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Home Learning Walden-Style

Home Learning Walden-Style
By Theresa Willingham

The rabbit was digging busily in the garden by the front window. We thought it was finding choice weeds, but when we looked later, it had dug a shallow den. “Was it moving from its big burrow we’d found under another window?” we wondered.

We went into home-based learning for much the same reasons that Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden: To transact some personal business, to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if we could learn what life had to teach us. Home-based learning, it turns out, is a perfect Walden Pond where we can live deeply and in true Thoreau fashion, suck out the marrow of life!

Later that same morning, our family gathered by the front window, entranced as the small rabbit methodically harvested dry grasses from the clumps of ornamental grass growing along the walkway. No one moved or spoke as, for nearly an hour, the rabbit gathered as much grass as she could hold and began stuffing it into the tiny new burrow.

“We went into home-based learning for much the same reasons that Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden: To transact some personal business, to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, to see if we could learn what life had to teach us.”

Being of a solitary nature anyway, we always enjoyed quiet treks into field and woods, exploring zoos and museums during off hours, and combing beaches midweek with nary a soul in sight. We enjoyed our own company and felt little need for more. As the children grew, however, I found it helpful to join up with small groups of other like-minded families so we’d have sufficient numbers for field trips and company for activities that were enhanced by it.

As our own learning styles evolved, though, it became evident that home learning trends were evolving, too. More and more people were accepting the evidence that learning outside the public school system was not only academically successful, but also personally satisfying. Before long, our solitary adventure was turning into a somewhat crowded one.

Nowadays, I’d venture to say it’s almost as crowded at a homeschool activity as it would be on a public school field trip. It’s become as easy to be an over-driven homeschooling soccer mom scurrying to sports practices, music lessons, reading groups, and social activities – as it is to be a public schooled one. Today, we have to consciously and purposely evoke our original Walden Pond image to maintain the pristine ambiance of solitude and simplicity that marked our first steps into the wild woods of home learning.

A truck coming down our street startled the rabbit and she bolted for more familiar cover. We went on about our own business, deciding to check back on her later in the day. It was early afternoon when we looked again. The rabbit had obviously returned, and magically, it seemed, perfectly recovered the small den.

I would suggest that this is an evocation and invocation that’s vital to the spirit of independent learning. It is a focused and deliberate return to the cherished and unhurried time to think, read, watch and wonder, which drew so many of us away from institutionalized learning in the first place.

That’s not to say that the multitude of support groups, home learning cooperatives and clubs that have sprung up don’t have their place. It’s wonderful to gather with like-minded friends and peers to visit places we couldn’t get to as an individual family, to benefit from group discounts and simply for the fun of it. And I love our local group, where several members have become good friends. But, for the most part, I don’t believe real and enduring learning can take place in a crowd.

Every piece of mulch had been neatly distributed over the disturbed ground as if smoothed by human hands. If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest burrow earlier, we would never have suspected there was anything new in our garden. My oldest daughter, a 14 year old budding naturalist, went out and very gently pulled away a bit of mulch. The den, she found, had been completely filled with dry grass before being covered.

We’ve walked nature trails with a group, and the same trails by ourselves. The group experience is never as satisfying. Animals are scarce, the clump of many feet disruptive, the presence of so many bodies confining.

Alone, with just our little family unit, the path unfolds before us as for the first time – a pallet of color, luminous with life. Where the crowd complained of lack of wildlife, now we see creatures everywhere: squirrels, snakes, turtles, butterflies, and insects too numerous to name. Sounds are rich and detailed: the rustle of leaves in the topmost branches, bird calls, insect trills, lapping water. Where do all those things go when there are more than us?

As my children have grown older, they themselves have come to mark the difference between an experience as a family and one in the company of others. More often than not, they prefer the experience of solitude and family.

However, we naturally crave the company of like-minded souls. That’s why clubs and special interest groups emerge almost constantly. Homeschoolers, especially, often want justification and reassurance about their chosen paths in life and naturally turn to one another for support. As a consequence, there is a learning group for nearly every taste and temperament. And just as quickly as groups grow, there is often some wistful reflection by veterans of those groups: Remember when it was just us?

So how do we balance our need for the solitary intimacy of learning as a family with our very natural need to know we’re not alone in our lifestyle? Perhaps the old fashioned way: with a few good friends. Organized groups may feed our need for legitimacy, but friendship is what most of us are really after. And time to ourselves is what most of us do, in fact, need.

