Category Archives: How Unschooling Works

Unschoolers and Learning to Read

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Unschoolers and Learning to Read

When it comes to learning to read, kids have so many opportunities crossing their paths! Here’s a quick look at some of the ways words creep into your child’s life.

Remember, no one learns to read until they are READY. Schools are incorrect to believe that everyone is ready at the same time. And because of this, children whose brains were busy with other things end up feeling behind or ahead of the pack – and none of that is really true.

I don’t know if they still do this, but do you remember the “slow reading group” of the past?  What a horrible thing to be reminded every day that you’re in the slow group.  And even if they tried to be clever and call them the robin and the bluebird and the hummingbird group – kids knew if they were in with the smarter kids or those dubbed “dumb.” And if you’ve read much about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy… it certainly fits here!

So! The point of my rant is to say that all a parent needs do to is to expose their child to words, notice them when you’re at home or out and about.

Read to your kids – make it a cozy delightful experience.
Ditch the pressure.
Get rid of the timetables.
You have all the time in the world.

Windows for learning do NOT close!

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Unschooling Mom2Mom has an awesome Pinterest board dedicated to Learning to Read without pressure and coercion. Check it out for thought-provoking articles and inspiration!
UM2M Pinterest Board

The Homeschooler Post dedicated an entire issue to learning to read, with a special focus on late readers.
You might like that too!
Homeschooler Post: Reading

Here’s that same graphic from the “thumbnail” above
… only easier to read and/or share:

Reading UM2M

Unschooling Mom2Mom has an awesome Pinterest board dedicated to Learning to Read without pressure and coercion. Check it out for though-provoking articles and inspiration!

UM2M Pinterest Board

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Unschoolers and Recordkeeping

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Unschoolers and Recordkeeping

Sometimes unschoolers get mixed messages about recordkeeping. States vary on their requirements for homeschoolers – including unschoolers – to maintain various records. In many states no recordkeeping is required whatsoever. And in those that do, many do not require that these records be turned in to anyone nor do the specify how the recording should be done.  Of course, check your own state/local group for your laws. But be wary of anyone who thinks doing more than the state requires, is a good idea. It’s not. And for new homeschoolers/unschoolers, recordkeeping often gives the parent a sense of progress or a feeling of protection should anyone ask. Please don’t let your fears of governmental oversight crowd out your good judgement.  It’s a rare case that anyone ever even asks to see these records. (Usually it’s custody battles or legal issues that don’t even pertain to the child.) That said, some of us do enjoy looking back and seeing progress. Some of our kids (most of them?) like to look back at their own lives and see what they were doing or remember what life was like.  Acquiring life skills, personal AND physical growth, social settings, friends and relatives – all make for interesting trips down memory lane later on.

Recordkeeping Get creative and you can find a fun way to record what’s been going on. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or keep some dry teacher’s record book. Life has so much more to offer than that!

Try some of these:

  • Journaling about their lives and their activities
    – It’s nice to have a place to privately record everything that you HOPE you will remember
    – Some kids might love to write it themselves, either by hand or on the computer (tips on writing at Pinterest)
    – Decorating the cover and/or the pages – look at others on Pinterest (especially under “Art Journals”)
  • Photo Collection – hard copy or digital
    – Get memory sticks to take photos off the phone
    – Start folders to make it easier to find what you’re looking for
    – Stay safe and upload to Flickr, PhotoBucket, SmugMug, plus more options!
    – At the end of the year, compile the favorites for an annual book or video montage set to favorite songs.
    Groovebook, Shutterfly, Snapfish are companies that can help you compile your photos quickly (before you’re overrun with boxes from years and years!)
  • Scrapbooking
    – A creative hands-on project to do together
    – More fun for the artistic types
  • Blogging about the family’s adventures
    – Lots of free blog websites are available
    – Be sure to join the Facebook group for Homeschool/Unschool Bloggers. You can see a variety of ways people use blogging to share glimpses into their world. You don’t have to be a blogger to join the group.
  • Writing activities down after the fact in a planner or on a calendar
    – Perfect for the busy mom who is trying to remember it all
  • Pinterest boards can record cool things you’ve done, read, seen, explored
    – Create boards for interesting places you visited or want to visit
    – Create boards for movies & documentaries you saw or want to see
    – Create a board with photos of new creations (foods, crafts, etc)
    – Encourage your kids to get their own Pinterest account so it’s easy to share ideas
    – Unschooling Pinterest Board

For a collection of other unschoolers’ ideas about record keeping, be sure to look at
Recordkeeping  at the Unschooling Mom2Mom website.

