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Wide Open Days

There is something very special about bright and warm spring days spent almost entirely outdoors. Taking advantage of wake-up temperatures already in the 60s, we headed outside early with a fully stocked picnic basket, books, and a plan to spend most of the day playing outdoors, in nature.

We spent a long while in a quiet corner of nearby Harvard Yard. My littlest one napped in the fresh air while the big kids climbed trees, played hide-and-seek in the shrubs, and made up their own creative games underneath shady branches and in hidden corners in front of old buildings.

While picnicking, we said hello to a passing acquaintance and her children. She remarked that she had been neglectful in not planning well for this April school vacation week and was seeking ways to fill their days to stave off boredom. As I write this week about "natural learning" ahead of Sunday's Earth Day celebration, this conversation reminded me of a fantastic quote in Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: "We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball."

As parents, we can sometimes be overly-focused on making sure our children's days are fully enriched with dynamic classes and activities to keep them from being bored, when, in fact, boredom--and the important ability to overcome it independently--can be an even greater lesson for our children. I think that if we parents can overcome our anxiety about our children's potential boredom and unstructured time, then we will see that children have an amazing talent for making their own play, for finding interesting ways to occupy themselves, for unleashing their imagination -- especially outside, in the natural world, on warm, wide open April days.

Louv reminds us how important it is to understand and embrace boredom. He states: "Most of all, children need adults who understand the relationship between boredom and creativity, adults willing to spend time in nature with kids, adults willing to set the stage so that kids can create their own play and enter nature through their own imagination." There is so much to do on these wide open April days, so much nature to explore, so many trees to climb, so many opportunities to create, to wonder, to dream.

From Natural Parenting to Natural Learning

Families are drawn to homeschooling for a variety of reasons, but for many families who believe in the ideals of "natural parenting," ours included, homeschooling is an obvious extension of this chosen lifestyle. Natural parenting is a broad term that encompasses many parenting practices aimed at being as natural, ecologically sustainable, and holistic as possible. It includes practices such as natural birth and breastfeeding, organic and sustainable food and consumption habits, cloth diapering or elimination communication, homeopathic and holistic family care, attachment parenting, and natural learning.

It is not surprising that as a growing number of new parents embraces natural parenting, these parents eventually become inspired by the idea of natural learning and homeschooling. Our early closeness and connection with our children helps us to develop positive, trusting relationships with each other. As natural parents, we are deeply aware of our children's needs, strengths, and limitations, and we use this knowledge to guide our parenting approach in the early years. As our children grow, we notice their innate gifts and passions unfold and we follow their lead, their unrelenting curiosity, as they learn and discover.

Most significantly, natural parenting focuses on trust: trust in our own powerful parenting instincts and abilities, and trust in our children to lead us, to show us what they need to learn and grow and reveal their true talents. Homeschooling extends this natural parenting and natural learning process beyond infancy and toddlerhood. It builds family trust and strengthens family relationships, and it grants children the uninterrupted freedom to learn and grow in their own, natural, intended way.

As an important extension of natural parenting, many natural learning families also place significant emphasis on learning from, growing in, and caring for the natural world. Through ecologically sustainable homemaking practices and extensive time spent outdoors, in nature, natural learning families prioritize their critical connection to the natural world. Homeschooling offers the gift of vast amounts of free, unstructured, exploratory time to learn from nature.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv states: "The boundaries of children's lives are growing ever tighter." A commitment to natural learning and time spent connecting our children to the earth, loosens these boundaries, unlocks our children's spirit, and widens our trust in nature's wisdom.

Natural Learning

Earth Day is a week away, so I'll spend some time this week blogging about natural learning and using the natural world as our children's classroom.

I can think of no better classroom than the natural world. And on a warm April morning, an empty Cape Cod beach was the perfect classroom for family discoveries. Slowly emerging sandbars revealed sand dollars to marvel at, shells to be collected and saved for late-day painting projects, piping plover footprints to spot and track. Outside, at the ocean, barefoot in the sand, we enjoyed hours of connection with nature and with each other. Moving from individual sand-castle-building to collective rock-hunting, yesterday morning took on its own tidal rhythm for our family, replenishing us with sunshine and salty air.

In his popular book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv states: "Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity." As parents, it is our responsibility to carve out this time in nature for our children, to value and prioritize it, not only to help spark our children's learning and creativity, but to help them to develop a deep appreciation for the natural world and their place in it. In Last Child in the Woods, and in his most recent book, The Nature Principle, Louv states that the rise in technology, the increasing digital influences that can both enhance and distract our days, require us to spend even more time in nature, more time disengaging from a wired world and reconnecting with a wild one.

It's not that we should be neo-Luddites, rejecting the good and powerful role of technology in our lives, but we should be mindful of how technology can make us more disconnected from nature and from each other. As Louv states in Last Child in the Woods: "The problem with computers isn't computers -- they're just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature."

It is up to us as parents to be watchful of creeping technological distractions, both for our children and for ourselves, that can minimize our family time outdoors, in nature. It is up to us to prioritize natural, unstructured, outside play for our children, to uncover the many lessons nature teaches us, and to strengthen our connection with the earth and each other.

DIY Homemaking: A 'Made from Scratch' Life

Our Natural Family Living and Do-It-Yourself Homemaking theme continues today with a guest post from Justine at The Lone Home Ranger, who shares how she has cultivated a "made from scratch" life.

If you told me a few years ago that I'd be making homemade crackers, I would have laughed at such a preposterous notion. I've always loved cooking, using seasonal and local ingredients; however, when I worked outside the home, I was focused on trying the newest recipes in glossy magazines. I daydreamed about the fancy tools I would one day buy from the dog-eared pages of the Williams-Sonoma catalog. I didn't have time to ponder making my own pantry staples, and I lacked the confidence to try baking. Failure was not an option on the table.

