Capturing Natural Learning as it Happens

By Gnat Atherden

My father recently asked me to describe how my children learn. I hate getting caught up in validating natural learning by comparing it to formal learning, so I ended up telling him that ‘lessons for us never begin and never stop’ and ‘natural learning happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week’. I think that whilst these statements are true, perhaps I enjoy taking such a radical view too.

His reasons for asking me are twofold. On the one hand he is genuinely intrigued, as someone who claims only to have enjoyed his schooling. In this regard he speaks of his experience of learning calculus under the tutelage of someone who, to my ears, sounds like not only a gifted teacher but also a gifted mathematician. He often refers to this and then asks how Baxter (and he also means Zea) will learn calculus (and by inference any curriculum-associated skills) without formal instruction. On the other hand he more recently let slip that he wants to be able to explain the learning style/teaching method to friends and family when they ask.

In part this article is a reply to my father, yet it is also an exploration – pictorial, anecdotal and philosophical – of what natural learning means.

As I’m an anthropologist, the word ‘natural’ sends alarm bells ringing. It’s indicative of a cultural assumption so embedded that it is presumed to be innate. But is ‘natural learning’ innate, or is it part of the culture and community of a child (and the other members) of a natural learning family? Certainly it is a fundamental part of human existence to learn, where learning is considered broadly. Natural learning family members often cite examples of such ‘natural lessons’ as learning to walk or learning to talk, indicating a sense that natural learning is a kind of mimicry or response to modelling. It presupposes that no one has gone out of their way to bring about any outcome of learning; the outcome has merely happened due to the child’s innate desire to learn in a social context.

In practice, in modern-day Australia at least, this model of learning is rare. I mean it is certainly by no means unusual for parents to enjoy and encourage the early communication of their children. In the past year I have seen these examples;

  • asking children questions to elicit a verbal response; for instance ‘What does a dog say?’ or ‘Where has Daddy gone?’
  • prompting children with start sounds of words they have previously said to stimulate them to repeat those words.

These are fairly usual activities in families with small children and often provide pleasure to all involved. My key point here is that learning is not merely innate but is a learnt response and a social activity.

Beyond such social and familial displays of learning and teaching lies the world of formal education. Its history and variety are too long and complex to discuss here, but for argument’s sake let’s say this is where a decision is made, more often hierarchical or bureaucratic than personal, to teach particular things to particular people at particular times. It is associated with such paraphernalia as texts, blackboards, ink, clocks, timetables, classrooms, professionals, schools and universities. As we know, formal learning is a broad realm, one which incorporates my father’s experience, my own online off-campus university studies, violent colonial histories of forced separation of children from their families, and the experience of numerous home educated children. Importantly for this discussion, whatever other opinions you may have of it, formal education is a norm – which is precisely why my father felt he needed to ask how my children learn and what natural learning is.

You may have sensed by now that I consider natural learning to incorporate both innate and socially or culturally encouraged learning; in other words, that prompting, suggestion and encouragement are also part of natural learning. Perhaps, more radically, I don’t see formal education as necessarily antithetical to natural learning. Some skills are best taught by formal instruction. Consider the example of a mechanic in an apprenticeship. Formal technical learning in this context is not, to my way of thinking, ‘unnatural’. What it does lack, however, is the sheer volume of trial and error, resourcefulness, imaginative exploration, inventiveness and inter-disciplinary approaches that are, to my way of thinking, the greatest educational benefits of natural learning.

This leads me to my description of what Zea has been ‘learning’ over the last few days. No doubt it will be coloured by my own cultural expectations of what constitutes learning. I have also included some dialogues Zea and I had about some of her activities, learning and the article I was writing.

Let me start with Tasmania, as we left the mainland behind on 13 January. Actually Tasmania has become our mainland now, since we caught the ferry over to Bruny Island two days ago. All this I expect Zea would know: she was there for the journey after all, and she has participated in conversations about it. I wondered what her definition of ‘mainland’ would be. This is her response: ‘It’s like if there’s an island, like say there’s a big place like Australia, and there’s a little island coming off it, then the big place is the mainland’. This description was followed by a brief exchange:

Zea: Is it for the thing?
Gnat: Article?
Zea: Yeah.
Gnat: Yes.

Here, simply by participating in life, Zea has learnt the concept of a mainland. In fact she thinks she learnt this on previous visits from hearing people talk. ‘I’ve figured it out myself that they mean, like, when they said mainland that it was the bigger island that was the mainland’, was what she told me.

Now, getting back to the last few days, on Tuesday we were in Hobart staying with Zea’s fairy godmother Ellie. On the walls of the lounge room Ellie has (amongst several artworks) three maps. One is a map of the world, another is a map of Australia, and the other a map of Tasmania. These became part of our conversations whilst we were there about, for example, travel, travelling and where we were all born. I can’t remember everything that came up in the conversation, but I do remember Zea going with great gusto from one map to the other locating places, making comparisons and so on. Last night when we watched the weather report Jason made an offhand comment along the lines of ‘Where is Bruny?’, and Zea jumped up and pointed it out on the television screen. She had learnt the location on those maps on Ellie’s walls the previous day. It was further reinforced when she asked me questions about the small map of Bruny Island and Kettering, which was on the back of a free postcard she had received.

