homeschooling resources

how unschooling, or "flow" learning, brings joy to our life with kids


Certain things change when you have a child with a serious heart defect. I immediately saw through the veneer of certain societal norms : time spent staring at a screen to escape reality, time spent doing something that doesn't bring joy for the sake of getting ahead, time spent away from my kids in order to make more money. It suddenly all became just that: Time Spent. Spent and gone. That precious, precious Time. If there was any doubt in my mind that I would homeschool my kids before Lachlan's diagnosis, it was completely erased post-diagnosis. There would be no wasting of any time in school.  For kids with HLHS, childhood is often a Golden Time - their heart function often declines as they enter their later teen years and early adulthood. Why waste my son's precious life with time spent waiting in line and taking tests? I didn't know then that I would come to believe that schooling at home isn't worth our time as a family, either.

My little boy with half a heart is old enough to be in kindergarten, away from me five days a week. Instead, he is home with all of us. He wakes up in the morning and starts working on the ramps he builds for things with wheels, or he asks someone to read him a story. He helps with breakfast, and buils a boat out of cardboard. He fixes himself a snack of apples and almond butter when he's hungry. He might choose to go outside to swing, woo a neighbor cat from under the shed, or ride his bike down the neighbor's driveway. He plays with the neighbor kids in the afternoons, or enjoys a board game with me if the weather is crummy. He has become “quite the hiker,” to use his own words, and is amazingly helpful with outside chores and gardening tasks. In the moments in between, he is either playing the piano (figuring out melodies in different keys is his jam) or on the couch with a book in his lap.

Last year at this time, I was struggling with homeschooling. I didn't feel like family life was joyful. I felt pressure to help my eldest learn to read. I felt pressure to come up with a family rhythm that worked for all of us. I felt pressure to find time to get in all the “educational stuff” every day, to make sure our days were nourishing, calm, and enriching. In my head, it went like this: first, math play with Daddy. Then, violin practice, followed by family music time. Next, we would move on to read-aloud and a planned art project, followed by reading and writing practice, outside play, and quiet time. Oh my. I met with resistance from one or another of my kids at every step of the way. Even though I was trying my best to maximize our moments of enrichment, it just started to feel like Time Spent. Precious Time - wasted because I was still holding onto the belief that, if I didn't expose my children to most subjects most days, I was an unsuccessful homeschooling parent. I was doing a disservice to my kids.

Thank goodness I got over that. Because my goal is not to have children who can recite math facts at incredible speed, or whose handwriting is beyond lovely and whose spelling is pristine at age seven. My goal, quite simply, is to live joyfully with my kids. I do not homeschool in order that they may get into an Ivy League university. I homeschool so that their minds can flourish in an environment of respect, so that they can practice listening themselves and empathizing with fellow humans, so that they can explore and have time to hone their own gifts and passions. I homeschool so we can enjoy living and learning together as a family. Which is why we shifted to radical unschooling.


I'm not writing this to convince you that unschooling is the “right” way to homeschool. There are so many different kinds of personalities, and a school-at-home method might be perfect for certain kids and families. I'm writing this for anyone who feels like I did at this time last year – that homeschooling is a slog. This is for the homeschooling parent who feels stressed out by the pressure of fitting in all of those different subjects, who might be meeting with resistance from highly self-motivated kids. That was me. Turns out, my kids can smell a “teachy mom” with an agenda from miles away. They don't want a teachy mom. They want me: a mom who listens, who empathizes, who marvels with them, who supports them, who demonstrates passion, kindness and work ethic through her way of living rather than her words and rules, and who gets out of the way when they are concentrating.

The day I accepted that my own passions and interests wax and wane, and that I learn best when given the time to focus on one thing at a time, really getting into the flow of concentration, the sky opened up and a chorus of angels started singing. Of course my kids were constantly annoyed that they didn't have enough time to work on what was important to them. (I get annoyed when told that I need to stop doing what I'm focusing on in order to work on something else, too!) Obviously, just because I don't write every day, that doesn't mean that I am not a writer. Just because I put aside my sewing design work for months at a time, that doesn't mean I won't come back to it later when the moment is right. Just because I lose interest in cooking fancy meals in order to make time for a burst of interest in painting doesn't mean I'll never cook again. The idea that learning must happen at a constant, plodding pace is just plain wrong. When I liberated myself from the idea that I had to be all things all the time, I passed along that grace to my children as well. (Notice that I don't commit to write a weekly blog post, or come out with a new sewing pattern every season. I'll do those things when I'm inspired to do them – that way, they fill me with energy rather than depleting me.) Just because my kids don't practice math daily doesn't mean they won't obsess over rubik's cube theory for two days straight. Just because they write a story one day doesn't mean that I need to worry if they put aside that work for a while after a burst of concentration and interest.