When I made the choice to stay at home, our lives slowed down in many ways. As a homesteader, I've learned to embrace failure as a part of everyday life and, even better, my four-year-old daughter knows that mistakes are part of the learning experience. We welcome new challenges and are confident that with a little hard work, we can figure out how to make anything together. She rolls up her sleeves, turns to me, and says "Let's get to work." Our hands are our favorite tools.

What we eat has perhaps changed more than anything else. Last year, I found The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook: Heirloom fruits and vegetables, and more than 100 heritage recipes to inspire every generation and became fascinated with their return to such basic recipes, made with real food ingredients, that have been passed down through generations. I became inspired to try my own family's recipes. I started small by calling my mom to get her grandmother's high-rise yeast bread recipe. The kids helped me with kneading. Playing with dough and flour was a great sensory experience for them. I succeeded on the very first try and gained confidence.

Since then, my repertoire of homemade foods has expanded to yogurt, cheese, and even crackers! The Urban Farm Handbook: City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading, and Preparing What You Eat has been a source of great inspiration to me, both in the guidance it brings and in showing me that each idea is an opportunity for change, not a standard by which I'll be judged. It's fun to tackle new challenges when I'm not pressured to fit into the mold of the perfect homesteader.

I see such a sparkle in my preschooler's eye as we sit down to a snack of all homemade foods. She daydreams about new foods she wants to try making; it's no surprise to me that jam and fruit leather are high on her list. We are also growing our first vegetable and herb garden this year, starting with seedlings in the office. The simple joy my kids gain from watching the seeds grow into plants and playing in the dirt brings peace to my home and lets me know we are on the right path for us.

Justine Uhlenbrock is an urban homesteader, a minimalist mom, a writer, and a doula-in-training living with her husband and two young girls in Arlington, Massachusetts. She is passionate about sustainable living, health, frugality, and her quest for real food and family heirloom recipes. She blogs at The Lone Home Ranger.

DIY Homemaking: Colorful Cloth Napkins

Our Natural Family Living and Do-It-Yourself Homemaking theme continues today with a guest post from Shel at One Sweet World, who shares how her family took a simple and fun step to reduce household waste.

A couple of years ago we switched from paper napkins to cloth napkins in an effort to help reduce the amount of waste that our family contributes to the world. In switching to cloth napkins we decided that each napkin could be used more than once as long as it wasn’t crazy messy. In order to remember to whom each napkin belonged, we first started using different napkin rings. I found some on Etsy that I loved but I was the only one who could tell whose napkin was whose. After a year of using the napkin rings we realized that we definitely needed an easier way to distinguish each other’s napkin. And then a thought occurred to me: we could tie-dye them!

Grace and Emma did most of the work themselves, selecting colors and placement. The end result is 12 gorgeous and distinct cloth napkins that we adore. Not only does the dying make them much easier to tell apart, it also helps to hide the stains of family meal times!

Switching to cloth napkins has been an easy step to reduce our family's waste, and dying them made the experience all the more meaningful and enjoyable. If you decide to tie-dye, there are many natural dyes to choose from, or you can make your own. There are also dying kits available at most craft stores. Now, almost a year later, our napkins look just about as good as the day we made them!

Shel lives, laughs, loves and learns alongside her husband and two young daughters in an old New England farmhouse. She blogs at One Sweet World.

Thinking Off-the-Grid

Thinking is the key word here. I am so very far from being off-the-grid. For one, I am much more comfortable with traffic than with ticks. Probably my only "off-grid" action is that we don't have cable. But it is intriguing, isn't it, to imagine a completely self-sustaining lifestyle? To imagine this pinnacle of "natural family living" and "do-it-yourself homemaking?" It's fascinating to imagine a life, or at least a part of one's life, that is slower, quieter, simpler. What would it be like to procure our own water, produce our own home energy, compost our own waste, and live in a way that is more connected to the Earth and less connected to the Internet? Fascinating.

My recent interest in off-the-grid living, or homes that do not connect to primary utility grids, has been piqued by the bedside book I am reading: Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America, by Nick Rosen. A breezy look at a diverse group of individuals and families that have gone "off-grid," either for a primary or secondary residence, the book exposes the highlights and challenges of living in a more deliberate, self-sustaining way.

I would never want to give up entirely the vibrancy, diversity, compactness and car-free convenience of urban living, but I also find the idea of back-to-the-land living so inviting. I find it striking that in really only one century, we have somehow managed to become almost entirely ignorant of the fundamental skills that our ancestors relied on for survival. I have only recently realized how completely clueless I really am. I am taking baby steps to reclaim the knowledge and skills of earlier generations, but learning how to knit and sew and bake my own bread are really just the tips of the iceberg. There is so much more I don't know, so many ways that I am completely disconnected from the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the water I consume, the energy that runs my home.

Imagining a life in which I am much more connected to these things, a life in which I am more enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of food and waste and energy, is a worthwhile thought exercise even if it doesn't become a reality. According to Rosen's research, however, at least half of the off-the-grid residences in the country today are used by part-time "off-gridders," those using an off-the-grid parcel as a second home or respite. These off-gridders "are downshifting city dwellers who want a refuge in a tranquil spot," says Rosen. Maybe that describes me. Or maybe that describes me thinking about that tranquil spot where "natural family living" and "do-it-yourself homemaking" are all there is. Fascinating.

Homemade Natural Toothpaste

Welcome to the April 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Personal Care
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and struggles relating to their children's personal care choices.