Lean Into the Love

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Lean Into the Love

Parents with children older than mine would look at me when I expressed concerns and say, “Don’t worry,” or “They’ll figure it out.” Sometimes they’d tack on, “Just have fun with them.” They were so right. And I LOVE that they were!

Still, I worried about gaps. I worried about getting into college, or whatever higher learning they’d want to pursue. I didn’t want doors to close on them – I wanted them to have all the choices in the world. And in spite of my lapses in trust, or my occasional meltdowns about facts, they did have every opportunity they wanted. After a (mostly) radical way of unschooling our lives, they have been able to pursue whatever they want.

I applaud those moms of babies who are reading and learning about unschooling BEFORE they need to know. So many of their school-induced thoughts about learning can be dealt with before their kids are even school age. To deschool themselves before they’re in the thick of it will help so much. I didn’t know any homeschooling, let alone unschooling, families the year before we decided to take the plunge. The idea that keeping your kids home to learn and live would actually be good for them – and not just an act of self-indulgence by a mom who couldn’t let go – was not on my radar at all. I was a complete suburban soccer mom – although then it was T-ball and Tiger Cubs. I was surrounded by moms who were trying to find the right preschool or mother’s day out. I only knew people who encouraged distance from children so they could go back to work or follow their own pursuits or just get a little sleep! No one talked to me back then about leaning into all these feelings that come with having children.

This month, I’m hear to tell you to just lean into the LOVE. Look at your babies and toddlers and children and teens. See how they trust you. See how they look to you for support. See how you are their rock.

Please notice the math: You will probably live to be about 80. Your kids will need you as their sole support for maybe 20 years of that. That’s only 25% of your life. Most likely you’re over 20, so you’ve already spent the 1st 25%, kids are the next. That leaves 50% of your life to pursue whatever you want! And regardless of your first 20 years, if you REALLY focus on your children for the next 20, the second half of your life will be full of wonderful relationships with them as well as memories and plans for the future. It will be so much richer for focusing that one little 25% on them.

So here’s my list of LOVE…

Some of it I did well. Some of it, I wish I had done so much better. And if you’re still raising little ones, you have such an opportunity to learn from our choices and have an even better experience at this.

❤ LOVE who they are now.

Don’t try to shape them. Just sit with them and listen to their ideas. Share your opinions without squashing theirs. Stop yourself when you feel like you’re making judgements about them. Let them unfold naturally. If you focus on the LOVE you can let go of the FEAR.

❤ LOVE that you have the entire day to do with as you wish.

Create a home that is full of excitement and interesting things to explore – be it books or videos or pinecones or magnets. Play with them yourself. You’d be surprised how your own ability to play can come back. It’s human nature to play with things. It’s just that if you had to go to school, you were told to stop playing and settle down in your seat. In order to succeed in that setting, you had to learn to curb all your enthusiasm. It might take some time to entice those feelings back. But they’re there.

❤ LOVE that you live in a time and place where so many opportunities abound.

Use your community, and the community next to yours! Find cool places to explore. Learn with your children. Even if you think, “I’m not that interested in that,” it’s worth a try to check it out. There might be something there that you DO like. Or it might spark a new passion for your child. Show them that there are all KINDS of interesting adventures just outside your door. And now, looking them up on the internet makes it so much easier to find.

❤ LOVE that they can go see and touch and hear things in the real world.

Children who are tied to lesson plans or curriculum – whether they’re in the school or the home – can only read about these adventures. They have to wait to start their exploring later in their life, or after their “real work” is done when their brains are exhausted or worse.

❤ LOVE their interests.

Even if you’re not into video games or horses or Justin Bieber or BMXing, love it anyway. Show them you value their choices. Ask them questions about it. Nurture their passion instead of putting timers on to say how long they get to enjoy that. Take them to get that game they’re longing for. Ask them what game could you start on to learn what they love. Take them to horse stables. Take them with a friend to concert of their choice. Drop by the bike shop with them once a week to see what’s the latest. Find a magazine on BMX-ing.