Every day we looked, but we didn’t see the rabbit anymore and wondered if she’d changed her mind and abandoned the nest. It was indeed, we learned, a nest. Eastern cottontails, like the one we were watching, built small nests just like this one, and lined it with dry grass and their own fur.

Moderation, as many great solitary thinkers have said, is the key to everything. The trick is to balance sufficient social interaction with vital solitude. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received, when I first decided to try home learning over nine years ago, was to avoid becoming over busy. I took that advice to heart, and early in our adventure decided that a maximum of three outings a week was more than enough. The rest of the time was home time, to use or not use as needed. It was time to read and talk and draw or sit under trees and not do anything.

We were also reassured to learn that she was probably nearby. Mother rabbits don’t live with their young, instead leaving the babies alone to avoid attracting predators and returning to the nest only once or twice a day – usually at night or very early in the morning – to nurse their young. All the literature said we probably wouldn’t see the mother. Perhaps my daughter had missed very tiny bunnies nestled in the grass? Or perhaps the mother hadn’t given birth yet? One of the articles suggested placing small crossed sticks on the nest at night and checking the next day to see if the nest had been disturbed. My children ran to find discreet looking sticks.

Boredom, I and my children have learned, is not fatal. It is, in fact, the grandmother of invention. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen was my three children playing with bamboo sticks one afternoon. They alternately rode them, battled with them, had an Olympic javelin event and made teepees out of them. They spent an entire, imagination-rich afternoon with those sticks of bamboo and acted out a wealth of historical and literary knowledge with them, to boot.

We looked the next day and the next, but the sticks were undisturbed. The rabbit, we concluded, had decided to nest elsewhere. Or perhaps she simply hadn’t had her babies yet. It was nice of her to put the mulch back, my husband observed. We laughed. Yes, it was.

My children became self-sufficient in self-gratification early in their lives. Their supplications of “I don’t know what to do!” have always been met with “I’m sure you’ll think of something”. We did not offer suggestions of television or video games. I did not volunteer to take them to the park or call friends, when they were bored. And I only rarely condescended to play with them myself. I spent and still do spend a great deal of time with my children, which included play time, but I seldom felt the need to stop what I was doing to amuse them on my time.

As a result, they learned to amuse and occupy themselves. Quite often now, their boredom alleviation efforts take the form of education, from exploring the backyard to bug collecting, to doing impromptu experiments with water balloons. And very often, they fill their time with reading and art. Discussions with my children show their thoughtful and reflective natures. They think about a lot of things. They think because they have time to themselves to do so.

I looked outside the other day and there were my daughters, crouched in the yard by our butterfly garden. Before them was a small rabbit. The rabbit was grazing, unconcerned by my girls’ quiet nearness. The three of them together were still and content. It was a precious sight and in today’s hurried world, I suspect a rare one. I think that was her, one of my daughters told me later. Perhaps it was. At any rate, they all had a nice time together.

I don’t think we have to lose our unhurried time to enjoy time with friends. We simply need to be very selective about how we schedule our social time. Things that can be done easily enough and with sufficient fulfillment on our own – a nature walk at a familiar park or beach, a trip to the zoo, a visit to a museum – we can do by ourselves or with just a couple of friends. Things that are otherwise expensive or that we don’t have the knowledge or experience to appreciate by ourselves – a sophisticated science or arts program, a theater performance or a visit to a usually restricted facility – we can turn to our groups to better and more cost effectively enjoy.

Nowadays, I call a friend when I feel the need for company. My friends’ children are usually my children’s friends, and so we all have a lovely time together. Our social time – and our learning time, when we share it with friends – is rich and meaningful because it is spent with people who mean a great deal to us. Once a week get-togethers with our support group fills yet a different need to be with others like ourselves.

“It is easy in the world to follow the world’s opinion,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, a contemporary of Thoreau’s. “But the great man is he, who in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

As home learners, we have a better opportunity than most to let our children experience the independence of solitude, and to enjoy the gift of unhurried time. 

Or as William Connor Magee said, "The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything."

Theresa Willingham is a Florida-based writer who, along with her husband Steve, unschooled their three children. She has written for a variety of periodicals and websites. Her first book “The Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families” (Savory Palate Press) was published in 2000 and was awarded second place in its category by the Colorado Independent Book Publishers Association. More recently, she is co-author of the book “Makerspaces in Libraries,” for the series “Library Technology Essentials” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). She is also the Regional Director for FIRST STEM education programs in Central Florida, and a creative partner at EurekaFactory.NET, which specializes in the development of creative spaces and programming in public libraries and other institutions.

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