We cleared our morning schedule and allowed to allow the kids to get into interests and projects. And man, it feels SO right. We are all so happy. And learning, even the kind that can be measured by a test, has blossomed. No wonder – neurobiology has finally caught up with educational luminaries such as Jean Piaget and John Holt. It turns out that simply living joyfully, respectfully, and responsively with children provides the necessary environment for all sorts of learning to happen:


It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense: the brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. - Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang


It was only when I stopped trying to teach Finn to read that he started to read on his own. When I stopped asking him to read aloud and stopped trying to institute a predetermined silent reading time, he took a mini reading vacation. He loved listening to read-alouds or audio books, but didn't pick up anything on his own. A few months into his vacation, I started displaying books that I thought might capture his interest. I put them, cover out, on the couch, which is where he first plops himself when he comes downstairs upon waking. He picked one up and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. From that point forward, he has been reading for several hours a day, nearly every day, of his own accord. All I do is “strew” books he will love in his path, and he gets lost in them.

The same has been true of Lachlan, who learned his letters in the hospital while recovering from his third surgery. Other than that, he was spared my well-meaning attempts at formal reading instruction other than following along with my finger during read-alouds, answering his direct questions, and playing some sound games. I put out books that I think might tickle his funny bone, and he happily plops himself down with them and reads book after book after book. I'm sure he isn't able to read every word in the Amulet series, but he gets most of them, and, like his older brother, he views reading as a diversion rather than a chore. Sadie is following suit, and she spends a good hour a day “reading” out loud all of the picture books she can get her hands on. Our living room floor is always covered with books.

Would I feel the same ease with unschooling if my kids hadn't embraced reading so readily? Sometimes I wonder, but the fact remains that they only started doing this once we had been curriculum- and rhythm-free for a good while. I attribute much of their rampant reading, natural interest in mathematical theory, and focused problem-solving capabilities to my graduate degree in Montessori education. Because of all of my immersion in Montessori, I understood the importance of preparing the environment to assist the child in entering into depth of flow, or concentrated effort. (For more on this theory, check out this talk TED talk by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow: The Secret of Happiness.)


I've written before about our toys (and where we keep them) in a previous post. The gist is this: our few, open-ended toys are kept upstairs in a small play room. We spend most of our time downstairs, where they have access to myriad books, all of our musical instruments, the kitchen, and our art/tinkering space. During our “lazy” mornings, we all enjoy these activities (with some homemaking tasks thrown in for me and the occasional child.) All of these activities are set up to be welcoming and accessible for each child. We have cozy bean bags for reading, age-appropriate art materials available within reach (tempera paints aren't accessible for the 3 year-old, but markers, scissors, paper, etc. are.) We have headphones available to a child who wants to play the (electronic) piano while another is reading, so as not to disturb the reader. All of the baking supplies, as well as their cookbooks, are available to the five and seven year-olds in case they feel thus inspired. The snack drawer is nearly always stocked with a panoply of healthy options; even the toddler can serve herself whenever she is hungry.  Any Montessori teacher would feel at home in our house - the only thing missing is the expensive and space-consuming Montessori materials. Our home is designed so the kids can act safely and independently at a place where their interests are perfectly matched with just the right amount of challenge. They almost always enter this state of creative "Flow" given enough unstructured time.


The one thing that we do differently from many radically unschooling families is screen time. Like most unschoolers, we don't restrict their time on screens and we don't waste our time or energy on arguing the value of video game vs. a good book. We just naturally don't have screen time. We don't own a television. (Since moving out of our respective homes at 18, Patrick and I have never owned a TV. It has never been our preferred way to relax.) We don't own a video game consul. Our kids don't have their own tablets or computers. Patrick is a computer programmer, and I have an online business and write on my computer, but it's clear to the kids that we don't look at screens if we aren't working. We'd rather be playing an instrument, drawing, hiking, or playing a board game. Screens just seem to suck away our precious time with each other, so we treat them as an occasional tool rather than an inevitable fixture. We are not Luddites; we use YouTube to learn a skill and watch documentaries together. We watch Spanish language kids' music videos. The boys really enjoy programming music in Sonic Pi with their dad. Finn spent a few weeks last spring putting together elaborate stop-motion videos, which required learning to use my camera and lighting equipment and gaining proficiency with the stop motion software. They watch the occasional cartoon at their grandparents' house. But they don't have their own screens and they don't do school work online.

Rather than making it a self-regulating screenapalooza or a stress-filled, parent-regulated, much-sought-after commodity, we just naturally don't have screens readily available in our house. It's a perfect fit for our family. I'm not arguing the merits or disadvantages to unrestricted screen time, but I wanted to add this screen-light option to the radically unschooled dialog. Perhaps knowing that a naturally screen-light home environment is an option will help some screen-wary families open to the possibility of unschooling. It's certainly been a positive shift for our family. Goodbye curricula, hello Flow, hello healthy connection between parents and children.

