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Unintentional Learning in an Intentional Community

Unintentional Learning Within An Intentional Community
By Paul Rathgeb

Kids’ Skit Day was set to take place around an outside fire ring on an autumn Saturday. Kids and adults alike spread the news to others, but the day arrived with a dripping cloudy overcast. However, the weather did not dampen our spirits; we had made a promise to the kids and the show went on. We kept dry indoors, within the living space we refer to as the “main house”, on the grounds of an intentional community just on the outskirts of downtown Olympia, Washington. This space is always transforming to meet the needs and demands of about 11 adults and six kids who live among six different structures on roughly 40 acres.

Usually, when explaining the living situation, members of the community commonly refer to it as an intentional community, an eco-village or “a synergy of like-minded people who chose to share common interests.” I write as a former member of the community, which has invested richness in preserving the ecology of the area and in living sustainably, through the practices of sharing housing, a few biodiesel vehicles, garden space, bulk food and child care. The community is prolific at creating circumstances by which youth can be an integral part of the group dynamic. This was one of those moments where the main house suited the creation of the people who live there, as we sat in a circle on the floor to begin our first Kids’ Skit Day.

Just to be in tune with the weather, we began by singing “itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…” followed by the hokey pokey, while turning ourselves around and flailing all about. Randomly, we all volunteered a song, a joke or a skit, and the kids didn’t mind leading a gig. Some kids frolicked around playing dress-up with the wildest of hats and bright attire, one girl wearing a colorful tassel skirt with pink “princess” shoes. Everyone within the circle had an opportunity to share in jokes, skits and songs. One of the boys told a series of quite comical “knock-knock jokes.” I orchestrated an interactive song, from an outdoor summer camp where I interned years ago. It went something like… “We come from the mountains (chorus)…go back to the mountains and turn the world around.” Well…let’s just say I winged it with a little improvisation, as most did. There was a mix of adults and kids who showed up for the afternoon extravaganza, as the intentional community has a history of creative projects, activities and events, which seem to develop with minor, if any, formal planning.

On an average of once a month the community holds a traditional event we call “music night.” Originally it sprang up from a former member who would call and invite friends and family outside the community to convene for an evening potluck followed by a jam session. The main house is usually stocked with an assortment of musical instruments. Communal instruments, which have been donated through the years, are also available for kids to play. And, oftentimes the kids like to chime in with drums, rattles, shakers or fancy footwork. Friends and guests of the community sometimes bring their own instruments, snacks and beverages, to share songs, riffs, beats and conversation. At times it would elevate to a point of foot stomping, hip shaking, lyrical freestyles, with occasional harmonies and someone spurting out “spoken word.” Music night’s moods will shift often according to the mood and energy of the crowd it draws, sometimes a mellow intimate gathering and other times a musical party. In either case music night is what the youth and adults make of it, usually fully participatory, without any audience.

Every few months the community hosts a kiln firing, as one of the members is a talented potter. The kiln in set behind the main house, built by the hands of community members and local artists who are part of a “clay co-op.” Made of cob, organic matter and flints of stone and laced with fragments of tiles, shells and crystals, the kiln is stoked to a raging temperature of about 2,500 degrees. Firing up the kiln is a weekend affair, where a few cords of wood are used to keep a steady regulation of heat and smoke, to achieve the desired effects onto glazed ceramics. Oftentimes, youth have their clay work packed into the Volkswagen bug-size kiln and much anticipation is centered on seeing the finished products.

In the beginning stages of feeding the fire, it reaches a suitable heat for cooking pizza and a “kiln firing weekend” usually collaborates well with a pizza party. Dough is rolled out from scratch, tomatoes are sometimes picked for the sauce and toppings are harvested from the garden while other ingredients are bought from the local food co-op. Adults and kids have a field day customizing their own pizza pies, which are then either slid into the kiln or the kitchen oven.

Two summers ago, we set up a work party to install a playground for youth in the community. Much of the summer time is spent frolicking in the garden, tilling soil, planting “starters,” weeding, installing hoop houses, or cutting back on arduous blackberries. Oftentimes, garden work can be contagious on sunny days, as one or two people will begin working in the garden and soon others will follow as the idea rubs off on them. I have observed this pattern of “synergy behavior” on many occasions, always emerging when like-minded people are clustered together, for the benefit of the whole.

All our work input into the garden is mutually beneficial, as it provides free, nutritious organic food for those within the community. The organic garden is about an acre in size. Youth willingly assist in some garden projects; however, most do not take much interest, except when strawberries and raspberries start to emerge. In fact, I once watched some kids devour unripe, premature strawberries before my eyes while making an endorsement as to how good they tasted. Not feeling quite as bold, I decided to pass on their generous offer.

