I watch the six year old as he experiments for a long while, taking his time to balance a long heavy branch on his shoulder to find the exact fulcrum point. He moves it forward and then back, over and over until eventually the whole thing hangs evenly and gracefully without dipping. Trial and error, patience and curiosity, time and space without interruption, inspiration from nature. What a gift!
As I watch, it occurs to me, not for the first time, how I cherish these long hours we get to spend with the grandkids when school doesn’t get in our way. It brings back recollections of aimless days of homeschooling my own children, following their lead on adventures that were important mainstays of their learning. Once the grandkids started school, I missed those weekdays when we could get out like this whenever time, mood, and weather permitted, allowing these city kids to sink into nature.
“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”― John Muir
If nothing else, the quarantine has made their school days shorter and other activities non-existent, so we have both time and energy for adventures during the quieter hours of the week. It’s wonderful for all of us, and their parents too, who get a badly needed break.
The term “homeschooling” gets used a lot these days, since home is where school takes place now. Parents oversee their kids’ schoolwork in a way they didn’t have to when schools were open. They’re often the only adults who give assistance, check over school work, gather supplies, draw boundaries, and enforce deadlines. They’re even the sole playmates as well!
When we homeschooled our kids in the ’90s, rather than replicating school at home, our approach was to follow their interests, providing support and resources. They had the joy of learning without the boredom, fear, or resentment that can be part of a school environment. It was a beautiful combination of pre-school and college; the freedom to choose, along with an array of choices that allows for a deep dive. Plus we had a community of friends and resources to draw from.
The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.― Richard Louv, Our Wild Calling
To me, homeschooling is something parents and children choose as an alternative to school. But in this pandemic era, kids stay home and have to log on, tune in, listen more than speak, wait more than do, and finish assignments they sometimes have no interest in at the moment, all without the other benefits of classroom learning. It’s school-at-home, or a strange new hybrid.
But I’m no longer invested in those arguments we homeschoolers used to have about who is a true homeschooler and who is not. If anyone wants to call themself a homeschooler, that’s ok by me.
An upside to this new brand of schooling at home is that families have been encouraged to think more about what education means to them, what schools give (and don’t give) their children, and what works for their family. In the best cases, families have been freed to pursue an education that suits them all.
I also love that the word “homeschooling” is now part of the everyday vernacular. No one has to explain what they’re doing while they’re out and about during school hours, something we were endlessly challenged on 30 years ago.
One thing has become clear: working parents need support, whether it’s extended family, community, government sponsored school, or financial assistance. As grandparents, our role has become even more critical.
“Any child who can spend an hour or two a day, or more if he wants, with adults that he likes, who are interested in the world and like to talk about it, will on most days learn far more from their talk than he would learn in a week of school.”― John Holt
So this quarantined Fall, I used our extra time with the grandkids for outdoor adventures that included the piece of homeschooling that I love: offer a resource, then get out of the way. There is plenty in nature that intrigues kids, sparks their curiosity, excites them, elicits new questions and possibilities, and helps them settle into deep learning.
The Columbia River Gorge always catches our imagination with its sweeping majesty, untamed wildness, and wide rough waters. As soon as the eight year old caught sight of the sparkling blue of the river below, she ran full speed down the path to the water before the rest of us were even out of the car. It felt like the whole world lay at our feet.
In between moments of lugging around heavy rocks, digging in the sand with sticks, watching the tide visibly and inexorably creeping up, we discussed everything, much of it building on what they already knew. The river’s path – where it comes from, and where it leads to – how people use it, the explorers who traveled and worked here, the fish that swim and spawn, the formation of the Gorge, how the larger rocks might have arrived, and so many questions about tides.
The six year old made sure that I read every word of every information sign that dotted the state park entrance, and hung onto each explanation, somewhat familiar from stories they’ve heard about the Oregon Trail.
The steep drive up the Gorge cliffs to the Vista House overlooking the length of the Gorge gave us a sense of the majesty of the region, some local history and people involved in the area’s development, and a view of potential destinations for future exploring.
The Sandy River at Oxbow Regional Park was another rich place of discovery, surprising to me because, well, it’s a regional park. I’m still learning that the word “park” in Oregon means a lot more than a tiny plot of land with a few swings. We explored just a tiny part of the 1,000 acres.
We spent the day investigating the variety of rocks – shape, color, size, weight, origin – (volcanoes – always a favorite topic!). We heaved them into the river, predicting and watching the ripples, built dams and cairns, carefully choosing which rocks worked for each project. The boy lifted large rocks overhead, one in each hand, to compare weights. A man passed (just one all afternoon!), his head down as he searched the river’s shore. He was happy to explain, when the kids inevitably asked, that he was looking for a particular type of rock (I’ve forgotten the name), and how to identify it by color and texture. Of course this launched our own long search. Though I tire of some of these activities before them, it doesn’t matter, they’re free to take it as far as they want, and I’m just the support staff.
While the map showed us how the Sandy feeds into the Columbia before emptying into the Pacific Ocean, a salmon corpse we found on the river’s edge made that path come alive. Imagine, a fish finds its way from the Pacific all the way up the Columbia to this river, over 100 miles! It spawned, died, then as it decays it feeds other river creatures. It was an opportunity to discuss the magic and science of life cycles, as well as the dramatic confluence of the Columbia and Pacific in Astoria, again building onto what they already knew.
Exploring trees from a new and different angle.
A nearby landslide of big trees gave us a stunning view of nature’s fury. Seeing how the water’s level had recently been higher gave us a moment to wonder about the next winter storms and how the river would change. We’ll be back to check it out.
When far-flung pandemic-schooling in nature isn’t possible, snagging a short neighborhood exploration is a good option. Playing in our yard recently became a long walk as we followed paths of water from recent downpours draining downhill. We happened to have sticks with us that served as magical somethings (I’m never sure exactly what), and the kids ran from one drainage ditch to the next, gleefully examining water flowing from front yards and underground pipes, as it rushed and meandered into gutters and grates, then positing theories and hypotheses about it all. The sticks came in handy as non-magical measuring, poking, and prodding rods. We followed steep muddy paths, climbing and jumping, losing and regaining balance, and I recalled my childhood days of neighborhood adventure with no one stopping us. We did stop – but only when someone actually yelled at us for clambering around her vast front yard, which I took as a badge of honor for creative exploring.
We all have mixed feelings about resuming school at school instead of at home. Having these days has been a gift of time to experience deeper connections to the world and nature. It’s also highlighted the joys of interest-based, child-led learning – the best parts of homeschooling, or whatever you want to call it.
“We can best help children learn, not be deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they can do, answering their questions – if they have any – and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”― John Holt, Learning All the Time