Natural Learning in Action

By Susan Wight

Natural Learning is not ‘Doing Nothing’

Confession time: Sometimes I get ‘the guilts’ and think I’m not really educating my children at all. This feeling usually creeps in following someone’s wide-eyed response when I tell them that I home educate.

“Wow, I could never do that! You must be so organised!”

The overawed responses vary but the words ‘busy’, ‘dedicated’ ‘organised’ and ‘amazing’ crop up fairly often. My guess is you hear this kind of thing too. And then the guilt sets in because these people have entirely the wrong idea about me. They think that I am a super-organised disciplinarian, planning lessons; conscientiously implementing a study routine; supervising progress; correcting work and so on…

I’m not doing any of that stuff! The fact is that most of the time, I’m doing my own thing whilst the kids do theirs. As the clock ticks over 9.00 a.m. here you won’t find me with the dishes and daily washing and cleaning done ready to supervise the day’s school work. In fact it’s quite likely that I am checking my email in my pajamas whilst the kids are still reading in bed. One of them is almost certainly still asleep.

Sometimes natural learning seems to be ‘doing nothing.’

I think the thing is that following a natural learning lifestyle means that the parental role is so different to that of a teacher that even we home educating parents have trouble seeing and recognising it for what it is sometimes. We don’t appreciate how hard we work to help our children learn because we cease to consider it ‘work’ and just think of it as ‘life’. The truth is that natural learning involves much more than ‘doing nothing’ or letting the kids do whatever they want. On the contrary, parents are very involved in their children’s natural learning. Yes, my children pretty much do what they want as long as they are not causing a problem. But what we natural learners find is that, given the chance to do whatever they wish, children choose many activities and pursuits where learning is incidental (indeed inevitable) and that, as they grow older, children choose to learn more overtly in the direction of their own interests and often pursue those interests to a very high level. The child who is still asleep at 9.00 a.m. has often been writing a story or researching until late into the night.

So what of the parents’ role? No we are not implementing timetables but we are very far from being divorced from the process of learning which is going on in our homes. Encouraging natural learning is very much a facilitator’s role. We teach our children how to find out what they want to know. We answer their questions as toddlers and, as they grow older, we show them how to use the index of books, the library catalogue system and the internet but none of this is done in lesson form. It is just ‘taught’ naturally as the need arises. We search high and low for books that will appeal to them – both fiction and non-fiction. We take them to clubs, exhibitions, festivals, sports and activities that will interest them. We stock up on resources – books, art materials, writing materials, board games and so on. We provide the time and the freedom for them to develop their imaginations through long imaginative games. We display their models and artwork. In short, we help them in thousands of ways to actively pursue any interest they have.

We are also the sounding board for many of their ideas, thoughts and imaginary games. We take their opinions seriously. We thoughtfully read everything they write, even their first faltering attempts which we may also join with them in laughing at years later. We comment, correct or proofread as requested. We are the audience for their lounge-room concerts and sit through hours of recitals of their made-up songs and poetry. We preview books that we think might appeal to them. We read everything they recommend and talk to them about what they read. We type up their stories. We help them make signs and props for their games. Sometimes we purchase what we or they can not make – e.g. play money for their shopping games. We make time to explain concepts when requested and to demonstrate skills they wish to pick up. We frequently drop what we are doing in order to respond to their interests, their questions and their pursuit of knowledge. In fact we honour their quest for knowledge and help them to see how important it is.

We have no structure in a school sense but in a very real sense our whole lives are structured to aid, assist and encourage our children to learn and to love learning.

Holiday Learning

Learning happens so easily and naturally that even whilst on holiday we continue learning effortlessly and enthusiastically. Some people hesitate to take their children out of school for a holiday but here’s what we learnt on a ten-day holiday recently…

The drive to and from our destination, Kangaroo Island, encouraged incidental conversation about maps, travel times, distances and fruit fly. When we crossed the border and changed our clocks we also talked about how the invention of time zones came about with the coming of the railway. Apparently before then individual towns had local time based on the position of the sun over their longitude. Railway timetables were initially very confusing because they were based on the time at head office whilst the trains ran through towns whose times did not match the timetable. Time zones made travel much simpler.

We listened to music in the car. At times, songs led to discussions about their topics. For example the song, Celebrity led to talk about fame and how stars can lose touch with reality and have an inflated opinion of themselves. This naturally led to a discussion of alcohol, drugs, community service and rehab, all of which crop up in the song. The next day we read in the newspaper that one star was in rehab and another was doing community service after having thrown her mobile phone at a maid who could not find her jeans.

Arriving in Cape Jervis, we put our car on the ferry and watched whilst other cars were loaded. The ferry trip encouraged conversation about sea-sickness and ‘getting your sea-legs’. As we watched the mainland recede and the island approach, we tried to identify many of the languages and accents we heard from the international tourists around us. We finished our first day with a night walk on the beach.

