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Learning from Dolphins: Unschooling at Sea

Learning from Dolphins:
Life Learning at Sea
By Martina Tyrrell

“Quick! Quick! Dolphins,” Lily, our five-year-old, calls excitedly from the cockpit. We are anchored in Ria de Arousa, northwest Spain. Two months ago, during our three-day crossing of the Bay of Biscay, common dolphins joined us day and night, matching their speed and aerial acrobatics to the speed of Carina, our thirty-six-foot sailing yacht. From inside the boat, we could hear their squeaking chatter as they swam close by.

Here in the Ria, we watch pods of dolphins working together each evening to confuse and corral shoals of fish. The dolphins thrash their tails, leap from and slap the water, swim apart and back together again, gradually working their way towards shallow water, trapping their prey. My husband and I, and Katie, our three-year-old, join Lily in the cockpit for another evening of dolphin-watching.

Dolphins have inspired us to learn. They have led us down paths of discussion and exploration, directed by the children’s curiosity. What is a mammal? Do dolphins have ears? Who/What else uses sonar? How do dolphins communicate? How do marine mammals breathe? How do fish breathe? We have wondered if dolphins are interested in us when they come close to our boat, and we have imagined other real and fantastic creatures that live in the sea.

We have turned to our on-board reference books and the Internet to find answers to questions about the characteristics of different dolphin species, to learn about dolphin behavior, and to find out more about aquatic noise pollution and its impact on marine mammals. Dolphins have inspired both children to draw, Lily to transcribe information from a reference book to her notebook, and me to write. They have even given Lily the confidence to put her head underwater this week at the beach, where she has been attempting to “swim like a dolphin.”

Setting Sail

When my husband and I decided to sell our house, quit our jobs, and move onto a boat, we did not pause to consider the education of our daughters. We had long ago decided to follow a path of home education and the location of that education was, in a sense, irrelevant. We sold our house and bought our boat with surprising rapidity and for two years we spent the warmest six months of each year at sea and the coldest on land, as I worked term-time at a coastal English university. We’re full-time live-aboards now and, as I write, we are cruising the scenic Rias of Galicia, slowly making our way south to the Mediterranean.

Before children were a reality, I imagined a semi-structured form of home education, but we have consciously drifted into a philosophy and practice of life learning. The one undergoing the process of unschooling, however, is me. Despite my philosophical and ideological leanings, thirty-seven years in formal education – as a student, teacher and university lecturer – have left their institutional mark on me. I have to constantly reassure myself that, simply by being alive and alert to the world, and by having the time to explore and play, every day my family learns in ways that are meaningful and worthwhile.

Live Aboard Unschooling

Lily first sailed at nine weeks old and, by the time she was three and Katie was one-and-a-half, we had moved aboard Carina of Devon. We’ve cruised in southwest England, southwest Ireland, northwest France and, in summer 2014, we crossed the Bay of Biscay to northwest Spain. We travel slowly but regularly, rarely staying in one place for more than a week.

My husband and I have chosen to work only occasionally, so we live simply and frugally on a limited budget. We spend much of our time anchored in sheltered bays, going ashore each day in our dinghy to play on beaches, visit towns and villages, explore the countryside, and shop and forage for food. All four of us spend different amounts of time absorbed in reading, writing, drawing, and other activities, as well as boat maintenance and repair.

Carina is our home, the place that always stays the same amidst the continually changing world around us. Our travels are guided by weather and sea conditions, and by our interests. My husband spends a lot of time pouring over sailing almanacs, guidebooks, and weather forecasts and reflecting on conversations with and advice given by locals and other sailors. Together we make decisions about moving to the most sheltered anchorages, about whether we would prefer a day on the beach or a day exploring cultural sites and museums, or whether we need a day at home to catch up on chores.

