17 August 2014, 22:54
What does unschooling really look like? How does a homeschooling family run smoothly without schedules, learning structures and curriculum? Join our family — for just one day.
For the past several years, I’ve documented the details of a whole day in the life of our family as part of a homeschooling link-up. (I don’t believe the link-up is running this year, so I’m doing it alone.) A couple years on, I find it fascinating to look back at a typical day at home in our house in 2010, on the road in New Zealand in 2011, while based in the shed in Queensland and visiting friends in Australia’s Red Centre to see how things have changed for us!
I’m an Australian single mama, living fulltime on the road in a housebus with four daughters and unschooling quite intentionally. Aisha is nine years old, Brioni turns eight soon, Calista is six and a half. Delaney (who also goes by the name of “Lana”) will be five at the end of the year.
This weekend, we’re free-camping at the natural reserve of Tooloom Falls after spending several days with another unschooling family in the northern NSW area of Australia. I appreciate the time for us to be alone again as a family, and we experience an average kind of day in our unschooling, nomadic, housebus-based life — camping off-grid in a beautiful location, exploring wilderness and appreciating the creatures that inhabit it, sleeping and eating to our individual needs and learning through play in an organic, natural fashion.
I wake and debate whether to get up out of bed and make myself a cup of tea. The time before the girls get up is when I usually blog and check social media sites. However, I know that we’ve driven so thoroughly out of range of any internet access that it’s not even worth opening the laptop. The rain that was falling for most of yesterday and last night appears to have stopped, so I know that I can take the kettle outside the bus and sit in the rising sun for a bit of warmth. We’re experiencing early spring, which means that although we may wear long sleeves when the sun goes down, the day-time temperatures are in the early 20s. Living in a bus means that we’re very adapted to the outside temperatures and can live comfortably within a wider variation of temperatures. In the end, I doze lightly, waiting for someone else to stir before I get up.
Aisha wakes and we talk in whispers about snatched remembrances of dreams. She’s been lying next to me all night. I always sleep with Lana on my left at the edge of the bed, and the other three girls take turns to be at my right side. Delaney still needs help to toilet herself in the middle of the night, so that’s why she doesn’t rotate with the others. Aisha asks me to check on a sore that’s just on the top of her ear. We removed a tick from that location two days ago, and it’s still a bit sore. I can reach our tea-tree oil and so Aisha dabs a drop onto the scab to prevent an infection. Our discussion about the tick — and the scary possibility that it could have crawled all the way into Aisha’s ear — leads naturally into questions about the anatomy of the ear.
Our whispered conversation continues through many different parts of the body — the nervous system (and the effects on our friend Johnny whose spinal cord was damaged), the skeletal system (and our friends who have recently broken their bones), the eye (and how it’s possible to wear glasses that flip the image upside down until your brain switches and flips it back the right way around) and, of course, the reproductive system. Aisha’s been following the progression of my current pregnancy periodically with a manual given to her by a friend. That, in conjunction with numerous episodes of Call the Midwife, means she’s quite informed regarding pregnancy and childbirth.
Together we climb out of bed, reposition ourselves outside with the whistling kettle and start looking through her manual together. I notice that in browsing through the book, Aisha very carefully holds two pages together. When I ask her about that, she explains that she’s not really comfortable looking at the childbirth photographs on the previous pages. So she skips them! Clever girl. We drink cups of tea and I start playing with Aisha’s hair. First, I’m just intent on looking for evidence of lice, but upon Aisha’s request I start braiding it. I love these special one-on-one times with my daughters, and today’s early-morning interactions with Aisha feel really special.
It’s another half hour before Calista and Brioni wake up. Brioni’s first order of business is always rat runaway time. Calista moves down to the animals’ cage at the back to open the door so the two rats can run free. The girls lay on the bed and play with them for a while. The individual rats will be brought out of the cage several more times today for small interactions with the girls.
As the girls have long become accustomed to grazing when they’re hungry, my main responsibility with meals is to make sure that I keep our fridge and pantry stocked with healthy choices. I’m the only one today who has breakfast cereal. Aisha and Calista each choose a cheese and bacon bun, Lana has already eaten a bread roll and Brioni says she’s happy with an apple.
With everyone out of bed, it’s time for me to pack it away. I use an electric pump to suck the air out of the inflatable mattresses and then roll up the canvas above one side of the front seats. With my main chore completed, I want to have another look around our camping ground. Calista and Lana accompany me to the waterfall. Brioni’s already run to check if the overnight rain raised the level significantly — the report is negative — and so we head down to the waterway to explore for ourselves.
A fairy glade on the downstream side of the waterfall catches our eyes, and so we resolve to find a path down to the water’s edge. The first obvious path is assessed as too steep and slippery for our family to tackle, so we walk around a bit more until a trodden grass pathway becomes obvious and we make our winding way down the steep bank. There’s a beach and still water and grassy knolls — it’s a perfect playground for the girls’ toys, and so we return to the bus to invite the two older girls to come play with us.
Everyone chooses a toy and we return to the base of the waterfall. The water’s still too cold to encourage swimming, and I’m thankful the girls stay out of it. My girls aren’t inclined to take risks beyond their perceived levels of comfort. They won’t try climbing down (or up) the cliff face, they aren’t inclined to jump off tree-branches into the murky water, and they’ll only wander as far as they feel comfortable. Their own vast range of experiences in the outdoors has fostered knowledge and sensibilities, and that — as well as their usual habit of exploring with at least one other sibling — means that I feel comfortable with letting them explore the natural playground. When they split up in different directions, I stay close to Delaney who hasn’t yet grown out of needing my close presence.
