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Real Learning Happens Daily

Isabel Shaw

When I started homeschooling my five-year-old daughter, Jessica, I modeled our day after a traditional school day — with the teacher teaching, and the student listening attentively and learning. Lesson plans were in order, and I had a plentiful supply of colorful worksheets, posters, new crayons, and lots of paper. Jessica thought this special type of school was great fun — for about 20 minutes. Then she let me know in no uncertain terms that she was done with this "game," and she was ready to go back and play with her toys.

I decided I had to find a way to make the schoolwork more interesting. I tried to create games that incorporated the subject matter I wanted to teach. That worked well until my daughter caught on that these "games" were thinly disguised lesson plans, and not nearly as much fun as "real" games. She refused to participate, and anything that even resembled teaching was met with strong resistance.

I, of course, asserted my parental authority and upped the ante. Rewards were offered for being a "good" student, and loss of privileges occurred when she refused to cooperate. I usually won, but even when I won, it was a hollow victory. Yes, I could force her to do the schoolwork, but she obviously wasn't enjoying the process. Was this really what I wanted? Why wouldn't Jessica let me teach her?

A friend who had homeschooled for a few years stepped in and gave me some good advice. She said, "Maybe Jessica is just not interested in what you are trying to teach her right now. It is ridiculous to believe that all children should learn the same thing at the same age. Children (and adults) all have such different needs and interests. Jess is learning all the time, not just when you teach her. Learning should be a natural part of life — not a block of information we have to force-feed our kids. If your family lives an active and fulfilling life, it will be impossible for her NOT to learn."

Although I didn't quite believe her at the time, I knew my way wasn't working. So I stepped back, stopped formal teaching, and started watching. My friend was absolutely right.

I discovered that children have an insatiable desire to learn. If their desire is nurtured and encouraged, the possibilities are endless. As an observer rather than a teacher, I found that the only time learning was slow and cumbersome was when my "teaching" got in the way! So I let go of the teaching model used in school, and we no longer focused on "fourth-grade science" or "sixth-grade geography."

As I watched my children step outside the box of grades and subjects, I discovered that learning is a continuous process, with one "subject" naturally overlapping another. While pursuing their interests, children learn. In fact, when they are doing something they love, their learning occurs at an accelerated rate. I have witnessed this consistently for the last 15 years.

Each day presents unique learning opportunities. Your job is to tune in to your child's interests and talents, then provide the resources or tools that will enable your child to pursue them. In the process of exploring, researching, and enjoying a current passion or interest, the average child will learn what he needs to know, and will be at or above grade level.

For instance, my 11-year-old daughter, Mandi, recently found the biggest, fattest caterpillar I have ever seen. She scooped it up and ran into the house, looking for a book on insects. She discovered it was the larva of the Polyphemus moth. More research led her to construct a "house" (from a box) for the caterpillar, complete with live oak and maple seedlings and other accoutrements that Polyphemus larvae are supposed to love. The creature formed a cocoon and we are currently awaiting the arrival of a new moth.

We followed up the caterpillar discovery with a quick trip to the library, and brought back a stack of colorful books on butterflies, moths, trees, insect pests, and bats. Some of the books were below her reading level, but the pictures were great, and simpler text often makes it easier to gather factual information. Last night Mandi spotted a Polyphemus moth on our porch screen (with a six-inch wing span!) and she is now able to identify many moths and butterflies in our garden.

And so, another homeschool educational adventure has begun. Sometimes my children will pursue an interest for weeks, even months. Often one passion branches off into another, never really ending, but taking a new direction and continuing.

Compare this type of learning to taking out a textbook and saying, "Today we are going to learn about the life cycle of moths and butterflies…." Both of my kids would have gone into automatic snooze mode. But when a learning opportunity presents itself and I (subtly) provide tools and opportunities for further study, learning becomes a part of living, not something to be done in a particular place between the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 3 P.M. By utilizing our local library and having a few good resources on hand (such as the Golden Guide Books and the Peterson Field Guide series), we were able to pursue an interest that had been sparked by finding a common insect, and that led to weeks of study. Follow your child's lead, and she will discover for herself that learning is fun, interesting, and something that occurs naturally, every day.

With teens, this learning style becomes even more fascinating to observe. My older daughter developed an interest in sewing after joining a 4-H sewing club when she was eight years old. She quickly learned fractions and measurements through garment construction, and over the years has expanded those skills by designing her own patterns.

As a teen, she decided she wanted to create authentic historical costumes, but first she needed to learn about clothing through the ages. Her clothing studies encompassed the social and political climate of the time periods. Food, famine, war, and literature — all were intertwined with her research. And soon she fell in love with history.

Making all those costumes and garments can get rather costly, but her sewing interest is also a source of income — she now gives private and group sewing lessons. She recognizes and appreciates the fact that homeschooling allowed her to pursue her love of sewing and designing, as far as it would take her.

Getting Started


If you need some inspiration, turn off the TV, get out of the house, and do things with your kids. Visit museums, bookstores, a lake, a reservoir, a beach, or the local firehouse. Parks often offer free educational programs, and many businesses give free tours to homeschool groups. Call local theaters and ask if they offer discount school programs. We regularly see $35 shows for the $6 student rate, and live theatre is a fantastic springboard into many new subjects.

I have to warn you: this type of learning isn't neat, does not go by grade level, and your child's interests may be very different from your own. Sometimes you have to be prepared to learn something new yourself, or to find some other adult who shares your child's interest and is willing to help him explore it. And sometimes you may need to stand back and encourage your child to conduct her own research.

There may be days, even weeks, when it doesn't appear to you that your child is "learning" anything. But learning is sometimes like a seed waiting to sprout. It looks like nothing is going on, but with a little love and the right kind of attention, ideas and interests suddenly emerge and real learning begins. There is also a certain joy in sharing new discoveries with your children, and relearning things you have long forgotten.

So keep talking with your kids and enjoy your time together. When they say something like, "Did people really eat with their hands in medieval times?" or "Why does a rainbow have all those colors?" know that you are being invited to join a learning adventure that you will never forget.

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