Tag Archives: unschooling

Growing Up

The past year has seen a dramatic shift in Númenor and Ithilien.

Sure, they’re bigger.  And they speak more conventional English now.  But all that is trifling.  I’m talking about a big, fundamental change.

As unschooled kids, they pretty much run wild through their lives.  They do whatever they want to do, and as their parents, teachers, and facilitators, we try to stay out of their way and provide them with resources and opportunities.  And last spring, that was all that was happening.

But as the mornings turned cooler and the scent of woodsmoke began to permeate our early autumn landscape, something changed.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what’s different, but it’s almost like they have become more focused.

I used to offer to help them look things up.  Now they demand to be shown information.

The endless rattling of questions has started to follow a particular path instead of zigzagging madly between topics.

They listen longer, and closer.  They make more guesses and inferences for themselves instead of asking me to give them each piece of the puzzle.

They have plans.  Real, concrete plans for things that might actually happen– lots of fantasy still thrown in there, but more akin to daydreams than to the acid binges of imagination we were used to.

Before, learning was something that happened to them– they were naturally curious, of course, like all primates, but they didn’t trouble themselves overmuch with knowing anything particular.  Now, they almost seem to vibrate with the intense, conscious desire to learn.

They want to cook, so they are helping to make the menu, and browsing in cookbooks, and being the chefs de cuisine one night per week.

They want to stargaze, so they are finding astronomy books and star guides at the library and making sure we check the weather forecast.

They want to knit, so they are watching my hands intently and making some tentative starts with fingers and spools.

They want to know about bugs, so they are running for the guidebook and carefully trapping interesting things under upside-down juice glasses for observation.

They want to write, so they are using the sound map and copying words from books.

So things look a bit different this spring than they have in previous years, when our children were just the vessels of our vision for this grand educational experiment.

In the fall, the change will likely be more complete, and Númenor and Ithilien will be taking even more leadership in their own lives, but for right now the shift is still underway, and we’re balanced between the two of them being our satellites– doing their own thing but always around what we adults are doing– and all four of us being off on our own individual journeys and making a rather messy pack as we go.

It’s strange to think that, not that long ago, they were each just a tiny tickling thing behind my bellybutton.

Strange, and wonderful.

The Old Gate: A Lesson in Kinematics

Today my 3-year-old and my 4-year-old had physics class.

This isn’t remarkable– as children who are not yet in the concrete operational stage, they are constantly in motion, and that is the best practical illustration of physics one could possibly hope to have– but what was remarkable was the subject of today’s lesson.

I watched them play well into the dusk, until they couldn’t see their feet in front of them in the fading light.  First, Ithilien would find a rock about the size of a mango.  Then they would both climb up to the first terrace in our mountainside back yard, and Númenor would swing the old stick gate– a remnant, we think, of someone’s goat pen– into the “closed” position and hold it still.  The latch is broken, so something must hold it still, otherwise the natural slope of the yard swings the gate out over the wooden deck on the level below until its post stops it and it comes to rest, looking like the top of a Dutch door in a nonexistent wall.

Next, Ithilien would place the rock on top of the gate, balancing it carefully.  Finally, Númenor would give the gate a little push to send it on its way, and it would swing wide over the deck and be abruptly stopped by its post, whereupon the rock would be jarred off the top of the gate and continue forward and downward to the ground.  Both children positively screamed with laughter every time this happened, but eventually it became predictable– after perhaps two dozen trials, they began to vary the number and placement of the rocks.

I finally gave them notice that it was too dark to keep playing outside– one more trial and then they had to come in– and we talked about what they learned.

N: “We pushed the gate, then it stopped.  The air pushed the rock and made it jump.”

Me: “The air pushed it?  I don’t think so…”

N: “Actually, it is called in-ur-sha.  That is a French word for ‘it keeps going’.”

Me: “Yes, the rock did fall off the gate because of inertia, which is a Latin word meaning “lazy” or “inactive.”  Why didn’t the gate keep moving?”

I: “The gate– it hit the fence– and it just stopped– like this!” (mimes a cartoonish sudden stop and resulting vibration with hands)

Me: “That’s exactly right.  The gate hit the rest of the fence, and that stopped it, but nothing stopped the rock, so it kept going and fell off the gate.”

N:  “The rock only fell from the front from the gate.  It fell in front all ninety-eight times!” [sic erat dictum, but I think it was more like 50 times]

Me: “Yeah, that’s what I would guess– the rock kept moving the same way the gate swung.  What happened when the rock was close to the hinges?”

I: “When the rock– it was close to the hinges– and it did not fall off!  And Númenor pushed the gate– and then the rock– it did fall!”

Me: “Exactly!  When the rock was close to the hinges, the gate swinging by itself didn’t give it enough inertia to overcome friction, so it did not fall off the gate until you swung the gate with more force.”

N:  “Yeah!  It had friction because of the wood– it is not smooth, it is all scratchy.”

Me:  “Uh-huh.  And the rock is probably bumpy, too, and that adds friction.  What about when there were two rocks on the gate?”

N: “One on the end of the gate did fall, but one by the hinges did not fall.  It had too many friction and not enough pushing, because it was closer.”

Me: “They probably had basically the same friction, but the one by the hinges was not acted upon by sufficient force.”

I: “The rock– when it fall– it maked a big noise like CRACCCCKK!”

N: “When Ithilien pushed the gate like this– ” (mimes pushing hard) “– the rock made a big noise.  When I pushed it like this–” (mimes a tiny push) “– it made a same sound.”

Me: “What do you think that means?”

N: “Um.  I don’t know.  Maybe the rock falled the same?”

Me: “It always fell from the top of the gate, so it fell the same distance regardless of how hard you pushed the gate sideways.”

I: “Gravity is how things fall down!”

Me: “Right.  And gravity was the only force pulling down on the rock.  So the rock would have the same speed hitting the ground no matter how hard you push the gate.”

N: “Yeah.  Gravity is how things are pulled by heavier things.”

Me: “Hmm.  Well, technically it’s how things are pulled by more massive things.”

N: “More massive, yeah.  Like Earth pulled on us’s rock?”

Me: “Exactly.”

And there it is.  In less than two hours, left basically unattended with derelict farm infrastructure and rocks, my three and four year old children discovered that vertical and horizontal forces are independent, that forces on the end of a lever are amplified relative to forces at the fulcrum, and that inertia can be overcome by additional force.  They also reviewed gravity, inertia, and friction, which are concepts we’ve talked about (and they’ve seen on The Magic School Bus) before.  They made hypotheses and collected data and verbalized the significance of their results.

Which is to say nothing of all they learned about what lives under rocks and inhabits leaf piles on warm October evenings.