How Permaculture Informed Our Natural Learning Lifestyle
by Beverley Paine, 2011
1985 was a pivotal year in our lives: we discovered Permaculture and Home Education.
Bill Mollison once said, "The core of permaculture is design. Design is a connection between things ... It's the very opposite of what we are taught in school. Education takes everything and pulls it apart and makes no connections at all. Permaculture makes the connection ... "
This appealed to me because I'm an efficiency nut. I want to find out the quickest, easiest way to do something using the least amount of effort. Design and planning to achieve goals makes sense. My goal in life is to make connections. I was hooked.
John Holt wrote: "We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not 'grow' flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves."
I love gardening, and I love my children. I love watching things grow. But all too often confusing messages that have filtered down through generations of well-meaning adults get in the way of plain old common sense. I find myself trying to bend the plants and the children to my suit my needs, often distorting their natural shape, twisting and bending them, destroying the very essence of liveliness within them....
Luckily I found John Holt and Bill Mollison, two very wise and clever mentors - both have dared to challenge the status quo and both have founded self sustaining alternative movements. On the surface they appear to be talking about two very different things - but they are not. Both are talking about connections, about patterns of living, about attitudes - how we go about the process of living. And both espouse a natural way. A way of celebrating natural learning.
And at the heart of these two lifestyle philosophies lie the practice of observation. It's not surprising then that observation also lies at the heart of successful parenting. Because it is only through observation that we can determine our children's needs.
Drawing strength from the observations I made about my own children's progress and that of other children in home learning situations, and from the wisdom of Holt, Mollison and many other authors whose writings demonstrate respect children as young people, I developed a confidence in allowing my children to pursue what many are now calling "natural learning".
Given time and space to grow and learn in a wild garden, I have come to realise what nutrients plants need, and when and how I need them. I do the same for my children. It is impossible to predict the growth of each individual child, especially in educational terms, and so I tend each child carefully, using my powers of observation to determine how best to help the growth along.
Naturally, love is the most powerful fertiliser for growth there is. At home this flows freely and in abundance. I have never witnessed rampant love in any school environment.
Respect is the other powerful fertiliser I use abundantly. I respect the right of my children to follow their own paths, much like I have learned to allow my plants to flourish in the microclimate and position best suited to each individual plant. Instead of 'giving' my children an 'education', I look for what each child needs, what elements I can bring together to help fulfill those needs, and I joyfully accept and capitalise on those wonderful bonuses this approach always produces! Through permaculture I have learned to recognise and respect the innate characteristics and needs of each plant, and this has helped me understand my children's educational process.
In my 'wild' permaculture garden I am mindful of those things I desire to achieve, and this is no different with parenting and education. Although I have an overall design or plan held in my mind, I focus on what is happening now. I have never been able to understand the mentality of worrying about a child's university education a decade before it is even likely to happen! Kahil Gibran said it most eloquently when he spoke of our children being like " living arrows ... sent forth" into the realms of "tomorrow", which we cannot visit, or even presume to know what it will be like.
I trust my children will control and direct their learning to meet their own needs within the context of the overall design. This gives them confidence to grow in independence, a vital lesson for all young people. My children find themselves perfectly placed to learn what they need to learn at every given point in their day. In assisting them I am guided by their moods, their requests, their questions, their desires, their physical needs, their responses to the people, environment and actions of the day.
I recognise the edge is where maximum growth occurs - in a garden the weeds cluster thickest close to the pathways, looking abundant and untidy! Learning is no different. We can't control its appearance or its voracity. Often the edge is the point at which conflict occurs and we are challenged to resolve or solve difficult problems, often needing to overcome past fears. Children have a natural instinct to challenge themselves in their development. At home we respect and honour that and wait patiently for our children to succeed at their own pace in their own chosen way. Schools can rarely, if ever, offer all children this chance. Life, if given space to grow, will be abundant. It is up to us to value the result!
For me natural learning is giving myself permission to learn; to recognise and honour that no matter what I'm a learner, can't stop myself learning, and that each and every moment of every day I am learning something and it's up to me to work out what (if I want to!) Often I find that I'm learning several things all at the same time, and on different levels of understanding, as well as in different parts of my being.
I can consciously learn: that is direct my brain and body to learn something that I want or need to learn. Most of the time the whole learning process goes on without me being 'in control'. That's why I like to spend a lot of time reflecting, to work out what I've learned.
Often I find that I seem to be learning the same thing over again. I'm a slow learner! Sometimes I am learning the same thing over, but in a different way, so it's actually a little bit new, or from a different perspective, or to a deeper level of understanding. I love it when the 'aha' moment happens in my head.