Before you say, “I don’t want to put more money toward those choices,” maybe you should rethink that. It’s their passion! Even if it’s fleeting. It really will lead to something else – it always does. And they will have had the opportunity of seeing that they can look for passions without someone telling them how to find it or where to find it. Or what’s a good passion to have and what’s not.

Your LOVE will build their CONFIDENCE.

And as an unschooling parent, your job is to create an environment for them to learn and grow. They’ll need tools to do that.

AND it will improve your relationship. In the end, that’s what matters most: the LOVE between everyone in your family. When there’s a disconnect there, look to see what you’re afraid of happening. Because it all boils down to two things: Fear or LOVE. Just practice bringing it back to love. After all, learning their times tables by a certain age really doesn’t matter that much at all – their phones have calculators and for anything else, there’s GOOGLE.

“And in the end…the love you take…
Is Equal to…the Love you Make”

~Paul McCartney

Your Brain on Play

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kids playingStudies are showing the importance of playing. We’ve read Peter Gray’s fabulous work on the topic. Research is indicating that not only will play lead to more creativity, but it also will help with problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

When Michael, now 25, was forced to sit in a classroom all day for Kindergarten and 1st grade, I knew we were going to have a problem. He was a wiggler. And a talker. Being still was not his nature. Looking back years through the years, and thinking of all the kids we’ve known, it’s clear to me that most kids are not hard-wired for stillness.  Little kids, being forced to conform, rewarded for defying their nature, stifling so much of their core… all contributed to to our decision to bring Michael out of the classroom and home to learn.

But I just read this article from NPR, More Active Play Equals Better Thinking Skills for Kids?. I’m always fascinated with how the brain works. They did research on over 100 kids in an after school program. Even small changes in the children’s physical activity resulted in a better ability to focus and an increase in brain activity.

While this is written to help kids have better school performance, that doesn’t have be OUR focus. Maybe our kids want to problem solve better, maybe they are getting frustrated with a computer game. Because we’re home, we can switch it up as quickly as we want to.  Take a break, try a few minutes of dancing around the house, or racing to the mailbox, stimulate that portion of the brain that needs a little pick-me-up, and then see if the situation changes.

Brainstorm with your kids about what they could do for this little physical exercise – no sense in you coming up with a list that they don’t even like! Maybe it’s a bike ride, or shooting some hoops. What would they like to do? If they’re little, maybe they’d like to bat some balloons around the room or somersault down the hallway?

Be sure to talk to the kids about the point of all of this. All of us want to be better at those things that interest us. Learning how our own  brain works can be fascinating! When kids can see a direct cause and effect, they’ll be much more likely to give it a shot.

kids

Boys and Writing

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frustrationWhy are those two words never paired together? I’ve been reading about families who try to create environments that might coax their sons to write more. So I think it’s time to share how we dealt with writing, when my son was growing up.

I never really paid a lot of attention to Michael’s penmanship or his writing skills when he was in school. Maybe because he was only there for Kindergarten and First Grade!

I hadn’t read a lot about homeschooling before we started, but we dove in after Michael completed first grade. I didn’t know about unschooling yet, so we purchased what was called, “School in a Box” by Calvert from Baltimore, Maryland. Purchasing this prepackaged curriculum made me feel like I could tackle this homeschooling thing. I’d just spice it up and make it fun!

Handwriting

Instead of evaluating all of Calvert’s materials, I really want to talk about the writing component. It was all about handwriting. One day a week, or maybe it was every other week, they’d focus on creative writing. But handwriting – that was daily! I didn’t really understand why Michael writhed so when I asked him to pick up that Number 2 pencil. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to artistically shape the letters the way they had them in the book. I had been awarded the oh-so-prestigious Handwriting Award in the 5th grade – clearly we were not on similar paths. So I wrote to the teacher (yes, my confidence was so low that I felt we should have an expert guiding us for that first year!) I asked her if he could write his own stories and we’d turn in those paragraphs.

Quick answer: Nope! Certain letter formations were being addressed, and, why wasn’t he happy writing about the little red car all week long? We may have continued with it for a 1-2 weeks – bribing, begging, scolding, demanding.

I was not happy with the way either of us were acting. So I declared a truce.

I decided right then and there that I was going to be on Michael’s side. I knew that if we continued on this path, we would simply be duplicating the schoolish ways I was trying to help my son avoid!  If we kept it up, I could make him absolutely HATE writing. As a writer myself, this was simply unacceptable!  I told him we weren’t going to do the writing part anymore. He was relieved.  We would go ahead and turn in whatever he wanted to write about, and we’d take whatever grade she wanted to give. No biggie.