Encourage Your Kids to Hike and Give Them a Lifelong Gift of Joyful Movement


In the past year, we've slowly emerged from a period of time during which I couldn't take my three kids out to hike by myself. When Sadie was born, Lachlan still very much needed to be carried after a short period of walking. He can tire easily (he only has half a heart!), but sometimes he just didn't feel like walking – something he shares with most kids of preschool age, I imagine. And when a preschooler doesn't feel like walking, well … you shift your ideal to accommodate your reality.


My ideal is being able to enjoy multi-day backpacking trips with my kids. I grew up next to the Tahoe National Forest, and my dad and I would often head to the trail for the weekend. My dad is not an effusive guy, but during those hikes, camped beside isolated Sierra Nevada lakes, we connected. We didn't talk each other's ears off, but we did hard things together, and shared many funny moments. I want to experience that same distraction-free connection with my kids. Also, my dad's implicit confidence in my resilience as a backpacker framed so much of my self-conception as a woman today – no less capable of doing hard, adventurous, physically and mentally demanding things than my three older brothers. This is an image he cultivated in me from the time I was four, when he and I summited Mt. Lassen. Throughout my life, he told that story proudly. How the rest of the our friends' kids grumbled their way up the trail, and I kept on truckin' and singing, all the way to the top. He and I did a goofy dance in the summer snow patch at the summit. It is one of my most cherished childhood memories.


My little guy with a congenital heart defect would not have been able to summit Mt. Lassen at age four . Instead, I adjusted my ideal and we picked hike-free natural places to explore while he grew in physical and mental resilience. We would (and still do) bring a picnic, art supplies, nets, magnifying glasses, field guides and set about exploring and simply enjoying the nature right around us. Sometimes we would go for very short hikes, but we tended to stick nearby. I wanted to cultivate positive vibes about nature. Check.


And yet … I didn't want our experience of nature to remain sedentary. I am very aware of the benefits of moderate physical exercise for heart kids. Lachlan's heart function depends on a lifestyle of movement. His little heart is a muscle, and the more regularly he works it out, the better and longer it will serve him. He won't be able to play competitive soccer, basketball, or any organized sport like that. But as a family, we can provide him the knowledge of a physical activity that he can continue to enjoy well past the time that most adults stop participating in organized sports and start sitting in front of a computer screen for work. Hiking. Outdoor adventuring in general. A joyful gift of lifelong movement and health.

Here are the things that I'm currently doing to pass along a love of movement in nature, with a goal of going on our first family backpacking trip within the year.


Scavenger hunt hikes

Sometimes the excitement of a scavenger hunt will get them out of the house in a jiffy. These can be “collecting” scavenger hunts, where they look for bits of nature to bring home for the nature table, but sensory scavenger hunts are my favorite. They have a list of things to see, smell, touch, or hear. Check out Pinterest for inspiration.


Snack bags

Have snack, will walk. It's really amazing to me how far my youngest two can go when they have bags of crackers or popcorn to dip into. While I try to keep cracker-face-stuffing to a minimum at home, on the trail they are a much-anticipated treat.


Gear Up the Kids 

Sometimes the gift of a special hiking backpack, hydration system, hiking boots, or trekking poles will inspire them to make some forward momentum on the trail. Lachlan is a big fan of “gear”. (Finn would go naked and barefoot into the woods, and Sadie of course prefers wearing her Halloween-princess-costume-turned-hiking-dress, but Lachlan is motivated by his backpack!)



Gear Up the Mama

Two items have changed my ability to hike solo with my little family: my backpack with a comfortable hip belt and my ultra light-weight Boba Air baby carrier, which folds itself into a tiny zip bag when not in use. I'll start with the Boba carrier – I always stow it in my backpack. In case Lachlan or Sadie get tired, I can pop them in the carrier. In case both of them get tired at the same time, I can (as a last resort) put one in the carrier and the other on my shoulders and view it as an excellent work out! (I always anticipate this, and consider it a gift of a great work out rather than a situation to be feared and avoided at all costs.)


My backpack is filled with crackers, extra clothes, and water, mostly. It also provides me with the ability to facilitate a sweet little rest time, if needed. I love to pack a nature-themed story book like The Burgess Bird Book for Children, as well as some simple nature journal supplies (The boys tend to carry their own sketch books and water in their trail packs now, but I started out carrying everyone's supplies so as not to weight them down before they were ready.)


Sometimes a Curriculum is Helpful

I have loved some of the suggestions in Exploring Nature with Children, a Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschool curriculum. While we are radical unschoolers and don't follow curricula, I use this as a learning resource for myself, so I can be informed about seasonal details in nature. The book's suggestions are great, as are the themed nature walks. There are even some crafting ideas thrown in there! Highly recommended.