In keeping with this week's blog theme of natural family living and do-it-yourself homemaking, today I am delighted to share a guest post from Nina Litovsky, a local homeschooling and natural parenting mom who has a homemade natural toothpaste recipe that's kid-friendly, easy to make, and good for the whole family!

I make my own homemade natural toothpaste which is completely free of fluoride, preservatives, and any other chemical substances. It tastes good and can be safely swallowed, which makes it a good training toothpaste for little kids. My toddler loves it! It has become our official family toothpaste of choice.

Why homemade?

Initially, I was looking at commercial options. I didn’t want fluoride in the toothpaste because I was concerned about its toxicity and I had doubts about its benefits (but that’s another story). I also wanted something that would be safe to swallow, as I was about to train our baby to brush her teeth. All the commercial brands I found seemed to have some kind of preservatives or other chemical substances and I was not exactly sure that these substances were completely nontoxic.

So I did a lot of online searching and gathered some tips here and there, and finally put together a recipe to make my own toothpaste, which would at least guarantee the quality I was looking for. Also, most homemade toothpaste recipes I saw seemed to be a little complicated and time-consuming. I wanted to create a very quick and easy recipe, with very few ingredients.

The recipe

It is a very simple recipe, requires only 3 ingredients, and is a breeze to make!

Just take equal parts of calcium bentonite clay, xylitol and water. To make a solid, thick toothpaste, first you mix xylitol and bentonite and then add water. (I use water from our filter which blocks fluoride and a bunch of other toxins). You cannot add too little water – always add a bit extra if in doubt. You’ll see this when you start mixing it: if it is too dry, add more water. Mixing should be done in a porcelain, glass, or wood bowl using a porcelain, glass or wooden spatula or similar utensils.

Why porcelain, glass, or wood? Because clay has strong absorbent qualities, and if you use plastic (even BPA-free) or metal utensils, your clay may draw out unwanted plastic or metal particles.

The resulting toothpaste mixture looks like clay. Xylitol is a natural sweetener so it tastes good. If you’re feeling adventurous you can mix in veggie-based dyes or flavors.

How to use it

Open the jar, scrub with your toothbrush in a circular motion to get a good chunk of the paste smeared onto your brush. Brush one jaw, rinse and repeat. Or experiment to see what works for you. The idea is to smear a good amount of the paste onto your teeth. After you rinse your mouth, don’t worry if some of the paste is still stuck to your teeth. It will dissolve but in the meantime in will collect the bacteria.

How to store it

The toothpaste can be stored in a glass jar or a wooden/bamboo container (I’d say glass is better around sink moisture). It shouldn’t go "bad," but it is a good idea to cover it up, not airtight though. What works best for us so far is the jar pictured in the photo above. The lid is a little loose and allows for some air circulation inside the jar. You might want to experiment to see what works best for you to prevent mold.

For hygienic reasons each person should have their own container.

As for the toothbrush, it might be hard to completely rinse off the sticky paste. What I do is rinse the toothbrush a little bit and then put it in a glass of water and keep in there. The water in the glass will get a little “muddy” because of the clay but it’s ok. I think that the clay, due to its antibacterial qualities, will cleanse your brush the same way it cleanses your teeth. Eventually most of the clay should dissolve in water by the time of your next tooth brushing.

Where to buy the ingredients

Both bentonite and xylitol can be bought in bulk in 5-pound bags. Make sure that both are made in the USA (and that xylitol is not from corn but rather from birch, which is another sign it is made in the USA). Bentonite can be bought from Please note: although it may not be immediately clear from the description on that website, they sell calcium bentonite, which is what we are using in the recipe.

Or you can buy on Ebay from the same supplier. As for xylitol, it looks like it is getting more popular, hence competitive pricing on Amazon.

Why bentonite clay

Bentonite is known to have some antibacterial properties, but how these work in a toothpaste is not presently known. It is a mild abrasive and therefore has cleansing qualities. Basically, the clay sticks to your teeth and draws out plaque and bacteria. You can do your own research on the benefits of bentonite using these sources:

Bentonite and Gum Disease
Medicinal Uses of Bentonite


I am not a chemist or a dentist and I don’t guarantee that my recipe works for everyone. It seems to work for my family and my dentist doesn’t complain. According to my research, bentonite has cleansing and antibacterial qualities and is good for the gums, and xylitol is known to help prevent tooth decay. So I'm sharing this recipe with the hope that it would work for you or inspire you to try your own. Please don’t expect this toothpaste to heal your teeth in case you already have cavities. I personally don’t believe ANY toothpaste can heal existing cavities. This toothpaste is for preventive care only and doesn’t replace other important ways to care for your teeth, such as frequent flossing and good nutrition.

Nina Litovsky is a homebirthing, homeschooling, natural parenting mom living with her husband and two young children in Newton, Massachusetts. Besides parenting, Nina runs her own home-based web design studio and enjoys a variety of hobbies such as flute, tennis, and mixed martial arts.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon April 10 with all the carnival links.)

The Natural Family Living Movement

It seems there's a growing movement afoot of families seeking to live more naturally, more simply, more connectedly.

We read about it in articles citing increasing rates of homeschoolers, and rising numbers of homebirthers. We see it in neighborhood gardens and backyard chicken coops. We notice it in consistently sold-out local courses on knitting, and sewing, and other handiwork. We hear about it in conversations with friends and neighbors seeking a return to times of simpler homemaking, times when vinegar was the go-to cleanser, when sunshine was the greatest disinfectant, and when growing and preserving food were part of the seasonal rhythms of each family. We feel it in the growing demand for alternative, holistic healthcare solutions for families, and for greater trust in natural healing. It's all around us, this reconnection with do-it-yourself homemaking and natural family living.