But it was a biggie. On multiple levels. The teacher was unhappy that we weren’t complying. Michael was unhappy because he still had to write. It was never about the little red car at all. He simply wasn’t developmentally ready to do the physical work of writing. He gripped tightly, when he should loosen. His fingers worked down toward the lead. His frustration with all of it increased. He started to cry.

Usually, I would get mad that he wasn’t cooperating. I had two younger kids that were quite a handful, and he was my oldest. In retrospect, I’m saddened to think of the pressure I put on him to “be a big boy,” when he was still a very little boy.  I know I was just trying to manage, but sometimes our parenting techniques aren’t that great when we’re in the thick of it. But on this day, something changed. I looked out the window of his room. The snow was falling and collecting on the tree branches. Our Alaskan home felt very far from Calvert in Baltimore.

pencil snapped

It was at that moment, I felt the shackles of school fall away.

We weren’t going to turn in writing, hoping to squeak by with her approval and a passing grade. We weren’t going to turn in any writing at all!   Michael looked at me and grinned. I picked up the pencil and snapped it in two. Done!

Instead, we picked up a book and started reading together. He reminded me of the “book reports” he did in school. The teacher mimeographed (it was the 90’s!) a piece of paper. They had to write in the title, the author, check boxes about liking or disliking it. Maybe they had to write one sentence. It was, after all, first grade.  He was playing with his Fimo clay while we were talking and reading. He asked if he could make something representational out of clay for every book he read. And that’s what he did. We had a bunch of classics that had been adult literacy books on sale at the bookstore. He loved that he could read those books – and every other page had a picture! He made a bowl of porridge for Oliver Twist, a spear for Moby Dick, a small boat for Kidnapped  – all out of clay. He set them on his shelf and could easily see how many books he was reading.

Creative Writing

Then we decided to try something new. Michael was full of imaginary stories he wanted to create!  But the mechanics of handwriting made it impossible to get any of it down on paper. So we decided to do dictation. I chose an italicized font that looked most like handwriting from the computer, in hopes that that would help him be able read the cursive writing in letters from Grandma and others. Then we began creating stories. He would start telling me about the main character and I’d begin typing. When he started to slow, I’d ask him to describe the character – what was he wearing, how did he feel, what made him do that?  I told him that sometimes when we write, we have to really describe the characters and the environment, so the reader can feel like they’re there. And that’s what he did. I tried hard to let him just enjoy the flow of creating the story, with very little interference from me. In retrospect, I think I would have interjected even less.  We did this for a while, and still have some of those early stories.

Later On…

Life got busy, with three kids, and volunteer work.  After a while, Michael preferred to play video games or hang out with friends instead of our dictation time. Truthfully, I probably wasn’t making time for it much anymore. He was off having fun.

Years passed. Michael continued to read, but I never asked him to write. Occasionally, I’d plunge my hands into dish water and ask him to start a grocery list for me.  He wrote thank you notes to Grandma for Christmas and birthday gifts. At first, we used a program called Start Write. I could write out what he dictated, and then print it with dotted lines that he could trace. If you use a felt tipped marker or a sharpie, no one would even know he had traced the letters!  It looked just like a perfect little thank-you note!  As Michael got older, his writing improved. He could clearly form the letters and didn’t have nearly the frustrating time with writing any more.  His letters didn’t look that great, but in looking at the other boys in his scout troop or in 4H, he wasn’t the only one with so-so handwriting. He could type quickly on the computer, and it became clear that his generation might never have great handwriting.  I was well aware that handwriting is just a tool to communicate. And if he could communicate his thoughts through typing, then the goal was achieved.

Time passed for me too. I read more about unschooling, and the pitfalls of coerced learning. It all resonated with me.  We went on about our lives and writing simply didn’t make the cut for how we wanted to spend our time.

I will share with you that when my friends who had girls that were creatively journaling, I was jealous. Why didn’t my kids want to do that? I’d buy notebooks and pens, but projects out in the community would win out for Michael. He simply wasn’t interested in sitting down to journal.  And, of course, comparison is never a good thing. One kid excels in one area while another is busy learning a different skill. It’s school that brainwashes us to try to compete for that top spot. Learning, has very little to do with any of that.

