An article in The
Washington Post’s “Home” section, entitled “Live and Learn,” delved into
the architectural aspects of homeschooling. How, the writer wondered,
does the decision to homeschool change the architecture of the home
An interesting question, especially to one outside
the homeschooling movement who intuitively expects to find a recreation
of the schoolroom in the home, which is, not surprisingly, exactly what
Mathews found, complete with chalkboards and desks.
One parent summed up this mentality succinctly,
declaring, “You need a place for everything and everything in its place.
There has to be order so that when you are done with home schooling for
the day you can contain all of your stuff and not have the house look
like a cyclone hit it.” The families in the article do “Live and Learn,”
but for them, these activities take place in very distinct spaces.
The article’s nod to the “unschooling” part of the
homeschooling community suggests that unschoolers “leave the house the
way it is”. While the sentiment that unschoolers live and learn in the
same space is an accurate one, I began to wonder whether we, too, didn’t
change the way we live because we choose to learn from living itself.
The answer for my family is that unschooling impacts and changes our
entire landscape: no schoolroom at home, but a rich, full, exuberant
landscape that ranges from room to room and spills out into our yard and
the woods beyond.
Many folks walk into our home and feel instantly
warm and welcome, as one friend observed about his daughter to his
over-protective pediatrician wife, “How could she get hurt? This is a
kid house!” Other people might walk into our home and be instantly put
off by the child-centeredness of it. A particular aunt springs to mind –
one of those people whose unsolicited advice always centers on how to
live life without the many inconveniences children pose.
Our home has brightly colored murals on the walls,
lots of open shelving, but mostly, lots of stuff that most assuredly
isn’t always in its place if it even has one. As a type A personality
who has given over to the three cyclones presently living here, I spend
a fair amount of time rearranging and trying to find spaces for the many
things necessary to fuel our current and potential passions. Instead of
fighting the accumulation of stuff, I’ve become a student of stuff and a
careful observer of the way my family interacts and uses space. I
redirect my organizational energy to make all this stuff more
accessible, more available, more enticing.
Shelves, cabinets, baskets and bins are filled with
goodies to explore and excite. I accumulate and acquire stuff with an
obsessive quality that rivals the above mother’s obsession to control
the stuff in her home. As life learners, we dive into topics with gusto,
devouring all that we can get our hands on and then moving onto the next
entrée. Many times, I’ll see something that whets my own appetite with
its future promise and I pick it up, waiting for just the right time to
pull it out.
I also keep stuff forever, like the calligraphy set
I picked up when I was probably 12 or 13. Its multiple nibs and colors
fascinated my girls as we played with them and compared the pens to a
quill my five-year-old daughter had bought at Colonial Williamsburg. My
husband Jim’s molecule model set from college chemistry has also proven
quite interesting. It has offered hours of fun building in addition to
illustrating conversations on water molecules and, most recently,
chirality in nature spurred by Jim’s work and Emily’s recent interest in
genetic mutation, thanks to the X-men.
This attitude extends to our near-acre property,
where we make use of every bit of land to enrich our lives. My passion
for gardening has led to the complete re-landscaping of our yard to
include vegetable gardens, berry gardens, herb gardens, flower gardens,
wildlife gardens, and a 3,200-gallon water garden. Throughout the
growing season, my children and I harvest lettuce, beans, blackberries,
strawberries, tomatoes, and basil among many other delicacies.
Every square inch of our 1,800-square-foot home is
put to use and often multiple uses. For a long time, the laundry room
doubled as an art room, housing a four-foot art table and
material-filled hoosier cabinet. Thanks to a wonderful new heavy duty,
extra-long kitchen table, our art center has moved upstairs and taken
over valuable kitchen cabinet space. Our priority was to have the art
supplies where we could easily spread them out for four people to work,
so walking downstairs for lesser-used or overflow food items seemed
Now, our laundry room triples as a pantry and
dressing room in order to free my daughters’ bureaus for toys and other
items more important to them than clothes. All my children’s closets
have been reworked to incorporate play spaces, cozy nooks for their
special activities – one even sports new recessed lighting. Our home
changes as we adapt spaces to serve the needs of our children and
ourselves, disregarding traditional uses of space and conventional
We plant dill especially for the black swallowtails
that flutter through our yard on which to lay their eggs. We plant
native flowers and shrubs and nurture those that spring up on their own
to feed the wildlife and preserve the native landscape. The native
spicebush leaves turn a beautiful yellow in the fall after hosting
spicebush swallowtail caterpillars all summer, then give way to glossy
red berries, feeding the birds that overwinter.