We all arrive at our focus on natural family living from different places and for different reasons. For some of us, it is a rejection of the way things are and for others it is an acceptance of the way we think things ought to be. I've mentioned before that while I started on the natural parenting progression when I became a mom, embracing Attachment Parenting principles, discovering cloth diapering, and becoming passionate about homeschooling, it wasn't until my daughter's homebirth a bit over a year ago that I became truly awakened to the magnitude of what we are able to accomplish within our homes, within our families. I began to more seriously question mainstream parenting and homemaking practices, and reclaim home as the center of family life.

This week, I will be presenting posts highlighting natural family living and do-it-yourself homemaking, including some guest posts. I would love to hear how and why you have embraced natural family living. And if you would like to guest-post on this topic, please let me know!

Friendship and Family

A miracle occurred this weekend. My three-year-old sat at the dinner table for over an hour. For a boy who usually lasts about five minutes (maybe 10 if we're having pizza), this was an astounding feat. It happened while we were attending a Passover seder at a friend's house. It was such a special night and our first experience at a seder. My kids were mesmerized by the songs and story-telling and rituals.

It got me to thinking that I should try harder to incorporate more dinner-table rituals into our family meals and see if we can't extend our time at the table. Kids are so naturally drawn to stories and songs and traditions. If you have any special meal-time customs that work well for your family dining--and capture a three-year-old's attention--I would love to hear them!

For this morning's egg-hunt, our city squirrels only managed to steal and gnaw through three plastic eggs before we got to them. Determined little critters, they are.

Here's hoping you too are enjoying a lovely weekend of friendship and family!

Beware of Sabotaging Squirrels...

We celebrate Easter secular-style, which for us means we enjoy the Easter Bunny and learning about its origins as a celebration of Eostre, the ancient goddess of springtime, whose earthly sign is a rabbit and who hides bright eggs and treats as symbols of the sweetness of springtime renewal.

Last year, we were committed to having an all-natural Easter. We grew our own grass to line our Easter baskets, dyed our own real eggs in natural dyes (like beet juice and blueberries), and then left the eggs on our back porch with a note for the Easter Bunny, Eostre, suggesting she hide these lovely eggs along with treats in our building's small backyard.  She obliged, but apparently didn't notify the city squirrels (who mean business around here).  Within minutes of the Easter Bunny's arrival, while we were not looking, the squirrels confiscated 88 pieces of chocolate candy! Yep, 88 pieces.

We know this because we caught a couple of them in the act, and then throughout this past year we have discovered the shiny, colorful, candy wrappings strewn throughout the backyard as the squirrels slowly consumed their buried treasures.

So this year, we have little choice but to be unnatural. We are going back to standard-issue plastic eggs in which to hide Easter chocolates, and are hoping that these squirrels can't figure out how to crack them before the kids in our building have a chance to collect them. Given the fact that just this week, one squirrel unzipped my backpack, grabbed my zippered, cloth snack bag filled with cashews, and scurried up a nearby tree with the snack bag in its mouth, I am not entirely confident that our plastic eggs will be enough protection against these determined city squirrels.

Maybe Eostre can use some of her springtime magic to keep the squirrels at bay just long enough for our egg-hunt. And we'll be sure to share a few chocolates with our backyard friends as a thank-you.

10 Natural Parenting Commitments

I find that sometimes, in the bustle of everyday life with three little ones, I can get distracted from the parenting and homemaking practices that are most important to me.  So I am writing down my most important natural parenting commitments, those practices that are central to the philosophy of our family life, in the hope that they remain top-of-mind even among all those distractions.  Here they are, in no particular order.

Top 10 Natural Parenting Commitments:

  1. It is important to me that I parent with love, respect, responsiveness and gentleness.
  2. It is important to me that I listen to and understand my children's needs.
  3. It is important to me that I facilitate my children's natural curiosity and encourage them to learn and grow in their own way, in their own time.
  4. It is important to me that I model the behaviors I expect from my children.
  5. It is important to me that I position family at the center of our lives.
  6. It is important to me that I feed my family wholesome, homemade, mostly-organic, preferably local, real food.
  7. It is important to me that I trust my powerful maternal instincts, especially when making decisions about my family's health and well-being.
  8. It is important to me that I strive to live more sustainably, seeking ways to treat the earth with greater care and thought.
  9. It is important to me that I make my home a greater source of production, rather than exclusively consumption.
  10. It is important to me that I continuously question, challenge, and inquire to reveal what is best for my family.  
What might your list look like?  Have you written down a mothering mission statement or a set of commitments that guide your parenting?  What impact has it had?

Instinctual Parenting

It seems we've lost our way. It seems that somewhere over the past century in America, as technological advancements, increased industrialization, and focused specialization promised to make our lives easier and simpler, they led us away from our own voice, our own instincts, and in so doing made our lives more complicated and stressful. Nowhere is this more obvious than in parenting.

Rather than trusting our own instincts and listening to our babies, from birth to toddlerhood and throughout childhood, we began abdicating control and losing touch with our natural wisdom. From placing control of our pregnancies and births into the hands of obstetricians and hospitals, to believing that babies should sleep through the night, to trusting large food conglomerates to feed our families, to relying on others to care for and teach our children, we have weakened the power of home and family and muffled our own parenting instincts.

Reconnecting with our instincts, listening to our inner voice and the needs our children so clearly communicate to us in their own way, can guide us back to trusting ourselves. It can help us to question the origin of some of our beliefs and expectations, and filter the barrage of "expert" advice. Who says my infant needs to learn to self-soothe? Who says children need to sleep alone, away from mommy and daddy? Who says I need to introduce solid food at six months if I don't think my baby is ready? Who says my two-year-old needs to learn to be independent from mommy? Why should I give my toddler time-outs? Why should my five-year-old get a dental x-ray for no apparent reason? Why should children be made to sit still and listen when their natural instinct is to run and shout?