We've also participated in and enjoyed the Wild Explorers Club. The kids get weekly “assignments,” which vary from week to week. Some of our favorites have been making your own special walking stick and creating a map of a hike or natural area. When they complete a level (about 4 assignments), you can order them a special badge. We put our membership on hold this fall, but the boys have been asking to start up again. I should get on that.


Find a Hiking Community

It's no surprise that kids move more quickly, and with more gusto, when they are doing it with friends. So much more running happens on the trail when we hike with other kids! We are fortunate to have outdoor-loving friends. If you're still searching for your tribe, see if Hike It Baby or Adventure Mamas has an active community in your area.



Go Slowly, Go Quickly

Be prepared to stop and play in water. Be prepared to marvel at small things. Be prepared to notice the feeling on dirt as it sifts from one hand to the other. Children move slowly, and we should follow their lead. Conversely, be prepared to play a game of tag. Be prepared to race to a tree. Be prepared to be playful. Children can move quickly, and we should follow that cue, as well. Nurturing a balance between fast and slow will keep everyone in balance as you hike.



Talk it Up, Build Their Identities as Hikers


Just like my dad did for me, talk about what amazing hikers your kids have become. Be in awe of their small triumphs, their resilience, their ability to do hard things. After a hike, talk up all of the neat things you saw, all of the fun you had. Plan hikes together - start a Pinterest board together of nearby trails you'd like to get to know. Teach them navigation skills, give them a camera to help document your nature discoveries. Let little ones take turns leading, and thank them for their help afterwards. Tell bedtime stories about them as explorers. Brag about their hiking to their grandparents in the same way you would mention how well they are learning to read.  Essentially, communicate that joyful movement in nature is an esteemed family value. In time, your children will come to self-identify as capable outdoor adventurers.


stress-free holiday magic with kids


Not until I had slightly older children did I come to understand the amount of effort and love my own parents put into making the holidays sparkly and memory-worthy. There were pies. Special outfits. All the books. Crafts. Choral concerts. Epic skiing adventures. Hot chocolate. Tree cutting and decking the halls. Gingerbread houses.

I just got tired writing that.

I'm sure it helped that, by the time I was in elementary school and solidifying memories of my family's traditions, I was the only child still living at home. My brothers are older and had all gone off to college or other adventures, so my parents had but one Christmas-loving kid to fill up with holiday magic.

But I have three little ones, and organizing crafts and holiday experiences for them can be a bit of ... work. There's a fine line between finding joy in dedicating some of my time to creating memorable traditions for my young family and spending too much time, taking my attention away from their day-to-day need for connection and everything else.


This year, I chose to focus on some super simple activities with my little wolf cubs. Activities that didn't require planning, reservations, or expenditures. I could have them on hand and do them when the moment seemed ripe.  

1.Dehydrating oranges and hanging them from the window.

I sliced the oranges while they ate some and placed some on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet. Set the oven to its lowest temperature and bake them for most of the day. Once dry, string them with white thread.


While Finn was busy hanging the oranges from the window, Lachlan was busy learning how to tie a knot. The sewing thread proved to be too much of a challenge, but this thick thread provided him with nearly 30 minutes of concentration and a great sense of accomplishment!



2.We made some orange (clementine) pomanders.


 It was a bit challenging for Sadie, but she stuck with it and must have given her little pincer grip an amazing workout.

3.Have an all-out, holiday drawing binge at Art for Kids Hub.

Art for Kids Hub is a new discovery for us. My boys have been doing this literally for days. Especially Finn. Put on your favorite holiday tunes, make some hot cider, and peruse the "Winter" section. Follow along as a super fun dad draws alongside one of his four kids. The style is a bit like Ed Emberley - the dad draws a line or two, then the child draws a line or two. It's really heightened Finn's eye for scale and line shape, and his mind has been blown by the possibilities of oil pastels and using shading and perspective to add dimension to his drawings. He woke up this morning and told me "Mama! I dreamed about drawing last night!" He's back at it as I write this. And the best part? It's totally free. They do have some premium content, but most of the lessons are available for free on YouTube.


4.Make some salt dough ornaments


So easy. And apparently a healthy outlet for frustration, if you try rolling out the dough Lachlan-style! A quick google search will come up with the simple recipe using only flour, salt, and water. This year, we collected a few "nature stamps" while on a recent hike - twigs, winter greens, and acorns. If you press them into the dough, a subtle impression is left, which you can leave as-is, or embellish with paint after the ornament is baked.


I have a request to make more salt dough ornaments today. I'm thinking we'll go with inspiration from The Artful Parent.

So far, so good this year. By keeping our holiday magic simple, I've managed to avoid overwhelm, and we've kept the usual space in our days for plentiful reading and nature exploration. I'm cool with leaving the more time-consuming traditions, like gingerbread houses, to my mom!