For my dad’s purposes, Zea’s learning discussed so far (and there are more map-related things which cropped up over these few days than I have the time or inclination to include) could be thought of as Geography. It is the sort of physical geography of which map-reading is part and parcel. For example, a teacher may offer his or her class a sheet with four maps and a space to answer questions comparing them or later ask, ‘Using the maps you have previously been given locate Bruny Island on this weather chart of Southern Tasmania’. It is also social geography, an excellent foray to a question like ‘When does Tasmania become the mainland, and what does this tell us about the parameters of the modern state?’ In many ways you couldn’t plan a better Geography lesson. This leads me to another key point about natural learning: the ‘teachers’, if that is what we can agree to call the parents, don’t tend to plan lessons.

I would like to mention here another significant difference between natural learning and formal learning: the role of literacy in the latter. It is unlikely that formal learning will not include literacy, such as writing the answers to questions or reading (either aloud or privately) some information on the topic even where, as in the case of the Geography lesson, it is not what is overtly being taught. In the case of formal learning literacy is necessary as it underpins the delivery of the whole (or almost the whole) curriculum. It is much less likely that natural learning will include literacy; it may even be absent where you most expect it, in learning to read or write. For instance, it is my belief that Zea’s literacy has mostly come out of learning that writing is a way to express love (‘love’ being the first non-phonetic word she learnt to spell, and ‘you’ the second) and a form of social interaction. (She wrote notes, letters and cards and still does much more often than stories). So I could argue that verbal expressions of love and social get-togethers, meeting and making friends and maintaining friendships are all (for Zea at least) literacy lessons.

The learning scenario I described that centred on the maps and travelling over a couple of days, rests on all her related previous knowledge and awareness and is what I will call a ‘learning continuum’. Using this definition, literacy could also be seen as another learning continuum. Both these continuums intersect; for instance, Zea sight-read and sounded out numerous location names including Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, St. Marys and Bruny whilst looking at Ellie’s maps. The postcard on which the map of Bruny Island and Kettering appeared was being used by Zea to write to her Nanna and Poppy. In this way you could consider natural learning to occur via intersecting learning continuums.

When we were still at Ellie’s, Zea dictated a list of nearly 30 people – couples or families to whom she wished to write a postcard on her trip. So far she has written five, averaging two a day. I took particular note of her suggestion that she would write first to those she lives nearby, as those further away would equally enjoy a letter telling what she had done whilst in Tasmania. It seems she is also learning to prioritise and developing sound time-management skills. At the same time the postcards are a clear example of her development as a literate member of society.


The picture above shows two postcards. For the one on the left, she sounded out and asked me to confirm spellings she was unsure of or didn’t know. The one on the right she was writing out from notes she dictated to me. Ingeniously, she used a small piece of rolled sticky tape to hold the dictated notes in place on the book she was leaning on. Notice also that she has devised a system of circling each line to make sure she neither misses anything nor writes anything twice.

Earlier today I had had enough of Zea’s seemingly endless questions, chatter and singing so I strongly suggested (AKA told her) to grab Baxter’s binoculars and go out and do some bird watching. She did, for about an hour. She also drew the birds and their behaviours. Her discussion of what she saw went for almost another hour. At some stage I will probably get out the bird watching book and identify with her which birds she saw. This is something we do a lot.

Left to Right: Zea’s bird drawings, the sculpture, Zea’s drawing of the sculpture



She also turned bird watching into an art lesson, sketching the sculpture by Tasmanian artist and our friend John McColl that stands next to the bird bath. When I took photos of the bird drawings and the postcards (which she had with her) she asked me to photograph the sketch also and explain that it was of the sculpture. I asked why she had decided to draw it, and she noted it was ‘art of art’, a study of another artist’s work. She had decided to do it because it happened to be next to the bird bath. I think it is interesting that the style shows a much more artistic nature than the diagrammatical rendering of the birds.

I hope that the above examples give some idea of how natural learning happens for a natural learning home educated child over the course of a few days. I would also like to briefly mention many other activities Zea did over these same few days.

  • ‘Snap with Body Parts’ cards, a game with four cards for each body part, any two of which can be ‘snapped’. The heart cards use the word ‘heart’, an illustration of the heart, another of the human body and skeleton with the heart in red where it is located, and another of a tyre pump labelled ‘pump’.
  • Listening to me read aloud from Debt: The First 5000 Years that I am reading at the moment
  • Playing Ninja jump on my iPhone
  • Cooking
  • Walks together, including wildlife spotting. We’ve seen several Quolls and an Echidna so far.
  • Going with Jason to turn off the water pump
  • Questions asked and answered about plant ID in the garden
  • Being timed bike riding across the property to the front gate and back
  • Ensuing questions about reading clocks
  • Photography on my iPhone
  • Learning to co-exist in a small space with three people (something we are all learning)
  • Watching a cooking show
  • Writing down the day, time and channel for a show she wanted to watch from a television ad promoting it

And many, many more things, some of which I don’t even know about because she spends time on her own and with other people.
So that is the answer in the end. ‘Lessons never begin and never stop’, and ‘learning happens 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week’.


From Otherways issue 131.

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