We can learn a lot about reconnecting with our natural parenting instincts by watching our children, watching how they live with full authenticity and trust. Their needs are simple and straightforward, and when we listen and respond to them by trusting our own instincts, ignoring the reel of "should-bes" that rolls through our thoughts, we can experience more joyful parenting.

Trusting our instincts and parenting more peacefully is the topic of a new book just released by two Boston-area moms. The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby's First Year, by Megan Massaro and Miriam Katz, helps new parents to trust themselves rather than entrusting others to care for their baby's well-being. A must-read for new parents or others looking to parent more naturally, more instinctually, the book is full of thoughtful insights that help parents to question mainstream parenting beliefs and actions.

What about you? How have you been able to trust or reconnect with your own, natural parenting instincts, even if they run counter to current mainstream parenting practices?

Friday Nights in the City

There was a time, back in our 20s and well before parenthood, when my husband and I would spend our Friday nights in the city sipping martinis at the newest trendy bar chatting about our latest professional and personal pursuits.

My, how our perspectives and priorities have changed since then. While we still enjoy a martini, now our Friday nights in the city are typically spent together with the kids savoring a family dinner in the North End, running through the Greenway, discovering hidden playgrounds, visiting the outdoor food market, listening to subway and street musicians.

They may not be the long, quiet, reflective Friday nights of yesteryear, but these shorter, louder, busier Friday nights with my husband and our three favorite people are just as anticipated and treasured.

Happy Friday to you!

My Little Baker

Yesterday at the playground, a man asked my five-year-old where she goes to school.  "I home-school," she replied.  "Oh, and what do you do in home-school?" he asked.  "Well," she responded, "I do as much math as I want to during the day because I want to be a baker."  "That's good," the man said, "baking does require a lot of math."

This entire exchange made me smile.  I always love to hear the kids' responses about homeschooling in their own words.

Whether or not my five-year-old will follow in the footsteps of locally-acclaimed Flour Bakery chef and owner, Joanne Chang, who has a degree in Applied Mathematics from Harvard, she is consumed by all-things-baking lately.  She devised a "Special Secret Cake Recipe," selecting all of her ingredients and measurements herself, and today she put her creation to the test.  It may not be the fluffiest cake, but it is definitely the best I've ever tasted...

Special Secret Cake Recipe

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
3 cups of flour
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 stick of butter
Big mixing spoon

Mix all ingredients together.  Put in oven.  Bake at 350 until done.

March Madness: Considering the Homeschooling Option

In my city and others around the country, March is the month when urban families learn of public elementary school lottery placements and private school admissions.  In many American cities, school desegregation plans eliminated neighborhood schools to create equity within urban public school districts, and today cities use variations of a complex lottery placement system to ensure school diversity.

For many families who receive a preferred lottery placement or a top-choice private school placement for September, the decision-making process is over.  But for other families who were not assigned or admitted to a top-choice school, the decision-making process has just begun.  Some families will grow satisfied with their lower-choice schools, others will bide their time on the wait-list and hope for a top placement in the fall.  Some families will leave their urban lifestyle for the suburbs and neighborhood schools.  And an increasing number of urban families will look more seriously at the homeschooling option.

Here is my quick list of homeschooling highlights for families considering this education option:

1.  Homeschooling is absolutely doable.  At first glance, homeschooling may seem overwhelming, but as you learn more about the many resources available to you as a homeschooling family, you will find an approach that works best for your learners and lifestyle.  Maybe you will purchase one of the excellent, grade-level curriculum packages available to guide your learning and provide structure and materials.  Maybe you will gravitate more toward "eclectic" homeschooling, relying on packaged or online curriculum for certain subject-areas, and community classes and natural learning for other areas.  Maybe child-led "unschooling" will resonate with you and you will decide to follow your child's lead in determining what and how to learn.  Maybe you will collaborate with other families to form a homeschooling co-op to share homeschooling responsibilities and ideas.  There are many homeschooling structures and approaches to choose from to make homeschooling entirely doable.

2. Homeschooling is immensely rewarding.  Living and learning alongside your children is profoundly gratifying, as you watch their interests develop, their skills flourish, and their talents emerge.

3.  Homeschooling creates community.  One of the first things a prospective homeschooling family should do is become involved with its local homeschooling community, participating in its online message board and attending local park days and other homeschooling community activities.  This process will help families to clarify their homeschooling ambitions and build relationships with other homeschooling families.

4.  Homeschooling strengthens families.  Homeschooling positions family at the center of a child's education, charting a new paradigm for living and learning together as a family unit in an exciting and meaningful way.

5.  Homeschooling maximizes city resources.  Homeschooling enables families to take full advantage of the vast resources of the city on a regular basis, and use these resources daily to create enriching, inspiring, informative learning experiences for children.

6.  Homeschooling individualizes and celebrates learning.  Homeschooling allows families to tailor learning and teaching approaches to each child's specific learning needs and interests, allowing skills to naturally unfold, strengths to naturally emerge, and curiosity to naturally lead the way.

7.  Homeschooling grants time and space.  Homeschooling bestows the gifts of time and space: time and space for children to discover their inborn gifts and true passions; time and space for families to live and learn together in a simpler, more unhurried way; time and space for young learners to grow and develop in their own time, in their own way, with their parents guiding, encouraging, and marveling at it all.

