Friday, September 21, 2018

A snapshot of things that come up unschooling three little kids

A lot of this is likely to change as we find a new rhythm with my parents on the property, but I thought my last post about unschooling was pretty abstract so I wanted to be more specific today. A lot of people ask about unschooling if you work or do other things-- and this is us-- we juggle and it works out!

The last few months of building my parents house has meant our schedule has been complicated and busy, and coincided with Noah (8) and Eli (6) getting really into Minecraft (and now Terraria), while Hana (2) has needed a lot of our hands-on time. Part of me thinks that they got so into Minecraft because we were not as available to do fun and interesting things with them, and because the winter has brought a lot more illness this year than previous years. So the boys have played a lot of Minecraft. I say that totally fearful of judgement, and yet supportive of their strategy because our house has remained peaceful and happy during a potentially intense, overstretched time.

I'm not [yet] an unschooling mom who totally understands when my kids want to spend large chunks of the day gaming, but I have learned that it's all in how your perceive the situation (even if there are limits how far you can stretch yourself in the moment). I have said on various occasions to Eug "I think they are playing too much Minecraft!" I like that that hasn't led to us reverting to control. If a partner or another loved one was doing something you were concerned about: you might talk to them, see if they perceive an issue, discuss how to support them, protect your own boundaries, see what their motivations were or what they were going through or getting out of their approach. This is more or less what we've done,  and it's been an opportunity to reflect, and to think through how to support the kids in their interest, while also figuring out the extent to which they're playing to numb difficult feelings. It has been a chance to notice and appreciate that they have found ways to to meet their own needs and spend their days tremendously gracefully during a busy time. I appreciate that they'll know themselves better from these few months-- we talk about what we're doing with our days and why-- not in judgement but with interest, to reflect and think through choices and options. In doing this, I also notice that I'm making not-perfect choices: I have kept up with farm chores and propagation for our nursery, and with from-scratch cooking-- both of which require a huge amount of time and energy-- because that's was what I needed to do for myself. Yet this has come with costs and I could have sat with Noah, Eli and Hana more than I have done. So I'm working on doing that, now. In an ideal situation, we'd be giving them plenty of opportunities to connect and do other things if that's what they want. We were working to bring up the adult-child ratio on the farm, and so the temporary trade-offs seemed right to us.

Most days, either Eug or I wakes up early to start work (I sometimes go into work when I need to be at meetings, and then I leave very early to avoid traffic), and the other person gets to wake with the kids, start coffee and oats, feed the animals, and check on the state of the farm with Hana. When Eug is working, the boys don't play Minecraft because we don't have enough devices, so the kids and I will do something inside together, or work on something out on the farm (or sometimes I'll work on something, and they'll just join me). I bake a lot with Hana and occasionally do some cooking with Noah; Eli's favourite thing is to play boardgames and make up elaborate stories together. When with Eug, they'll often play Minecraft, with Eug in the background participating where he can (he'll sometimes play with them also).

Eug and I will switch after a few hours, and whoever is caring for the kids will make lunch. In the later afternoon, we will either be with individual kids, or Eug will work on the house and I will take the kids out to the beach, or to a couple of classes they participate in (clay lessons, swimming lessons, speech therapy, Scouts). I do speech therapy practice with Eli, while playing Star Realms, his favourite card game! It's not rushed most of the time. I will sometimes walk down the street with one or two kids, to our nursery and check in on how things are going. The kids will sometimes pair up and play together for a while-- legos, magnatiles, or telling stories outside, until something happens (If Hana is involved) and conflict comes and goes. I sometimes feel very busy if I look at the number of jobs I seem to have in addition to my actual full time job at the university. Then I settle into the actual day: what I actually need to do, and it is always doable-- though the issue of our kids' less visible needs is definitely something I'm thinking about more, as I tend to go from one task to the next, and kids are not tasks.