Because of their young ages and lack of concentration on sometimes tedious garden work, the community decided to create a playground directly beside the garden plot. This provides a safe place for kids to gravitate towards while parents and other community members poke away at any gardening tasks. After some brainstorming and a bit of playground research, the playground took root, starting with a tire wall for kids to test their balance, a tire swing under a apple tree and then two swings made from wood salvaged from a couple of down alders. And the playground continues to keep growing, as the kids have many creative ways of implementing play.

More recently, they have acquired 16 chickens and a coop, nestled right at the tail end of the garden. The kids enjoyed naming them and scooping them up to hold, especially when they were hen-size. Now that the chicks are older, the kids take pride in feeding and gathering the eggs, which are then counted and equally parceled off among the residents.

Most of the kids are unschooled, learning without any academic structure or curriculum while having free range to explore the wonders of life inside and beyond the intentional community. Some of the other kids attend a local alternative-based public school. Generally speaking, the intentional community is a special place supportive of each individual’s intrinsic right to follow their inner compass when it comes to learning. These kids have been deeply trusted by the adults to discover their own interests, free from any classroom coercion, punishments, rewards and compartmentalized subjects.

And the community provides an oasis for learning, as residents have a strong desire to live harmoniously, sustainably and directly democratically in the ebb and flow of life’s experiences. In my year-long residency, many optimal moments of learning occurred, often times unexpectedly and through the cooperation of like-minded people. Young people, certainly within this intentional community, are masterminds of their own play and imagination. Their brilliancy never ceases to amaze me.

Azaria, one of the older kids out of the bunch (also unschooled) has, on numerous occasions, pointed out species of native plants growing on the fringe of the 40 acres and is constantly bombarding adults with inquisitive blue eyes, throwing out questions a mile a minute. With a natural impulsiveness to explore, Azaria is a confident and outgoing six-year-old with a lightning-speed desire to learn. Schools, inundated with rules and regulations, would only fracture the spirit of Azaria’s innate love for learning. Within the community, he and his younger brother thrive with a plethora of ongoing adult/kid projects, constant uninterrupted dialogue and creative imaginative play. There is not one television within the community, and this is not because of any rules or stipulations, just a matter of each resident’s individual choice.

The community is a river of resources and learning occurs minimally separated from work or play. Although individuality is well respected, people within an intentional community discover a diverse richness through sharing. Childcare is usually posted on top of the parental priority list and members of the community strive to lend a hand. Food, cars and housing can also be shared, which instills a high value on human relations to the kids who are being raised in this environment.

Kids growing up within an intentional community are far from being sheltered from contemporary culture, as interdependence, responsibility, cooperation, education, and self-reliance are the fundamental building blocks of living and learning in a community. Instead, kids within intentional communities have the capacity to become confident contributors to social change amidst a mainstream culture heavily indoctrinated with institutions of industry, education, economics, and war, for the simple fact they have lived a radically different lifestyle. Intentional communities are much more than any school could provide, with ample space for unbounded and unfettered learning, where kids have the freedom to openly explore their world, and where the true “experts” are the loving adults within their lives.

Intentional communities present ideal relations for direct democracy, as kids often model adults. Youth learn a valuable life lesson in problem-solving and in critically compassionate conversation, as they are just as important in keeping fluid communication among the intentional community as adults. However, this particular community did not encourage the kids to participate in meetings, due to many disruptions and their highly energetic young ages. But I do support having youth integrated into community governance when they are self-disciplined enough to sit through the process or take an interest, at any age.

Much of the interactive play among youth in the community happens with little, if any, adult supervision, unless an adult is playing with them. There is a high level of trust centered on the kids, and never have I heard of any child straying away or getting badly injured; fortunately, the community is a safe rural area to roam. Adults do not interfere or impose structure on youth with their adventure of play; they are free to sit or roll around in puddles after rainy days, be noisy, make messes, solve their own problems and make mistakes.

Never is there a dull moment in a busy hive of an intentional community. Youth and adults enjoy the constant interaction and exploration with ample room for privacy and solitude, when needed. Learning in an intentional community is not some abstract concept; it is a part of living. And what better way to have the kindness of supportive neighbors than in our own backyards?

Paul Rathgeb is a writer and youth activist learning on a long stretch of road in the northwest, somewhere between Seattle and Olympia, where he works with a free school, and assists with coordinating a hodge-podge of projects, where somehow learning occurs. On his weekly visits to Olympia, he occasionally stops off at an intentional community, which was once his nest in the rural outskirts of Washington state’s capital. Living now in a holistic household with four other beloved roommates including his sweetheart, who are studying everything from acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, alternative medicine, midwifery and nursing, his teachers are all around. Paul plans to complete his first non-fiction book within the next year, while working to establish a media program for disenfranchised teens. This article was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2006.

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