At the beach

When a week-long gift of record-breaking warmth is sent to New England, in March, we embrace it with full gratitude and vigor. Today, as temperatures climbed into the 80s here in Boston, the kids and I hopped onto the subway to a nearby urban beach to soak in this perfect day.

Days like this one, bright, warm, full days when my children can dig, and splash, and build, and wander--especially when the calendar has us shaking our heads--make me truly grateful for the freedom and flexibility of a homeschooling lifestyle.

They also remind me how, in just a few short months, my children have grown. Instead of eating sand, my youngest is now digging in it. Instead of racing off fearlessly into the ocean, my three-year-old first dips in a toe. Instead of building sand castles according to her own rules, my five-year-old considers ways to involve her little brother. Lots of changes since October.

And yet, they are still little, so little. Too little to fully appreciate the gift of a March beach day in New England. Luckily I can.

Choosing a Slower Childhood

I was struck recently by this quote in an article written by Simplicity Parenting author, Kim John Payne: "Ultimately, it comes down to a choice. Parents need to decide whether they believe childhood is a fast-paced enrichment opportunity or a slowly unfolding experience."

We choose the slow and simple. And yet, a slow and simple childhood in today's increasingly fast and complex world is a choice that needs constant vigilance. So many fascinating activities and exciting children's programming here in the city could easily sweep us off our feet and consume the precious time my children have to just be--to imagine and create and grow--slowly and steadily.

On summer-like days here in March, unexpected and entirely welcomed, I am reminded more prominently of the gift of allowing childhood to be a "slowly unfolding experience." Spending nearly all of our daylight hours outside, drinking in the sunshine and warmth, I can almost see childhood unfolding naturally, peacefully. I can see siblings collaborating on important backyard projects. I can hear whispers of fairies and magic and all that's possible. I can watch trees get climbed, feet get muddy, sticks get transformed, dreams get planted.

I observe this quiet unfolding of childhood, just as the crocuses and daffodils quietly unfold around us, and marvel at its simple, uninterrupted beauty. In truth, it's really only been in the last few years that I have truly seen spring unfold: deeply and intentionally noticed the first buds, the first burst of color. It was in these last few years that my children introduced to me a slower, more deliberate pace--a pace necessary to spot each new bud and petal. My children are completely enchanted by spring's new discoveries and force a stiller, steadier, more observant rhythm to appreciate all that emerges around us.

I learn from them. I learn to go slower, to notice more, to appreciate more, and to protect the extraordinary unfolding of childhood.

An Irish Toast

I'm Irish. I love leprechauns, Celtic music, boiled dinners, and Guinness. I also love an excuse to throw a backyard party with our neighbors and a whole gaggle of kids to celebrate friendship, togetherness, community. So that's just what we did tonight, in honor of this most-Irish of holidays.

Like any good St. Patrick's Day party, there was laughing and tale-telling, food and spirits, and a warm acknowledgement that spring is coming and there will be many more moments of backyard merriment with good neighbors and friends as the days grow brighter.

Here is my Irish toast for the evening. Cheers, friends!

An Irish Toast
by Kerry McDonald

May your home be filled with laughter,
Far more than sorrow;
May you live for today,
And not for tomorrow.

May your children know joy,
And little of strife;
May they welcome good friends,
To share a good life.

May your wisdom grow deeper,
Your ignorance shed;
May you find you are leading,
Much more than you're led.

May your days be full,
And your hearts even fuller;
May you find moments of still,
And make space for the stiller.

May you enjoy this journey,
Till the end of your days;
May your spirit be lifted,
While your memory stays.


Acceptance or Rejection?

At the end of my previous post, I asked the question:

Are you accepting something for what it promises, or rejecting something for what it fails at?

I have been fascinated by the responses, both here and on the blog's Facebook page. Some of you indicated that, with respect to homeschooling, you are completely accepting, others passionately rejecting, and others neither accepting nor rejecting.

This leads me to another similarly provocative question related specifically to homeschooling:

How do you think your homeschooling perspectives and approaches might vary if your children were once enrolled in a traditional school compared to if your children were always home-schooled?

If your children were enrolled in traditional school, for example, do you feel more comfortable following an established curriculum to retain the rhythms of a traditional school-day, or do you reject the traditional school rhythms and seek something completely different? I am curious to hear your responses, here and on Facebook.

My children have never attended traditional school and we committed to homeschooling when my oldest was only two-years-old, so my perspectives on life learning and unschooling have blossomed naturally from watching how my children learn. Beginning in toddlerhood, we became active in our local homeschooling community, particularly young homeschooler playgroups, and my kids have developed friendships with other similar-aged homeschoolers that have endured over the past several years. We feel completely free to follow our own learning path, uncovering the children's passions and gifts as we go, and see homeschooling as a natural extension of our family rhythms and child-rearing philosophy.

I wonder how different my perspectives on homeschooling would be if my children had attended traditional school at some point, and, again, how the discourse would change if I were removing my children from traditional school to home-school, whether out of rejection of a broken system or acceptance of a new way of living and learning.


I Am An Unapologetic Homebirther

Over the past week, I have been writing posts signaling that while I think more parents should seriously consider homeschooling, I am sympathetic to the parents who are passionate about traditional schooling and find private or public school to be a good fit for their family. If you ask me, I think the 80/20 rule would work well for education, with 80% of families choosing traditional schooling, and 20% choosing homeschooling, compared to 3% currently. (For comparison, currently about 11% of students in the U.S. attend private or parochial schools.)

Homebirth, on the other hand....