Going to College

At about age 17, Michael decided he wanted to go to community college.  The entrance exam was divided into reading, math and writing. We knew he’d be fine with the Reading. He did some extra work on the computer to prepare for the Math. And, to be honest, I don’t remember doing much prep work for the Writing component, other than a little grammar labeling and whatever the college gave us as the practice test. He was still pretty resistant to writing.

The time came and he went in to take the exam.  He did fine with the grammar aspect, but the essay was all about Texas’ law, “No Pass, No Play.” Strangely, all of the community college topics for the essays pertain to a particular school “issue.”  He was familiar with what “No Pass, No Play” meant, because we had a habit of discussing the local news or we’d talk about the latest Time or Newsweek magazines. The essay was to be a persuasive paper, and he could choose whichever side he wanted.

I hadn’t really prepared him for that. So he simply started writing about the topic. He wrote about seeing both sides to the argument. But in the end, he ranted somewhat about “what if the only thing that kid is good at is football – how can you take that from him?” and “why do schools want to make everyone the same?” You get the idea.

While it might have been an interesting paper to an unschooler who wouldn’t mind a little rambling, it didn’t please the community college administration, and he failed.

This time, he was more inclined to listen to my input about how to write a persuasive paper that would pass.  I showed him the 5 part paragraph – Intro, 3 supporting paragraphs, and Closing. Minimum of three sentences to a paragraph.This was what they were looking for. Stick with one side, and present that in your three arguments. And, throwing in a fancy adverb or two like “incidentally” or “additionally” would increase his points when they were grading.

We did a practice run-through on what they suggested at their website and off he went the following week. His topic was School Uniforms – Pro or Con?  He followed the formula and passed the test. Not flying colors, but good enough to be able to take any of the classes he wanted there.

Michael's Graduation

Fast forward a bit more, and Michael transferred from the community college to a four year university. He decided that he wanted to continue to travel and needed a job that could help pay for him to go off and see the world. That’s when he thought about becoming a travel journalist.  He still loved storytelling and especially loved interviewing people. He landed a job at the University Star, the campus newspaper, and enjoyed writing up articles about local events or personalities in his college town.

At 21, Michael graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Journalism, and a minor in Archaeology/Anthropology. He primarily types his stories these days. And you can read more from him in his blog In the Nica Time.

In Retrospect

I feel really good about not pushing Michael with handwriting. I wish I had carved out more down time, so we could have done more dictating. We both loved that. And, today, with blogging, how cool would it have been to start a blog of the stories they create? Their imaginations are so fabulous!

We ended up developing his fine motor skills completely separate from holding a pencil.  He was busy forming clay figures, building Playmobile structures and playing with Legos. These activities fueled his imaginative stories, and he’d play with them for hours on end.

I’m so glad we didn’t stick with the handwriting exercises. All that would have done is create an adversarial relationship between us as well as additional obstacles to the idea of any writing whatsoever.

For those of you still concerned, I can only advise you to relax. Writing will work itself out – just like other educational pursuits do. If your child is already stressed about it, do what you can to eliminate that downward spiral. Shift gears. Continue with helping them find fun ways to build their fine muscle strength, or try our story writing technique! Give them time to develop a little more and then present some other opportunity down the road.

One Little Word: WITH

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One Little Word: WITH

Lots of people come to unschooling wondering what it’s all about. While some shake their head and fall back in line with more familiar ways of thinking, others are compelled to learn more about it. They read books, join email lists, engage with people at local parkdays. Unschoolers share how they’ve come to embrace the concept or how they overcame those schoolish thoughts and ways that seem to be so ingrained in our patterns of life.

New unschoolers seem to be mesmerized by examples of daily life in an unschooling home. We share what happens in a day, demonstrating flexibility and humor.  We explain that one day can be so incredibly different from another – still they want to hear more. Some veteran unschoolers go to great lengths to answer questions, guide newcomers, dispel fears.

But in spite of all these detailed discussions, advice, and guidance, I’ve come to realize the importance of one small word in the success of unschooling families.

What is the word?

WITH.

A simple preposition that makes all the difference. Think of how important that word is, when you visualize these scenarios.

Camping Together

Camping Together

Playing WITH your children.

