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 BestBentonite.com. 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?