I wonder if it's because I have seen both sides of birth that I am unapologetically pro-homebirth, to the point where I think the 80/20 rule should mean 80% of births are at home and 20% are at hospitals, compared to 99% currently. I experienced first-hand the serious, even life-threatening, complications resulting from big hospital births and unnecessary inductions with my first two babies. I finally realized with my third baby that I HAD to have a natural, non-interventive birth if I wanted to have a safe delivery, and the only way I felt certain of having a completely natural birth was to have one at home.

In my third trimester of my third pregnancy, I went for a tour of the smaller hospital's labor and delivery (L&D) ward, the hospital where I was considering giving birth with a midwife instead of the big hospital with the OB that I had experienced previously. This smaller, regional hospital had a good reputation for valuing natural childbirth, but almost as soon as the L&D tour began, I knew I couldn't have a baby there. The clincher for me was the big, red, digital timer clock on the wall of the delivery room. When I asked the tour guide the purpose of the big timer, she downplayed its importance, saying that it may be used once a laboring woman's water broke or once she started pushing. To me, it was like the overtime stop-clock for a Celtics-Lakers game, measuring my every move against a hospital's policies and expectations. At that moment, I knew I couldn't have a hospital birth. On the ride home from the hospital tour, I called my homebirth midwife to sign on for what would become a defining, life-changing experience.

So this homebirth experience leads me to wonder: would I be more relentlessly, unabashedly pro-homeschooling if I had a poor traditional schooling experience? I am relentlessly, unabashedly pro-homebirthing because I honestly and with full conviction believe that most babies should be born naturally, at home, with trusted midwives. But I have seen the other side. I have seen first-hand--TWICE--the clear and present dangers of hospital births, and I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that for most women birth belongs at home.

But homeschooling? I had a decent K-12 public school experience, though I feel that much of it was a waste of time. I liked school, participated in many rewarding extra-curricular activities, got accepted to top colleges. But still, I want more, better for my children. My reasons for advocating homeschooling and homebirthing are different. Both are ideologic and personal, but with homebirthing, I have witnessed first-hand the other side, the dangers of an OB-orchestrated, institutionalized birth.

The passion I feel for homebirth, then, may be similar to the passion friends of mine feel about homeschooling, friends who have "seen the other side," whose children have been betrayed by a large, traditional government-school system that operates under its own rules of efficiency and self-protection just like hospitals.

So the bottom line is that while I am passionate about both homeschooling and homebirthing, for me, the latter is much more of a rejection of currently accepted practices while the former is an acceptance of a particular family lifestyle and child-rearing approach.

What about you? Are you accepting something for what it promises, or rejecting something for what it fails at?

Choosing the Homeschooling Option

I blogged earlier this week about my interview with a Huffington Post reporter who is researching material about an upcoming series of articles on urban homeschooling. I told the reporter that, for my family, homeschooling is more about accepting this special type of lifestyle and individualized learning approach, rather than militantly rejecting public or private schools.

One understandable criticism that I received from a reader is that this is the "politically correct" response. I suppose it is. Like other homeschoolers, I am passionate about our decision to homeschool. I think that homeschooling is extraordinary and its rewards, for both parents and children, are immeasurable. I am a true believer in the power of homeschooling to transform learning and strengthen families. I think many, many more families should seriously consider the homeschooling option.

But the reality is that there are many parents whose children attend public or private schools who are equally zealous about the benefits of traditional schooling. Who am I to criticize those families' decisions? I try to show how homeschooling works for our family, and hopefully lead others to see that it could work exceptionally well for theirs. I try to accomplish this, not by criticizing and condemning, but by illustrating and encouraging.

When I write, I keep Buckminster Fuller's words top-of-mind: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." The reality is that most children (97%) in this country attend traditional schools. I don't want to fight that reality. But I do want to show that there is a model of living and learning together as a family that is worth seriously exploring and considering. I don't think the homeschooling model will make traditional schooling obsolete for most families, but I do think as more families see the benefits and joys of learning together, as they see that it is not unreachable or overwhelming, then more families will choose homeschooling.

Like any zealot, I am happy about that. I am happy that more families will decide for themselves to reclaim control of their children's learning and reposition home as the center of a family's life and well-being. I am happy to help (re)build that not-so-new model.

{this moment} Scooting

{this moment} - A single photo capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

Visit SouleMama for more "moments" and to share your own...

Almost Spring

One of our family's favorite springtime children's books, is the now out-of-print story, "It's Spring," She Said, by Joan W. Blos.  A gem if you can find it in your local library, it reminds us of early spring's teases: beautiful, warm, sundress days that lure us in to thinking winter is finally over only to be tricked with more frosty days ahead. Today was one of those March teases, granting us all of that glimmering sunshine and warmth; just enough for us to know that spring is coming but is not here quite yet.

Still, it's on these special spring-like days, days spent mostly outside surrounded by the natural world, that I am most grateful for the freedom and joy of homeschooling. Enjoying a picnic lunch in the sunshine while the kids explore the softening soil and run in the breeze. Making plans for springtime gardens while planting a few seedlings to get us started. Watching a five-year-old climb a tree to read her books. Spotting a three-year-old overjoyed at once again being allowed to play with brimming watering cans to construct his backyard pond. Admiring a one-year-old eager to master her stair-climbing skills. Chatting with neighbors, enjoying outside meals with loved ones, watching the evening light stretch longer--these are the cherished gifts of hours spent together outside in the sunshine on a beautiful March day.

So although it's early, and there will be more inside days ahead, it won't be long before we are all exclaiming the final line from our beloved springtime book: "Spring had come to the city. Spring had come to stay."

For more lovely springtime books to enjoy as a family, check out the seasonal book recommendations in this spring's issue of Rhythm of the Home magazine.

