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Free-Range Learning: A Dialogue

Reader Rachel Johnson wrote the following dialogue, with contributions by Jane Van Benthusen, while in the process of helping form a local life learning support group. The group's name is Free Range Learners, located in the Greater Kansas City area in the U.S. We thank them for sharing it with other Life Learning readers.

What is Free-Range Life Learning?"What do you mean when you say that you are life learners?" Tina asked.

“It’s an educational philosophy,” I replied, “a way of looking at the world and living our lives."

"Yeah," she responded, "but what does that mean? How do you look at the world and live your life?"

"To begin with," I continued, "I believe that humans have an amazing natural sense of curiosity that will lead us to learn everything we need. We’re born with a drive to explore, with imagination and curiosity and wonder, which we retain throughout our lives, if they aren't 'taught' out of us. We learn from experience; in fact, we learn all the time from everything we do. We live our life by living our life."


"I don't mean that to be confusing but to really explain this. It's that simple. I don't see a separation between schooling, education, parenting, childhood, age, religion, chores or anything. I don't segment my life because everything is connected. In fact, life learning applies to the whole family, not just our children. The entire family is also learning all the time."

"What do the parents do specifically in this philosophy?"

"They facilitate learning and back away when they aren’t needed."

"Is this the same thing as 'child-led learning'?"

"Some call it child-led but it's really much more than that. It isn’t about writing a curriculum, creating a unit study based on a topic chosen by your children or strewing information about bees all over the house because your children showed an interest in bees. Rather, it's about helping them look up bees when they ask, driving them places to see bees if they want, taking them to the library to find books on bees and basically observing them to follow it as far as they need to learn what they want. When their interest changes, we also help them pursue this new topic. For example, we take them to the Zoo rather than to see bees or we help them check out books about the ocean instead of bees since their focus has (sometimes suddenly) changed. Furthermore, it's about noticing how they often come back to subjects even after a new interest develops or after a connection is made. Finally, it's about offering them a diverse life full of possibilities and supporting them with their choices."

"But how do you really know that they'll learn everything they need to know?"

"A key part is considering the ‘everything they need to know’ phrase. Children who’ve attended school still learn new things on the job, in higher education and after they move out of their parents’ homes—when they need to know it. Our children do the same. Children learn what they need to know when they need or desire it because of their natural sense of curiosity and because of their ability to acquire the skills they need to live the life they choose. I've observed children who have been free in their learning, and they now work or attend college and independently live the lives they’ve happily chosen for themselves.”

"What does life learning look like in your daily life?"

"It depends. Some weeks the days are the same; however, other weeks every day is different. Regardless, it's a new, exciting adventure to wake up and choose what to do each moment, each day. Here are some of the things we tend to do: work, play, participate in gaming or sports, read, write, sleep, cook, eat, experiment, explore, surf the web, ride a bike, watch a movie, listen to music, day dream, problem solve, paint, create, go to a zoo or museum, visit friends, work out, talk, try new things, compose or play songs, go grocery shopping, garden, and anything else we want to do. It's all about living life and learning all the time."

"Is this a way to control your child or your child's environment?"

"No. This is a way to offer my child the freedom to have the entire world as their environment."

"But does that mean that your kids do whatever they want, whenever they want? How will they learn the things they need but don't want to learn?"

"No, they don't do whatever they want whenever they want with no regard to others or anything. They have as much and as little freedom as any other human being. We live in the real world where things need to get done. As a family, we work together in the way that makes sense to us in a particular place and time. If there is something that truly needs to be learned, the time will come when it is more of a burden to not know the thing than to learn it. Because there is no shame in learning all the time at their own pace, our children are free to learn the most mundane task at fifteen, just as they learn complex tasks at four. They learn things when they're ready. This requires a trust in them and in the world."

“You sound so confident. Do you ever worry about anything?”

“Sure, I go through times when I start worrying, when I question myself and what we’re doing, when I’m concerned about something or other to do with learning. I think a big part of that is my own deschooling process—I’m still learning to trust myself and the world. Thankfully, I’ve been able to find or create local and online support to help me work through any doubts or questions, and I learn even more during these times of reflection and criticism.”

"I’ve heard things about non-coercion and this philosophy of learning. What can you tell me about that?"

"Life learning supports the autonomous, self-directed gaining of knowledge or skill. In other words, learning that is without created consequences and not against one's will.”

"Come on. Do you really mean to tell me that you don’t make your children do anything?"

"Well, Tina, I am human after all so, yes, in daily life I do try to compel my children, my husband and even myself sometimes. The important thing is that I see autonomous learning as the ideal that I strive towards. Some moments, some days, I get there. Others I don't. And when I don't, I see my mistakes, learn from them and talk to my children about them. We all learn from it."

"Do you take summer or holiday breaks?"

"Nope, we don't take a vacation from life. Since we're always learning, we don't take a vacation from learning either."

"Do you keep records?"

"A lot of that depends upon the laws where you live and the comfort level of each family. For us, yes, because we live in Missouri we legally have to keep records. One family I know keeps a scrapbook/journal, along with a tally sheet of the core and non-core subjects and many examples of work and a ton of photos."

"What's the difference between unschooling and life learning?"

"Life learning transcends unschooling in that it encompasses all things in our life, the whole life experience."

"Wow! Thanks. I think I have a better understanding about life learners now, and I'd like to learn how to be one. Will you help me?"

"Of course, Tina. We all started on this path at one point in our lives. We're happy to have you as part of our group, and we'll all learn new things together."

Rachel writes poetry, children’s stories and narratives. Besides writing, she teaches English as a second language, tutors online and learns from life with her two daughters. She loves to read, explore nature and meet people from different cultures. Rachel and her husband live in Kansas City, Missouri with their children.

Jane is an artist, carpenter and puppeteer. She lives in Lee's Summit, Missouri, with her husband and their two sons. She loves art, music and learning from life.

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