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Growing Children and Plants
Learning Naturally at Home the Permaculture Way
By Beverley Paine

permaculture learning at home

“The core of permaculture is design. Design is a connection between things … It’s the very opposite of what we are taught in school. Education takes everything and pulls it apart and makes no connections at all. Permaculture makes the connection ...” Bill Mollison

“We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not ‘grow’ flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves.” John Holt

I love gardening, and I love my children. I love watching things grow. But all too often confusing messages that have filtered down through generations of well-meaning adults get in the way of plain old common sense. I find myself trying to bend the plants and the children to suit my needs, often distorting their natural shape, twisting and bending them, destroying the very essence of liveliness within them....

Luckily I found John Holt and Bill Mollison, two wise mentors who dared to challenge the status quo and founded sustainable alternative movements: Mollison permaculture and Holt unschooling. On the surface, they appear to be talking about two different things, however, both talk about and celebrate the nature of learning, and the importance of relationships, connections, and patterns.

Education no longer serves the noble cause of enabling and empowering individuals, neither does it truly recognize their intrinsic intelligence and worth. As a self-serving bureaucracy, it focuses primarily on its own survival, refusing to accept accountability for the results imposed on young people.

Home education was in its infancy here in Australia in 1985. Hesitant and uncertain that I had the right to “experiment” on my children and unsure that teaching them from home would be successful, I made the decision to liberate them from the tired, broken-down education system and set them free. Nature always finds a way: Soon I connected with other “weeds” daring to grow in the otherwise carefully restrained and cultivated educational garden bed!

Drawing strength from the observations I made about my own and other children’s progress and from the wisdom of Holt, Mollison, and other authors who demonstrate respect for children as young people, I gradually developed a confidence in allowing my children to learn naturally.

Families are where a child’s first connections, vital to their survival, are made. They are social connections which happen naturally. A baby learns to walk and talk because it is expected and necessary and encouraged. Children do not learn in social isolation: they learn by imitating the behavior of others, by studying it, and by desiring to be like others. This is often the learning that happens when no one is watching, much like how my vegetables and flowers grow! Recognizing the power of these connections is the key to successfully facilitating the learning of young children, and indeed, people of all ages. We all have the potential to learn new skills, to develop latent talents and abilities. All too often the voices of experts interfere with our enthusiasm and innate drive to learn, telling us that we are not ready, don’t have the prerequisite skills, haven’t done the right course, etc....a continual litany dulling our senses and reducing our capacity to learn.

Permaculture offers us a set of principles we can use when designing gardens. I have never considered these limited to landscape planning! I believe them to be a design paradigm for living. Offering our young people the opportunity to learn in their own homes is a wonderful way to help them understand their place in the natural world. It discourages feelings of disconnection and isolation, and builds a natural social life, from the centre out. It allows the child to socially unfold from the egocentric toddler, into the co-operative family member, then comfortably and confidently into the social world of family friends, before finally choosing to participate in the wider community, with self-esteem and confidence intact.

Education breaks learning into small, supposedly digestible chunks. But no one knows how much I can eat at one time, or what I like to eat! Or how my stomach or body will react to particular foods! Given time and space to observe and learn in my garden, I have come to realize what nutrients and support plants need, and when and how to nurture them. I do the same for my children. It is impossible to predict the growth of each individual child, especially in educational terms, and so I tend each child carefully, using my powers of observation to determine how best to facilitate that growth. Loving attention is the most powerful fertilizer for growth. At home, this flows freely and in abundance. I have yet to witness this fertilizer in any school environment!

Respect is the other powerful fertilizer I use and cultivate. I respect the right of my children to follow their own paths, much like I have learned to allow my plants to flourish in the position best suited to each individual plant. Through permaculture, I have learned to recognize and respect the innate characteristics and needs of each plant, and this has helped me understand my children’s educational process. Instead of “giving” my children an “education,” I look for what each child needs, what elements I can bring together to help fulfill those needs, and I joyfully accept and capitalize on those wonderful bonuses this approach always produces! In this way, I help my children build microclimates that suit their individual learning styles and needs.

In my permaculturally designed garden, I am mindful of those things I desire to achieve and I do the same with parenting and education. Although I have an overall design or plan held in my mind, I focus on what is happening now. In my garden, the aim is to create, through careful placement of elements and taking advantage of connections and relationships, a sustainable environment that largely looks after itself. In education, my aim is to provide the nourishment that will enable my children to eventually look after themselves. The focus on immediate need combined with long-term goals based on permaculture values and ethics, tended to diligently and attentively, produces the desired results.

Within this context, I trust my children will manage and direct their learning to meet their own needs. They find themselves perfectly placed to learn what they need to learn at every given point in their day. In assisting them, I am guided by their moods, requests, questions, desires, physical needs, and responses to the people, environment, and actions of the day. It takes very little effort to recognize their needs, in much the same way that as a gardener watching my plants grow I know what to do next to keep them healthy and help them prosper. All this is achieved by simply being available and learning from the interactions between all elements as the day progresses. It is a wonderfully dynamic process, and as it knits together over time it becomes even more effortless.

I recognize the edge is where maximum growth occurs: In a garden, plants cluster thickly together along the edge of pathways, usually looking abundantly untidy! Learning is no different. We can’t control its appearance or its voracity. Often, the edge is the point at which conflict occurs and we are challenged to resolve or solve difficult problems. I battle to control weeds until I realize their role and can then use them to enhance the fertility and vigor of my garden. Children have a natural instinct to challenge themselves in their development. We respect and honor this instinct and wait patiently for our children to succeed at their own pace in their own chosen way. Schools can rarely, if ever, offer children this chance. Life, if given space to grow, will be abundant. It is up to us to value the result!

Although our home education began as a tentative experiment with only “education” as the goal, we have seen the harvest of many wonderful yields. For me it has been reclaiming the dignity of motherhood in a society which encourages women to be workers, away from home and children for long hours. I have reclaimed my children from a system of childcare and education that will not be responsible and accountable for its outcomes. We have reclaimed the right to be in control of our own learning, celebrating education as a process of abundant growth rather than as training or preparation for eventual employment. We have discovered that the definition of success and failure is very personal, and that to judge performance and ability by arbitrary standards is demeaning and destructive of self-esteem.

But best of all, we have grown together as a family, in love and friendship, drawing our strength from the abundance of Nature and its powerful example of natural learning.

Beverley Paine began home educating her children, now young adults, in 1985. She’s an active member of the Australian home education movement. As an author she’s published several homeschooling books and writes fiction for children and young adults. Her other passions include permaculture, alternative technology, and web design. Visit her Homeschool Australia website at

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