….board games
….card games
…..video games
….make believe
…in the treehouse
….on the tire swing
….in the fort in the living room
…. in the pail of bubbles

Working WITH your children

Playing at the Beach

Playing at the Beach

….on how to assemble a kite
….or ride a horse or a bike or a jet ski
….about how to change a flat tire
….on how to use mod podge, or make stepping stones
….on how to build a power point, or connect the modem
….or how to unstop a toilet or run the washer

Talking WITH your children
….about getting a new pet
….about which movie to go see
.about how friends treat each other
….about advertising you both see/hear on TV or billboards or radio
….about what kind of job he might like
….about why grandma has to repeat things so often

Hiking at Yellowstone

Hiking at Yellowstone

Interacting WITH your children
….about how they feel when kids are mean
….about how to stand up for what’s right
….about how to really listen and fight the urge to interrupt
….about what can be done about the homeless man on the corner
….about what you can do when you feel bored
….about what’s considered rude or inconsiderate or kind or helpful
….about grocery shopping, or laundering, or cooking

I’m sure you can come up with a bazillion more examples of things you do WITH your child. I just want you to realize that no matter what it is – the WITH aspect is the most important part!

Remember 20 years ago, the debate was “Quality” time vs. “Quantity” time? It had a lot to do with women choosing careers – but it’s really not that black and white.

You can have “quality time,” and just not enough of it.
And you can have “quantity time,” but not be engaged or really present with your children.
It’s never simple, is it? You have to walk into it all consciously – checking and rechecking to be sure you’re parenting in the way that you want. You have to put down the phone or the internet, and really focus on your child standing in front of you, playing beside you. Connect with them.

Modeling behavior, having heartfelt discussions, getting the opportunity to share life experiences can only happen when you’re WITH them. It seems obvious, but sometimes when you’re tired or the kitchen is a mess, parents can get impatient and prefer the kids to go do something in the other room. That’s when I want you to remember the little word: WITH.  Time will fly, and your relationship with your child as an adult as well as so many aspects of their own personality, will be directly related to how much WITH Time you gave them.

So if you have to, paste a little piece of scrap paper like the one above with the word “With” on your bathroom mirror…or your put it up on your fridge with a magnet… paint it, cross-stitch it, print it – whatever you have to do to keep it in the front of your mind!

All of us together before
Michael left for the Peace Corps,
Katie left for NYC,
and Alyssa got engaged

 

Following a Passion

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When we lived in Alaska, a small horse stable was located on the outskirts of the Air Force base. We’d have to pass it everyday, as we drove in toward the neighborhoods. Alyssa was mesmerized. She and Ron would identify which horses were out in the pasture. As winter approached, the horses spent a little more time in the barns. So when Ron dropped Michael off at Tiger Cubs, he and Alyssa would go to the stables and talk to the horses for that hour. Sometimes they’d talk to the owners, sometimes they’d bring carrots or apples or sugar cubes.

Alyssa was shy around people, but not around horses. She’d walk her tiny self – she was all of about 4 years old – up to the stalls, and pet those enormous horses. Ron would hold her up and she’d rub their faces, speaking softly to them. They’d talk about different horse breeds and how they looked and acted. Soon the owners came to know them, and they’d share stories about their horses.  We thought about how nice it would be someday, to own our own horse farm.

So when the Air Force took us to California after Alaska, we knew we needed to find a horse farm. We couldn’t buy one, but we sure could hang out at someone else’s! We wanted to find riding lessons for all of the kids; Ron decided he wanted to learn too. He found ManMar Ranch near our home. ManMar was interesting because it was a breeding ranch for the UC Veterinary school. We found a riding instructor named Miss Shirley.  She was from England and wanted everyone to learn English instead of Western. Being a HUGE John Wayne fan family, that did not sit well. Miss Shirley explained that it was a better way to learn. Less leather between you and your horse, means you will be able to read each other better.  So that’s what we did. And we decide to learn something, we immerse ourselves. Ron and the kids would offer to help the ranch owner, Liz, with whatever she needed. She had stable hands, but they had a lot to do. Soon, my kids were moving horses from one field to another, bringing them into their stalls for the night, helping with feeding, chatting with owners. When one of the mares was about to have a foal, Liz called us to come up and watch. A miracle in the barn – without a doubt!