A day on the beach might include swimming, foraging, building castles or towers from sand or whatever other materials come to hand, reading, and writing. The children and their dad forage for clams, cockles, and mussels at low tide, and for sea greens such as sea beet, rock samphire, or wild fennel. Both children now recognize a wide variety of wild foods and have great patience for and expertise in foraging. In addition, they are very proud when their foraged foods contribute to our meals.

Being in Spain this summer, we have visited many very old and elaborate Catholic churches and these have led to recurring conversations about religion, death, the Romans, Spanish conquest of the New World, convents, architecture, art, and more besides. We take advantage of every free museum, art gallery, or exhibition we come across and this summer have learned more than we ever thought possible about the history of canning fish!

Our practical activities around towns – food shopping, going to the post office, buying spare parts for the boat – provide us with a wealth of cultural and linguistic experiences, as we see and sample different foods, observe how people go about their daily lives, and attempt to communicate in the local language. Simply walking down the streets of any town raises a plethora of questions from Lily and Katie that lead to conversations and new learning for all of us: Why do houses have shutters on the windows? How old is this plaza? What does that word mean? Why is that statue there?

Back home, we have managed to squeeze a large number of books aboard our small boat. Our reference books are invaluable in helping us all learn more about the world around us. It should come as no surprise that books about the sea predominate. It is the environment we live in, after all, and much of our learning is guided by what we observe or experience every day. I am a Luddite loathe to embrace electronic books, but I suspect a time will come when our demands for English-language books will outstrip our supply. Like most other live-aboard cruisers we know, we have only intermittent Internet access, and we have a small selection of DVD movies that we enjoy watching from time to time on our laptop. A wish list of books and DVDs is being prepared for my mum, who will visit in a few weeks!

unschooling at sea - playing with LEGO

Craft, drawing, and painting materials, LEGO, a dressing-up bag, fuzzy felt, play dough, musical instruments, and a few too many dolls and teddies fill the boat, and the girls play imaginatively together when we are sailing and at anchor.

We use what resources we have in order to learn. The children make little distinction between their “age appropriate”’ story books and “grown-up” reference books, cook books, field guides, and so on, pouring over both in equal measure. Now that Lily is an independent reader, she attempts to read everything – in English or Spanish – hungry to understand every word she sees. At random times, when we are in the mood, we practice math or reading or writing. We have discovered the girls prefer writing with a purpose, so letters and postcards written to grandparents and other family members, and shopping lists are currently their main writing activities. Much of Katie’s reading and writing thus far seems to have been learned from Lily, who takes it upon herself to actively teach her sister.

We are learning Spanish together, all using the same Spanish for Beginners book, helping each other with grammar and vocabulary, and taking every opportunity to practice our nascent language skills. I hear Lily and Katie talking, with varying degrees of success, to Spanish children in playgrounds and on beaches, and we all try to communicate in Spanish with the people we meet each day.

Day-to-day living in a confined space with limited fresh water and energy takes more time than living in a house. Laundry is hand-washed in buckets, and hung to dry along the rails that run around the boat. With some ingenuity, we cook and bake all our favorite foods using our small oven and two-burner hob, in our minuscule kitchen. My husband takes responsibility for maintenance and repair of the engine, sails, dinghy, and so much more. All of these daily tasks take place in close proximity to one another, and we all participate to some extent, assisting and helping when required. The children help with laundry, cooking, and baking, and they love to scrub the decks! When we sail, they take the helm when the sea is calm, and they are learning to row the dinghy. As they grow older, I hope they will take an interest in engine mechanics and rigging.

Despite our tight budget, every day we experience new places and have new adventures, exploring the world as a family. Everything we do provides opportunities for learning, and much of our learning is organic and unplanned. It is evident that our children are learning all the time – from their reading, writing, and mathematical abilities, from the confidence they show in engaging with others, and from their growing independence and practical abilities. But from time to time I still find myself questioning whether unschooling is enough.