I've found that by examining closely how I learn I grew in understanding about how others learn, especially my children.
Natural learning isn't a style of homeschooling, or a method or approach. Everyone learns naturally. It isn't a process we can stop but we can hinder it or learn things that aren't healthy. From John Holt I learned the importance of getting out of my children's way, to stop interfering in their natural learning process.
Some people interpret natural learning as letting the child do and learn whatever he wants. I don't think it's that at all. Children don't learn in a vacuum. They live within social units and their first lessons in life are about how to secure what they need from their parents in order to survive and thrive... Those first few months of life go so much easier when we, the parents, cue into the needs of the child rather than try to force them into fitting into our way of life.
The dance between new born and parent is a wonderful one to observe.
It doesn't seem to matter at what age/stage we recognise the need to join this dance, honouring the needs of the child nestled within the social units of family nestled within social units of community and culture...
What babies desperately seem to need is time... Time for us to take a breath, calm down, put away the imperative to fix, soothe, solve NOW and take the time to see the situation from a different perspective, empathise with others, pause and let a different section of our brain
Children need us to pause too... We're in so much of a hurry for them to grow up, get it right, do the right thing, be successful, achieve, do the best they can, make us proud, be proud, finish what they are doing...
Living in the moment is taking the time to notice time passing.
Natural learning ... allowing the process of learning to occur, unhindered by interference, in a social context where the learner is not isolated from the world of meaningful action. Natural learning ... is simply following common sense.
Our children, our family, our lifestyle, our needs: these are the things that determine how our children are educated, what they learn, when and how. The information and knowledge we seek about how to go about homeschooling is inside us all, just waiting to be voiced and validated. We simply need to ask ourselves the questions we ask others, and patiently wait for the answers to arise, as they always do, in our daily lives.
When we take time to 'be' with our children completely; when we pay attention to their needs, and cast out our conditioned need to satisfy distant and impersonal societal parenting objectives; when we base our decisions and solutions around the strengths and limitations of the individuals in our own family, taking into consideration the situation and circumstances of our family lifestyle, cocooned within a larger community; then we are empowered to give our children exactly what they, and we as parents, need in our homeschooling lives.
Simply being in the same space as our children, especially in the pre-teen years, gives them the security to be independent and confident. We don't need to be interacting with them all day, or even for large chunks of the day. Most of the time, if all is working well, we don't even notice our interactions. We don't consider them important enough to notice, although they are - they form the backbone of a smoothly running household.
We communicate with family members in many ways - with a look, a smile, by a word or a question, or a quick answer, by anticipating a need, or by simply being ourselves. Nothing reassures children that they are okay to get on with the job of simply living than having parents that living relaxed, busy and happy lives.
The atmosphere of our homes is as important to the education of our children as it is to the content of their activities. Creating an environment that is naturally conducive to learning involves careful thought as well as a deep understanding of our children's learning styles, abilities and needs. We know we've done that well when our children are happily busy and active.
This isn't to say that from time to time we can't introduce new elements into the learning environment. Interesting things happen every day and many of them would go unnoticed by our children without our intervention. For example, we heard about a whale and her calf swimming off the local beach. Instantly interrupting the children's activity, piling in the car, spending an hour at a blustery beach and then the whole afternoon talking about whales and all things nautical, was definitely called for!
As is interrupting their play and telling them it's time to help me prepare dinner, or inviting them to bake a cake, or help me with gardening or other chores. There are things that our children need to know that we will deliberately place in their learning environment and that's okay. They expect that. In fact, they are reassured by that. They know it's our job to help them learn and grow.
Natural learning emphasises a natural education and what could be more natural than children observing parents getting on with the busy of living, helping out every now and then when needed or convenient? Children needs lots of time to be children. That's what school curtails, or more specifically, rewrites child development to fit into the artificial social environment of the classroom.
I don't think natural learning is pandering to all of our children's passing interests, or exposing the children to anything and everything, particularly if this is based on the fear that if they don't get to try something they might miss out on 'the window of opportunity' and regret it forever...
Having a go, or introducing something different - 'strewing' it's been called - is one way we can check to see if our children are ready or interested. If they aren't we drop it, or introduce it in another form, if we're really keen on them having a go. Unschooled kids definitely seem to know their own minds and are usually bold enough to tell us parents to drop something if we're being pushy or not making sense. They are also generous enough to indulge us every now and then if we aren't too pushy.
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We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!
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