Today we made pierogies together for dinner and put in a small garden patch for Nana. The two activities had in common something I've come to see as crucial to the way homeschooling works best for us, and that is that participation was voluntary, and within that voluntary participation, the degree and kind of participation was flexible.
This is one of the reasons we don't do much formal learning in groups. There's a certain set of behaviors that is expected in formal learning settings, and they're important behaviors for everybody to be able to get the most out of that learning opportunity. For example, it's expected, and I think reasonable, to sit quietly and listen when a teacher or activity leader is speaking and showing things, to speak one at a time, to take turns, to be quiet as others ask questions and seek clarification, to keep one's body relatively still and to refrain from distracting others.
And while those are all good ways to be in group learning situations, I don't think group learning situations are among the most effective ways to learn, especially not for young children.
Woody and Fox like learning a lot, and they like to learn with other kids, and from other people, certainly including adults, but I chafe at them being handled, being shushed and corralled and subtly coerced with expressions of approval and disapproval. But, the handling is a necessary part of classroom-style environments. Those helpful classroom behaviors above don't often show up spontaneously, and even when they do, they often need to be maintained, as the sheer groupness of a group lends itself to chattiness and other ways of engaging with one another and getting and giving attention. This is as true of adults as it is of children, but adults have more developed impulse control and more practice with the form.
My kids haven't shown that much interest in classes. They tend to be wary of taking instruction from adults they don't know well, and they get a little shy in a big group of kids. On the other hand, they are very comfortable and engage easily when they can explore something with guidance, or have a conversation with a mentor, or be able to watch and think before being asked to perform. So, when I can, which is almost all the time at this point in their lives, I give them the option of learning in one of these other ways.
I didn't set out to teach them how to make pierogies. But, since I was making them for dinner, I offered them the chance to help. At first, they said no. So, I started alone (top picture). Then, when they saw me crimping the edges of the dough, they thought that looked like fun. So, I helped them all wash hands and they climbed up to make their own. They finished the batch. They helped each other to develop techniques to get the dough to stick and stay closed. I offered help and guidance from the sidelines, when asked and as needed.
I had, over the last two days, prepared the garden bed by weeding, loosening the soil and amending it with top soil and compost. They had very little interest in this part of gardening. But when my friend Katy came over this afternoon, we all went out to do the planting together. Woody was excited to dig the holes to set the plants in, and to do the initial big-soak with the hose. Aila wanted to plant the veggies, too, and also do the more targeted watering, and then spread the leaf mulch. Fox wanted only to pull two plants out of containers and then to go back inside to play where it wasn't so dirty.
We could have taken a cooking class. We could have attended a gardening workshop. But even if we had done these things with other homeschoolers and with sweet instructors, there would have been a lot of other stuff for them to be asked to do besides cooking and gardening. They may or may not have had the opportunity to engage in the parts of the activities that most interested them. They may or may not have been able to plug into a rhythm of doing that allowed them to learn what they wanted to learn. As it was, we did still happen to take turns, and listened to each other's questions and ideas, things that people often consider benefits of group learning.
If I had made cooking and gardening part of our curriculum and set out objectives and goals, I would have felt pressure for them to participate in every aspect of the activity, to listen to the information I had to share. But there was no pressure, no coercion, no urging to just pay attention or sit still or repeat what they heard me say. They did what suited them. I helped them to get as much out of it as they wanted to get. It was a lot that was fun and a very tiny bit that was not. It was a lot of learning and doing and very little waiting and being quiet. It was a great deal what they wanted it to be, and was what I wanted it to be because they were happily engaged in doing something new and fun.