Our daughter is four years old and she has yet to be enrolled in a typical school program. She’s young yet, yes, but we don’t actually plan to enroll her in the traditional pre-school or kindergarten experience, or anything beyond that, unless she is interested. I’ve been hearing more and more lately about challenges people have with their own child’s instructional environment – some minor, some more significant. These are largely from people whose children are already enrolled in traditional school models. Our thoughts here may be similar to some of yours. Our solution, however, one of a myriad of ways to respond to these educational challenges, may be different. I’m excited to share our approach to our daughter’s education, so those of you who may be feeling any of these thoughts can consider some alternatives to various degrees, if you’d like.
Here’s why we’re opting out of traditional schooling, what we are trading up for instead and how all of this fits in with an outdoorsy + traveling lifestyle.
Why Opt Out?
In the first few years of our daughter’s life we saw first-hand that kids are born-learners. She was a sponge, engaged in the world around her, always learning and testing and processing things. There was no on or off time for learning. It was constant. It was playful. And it was personalized for her. We sought out opportunities that matched her learning style, we held sacred her internal rhythms, like rest and hunger, and we tried to create as much of a positive and unstructured environment as possible. She was an explorer in her own world, where the limits for creativity and personal discovery seemed endless. It was beautiful to watch unfold.
Then she reached school-age. Because of our familiarity with traditional schools, combined with the fact that we analyze everything possible, we’d already given much thought to how her early learning environment would change drastically in a typical classroom. She’d be there eight hours a day, most of her waking time. I couldn’t imagine suddenly having limitations on movement and activity, having to sit still, mainly indoors or unable to experience the mixed-age environments we loved so much. I couldn’t imagine how a one-size fits all curriculum allowed for her to explore and pursue her personal interests or how a grading or standardized testing system highlighted individual learning modalities or avoided connecting performance with a sense of self. I couldn’t figure out how she’d get the exposure of the world, and it’s endless opportunities, inside a single building with only occasional time for field-trips or few chances to engage in healthy debates, a challenging of authority or a space to create – truly create.
We knew there were benefits to school, but none of which could only come from school. In this day and age, the benefits, including exposure to new people, ideas and independent learning, come from so many different sources. The learning landscape, the subsequent job market and the overall discussion about defining one’s own personal success and lifestyle has changed so much over the past decade or so that those benefits and outcomes are attainable through countless different ways. So for the first time, my husband and I thought about something that felt equally radical and completely natural to us.
Let’s opt out, entirely.
As we researched alternatives, we were amazed at how many people were already having this conversation. Some in the shadows, some more publicly. By professors, by teachers, by child-advocates, by more professors, by parents. It went on and on. Turns out there were many different options for natural learning: youth-based learning communities, Sudbury / democratic / free schools, Waldorf schools, Reggio Emilia schools, Montessori schools, homeschooling, Project-Based Homeschooling, unschooling, worldschooling, road schooling. Lots of lingo to learn and plenty of searching to figure out what approach or combination of approaches was best for our family. And for as many alternatives, I saw just as many people advocating to change policy and school structures on micro and macro-levels. That’s when I realized something I’d never really considered before. We are consumers of education models, even public schools. We can express our concerns and opt out of some or all of it, depending on our preferences. The choice is always ours to make.
And for us, that choice felt extremely important, imperative actually. Not for a single moment have we ever been worried about our daughter’s education or her future. Instead, we worried about protecting her from so many of the expectations and restrictions that are placed on kids these days, which we simply didn’t agree with or couldn’t understand why they were in place, and about that environment potentially pressing pause on her individual interests, learning style and overall happiness. The essence of who she is.
Our Learning Approach
So, as our daughter reached preschool age, we opted out and instead kept our rhythm, knowing now that what we were intentionally doing all along had a name. We were a hybrid of unschoolers, worldschoolers and project-based homeschoolers, and we had good company all around us. In our area alone, there were thousands of families on this journey with us. Thousands! There were over a dozen alternative schooling options, should we ever decide to pursue them. Our community was vibrant, active and diverse. And our rhythm adjusted to include them, as well as, of course, to match our daughter’s own personal growth and our family’s happiness. We’ve never looked back.
Here’s what our rhythm looks like, with the world as our “classroom”:
We spend part of the year in one location in the US. We spent the other part traveling around the world.
At our home base, we are immersed in a community of like-minded families, as well as with our own families. We are surrounded by cultural, natural and interest-based learning opportunities. We have no set schedule or curriculum. We learn as we live an engaged, active, and curious lifestyle.
During a typical week, we naturally find that some days are spent with friends exploring the outdoors, attending different programs, creating with art materials or just playing. Other days, are exploration days, where we expose our daughter to something new, maybe it is a natural setting, an adventurous activity, a museum or an event. These are akin to our weekly field trips. Then there are our family days. Days where we make memories together, our nuclear family as a whole, or with our extended family. Often, during these times, family members share their interests and life stories with our daughter. Then there are quiet days, where we don’t leave the house, other than to walk through the woods out back or visit the library. Here, my daughter is independently exploring and creating in her space or together we’re playing or reading or researching more of what she’s interested in at the moment. And then there are the occasional programs she’s involved in – indoors or out – which dive in to her interests on a deeper level.
So when we say each day is a new adventure, we truly mean it. She’s being exposed to just about every potential traditional subject, through living and natural curiosity. We have time that is spent on our own, with each other, with our friends and family, and within the world, but always learning. Just as in her early years, that learning is constant, playful and personalized to her. And as always, it is beautiful as it unfolds.
When we travel, we take this rhythm with us to some degree. Slow traveling is just an extension of our life at home. It is simply our life on the road. This time is spent learning about so much of what the world has to offer, taking in first-hand diversity, cultural and landscape differences and experiences we could never fully recreate anywhere else. These adventures are incredibly impressionable and formative, shaping who we are, how we see the world and how we create our own future. The benefits of which, we can’t praise enough.
We are so grateful to have found and created a learning rhythm that fits our family and leaves us all feeling so happy with life. We wouldn’t trade that in for the world.
It’s impossible to know what life will be like at any point in the future. So we don’t know what our learning path will look like going forward with any absolute certainty. Rhythms change, opportunities arise, interests expand. But we do know that if we shift, it will be based on choosing a life and learning style that is intentional for what will lead to our continued happiness and goals, wherever that may take us. For once that’s been discovered, it’s hard to go back.
As you consider your own family’s path to life and learning and happiness, we’d love to hear where that’s taken you. Is there any overlap with our own family’s path? Where has your path taking you that is different? For those of you interested in learning more about these and other options, let us know about any questions you have in getting started or incorporating elements in your own life. We want every family to feel that the life and learning style they seek, are accessible to them.