Archives for May 2015

On Pirates, and Learning (and Learning about Pirates)


Homeschooling is a thing. Unschooling is a thing. The first term has a considerably easier time in Oregon than it does in certain other parts of the country (or the world). That second word, “unschooling,” is both less familiar and more troublesome. For one thing, my spell check keeps giving it a squiggly underline. For another, it seems to suggest an opposition to school, or even to learning; it “undoes” schooling, right? It’s against school?

That conclusion makes sense because it’s an arbitrary, and I think rather silly, word. What it means, though, is that children (people) tend to learn, always, all the time, naturally and without any external influence. In fact, we sort of have to work to put barriers in front of learning (I would argue that in many areas of our society we work very hard at this, but that’s a subject for a different post).

I can’t claim that what my wife does with her homeschooling is under this umbrella. She seems to spend much of her time putting chunks of theory and methods together to see what works. But the ideas behind “unschooling” come up a lot, and I think it describes what parents do when we let our children learn about what interests them.

John Holt, one of the principle thinkers in the movement, describes unschooling simply as the act of supporting a child’s tendency to learn. Author Pat Farenga expands on this view:

“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world, as their parents can comfortably bear. The advantage of this method is that it doesn’t require you, the parent, to become someone else, i.e. a professional teacher pouring knowledge into child-vessels on a planned basis. Instead you live and learn together, pursuing questions and interests as they arise and using conventional schooling on an ‘on demand’ basis, if at all. This is the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work. So, for instance, a young child’s interest in hot rods can lead him to a study of how the engine works (science), how and when the car was built (history and business), who built and designed the car (biography), etc. Certainly these interests can lead to reading texts, taking courses, or doing projects, but the important difference is that these activities were chosen and engaged in freely by the learner.”

How do we support learning? By following the child’s lead and taking opportunities for them to turn their interests into skills and knowledge. Here’s an example:

My six year-old daughter is into pirates. Like, really into them. Her favorite book (via audio) is Treasure Island, and she prefers it to the Muppets’ version although the Muppets are pretty funny. We indulge this interest in the usual ways: her birthday was pirate-themed; she received a toy pirate ship and a piratical hat. Her birthday ice cream had tiny cutlasses sticking out of it.

But I enjoyed talking with her about pirates so much that I set out to learn more for myself. I read pirate histories (Colin Woodard’s excellent The Republic of Pirates) and quizzed myself on sails, masts and rigging with the help of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. My daughter, on her end, brought home every book on pirates and sailing ships that the library offered. Sharing this interest with one another was edifying for us both. Soon she could tell her bow from her stern and her port from her starboard, and her dubloons from her pieces of eight. She can name all the known female pirates (Anne Bonnie is her favorite). And aside from her “actual” lessons, she has been learning denominations of coins (counting treasure) and asking questions like, “Are all the seas connected?” and “How do ships stay floating?” and “Where does gold come from?”

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Newport, and to our great pleasure were able to board and tour two authentic rigged sailing ships that were anchored in the bay. I can’t tell you which of us were more excited, but I was glad to be there with her.


Go Play Outside

Miriam kicking it

I moved to Oregon 12 years ago. I’ve been married for 11 of those years, and a parent for 10, so it’s worked out well for me. I love a lot of things about Oregon, but I think my favorite part of it is the outside part. And now that Summer is approaching, the outside promises to be less…well, wet. That means lots of family outings.

It may seem all too obvious that it’s good for kids to be outside. There are many compelling reasons for this, and author Richard Louv is eloquent about why that is so. In his book Last Child in the Woods, he details the recent shift away from allowing children to spend their most important developmental years outside. This shift, he writes, has resulted in a disconnection from the natural world that has brought with it a host of health problems, many of them new to the last couple of generations. His solution is simple, but widely ignored: kids, go play outside.

He writes, “…at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways. Several of these studies suggest that thoughtful exposure of youngsters to nature can even be a powerful form of therapy for attention-deficit disorders and other maladies. As one scientist puts it, we can now assume that just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.”

Does this mean that we should be sending our kids to summer camp? Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting? Building lean-tos and snow caves? Sure, why not? But it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Nature is everywhere, after all. We noticed that when our family visits Portland, we tend to spend more time outside, walking downtown or along the river, catching the Max instead of driving. Even in the heart of the city we can get our fix of nature.

But we are also very fortunate to live in this beautiful valley, which is full of places to go, to walk and hike or just to wile away an afternoon. And many of them are absolutely free. For one thing, Oregon’s beaches are open to the public, a fact that natives may not realize is a rare and precious thing. But often even getting to the coast takes more time and gas money than we can manage. We live in Lebanon (which incidentally is home to more rainbows than I’ve ever seen in my life) and there are dozens of beautiful spots—heck, maybe hundreds—within a manageable distance.

Here are some of our favorites.

  • Cheadle Lake is just minutes away from us, and its looping paths are just right for a walk that requires as much commitment as we—short toddler legs included—are willing to invest. And there are ducks, and geese. And turtles!
  • Silver Falls State Park is a bit of a drive, but its spectacular waterfalls and sprawling trails have been only fractionally explored by our family on countless trips. Of the places on this list, Silver Falls is the only one that requires a day use fee.
  • We spend a lot of time in Corvallis, and there are a host of lovely spots nearby. Bald Hill and the OSU Forestry Department’s Peavy Arboretum are always a great place for a stroll. And on hot Summer days we like to sit on the creek at the Hesthavn Nature Center, maintained by the Audubon Society of Corvallis, and just hang out. Dipping is optional but very tempting.