Unschooling the Adults

When I was twenty-one years old, studying for a Masters Degree in Anthropology, I studied the writings of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Freire’s philosophy of politicized education and his empowerment of poor, landless Brazilians through meaningful education, combined with Illich’s powerful ideas about the institutionalizing role of formal education, moved me to reassess my own relationship with education. The research I conducted for my M.A. led me to question the way school curricula arbitrarily divide and separate subjects. I was exploring the way school children learn about global poverty and inequality, and I was struck by the fact that this topic was confined to Geography and Religious Studies. Why didn’t History, English Literature, Math, Economics, or Science also explore the issue of inequality? And, over time, I realized that the same was true for every topic. The boundaries around school subjects were arbitrary, and in my own life I knew my appreciation of literature was linked to my understanding of geography, history, or science; my knowledge of certain cultures was as much informed by poetry and great literature as it was by my anthropology text books; my appreciation for economics was linked to my shopping choices.

The philosophy and politics of Freire and Illich, combined with my desire to provide my own offspring with a more holistic education, led me to the decision to home educate my own children when they came along. It was another fifteen years before Lily was born, but my conviction remained strong.

But despite that conviction and the evidence that my children are thriving in our unschooling environment, I find myself struggling to let go of my thirty-seven years in formal education. My own academic abilities have always been judged through meeting pre-set formal criteria, and I have judged my own students’ abilities in the same way. I have taught students from elementary school to post-graduate level, in Canada, Japan, Ireland, and the UK. No matter the level or the country, formal curricula are followed and attainment is measured through the meeting of specific and rigid examination criteria. Despite my misgivings about the arbitrariness of subject boundaries, the institutionalizing effects of formal education, and the limitations of testing, I have contributed to and been influenced by each one of these.

So, when I think about the way my husband and I have chosen to educate our daughters, I worry about how they will be judged by others. Are they learning the things they “need” to learn? Are they developing the skills they will need for adulthood? Should we live more structured lives? Should we follow a curriculum? Am I doing them a disservice by practicing life learning?

unschooling at sea-dolphin watching

Learning All the Time

To reassure myself that we are doing alright, I occasionally carry out a mental audit of our learning. I reflect on the past twenty-four hours, or on how we have developed particular skills over a given period of time. And here’s what I discover: All four of us are learning all the time, supporting and encouraging each other in our learning. We are all improving our abilities to sail and speak Spanish; we are all following our own interests – writing, drawing, sewing, singing; we are all learning about the culture and history of Spain; and about marine biology, oceanography, meteorology, astronomy, and the many other sciences that influence our lives each day.

Coming from different academic and cultural backgrounds, my husband and I have different skills and expertise to share with the children and each other. Listening to and participating in our everyday conversations, our children learn not only about the great variety of topics that interest us; they also learn skills of debate, argument, and lively conversation.

Despite being together most of the time, sailing necessitates independence and the development of practical skills. When we undertake long voyages of twenty-four hours or more, one adult is always on the helm and while the other one sleeps. The children, therefore, must be self-sufficient, taking responsibility for eating, sleeping, and keeping busy. The mere act of living aboard a boat leads to the development of certain kinetic and sensory skills.

Wherever the Wind Blows

The most reassuring aspect of life learning is observing how the children approach the world with interest and curiosity. Every encounter and experience fills them with questions. They have no arbitrary boundaries to their curiosity, no neat boxes into which different knowledges must be compartmentalized. This eclectic approach to learning works for them now and will do so later in life.

We long to sail the world, but our short-term goal is to winter in the Mediterranean. With each day and each mile I move farther away from formal education, as I open myself up to the possibilities of unschooling. My greatest teachers in this endeavor are undoubtedly my daughters, whose enthusiasm and curiosity about the world around them is the greatest reassurance of all that we have chosen the right course to sail.

Martina Tyrrell is an environmental anthropologist, writer, and unschooler. She lives aboard a sailing boat with her husband and two daughters.

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