The UC Vets let the kids look through microscopes, talked with them about injuries, and explained artificial insemination. They all learned about the dangers of getting too close to the hormone-raging stallions, as well as the mares who were used solely for breeding. They were referred to as the Crazy Mares. I guess you would be too if you were pregnant most of your life! This happens in the horse racing world. Expensive race horses cannot run the risk of a problem pregnacy. So the Crazy Mares do all the work, so to speak.
Liz had shared her horses with us. First it was Pepper (For Dr. Pepper), then it was Louie. Finally she wanted us to try to ride Gilley. He was a Standard bred bay colored horse who had not done well on the track. He was fast, but he was easily spooked at the gate. While that’s no good for a race horse, it’s not that bad for a family horse. Ron and Michael spent many days there helping them build a covered riding arena, learning how to break in horses – all to barter with Liz, work for boarding costs for Gilley.  Liz loved her horses. So when Alyssa clearly loved them too, they were connected. She even hosted a birthday party for Alyssa out at the ranch, letting all of her friends climb onto different horses and go for a ride.

pasture

Katie’s interest in horses faded. But Michael, Alyssa and Ron continued their horse love affair. So when the Air Force was ready to move us back to Texas, we decided we had to have a ranch! Boarding costs
alone made it sound like a good idea. But really, it was clear that we were bringing more animal interests into our lives. We already had a parakeet, a turtle, a dog, a cat, a guinea pig and some tadpoles that would never morph into frogs (I’ll save that story for another post!) So we bought 16 acres on a hill northwest of Wichita Falls, in a community that was just a dot on map: Thornberry. Before long, we acquired 2 more horses, Dolly and Cimarron.

But we also acquired chickens, ducks, guineas, guinea pigs, goats, cows, a donkey, a bull, cockatiels, parakeets, feral cats and guard dogs.  We built a chicken coop and raised chicks. We learned how the light affects the egg production and how to keep chickens safe from coyotes and bull snakes. We wrote stories about the animals and the various adventures and mysteries that happened on the ranch. The kids bought a breeding pair of cockatiels and started a cockatiel business. They trained the birds so theycould be handled and hand-fed and sold the babies to other families. They helped with the birthing of calves, trimmed hooves on goats, and even buried a much loved cat that we had brought with us from Alaska. They bottle-fed kittens that had been abandoned in a neighbor’s barn. They learned how soft a donkey’s nose is and how stubborn a bull can be. They entered their dogs in 4H competitions, even winning some of them! They learned about horse tack and temperaments. We bought materials to build stalls and run fencing.  The kids shared their information with other “city kids” who had no idea we had only just left the ‘burbs ourselves.  We met other horse owners in the ranches nearby. Alyssa even delivered Girl Scout cookies by horseback!  Our kids knew what was safe and what was important on the ranch.

We stayed on our ranch in Thornberry for 5 years. We learned so much there!  Alyssa was a late reader and didn’t retain many math concepts. But she could spot a Thoroughbred and tell you all the difference between a Buckskin and a Palomino. She knew her tack and her horses. It really made me smile to look out the kitchen window and see her pull her horse, Dolly, over toward the hot tub or the fence gate. She’d climb up so she’d be tall enough to hop onto the bare back of the horse. Then she’d ride laps around the house, down the driveway, and around the fence lines. It gave her a confidence that would see her through many of the obstacles she’d face later in life. Our “pets” taught all of them that animals need their human to do a lot of hard work – every day. If it was cold and windy, they still had to be fed. If it was raining, someone still needed to close up the chicken coop door.

I’m sharing these stories for a couple of reasons.  For one, this is what following our passions looked like.  Ron noticed Alyssa was interested in horses in Alaska and found a way for her to see one up close. Connecting all the dots is something you can see clearly when it’s retrospective; but while you’re living it, you simply have to step toward the interest and see where you go.  These steps led to a 10 year adventure with animals – for the whole family!

But also I’d like to give you a glimpse to what “learning naturally” looks like. The lessons are bigger. They’re richer than worksheets. They are real life. My kids learned that if you love something, it’s within your grasp… even if you have to shift some priorities to get it. People might look at you funny saying, “You’re going to do what? A real ranch?” But anything is attainable if you walk through the steps to get there.  That is so much more important to learn than long division or reading by 8.

In spite of – or more likely *because of* – this nontraditional approach toward learning, my kids did learn to read and to write.  
     Michael (almost 23) got a degree in Journalism and is a Peace Corps Volunteer. 
     Katie (21) is studying at a film acting conservatory in New York city. 
     Alyssa is completing her cosmetology program, ready to start her career at 18.