I've long been an advocate of natural learning and unschooling, but there is one very difficult thing about it, and that is answering the question "What is a typical day?" The very core of the idea is embracing what comes along. I can tell a couple of stories which might illustrate this method (or lack of method).
One day we were watering the back yard and talking about flow dynamics, although we didn't use that term. We were observing the speed of the flow, and the swirls, and the "materials" (type and condition of soil, angle of the hill, all that stuff). I told my husband he would have LOVED to have grown up in a place where he'd needed to irrigate. Irrigating an orchard or field is a huge thrill for those who like to play in the water.
A few days later the kids and I were on the way to the unschoolers' meeting place, and Kirby (11) had a small water pistol with him. "Is that empty?" I asked.
"Well please empty it, because some of the other moms won't want their kids to get wet, and it's not a good idea to have water fights where we don't have towels or other clothes."
Ooh, I heard that mom voice and looked at the squirt gun, and it was a five ounce insignificant little thing, but still... So Kirby said he would empty it out the window, which he proceeded to do, squirting it on his hand and discussing how much colder it was to have a wet hand in the wind than dry.
We got to the park to find that five ounces of clean water would have been a drop in a lake, and there the lake was—right under all four swings. The park had been overwatered.
As each family showed up I'd ask if they had a shovel. Nope. After half an hour I decided to go and get one. I got two, from two nearby friends' houses, and came back and started to shovel sand into the water. By then, though, kids were swinging and many were already wet from the knees down and happy.
I announced that I was going to move the puddle over, and started digging a trough. Other moms and kids said, "What!?" and came to see, and to help. Hydro-engineering time! Kids and moms took turns with shovels and plastic buckets. We drained and filled the puddles, diverting most of the water into a hole designed for that purpose. It was BIG sandbox play, with fifteen or more participants from babies to middle-aged kids, and as many observers. Sometimes the kids on the swings were dragging their feet in the water to make waves to send down the channel into the new "puddle" so that the swing became a tool in the project as well. Except about gravity, waves and the properties of dry sand vs. wet, there wasn't any "technical" discussion at all, only joking and "This is fun!"
Did that puddle "need" to be moved? It didn't even "need" to be filled in. It was play, a game. I felt the need to try to move a puddle. I would have done it by myself, but it was a blast to have help.
Was it educational? I think it will affect some of those lives forever. Besides the engineering aspect, there was the newness, and the camaraderie of working on a spontaneous project without formal organization, in which people could stop at any moment, change plans and methods without approval, and experiment. The cost of materials was nothing. It was one of those moments (half hours) which is so engrossing that time and place aren't as large and important as they sometimes seem. It was large scale stress-free cooperation.
This sort of learning experience can't be planned. Had it been written up in advance and put on a schedule it wouldn't have been alive and special.
People ask whether unschooling isn't like unit studies. Perhaps in the same way there are hexagonal and pentagonal patterns in nature it is. Mathematicians didn't design the patterns in flowers and starfish, but they see them and name them after the fact. I see, in retrospect, a "water unit," but the best thing I can see in the future is to remain busy, curious, and open to whatever comes along. Flexibility to pursue tangents and cowtrails, and continuing to see the wonder in everyday things will lead to learning experiences without prior planning. A butterfly in the yard is more wonderful than a dusty butterfly pinned in a box, but you can control the one in the box better, as long as you don't want it to fly. At least it will be there when you want to look at it. The one in the yard is on his own schedule.
I'm not recommending that anyone go out and move a puddle. If you tried, you would probably pass right by five better adventures looking for an overwatered park which you might never find. I wish everyone reading this the clarity to recognize opportunities and I hope you have fun stumbling onto those special projects and situations which will be uniquely yours—yours and your children's.
This was written for Enchanted Families (June/July 1998)
and subsequently appeared in:
F.U.N. News (1999)
the online library of Unschooling.com (1999 ff.)
(It was there for years; don't go there now—it's not the same.)
2002 S.O.S. Conference booklet (2002)
online newsletter Growing Together (2004)
in French: Déplacer une flaque, (traduit par Jeanine Barbé, [originally] in Chroniques de Louves)
and in the book Moving a Puddle, and other essays by Sandra Dodd