When we explore, I take our bird book as well as the camera.
Using the bird manual takes an understanding of indices (are we looking up the Latin or common name?), sequential numbers (pages and bird-reference-codes), legends and glyphs (male, female), cartography (does the bird’s habitat match our current location?), reading (including commonly-used abbreviations) and comprehension (scarlet? — a synonym for red). We’ve been referencing our bird book for years so the girls already know a range of birds. This location — especially as it’s close to water — has so many different types of birds on offer, Aisha calls it “a bird paradise”.
Brioni has made her own little movie. Using Hungry Shark, she’s narrated the shark’s voice with subtle humour as it tears through schools of fish and the occasional swimmer. We record it carefully to share with others later on, especially our good friend Ben who originally created the fish graphics on the app. It joins the files of her elaborate cartoons and plays. I may not have a pile of paperwork to demonstrate the girls’ learning progress, but by default I’m keeping a thorough digital record!
With the Lego games, I’m close enough to hear them discussing the items they’re making from their imaginations. An inherent understanding of mathematics is naturally demonstrated as one girl choose two 2x pieces as a symmetrical solution to one 4x piece. Although I don’t ask the girls to fill in math worksheets, I know they can read and answer mathematical equations because they’ve each progressed through multiple levels on their kipi apps such as Springbird Maths.
As soon as she takes her plate into the tent, Calista is reminded she’s hungry and upon request I end up making us all similar wraps. Each girl has their particular preferences and so I take individual orders — one at a time — and serve each one before starting to make another.
They run around in the sunshine, and if we hadn’t already done our exploring earlier this morning, I would deliberately try to entice them on a walk. However, the older two soon return to the tent to continue with their constructions and interactions while the younger two continue with an energetic game of “egg” which entails covering their knees with their shirts and hopping or waddling around the campsite while waiting to “hatch”.
I use this time to sit at the computer and start typing down the day’s events. Soon the washing up beckons — this means collecting water from the river. We have water on-board but while we’re parked at a natural water source, I’ll keep our tank water for drinking. While cleaning up the bus’ little kitchen bench, I can also asses what else has been eaten during the day — the girls can prepare food for themselves but rarely clean up thoroughly. I use this knowledge — along with my personal understanding of healthy eating — to make suggestions for something to eat later in the day. I cut up strawberries and put them out on the picnic table for the girls to discover and snack on when they’re hungry.
The mood has shifted and the girls have gone their separate ways. Brioni is still playing with Lego in the tent, voicing different characters as they interact with each other. Delaney is playing on her kipi. Calista is still hopping around the grounds with her knees tucked under her shirt and Aisha has wrapped herself in a blanket while she sits and eats yoghurt. Now that I’ve cleaned up the kitchen, the bus remains mostly tidy — everything has a place of belonging and we all know where that is — and if I had gotten up earlier to blog and was more tired, I know I could take a nap. It’s enough for me today to go down to the river’s edge and watch the water slip by. I’m within sight and sound of the bus, and I let each girl know individually where I’m headed. There’s only one other camping vehicle here today, and they’ve parked at the far edge of the reserve, behind bushes and trees, so it still feels like we’re the only inhabitants on Earth.
It only takes a couple of minutes before the girls follow me, with Calista eagerly leading Aisha all the way across the river on the path we discovered this morning. I watch them play on the flat rocks adjacent to the waterfall until I feel nervous about their proximity to the edge and invite them to come with me and explore the wooded areas instead. We find a felled paperbark tree and I tear off a wide strip of bark for Aisha to write on. At some point Delaney scratches her toe on a stick and requests a band-aid. As the sun drops behind the trees, the day cools and I think about shutting the bus door so our bus interior retains its warmth.
Back in the bus, when I offer to prepare a burger for Brioni, she gladly accepts. The other girls place their orders and I cook the veggie patties and arrange the toppings on the buns. Three girls are watching a movie together, one is playing on her sister’s kipi. The bus is closed up and the cooker’s small flame warms the air. We’re all winding down in anticipation of crawling into bed.
We’ve all finished eating and the plates are in the sink. I’ve made the bed and three of us are already on it. Aisha is lying down at the back — she likes to spend some time alone each day, and because she and I spent our early morning together, she’s needing to take the time now. Four of us have brushed our teeth, with three separate toothpastes to suit our palates. The girls have started talking about the diary of Anne Frank and have asked me for a chapter or two. I’ve already told them we can visit Anne Frank’s house when we drive through Europe next month, so they’re particularly interested in her account.
We’ve collectively tired of Anne Frank’s story, and I put on the Japanese animated science-fiction film Origin: Spirits of the Past. Throughout the movie, the girls discuss aspects of asteroid formation, physics of water motion, plot subtleties and anatomical anomalies.
The movie has finished — including the karaoke at the end — Brioni appears to be already asleep with Aisha not far behind. Lana is finishing a snack while Calista plays on her kipi. The bus is dark and quiet — those who talk do so in whispers, and as I prepare to sleep I start thinking about everything I want to do tomorrow. These thoughts aren’t conducive to resting, so I switch to listening to music through my earphones. It’s easier to fall asleep that way. I curl up around Lana’s little body with Brioni pressed up against my back. Tomorrow will take care of itself.