Humans are built to seek out new experiences, to explore, create, and wonder. Observe a baby for any amount of time and you will see this first hand. Babies watch, grab, listen, and react. They echo sounds, mimic and respond to their caregivers’ cues. We have no need for structured baby schools to teach them these skills because we understand that babies are hardwired to learn from and interact with their environment. We also understand that providing enriching, healthy, and safe environments with plenty of opportunities to explore and play is how to best support their natural drive to learn.
The same drive to gather information, make connections and interact with the natural world is true of all humans, regardless of age. Our motivation to learn is an undeniable force that continues throughout our lives. It does not begin in earnest at school age and it does not stop once a diploma is received. Look around. How often have you heard a person happily announce, “OK. I’m done. I have arrived. I have created all I can and have maxed out my capacity for learning. I’m going to stop now”? Even the most accomplished humans do not rest on their laurels. Their curiosity is not diminished by their successes, achievements, or their status. On the contrary, accomplished people have an appreciation for active learning and recognize their curious nature is precisely what led to their successes in the first place.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
When we first started homeschooling, I had preconceived ideas of what an education looked like due to my own schooling and training. I considered my role to be more of a director and creator than a supportive guide. Thankfully, my first born helped me let go of my entrenched schooly beliefs and showed me the beauty of uninterrupted play. He and his sister have spent their childhoods following their curiosities, which have been the most powerful “teachers” I could have ever imagined. Instead of handing them work to do or creating assignments they have no interest in, I gather resources as needed, answer questions when I can, and engage in lively conversations on topics ranging from how our brains work to mysticism to economics. They prove to me daily that connection over curriculum — and deep, immersive, experiential learning over mandated worksheets — is where meaningful learning resides.
By social standards, we have taken a non-conventional path to education, but biologically speaking my children are doing exactly what nature intended: learning by engaging in activities and topics that intrigue them, draw them in, and pique their curiosities.
For instance, my 15-year-old son has zeroed in on two primary interests: gaming/technology and sports. These interests, and the skills needed to do them well, have developed during his lifetime. The countless hours spent outside playing baseball and soccer have been great for his body and his mind. He has an appreciation for physical endurance and health and a respect for teamwork and good sportsmanship. As for gaming and technology, the freedom to play and interact with all types of games (card, board, online) and multiple gaming platforms has supported his creative and critical thinking skills, attention to detail, fine motor skills, and reaction time. Almost a year ago, after extensive research, he built his own computer. If I had pushed my pre-planned agenda when we started homeschooling or used coercive measures to get him to do work I deemed worthy it is conceivable I would have hijacked the impressive skill set and knowledge base he has accumulated to date.
The same could be said for my daughter who, at age 11, loves to draw and ride horses. She has been sketching since she could hold a pencil and at nine started riding horses. While she takes formal lessons for riding she has no interest in formal lessons for drawing. She considers her art time to be a private activity and is teaching herself techniques by watching art tutorials on YouTube, through trial and error, and by sketching playfully with friends. I do not interfere with her interests or dictate how long she is allowed to immerse herself in an activity.
Self-Directed Education truly gives curiosity space to do its magic. Children know and trust this magic instinctively (even if they do not have the vocabulary to say so). It is why they tinker and test, explore and examine. It is why they can eventually work a computer, television remote, or gadget faster than you can. It is why they learn their native language without classes. It is why our world is gifted with young authors, inventors, artists, bakers, athletes, and entrepreneurs. It is also why humans resist forced and coercive educational practices.
Coercion, after all, merely captures man. Freedom captivates him.
Does formal instruction have its place? Absolutely. Do parents have a lot of wonderful knowledge and life experience to share with their children? Of course they do. Self-Directed Education does not mean we dismiss every potential avenue of information exchange in favor of meandering, isolated learning. Instead, the learner, the child, is able to pursue a variety of interests and ideas. The goal is to live and learn in real time, right now, not putting off interests for a time in the distant future. It is about freedom and captivation and favoring internal spark over standardization. There is power and magic in being respected and honored, and Self-Directed Education allows curious children to facilitate the world in which they live.
The other day, I was talking to my teenage son after he came in from taking our neighbor’s dog for his daily walk. I showed him a meme of a baby sitting on the floor, upset, with a pair of rainbow pants stuck on his head. The caption said something like “What Monday feels like.” We laughed and then I asked, “Do you have a day of the week that you dread?” His answer? “Nope.” And he went to his room to continue following his curiosity. Pure magic.