Amidst the imperfection, all three kids seem to learn what is relevant to navigate their day-to-day life, and what they enjoy-- I remain convinced that we can learn naturally, given interested and supportive people around us. We try to offer lots of interesting options, which sometimes are taken up, and sometimes aren't. I am not measuring whether they progress similarly to others of their age, though I do try to observe if they are stuck in a rut and if we can help. I do marvel at all they know from our reading of copious fiction and non-fiction together, and from watching Youtube-- this is even without me understanding all their skills from playing Minecraft-- and those are abundant. We discuss so many things together during the course of the day. I read quite a lot for work (and enjoyment), and talk to them about what I'm learning, and about what I'm learning about farming, also. All three kids can spot a spekboom from 100m (CUTTINGS MOMMY-- they even know the spekboom-on-pavement map of our routes and sometimes will generously say "There's a spekboom coming up soon, you can stop the car"). They know the kind of pelargonium that only grows naturally on Ou Kaapse Weg, know the difference between English, Dutch, French and Spanish lavenders (I learned this like a month ago) and can identify which chicken laid which egg based on size and colour. They know how to care for many different animals. More than what they know or don't know, we are learning how to relate to one another, and how to relate to other people, also.

Star Realms

We still get to the beach a lot


Soap carving

Found a lizard tail- it was still moving!

matching Minecraft and real life stones

Silvermine dam- it was too cold to swim so we walked around the dam instead. I could not keep up with my 2 year old, which is a bizarre twist.

dinosaur tea party.



Thursday, September 13, 2018

Some experiences unschooling

A few people have recently asked about how and why we are unschooling, and in the moment I usually mumble something incoherent about autonomy. I wanted to reflect a little more deeply here, though not comprehensively, as supporting our kids' education is inevitably complex. Noah would be in Grade 2 this year, and I've written about unschooling in the past (though I cringe at some of those posts). School can seem really innocuous to those who thrive in those settings (or seem to), so I'm grateful for a firstborn who is sensitive and challenged so many of my assumptions.

The experience of unschooling, to me, has been a move away from outcomes, towards the journey, and towards connecting with my kids. If you've ever read this blog, you know I plan and scheme and will suffer seemingly endlessly for a goal (I think this is partly a result of school). This can serve me well, at times, but it also means I struggle to be present for the ride.  It also means that my tendency is to think of the future for my kids-- and inevitably, because I'm that kind of person-- to constantly be measuring my kids' successes.

In fairly Calvinist (conservative Christian) settings as a child, during college and our early years of marriage, there were a lot of fairly awful ideas about children. Alongside these were also quite negative ideas of God-- and these were tightly wrapped up in a highly patriarchal social structure. What was terribly confusing is that God (and parents, leaders, and teachers) did not necessarily have to be kind or considerate-- they could do anything and say it was "for our own good." A consequence of being in this kind of setting is that one cannot trust one's own feelings. Don't even get me started on what it was like to be a girl and a woman in these settings! Not only could we not trust our own desires and motivations, we also could not trust God to be good, all the time. I am not sure if this influences how kids in schools are being taught around the world-- I am outside of that world right now-- but I want to move away from my tendency to see my children as vessels to be urgently filled (with skills, or knowledge, or even values), whether or not they want that skill. While self-reflection is powerful-- I want my kids to be the ones doing the reflecting on their desires and motivations, not me or another adult. In this sense, unschooling is less about learning and more about relating-- knowing that in healthy relationships it is easy to learn and grow.

There are a lot of people who believe God is always good who don't unschool, so I think my experiences are the result of a particular, non-universal, journey. Still, unschooling has brought a helpful consistency: In imagining a more relational, less capitalist, less power-based, less shame-filled/competitive society, a lot of ideas align, albeit messily (and inconsistently). We can enjoy our lives while remaining responsible and responsive to our contexts.

So as I grow with our kids, the value of unschooling is less about outcomes and more about finding ways to be consistently kind and support our kids, while being careful to attend to our own journey, responsibilities, and boundaries. It is a way to trust our children and try our best to connect with them, which is harder than it sounds. It does not mean leaving them to do their own thing, but finding opportunities for them to get to know themselves, and to shine. It means creatively finding ways to meet all the needs of all family members, and be explicit when we are struggling to do so because of financial, time, or energy constraints. What I want them to feel is an abundance of opportunity, and an abundance of love-- a complicated abundance, given friendships with those who have much less than we do-- but abundance nevertheless.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

August 2018: building my parents' house, no electricity, no drainage, no stove

Noah started a YouTube channel of his own...

My parent's house is built. This time around, the person managing the build was lovely, and we were able to implement all we learned from our last construction attempt (just you wait until we build a third house... no...wait...).

another red house!
As with all construction/renovation -- in our family at least-- things started to get really hard at one point around two months ago. We had no electricity, little water, no drainage (our greywater system was dug up to make way for my parents' house). We also had some unsettling break-ins, and our whole family got unusually sick. All the while Eug was taking a very active role building parts of the house, and I had to keep up with work and both of us still need to care for our kiddos (who, admittedly, have been playing a lot of minecraft).