Our pond, home to koi and comets, attracts many
species of dragonflies as well as black snails, numerous frogs, and the
occasional snake and boxturtle. This past spring, we purchased twelve
rare breed chicks to raise for fresh eggs. We designed and built the
chicken house and the yard that protect them from local wildlife and our
family dog so that it rotates frequently enough to allow free range
We’re learning all about organic gardening,
different ecosystems, wildlife, and animal care, and our landscape
reflects the fervor of our passions and pursuit of learning through
life. However, we do these things not because of the many wonderful
learning opportunities they provide but because we follow our passions
Our individual passions overlap and infect others
in the family without imposing upon them. Gardening is my love; the
children are free to come and go as they please, participate or not.
They are sometimes along for the ride when I stop at a favorite nursery
to peruse the current offerings and attempt valiantly to carve one more
inch for my current must-have. But, they, too, take us along for rides
of their own choosing – art, video games, Teen Titans, and Egypt are
among the current adventures.
The children’s passions lead to all kinds of
explorations through books, videos, toys, games, and excursions. Our
family room currently houses a model of the Nile River made out of sand
and the Great Pyramids, step pyramid of Imhotep and Sphinx, all made out
of polymer clay. Thanks to my husband’s tech skills, we now have five
computers, one of which doubles as a television, allowing us to capture
favorite programming and burn it to DVD. This has enabled the kids to
enjoy all their favorite Teen Titan episodes whenever they choose
because their father was willing to fully support their passion. The
bonus: I get great PBS documentaries on DVD that would otherwise cost a
My husband’s passion, rock climbing, has resulted
in a nine-foot high, fifteen-foot long climbing wall addition to the
kids’ climber, on which we all enjoy playing. Climbing has become a
special bonding activity for Jim and our five-year-old daughter because
they share a similarly intense passion for the sport. After work and
before dusk falls, the two of them head down the hill with climbing
shoes and chalkbags slung over shoulders to spend precious moments
encouraging and loving each other as the sun begins to slip behind the
Our climbing wall is attached below the kids’ tree
house, overlooking our pond as well as the wooded wetlands beyond our
yard. During the winter months, as poison ivy and tangled brush give
way, we head down to the silty stream to build dams, float sticks,
dream, and connect with each other over the lonely and distant sound of
a woodpecker, wondering whether the sound might belong to a northern
flicker, downy or red bellied woodpecker that so often visit our
feeders. Once, very once-in-a-while, we catch sight of a pileated
woodpecker, or we look for deer, fox, and raccoon tracks as we make our
way along the stream bank, musing on the unexpected gifts we find.
Embracing and following our passions, living and
learning together, my family takes full advantage of the world around us
and the spaces we inhabit as well as the creatures with whom we share
Learning for us is unbounded, unfettered,
undirected. Our lives and our learning are rich and overflowing,
certainly not compartmentalized or contained within four walls of a
“school” room. But neither do we leave the house the way it is – a
description that’s much too static to encompass the dynamic nature of
our learning lives. As we grow and change and move to the next great
interest, our space changes with us because our passions infuse it,
molding it to our current needs.
Unschooling is not synonymous with homeschooling,
in part because learning is not confined to the home or any particular
space at all. It spills out into the world, embracing and making use of
all that we encounter by living fully in the world.
School is an architectural space that can be
defined, contained and controlled. Unschooling is a landscape, a
panorama, a vista that changes with the seasons and direction of the
wind, always fascinating, always offering new feasts for the mind and
the senses for those who dare to live the adventure.
Danielle Conger is a freelance writer who has a PhD only because she didn’t want to stop learning.
She says her three wonderful children Julia, Emily, and Sam
(now teenagers) have taught her how unnecessary school is for learning and for thinking great thoughts.
When this article was published in 2005, the family enjoyed a busy unschooling lifestyle outside of Washington, D.C.
with dad Jim, dogs, chickens and lots of wonderful wildlife.