Kangaroo Island was charted and named by Matthew Flinders in 1801 who met up with Nicholas Baudin the Frenchman who was also exploring the region. Incidental history and geography lessons abounded whilst travelling around the island as it is full of references to the two explorers and many places were named by each.

During our stay we visited two of the island’s lighthouses and took the tour at each. At Cape Willoughby we saw the old light, now housed in an outbuilding, and listened to the tour guide’s talk which covered the history of the lighthouse, the keeper’s routine, some stories from the lives of lighthouse keepers, the importance of longitude in avoiding shipwrecks and the difficulties of determining longitude in the shipping days, and how lighthouses each had their own sequence of light flashes to help captains recognise them and therefore determine their position. We examined a map of Australian lighthouses and noticed that the lighthouse on King Island is called Cape Wickham and wondered whether a Jane Austen fan named both it and Cape Willoughby. The lighthouse is also a weather station and we were told about weather readings – cloud identification, wind speed, temperature readings and record keeping. Then we climbed the lighthouse and enjoyed the view and experience.

Named after Matthew Flinders, the lighthouse at Cape Borda was quite different to the traditional tall, round lighthouse at Cape Willoughby. Because of the height of the cliffs that the Flinders light stands on, it does not need to be tall and because height was not required, a square structure was suitable whereas tall lighthouses needed to be round for strength. We again heard about shipping days but heard different information. The guide talked about the life of a lighthouse keeper; how the light used to float in a one-tonne bath of mercury, how the mercury sent some people mad, the isolation of the lifestyle, the difficulty of getting supplies up the cliff and the unfortunate fate of Captain Woodward, the first lighthouse keeper, who died when infection set in after an injury to his eye. Flinders light is still operational and the tour guide challenged us to think of why the light was rotating during the day even though it was not shining. The reason is that, if still, the light could act as a giant magnifying glass and start a fire. Afterwards we took the clifftop walk and enjoyed the view.

We visited Harvey’s Return – a secluded beach between inhospitable cliffs. The path down to the beach is the remains of the place where the lighthouse supplies for Cape Borda used to be brought up the steep embankment. We looked at the capstan where the horses pulled the railway carts up the hill. The climb down was not easy but was worth it as the beach was truly beautiful. Once on the beach, we could view the remains of the crane base where supplies were lifted into the railway carts. This is also an interesting geological site and Rob, James and I examined the zebra rock (layers of sand and clay have become quartz and black mica) that the site is renowned for whilst Matthew and Stephen played in the water and rock pools. After a couple of hours on the beach, the boys scrambled back up the path with the enthusiasm of youth, and Rob and I trailed behind somewhat less athletically.

A couple of times we visited the township of Kingscote for lunch, to pick up supplies, and for internet access. James was undertaking a short online course in Astronomy with Swinburne University and needed to log in to take part and make notes.

In incidental conversation Stephen talked about tension with Rob and also learnt that infinity is not a number and that something finite is countable or measurable. Somehow this resulted in Stephen challenging James to calculate how many seconds there are in 10,000 years. James did so, making allowance for leap years every fourth year except where the fourth year falls on a century which is not divisible by four hundred.

One day we visited Seal Bay where we observed and learnt about the Australian Sea Lions, walked on the beach amongst them, looked at display boards about their life cycle, sealing, diminished numbers and problems of pollution. We also saw seal and dolphin skeletons and purchased an activity book on Australian bush animals which Matthew and Stephen subsequently worked through.

We visited Little Sahara, a spectacular series of giant inland sand-dunes. The boys climbed to the top and tumbled down whilst Rob and I tried not to. Next we toured Kelly Hills Caves and observed and learnt about crystal formation in the caves and the geological history that caused it. We were interested to hear that the caves had formed out of a series of giant inland sand-dunes such as those we had just played on. We also learnt a little about the history of cave exploration with particular reference to these caves. We subsequently talked about Rob’s caving experience on his Outward Bound course when he was 21 – being in the caves for seven hours, the group being left in the dark and having to work as a team to find their way out, going up the ‘laundry chute’ and climbing up a free-falling ladder despite being exhausted.

We visited Flinders Chase Visitor Centre and read display boards about the geological history of the region and looked at maps of Pangea, Gondwanaland and Australia with Kangaroo Island still attached. We talked about the rising water levels flooding Backstairs Passage and cutting Kangaroo Island off from the mainland. Then we looked at display boards about the animals unique to Kangaroo Island and how they had adapted to the local terrain after being cut off from the mainland and gradually formed sub-species.

At Cape Du Coudeic we saw the old hut in which the SA government stored supplies for shipwreck victims and talked about how they were never actually used by anyone who was shipwrecked and the government abandoned the concept because the huts kept being broken into and raided for the supplies.

At Admiral’s Arch we not only inspected the interesting geological formation of the Arch itself but talked about the erosion that had caused it and how the two islands out beyond it would at one time have been connected and may have formed arches of their own before collapsing and being separated from the mainland. We spent about an hour watching the waves crashing onto the rocks below the arch and observing the New Zealand Fur Seals who live on the rocks surrounding the point. We also read about them on the display boards provided and talked about them. We noticed revegetation areas and talked about tourism and how the impact needs to be carefully managed.