Previously when I had heard about homesteader burnout, my response was a pretty smug, "you don't know how tough I am." I am sorry for that smugness. I think burnout is very normal because homesteading is often illogically difficult, and when you're in the thick of it you can't remember exactly why you're sitting cold, dark and sick in a modern city. Self-righteousness just feels stupid! At that point, we often end up at the McDonald's playground, though this time we didn't-- not because we're above it but just because somehow the brief satisfaction no longer feels worth it (if you want to get serious about being frugal, buy a nursery and track all non-essential spending to how much more you could pay your employees.. no wait, don't! Seriously, though, the nursery has changed my experience of money in a pretty visceral way.).

In these experiences, we are learning homesteading is less about self-sufficiency and more about learning about deep interconnectedness-- our dependence on the grid, on not having our stuff stolen, on the weather and our surrounding ecology/soil, on technology, on our fragile health. Even though we can sometimes produce some of our own food, we're inherently vulnerable, and understanding that vulnerability increases our empathy for those around us who are indeed cold, in the dark, and sick (and maybe even hungry) in our supposedly modern city. It's still possible to keep learning from our mistakes and to slowly work on resilience-- not to make ourselves invincible but to learn to be more peaceful, empathetic, and hopefully less exploitative.

Part of resilience seems to be making peace with hardship and imperfection, and being able to cope with our own smallness and lack of control and knowledge. For the first time, in the thick of it, we haven't just fantasized about moving somewhere where we imagine we wouldn't have problems: we're rooted here, at least for the next while. I am constantly learning new things I didn't know I didn't know. There's a spiritual dimension to this process, which for me takes the drudgery away and replaces it with a sense of wonder.

In hard times, there's anger and indignation and a sense of helplessness-- perhaps it is this age of Trump (though perhaps there is also the Eritrean-Ethiopian peace to look to in amazement and hope). I am not sure where it comes from or where it will go, but there is injustice and inconsistencies in our own lives that could take a lifetime to work out, so perhaps it is not right to direct anger towards an other (Here I don't mean to advocate apathy). Again, there is something to be said for empathy in absurd situations, for the bigness and goodness of God, and tapping into that rather than into the despair enacted around us.

Hana has been cutting her hair and, unrelatedly, bringing a lot of grass to Bubbles...

Minecraft and orange juice...
Potato planting. Our vegetable garden has been a bit of mess with grass taking over, but we've planted a lot of potatoes  and garlic because that was what I could wrap my head around, and with a few hours work I'm cautiously optimistic about the growing season ahead.


With building we haven't had time to think too much about farming -- either starting seeds or caring for fruit trees. Thankfully it is winter, so watering is taken care of by the rain. Perhaps because of the winter, we still had a fair amount to eat from the garden, and there's quite a bit of self-seeded vegetables emerging. I can see that a little bit of consistent work (primarily involving improving the soil) over several years is cumulative-- we may well get as much food this summer as last summer, despite my lack of attentiveness. Having kids is also helpful- I plant with them, with more attention to the process and less to whether we'll grow anything. I figure a pack of seeds is a pretty affordable homeschool lesson, right? And over time, we have a garden.

On optimism: I remember two early goals on my farm googledocs spreadsheet: to have around 20 granadilla vines throughout the farm, and to have around 10 tamarillo trees. I struggled to start tamarillos from seed, and granadillas kept being destroyed by ducks or weevils. At the time it seemed impossible and things kept failing. Two years later, this goal is no problem-- 16 granadilla vines are already well established and some more are newly planted on my parent's fence, with plenty (60 or so) ready to be sold or planted depending on space and irrigation. We were able to get just one tamarillo to a good size, and it fruited this past fall. I planted some tamarillo seeds from this one fruit haphazardly (aah, to have an abundance of seeds instead of the pitiful 10 included in those seed packs) and now I have maybe 100 tamarillo seedlings (though they still need to survive planting into the ground.) Anyway, gradual incremental learning and soil/infrastructure development is meaningful, and the historical view is always helpful when we're facing challenging times.

Also helpful: going to visit penguins at low tide, before any tourists arrive.

(running alongside, not towards-- we respect the penguins' space! )


While Eugene and I have generally been a little tired and worn out with the many demands of the last couple of months, we press on! I'm guessing that many more happy, exciting and hopeful updates on our farm will follow- and many more photos!