Son Takes the Lead, Now ‘Living is Learning’

Special to Asahi Evening News

For our family, homeschooling as a way of life began last year on a beach in northern California during a summer break away from Japan, after my 5-year-old son and I were invited to join a “support group” of homeschooling families on one of their regular outings.

The tide was low that day, so the group of about 30 parents and children could observe and touch the starfish, sea anemone and other sea life. After that, my son excitedly ran off with the other children as they climbed rocks along the shoreline, and then built a makeshift dam in a creek as it trickled from the woods into the mighty ocean.

I realized then that I had just seen the best marine biology “lesson” in my life — not to mention a fine example of group cooperation and socializing among the children, none of whom my son had met before. It worked so well because it had all happened naturally. I thought, “So this is homeschooling!” I was hooked.

Our family has been homeschooling since that day, and plans to do so for many more years.

Probably the most accurate description of what we do and why we do it comes from Tomiko Kugai, a respected Japanese homeschooling advocate in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, who has been homeschooling her teenage daughter for several years.

Kugai calls homeschooling “a way of shared upbringing in which the home, libraries, museums, parks and so forth are used as learning resources for children, along with the support of grown-ups — without the children attending school.”

She adds that “In homeschooling, first and foremost, the child plays the leading role.”

Not a cameo appearance, not a nonspeaking part — but the leading role, indeed. My wife and I want to give our child the best education possible, and we want him to have an equal say in that education. Just as importantly, we want him to retain a general love of learning throughout his life.

Can’t conventional schooling give that? No, not for us, it can’t.

Previously, over the course of about four years, we had enrolled our son in a few schools in both the United States and Japan. Those schools ranged from publicly to privately run, from Japanese-speaking to English-speaking, from religious to secular, and from highly structured to loosely structured in their activities.

What we found, though, was that they all shared some unfortunate characteristics: bullying among students, emotional and/or physical intimidation of children by teachers, understaffing, a lack of resources, and little or no time for teachers to spend one-on-one with their pupils.

We came to the conclusion that “school is school.” News reports about increasing educational problems the world over indicated that we were not far off the mark.

My wife and I then, for the first time in our lives, were forced to rethink our very concept of education — and to come up a better plan, if possible. We were stumped, quite frankly. Until the day of the homeschooling get-together in California a year ago, that is, when our son’s overwhelmingly positive reaction gave us the answer we were seeking.

The style of homeschooling we have been doing since then is “unschooling,” a term coined by the late John Holt, a U.S. teacher and homeschooling advocate. Unschooling involves a highly flexible, open-ended approach to learning.

Hike in the hills

As with many unschooling families everywhere, there is no such thing as a “typical day” for us.

My son and I may go to a science museum one day, and take a hike in the hills on another. We may go swimming at the community pool. We may spend the day at the library and a park. Or we may spend it at home finger-painting, drawing, reading, doing puzzles or creating things with Lego.

We may listen to a wide variety of CDs at our home and make music along with them, or we may all go out together to sing karaoke. We don’t watch a lot of television. We do use a supply of educational and family-oriented videos and PC software instead.

The focus is on play-based learning at this early stage in our son’s development. As he grows and matures, we foresee using a more structured approach with books and other hands-on projects in our homeschooling routine, depending on his own interests and hobbies.

I must confess that, like most parents, I had concerns early on about the “s-word” — socialization. Would homeschooling deprive our child of other children’s company?

Looking back now, I need not have worried. Our son, now 6, has peers in the neighborhood he can still play with, as well as his cousins and other younger and older acquaintances. There are also lots of clubs around that he can join as he gets older. He likes the idea of home-based learning, and his personality has really blossomed since we’ve been doing it.

As homeschoolers, we tend to keep our eyes and ears open at all times for chances to encounter new experiences and meet new people. You could say that for our family, living is learning.

In this way, and many more besides, homeschooling has proven to be as much a lifestyle choice as a valid educational one.
The author is a homeschooling parent and freelance journalist living in Minoo, Osaka Prefecture.