I encourage you to explore the Willamette Valley and find your own favorite spots. When in doubt, just go outside.


Knock Knock

I don’t laugh enough. I’ve been told that I’m funny, and also that I’m a sad person. I think that both of these are probably true to an extent. It’s accepted as generally true that people who are funny are also sad. I can’t speak for anyone else in this, but many comedians will tell you that humor is a cover for something else. In fact, actor and comedian Kevin Pollak has made a documentary about it.

You know who makes me laugh, though? Genuinely, unguardedly, seemingly without trying? My kids. They get to me every time. And the only thing that is better than my children making me laugh (with them, not at them, as Robin Williams would say) is the first time that they laughed.

As a parent, do you remember when you were sure that your baby was really laughing, and that it wasn’t “just gas?” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so successful as a father. When our oldest was about six months old I would spend seemingly hours playing peek-a-boo, making faces, doing anything that would produce just one more baby guffaw.

Until recently, there has not been much research into this. But a recent study of baby laughter has some interesting things to say about how they develop a sense of humor, and how they learn, from parents and siblings and other people around them, what is funny and how to respond to it.

From the article:

“At around 6 months old, children often look to their parents for cues before interpreting an event as humorous. At around 9 -11 months, infants are able to recognize what makes their parents smile & laugh and then attempt to elicit these responses from caregivers.”

What is remarkable is how complex this behavior is, and how early it develops in children. They learn how people will respond differently depending on the situation. And this sense of humor will carry over into their adult lives: “The ability to interpret humorous situations and respond appropriately is one that may be related to relationship satisfaction among adults.”

My daughters can crack each other up like nobody’s business, especially when I have asked them to, say, put on their pajamas and brush their teeth. And I know that they will continue to find each other hilarious. I frequently hear my wife giggling helplessly as she is texting her sister. When she tells me what’s so funny, I might not get it. It’s like a secret language. And it seems to do them good.

The benefits of laughter are well documented. “Laughter is the best medicine,” after all. But a sense of humor is also linked to the way we see the world, the way we understand and think about things.

Families are the laboratory in which these skills take shape. The stories we share about ourselves and about them when they were “little,” and the jokes we tell around the dinner table, are actually helping their brains to develop.

My four year-old:

“Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)

“Chocolate cupcake.”

(Chocolate cupcake who?)

“Oh, I didn’t know you were a chocolate cupcake! Knock knock.”

(Who’s there?)


And so on.

I’m grateful that my kids can make me laugh. I needed that.


Thanks to Cyrel Gable at Parenting Success Network for suggesting this topic.


Freedom From Choice


In our culture, we associate freedom with choice. In many cases, freedom of choice has turned into freedom as choice. But this freedom can become overwhelming; in fact, it can come to feel like the opposite of freedom.

As a music fan, I actually miss having read about some elusive album and feeling the excitement of coming across it years later in the used bin at a record store. Now, of course, I can find pretty much anything I have ever heard of online, and download it instantly. It’s just not as much fun. The sense of anticipation and mystery has been replaced by a sense of…shopping. In a similar way, I often feel paralyzed scrolling through my list of movies to stream on Netflix and coming away with nothing to watch.

This is a thing, and it’s called decision fatigue. As adults, we can cope with the increasing array of choices by working to limit the number of things we have to choose. In order to live a more efficient and healthy life, we have to hold on to priorities and consciously set aside a large number of choices.

Now imagine that you’re a toddler, and you’re expected to choose what to wear today.

Something I still struggle with as a parent is presenting expectations as questions: “Do you want to wear a skirt or a dress?” “Are you ready to brush your teeth?” “Do you want to play outside?” Children of any age, up to and including teenagers, are not equipped to make the number of choices with which they are presented on a daily basis. They are not ready to engage in the sifting and prioritizing that we as adults take for granted (and which can sometimes still be a struggle).

Children need our help. And we can help by knowing when to give them a choice and when to make one for them.

This goes along with the routines and rhythms that are so important to the daily life of a child, and can free up the energy for them to learn and grow in a way that is more appropriate for young brains.

It starts with the basics: limit the number of choices by limiting the number of things from which to choose.

  • Have only a few items of clothing available, according to the needs of the season, and store the rest. Kids who are old enough to get dressed on their own will appreciate having a reliable outfit for the occasion.
  • Keep toys in bins and rotate them out. Play is important for child development, and a child that is surrounded by toys will just be confused and frustrated. The effect on attention spans and behavior is pretty easy to see.
  • Come up with a limited menu and rotate meals. We all look forward to Meatball Monday and Taco Tuesday, and they are events in themselves. Of course it’s important to introduce new foods on a regular basis, and these can be slipped in to the routine. And you can set a day of the week aside for trying something different.

The great thing about this deliberate limiting of choices is that it is compatible with not having a lot of money. Definitely a bonus.