Remarkable Rocks was another geological site of interest as well as being a fun place to explore although we took heed of the warnings about the slippery rocks and remembered the story of a tourist who ventured too far and, although he was rescued, his rescuers were swept off the rocks and drowned.

Whilst touring around, on several occasions we stopped to watch echidnas and goannas. We observed animal tracks and, at Remarkable Rocks, identified various tracks from display boards provided. We watched dolphins and each evening we watched wallabies from our balcony. Their attitude led us to think that they may have been fed by previous visitors. We talked about how feeding them human food was bad for them – it is potentially poisonous to them and, even if not poisonous, disrupts their natural lifestyle if they expect to be fed. One day Stephen decided to make a ‘Do Not Feed the Wildlife’ sign.

Nor was the focus continually or consciously on active learning. Our stay included restful beach days where we walked for miles along the beach, enjoying the water, watching the tidal activity and the pelicans and examining dead jelly fish, crabs and shells left by the tide. At other times Rob and I relaxed on the balcony and sipped our wine and read our books whilst overlooking the kids playing on the beach. We all enjoyed watching how the beach changed with the tide and the weather. There was one tidal sandbar that the boys dubbed ‘Atlantis’ and liked to watch sink each day. They occupied themselves for hours in building cities to be flooded by the tide. One day Matthew and Stephen played on the beach all day – a long imaginary game called ‘Explorers’ in which they explored the island, swam rivers, encountered cannibals and killed them, found an ancient tomb, etc. It is quite likely that this game will be written up as a story at some stage. They spent another afternoon playing cricket for hours with an imaginary bat and ball.

There was plenty of time for restful reading and contemplation. Reading is a major pastime in our family and we each took a stack of books to read whilst away. As always, our reading gave rise to some interesting conversations which ranged across such topics as:

Voltaire & Madame du Chatelet: their lives, writings and experiments in Newtonian physics, with reference to Passionate Minds that I was reading.
Physics and Cosmology with reference to Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time and The Goldilocks Enigma that James was reading.
Global warming after I finished The Weather Makers which James had added to my reading pile a few weeks earlier.
Self managed super funds from a book that Rob was reading.
The Tobruk campaign from another of Rob’s books and subsequently war in general.

The Brontes with reference to a biography I am reading and a documentary we saw last month – looked at some examples of their juvenilia, talked about the conditions of the school the elder four girls attended and the subsequent deaths of the oldest two sisters.

Cricket history, records, players and the finer points of the game which arose from Matthew and Stephen’s reading of The Glory Gardens cricket series and newspaper articles about the Cricket World Cup.
There was also time for writing. James worked on writing two books – a fiction series Stephen’s Adventures in Space and a non-fiction book called Discovery of the Planets and Matthew, Stephen and I each made notes for some books we are working on. Stephen also did some work on a Powerpoint show he is currently making and spent some time drawing, which is one of his favourite occupations. He was working on the illustrations for a book called Venusian Vampires which James wrote for him the week before we went away.

After one very active day, we had a lazy day around our holiday house. Matthew and Stephen experimented with soft toys and which would fall off the fan first and also played a game of cricket with their soft toys.

Watching movies together is another family pastime that we enjoy and usually do each evening when on holidays. On this trip we watched and talked about Without a Clue, Master and Commander, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Apollo 11, Sneakers, and Miss Marple movies By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Sleeping Murder. We talked about David Copperfieldbeing semi-autobiographical and about Dickens’ life. We didn’t think much of the Miss Marple movies but enjoyed the critical thinking afterwards about the plots. We also watched aPlanet Earth documentary.

Nor was it all sunshine and happiness. At times, three children in the back of the car got a bit irritable and Rob sometimes got tired of their tendency to then argue about nothing. One evening I got a bit cranky too when the chicken I was planning to cook for dinner turned out to be off. But this turned into a learning experience when we found a TV crew parked outside the fish and chip shop we wanted to buy our back-up tea from. They were there filming for a new food and wine show. Rob was filmed ordering our tea and we talked about the difference between how welcoming and friendly the proprietress was when there was a film crew there compared with another day when there was none. We also hung around and watched the rest of the segment being filming and discussed the process.

What we covered

So whilst we relaxed and had a lot of fun, we covered English (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and critical thinking), History, Literature, Maths, Geography, Science (Astronomy, Physics, Cosmology, Nature studies and Geology), Media Studies and Environmental and social issues. We also got plenty of physical exercise.

Family holidays are an opportunity for rich shared experiences and an extension of life learning.

Who Says “It’s not okay to be away”?

So natural learning isn’t bludging after all. Natural learning happens every day regardless of school days or terms. The success of natural learning seems to lie in the fact that the learning is always in context. It is perfectly integrated with living and the family becomes a community of learners.

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