lectured at Reading. In fact, all throughout my pregnancy with Lily, Julian lived in our home in Cambridge (where he worked) and I spent four nights a week in a flat in Reading (where I worked). My friends Tina and Ben have spent the past three years living apart in a foreign country and have only recently found university jobs in the same city in Tina’s native Canada. I have known couples who work in opposite ends of the UK, in different European countries and, in the most extreme example, a friend who worked in Fairbanks, Alaska, and lived there with her baby son, while her husband worked and lived in Vienna, Austria. Eventually, one of them had to give in and put their career on hold. In every university I have been associated with I have known couples who have been forced to live apart in order for both people to pursue their academic careers.

One of the reasons I quit my job at University of Reading after Lily was born was that we simply couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It’s a three and a half hour motorway journey between Cambridge and Reading. If we chose to live somewhere in between, Julian and I would both face up to four hours of commuting by car each day. House prices that close to London were way out of our reach and, if we factored in the cost of 12 hours of child care every day, one of our salaries would completely disappear in commuting and child care costs. Never mind how little time we would spend with each other or with our baby daughter. If you have ever been to Cambridge and Reading, you’ll understand why we chose Cambridge.

But let’s imagine that we were lucky enough to both find work in the same city. The academic workload is mindboggling. There are lectures to write and present, academic and pastoral tutorials, essays to grade, exams to mark, post-graduate students to supervise; departmental administrative duties; research grants to write and, if successful, to manage; journal articles, book chapters and books to write; editorial boards to sit on; external and internal examiner duties to fulfil; conferences to attend; research to plan and carry out; public or private sector consultation or collaboration; and much more besides. (I know as soon as I post this blog, I’ll think of ten more common tasks that I’ve forgotten to mention). I’ve rarely met an academic who doesn’t take their work on vacation. And, despite the misconceptions of non-academics, academics (in the UK) have only 30 days of paid leave a year, not the four months of freedom enjoyed by their students. Many academics don’t even take their 30 days. The long summer is a time to prepare for the next academic year, carry out research and write write write, because that old academic adage ‘publish or perish’ really holds true.

It is a privileged life, spending your days in a safe and comfortable environment, devoting your time to the research questions about which you are wildly passionate. And if I was single or had no children, I think I would throw myself heart and soul into it.

So, let’s take this scenario a little further. Julian and I have found incredible academic jobs in the same city and we are fully engrossed in what we do. In order to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and to progress up the promotional ladder, we would need to work long long hours, and so would need help with raising the kids. Pre-school, a large portion of our salaries would go on child care, and once the girls were in school (as early as possible, to reduce child care costs) they would still need after school care. We would see them briefly, morning and evening, all of us tired and frazzled.

Having the left-over financial resources to own a boat, keep it in good condition, and pay marina fees would be beyond us. Our dreams of a month or two at sea would remain just that and if we were lucky we might manage a week here or there.

But Julian and I chose other priorities. Home educating our children and exploring the world with them quickly became a priority for us. So for the past four years we have chosen a middle path. For three years I took temporary academic contracts that had set working hours. I worked professionally for those 35 hours every week, but I didn’t kill myself working every night and weekend as I used to do before. And this winter I’ve found a job teaching English 18 hours each week. It lacks the intellectual stimulation of university life, but it challenges me in other ways.

Despite not having full-time jobs, our lives have purpose and focus. Short, medium and long-term planning focus our thoughts, as we find innovative ways to make our finances stretch far, plan where we want to sail in a given week or month, and think about where we want to be in five or ten years time. We are focused on raising and educating the children – something that requires a lot of energy and innovation. And both Julian and I passionately pursue our own interests. While I have immediate and decade-long plans for my writing. Julian’s approach to planning is different, but this winter his obsession has been studying Spanish.

What we lack in financial security we more than make up for with the time and space to be innovative in our approach to living. And we have time to play, learn and grow together. No-one’s path through life runs smooth all the time, and each choice made means that other choices have to be cast aside. But at 40 and 41 years old, Julian and I have made our choices based on our past experiences, and based on what we know works for us as individuals and as a family.

Live an enthusiastic life, whatever path you choose.