I was having coffee the other day with another mom while our kids were practicing Judo. She wanted to know more about how my children learned without school and asked several questions about covering basic subjects like math and reading. Although she's become increasingly frustrated and concerned about her child's school education, she couldn't fathom taking the leap to homeschooling because she had imagined herself in the role of teacher. When I told her that we didn't follow a curriculum and that my children were autonomous learners, she asked,
"But how do you know you're nourishing their minds with the right information? How can they learn if someone doesn't teach them?"
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This is of course an excellent question and one that's not always easy to answer. How do we unschooling parents find the right words to explain the innate hunger children have for learning outside an institutional framework? I'm not sure if it was the word "nourish" that sparked my answer, or the savory odors emanating from the cafe's kitchen, or simply the fact that I can relate almost any subject back to food, but this is the analogy that came to mind:
The One-Meal-Fits All School Special Imagine that your child is given the same meal every day with no choice and little variation. This meal is eaten exclusively indoors in rooms segregated by age. It is prepared on a mass level by a large institution with no regard for your child's individual nutritional needs, personal tastes or possible allergies. The kind folks who serve this meal have little to no input on the menu and are not allowed to decorate the table. Due to a lack of funding by the large institution, there may also not be enough utensils for every child. Furthermore, this meal is parceled out into several unrelated courses (pun intended) throughout the day and relegated to separate plates. In other words, never shall the cheese and mac mingle in creamy, melty harmony! Never shall veggies linger with linguini! They must be served separately and consumed within a certain period of time.
If your child is able to properly digest this piecemeal, she will be rewarded with something that temporarily makes her feel different and even special--like a star, or a smiley face or a capital A. However, if your child is unable, for whatever reason, to assimilate what she is fed, she will either be given the same meal again and again until she can finish it, or her plate will be taken away even though she is still hungry. And at the end of the day, although he is clearly full and couldn't possibly take another bite, your child will be given a doggy bag which he must consume at home. All this will make him sluggish, irritable and unlikely to converse.
Periodically, your child will be asked to regurgitate everything he has been force-fed in order to judge his potential as a future consumer and participant in this global gastronomy. Over time, your child may complain of dulled taste-buds, heart-burn and eventually a total loss of appetite.
The Learning Buffet Now just imagine, if you will, an endless smorgasbord of a buffet table laid out with an omnium-gatherum, a grab bag, a jambalaya ragout of options to tantalize your child's tastes. He is invited to rummage and forage, scramble and tumble over this table in search of whatever whets his appetite. He can float in alphabet soup, concoct a potpourried patchwork of a salad and linger over it for hours, days, months if he chooses. At this table, there are no pie-eating contests. Your child is not only given free reign over his choices at the buffet, but is encouraged to suggest and create what's on it. This buffet is always available, night or day, and your child may come and go as he pleases. There may be periods, even long ones, when your child may not seem hungry or eat the same thing every day, much to your concern. This is O.K. Eventually, he will come back to the table, hungrier than ever, and try something new. At times, the buffet may appear cluttered and botched. Mistakes are normal. Hash is healthy. A ragbag can be ritual. And a mishmash is just marvellous.
The best part about the buffet is that it's open to everyone --young, old, family, friends-- to share and exchange recipes, to savor flavors, suggest and stew over ideas.
Your role as a parent is the following: Provide all the necessary utensils with colorful diversity. Put a little bit of everything on your own plate and savor it with gusto. And sprinkle the table with lots of love and patience. That's all it takes to nourish your child.
Oh, and eat together. It makes everything taste better.