Putting Homeschooling on the Menu

I was interviewed today by a reporter for the Huffington Post who is writing a series of articles on urban homeschooling and wanted my perspective.  One of the questions she asked me was if my graduate work in education policy influenced my decision to homeschool my kids.  I answered that, although I became interested in alternative education, including homeschooling, while in graduate school, it wasn't until I had my own children that I considered the option more seriously.  Ok, the reporter went on, but did my policy perspectives on current education trends lead me to choose the homeschooling option?

For us, homeschooling is not a rejection of our urban, public schools or of the private schools nearby.  Rather, it is an acceptance of homeschooling as the perfect fit for our family, for our learning, for our lifestyle.  It's kind of like going to a restaurant with three reasonable menu items.  We're not passionately rejecting the other two options; we just decide that one of the three options is most appealing to us for a variety of reasons.

I feel strongly that homeschooling should be on the menu.  It should be one of the three options, along with private and public school, that parents consider when they make education choices for their children.  I hope that this blog, in some very small way, helps families to better understand the homeschooling option (at least from one family's perspective), to help them make an informed, thoughtful decision about which education option fits best for their family, for their learners.

And then savor that choice.

10 Reasons to Homeschool Your Kids

There are many reasons to consider the homeschooling option for your family, but here is my top 10 list:

1. Customize teaching and learning - One of the great advantages of homeschooling is the ability to recognize a child's distinct learning styles and needs and tailor a family's teaching and learning approach accordingly.  The increasing popularity of homeschooling has led to curriculum resources for every type of learner, from a wide variety of purchased, packaged curricula to choose from, to countless online learning sites, to community programming specifically targeting homeschoolers.  For "eclectic" homeschoolers and unschoolers who may choose a more unstructured approach to homeschooling, there are museums, libraries, academic and cultural events, classes, lessons, and a host of other resources to facilitate child-led learning.  Homeschooling allows the flexibility to adapt to a child's specific learning needs and use the full resources of the community and its people to augment learning.

2. Gain time - Homeschooling provides families with the gift of time.  Time together to teach and learn.  Time for children to uncover and pursue their own talents.  Time to explore nature and the world around us.  Time to read.  Time to play.  Time to dream.

3. Cultivate curiosity - With the freedom to learn and explore, a child's natural curiosity flourishes, guiding him to discover, create, imagine.  As facilitators, we parents provide an enriching learning environment for our children and identify resources that may help to spark and satisfy their innate curiosity.

4. Reclaim childhood - Childhood today runs at a dizzying pace, with pressures to grow-up faster and earlier than ever before.  Homeschooling helps to reclaim and retain the innocence and spirit of childhood for a wee bit longer.

5. Focus on family - Homeschooling positions family at the center of a child's life, fostering family togetherness and core values, and creating a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn and grow.

6. Strengthen sibling bonds - Homeschooling brothers and sisters build strong sibling bonds, learning from and with each other, collaborating and trouble-shooting, and creating together each day.

7. Encourage positive social behaviors - Homeschooling allows children to see daily examples of positive social behaviors through close interactions with grown-ups and peers. When conflict arises, adults are able to model effective resolution techniques that help children to develop important interpersonal skills.

8. Learn from the community - Homeschoolers are uniquely positioned to use their community as their classroom, taking full advantage of the varied and plentiful offerings of the community and the many interesting and knowledgeable people who become their daily "teachers."  Homeschooling also allows children to interact and learn with a wildly diverse population of fellow homeschoolers who meet regularly.

9. Simplify schedules - Homeschooling helps families to prioritize how a child's time is spent each week to maximize curiosity and self-directed learning, and minimize stresses and waste.  Homeschooling helps families to slow down, simplify and focus on creating more peaceful, unhurried family rhythms.

10. Enjoy outdoor learning - The efficiency of homeschooling, of individualized learning, creates many opportunities for free play and exploration, much of which occurs outside of one's home, throughout one's community, and through meaningful interactions with the natural world around us.

What are your thoughts on this list?  How does it compare with your own top reasons to homeschool your kids?

That's More Important, I Think

That's More Important, I Think
by Kerry McDonald

The toys are strewn, the carpet is messy,
The dishes mount in the sink;
But my children are playing, and laughing, and jumping,
And that's more important, I think.

My clothes are not ironed, there is chalk on the wall,
The laundry is starting to stink;
But my children are drawing, and skipping, and smiling,
And that's more important, I think.

The beds are not made, the counter needs wiping,
The toddler has just spilled his drink;
But my children are building, and painting, and digging,
And that's more important, I think.

The carrots need chopping, the floor needs a sweep,
The baby has slept not a wink;
But my children are reading, and climbing, and dreaming,
And that's more important, I think.

The vacuum needs running, the bathroom a mop,
But this time will be gone in a blink;
So I sit and I linger alongside my children,
And that's more important, I think.

{this moment} At the playground

{this moment} - A single photo capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

Visit SouleMama for more "moments" and to share your own...

Join me today at Rhythm of the Home....

I am honored to again have an article included in my favorite online magazine, Rhythm of the Home.

Please join me today in reading the many warm and inspiring articles in the just-released Spring issue.

In light of my article on "Springtime Puddle-Stomping," I am also participating in Rhythm of the Home's Blog Giveaway and am giving away a $50 L.L. Bean Gift Card (for all that puddle-stomping gear, you know). I am also giving away an ADDITIONAL $50 L.L. Bean Gift Card here on my blog!

So... you have two separate chances to win! Visit the Rhythm of the Home Blog and enter the giveaway AND enter below by "liking" the City Kids Homeschooling Facebook page or Facebook post, leave a comment, share this giveaway and more!

Winners for both giveaways will be announced on March 7th.

Good luck and thanks so much for visiting!

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Join the City Kids Homeschooling Facebook community!