Competent Children

As we enter the 21st century it seems we, as a society, have gone even deeper into the morass of institutional education so now we can't even imagine what it is like for a child to discover and own their personal learning. Somewhere, somehow, for any number of reasons, it now seems an adult or one of their programs must lay claim to causing childrens' learning to occur—unless it doesn't, in which case it is the child's fault!

As Illich feared, we no longer trust that a child will learn to speak, now we must teach them their mother tongue (Taught Mother Tongue and the Nation State is a fascinating recording of Illich's that goes deep into the political and historical reasons for this). As Holt feared in Instead of Education, the world is no longer considered our birthright to live and grow in, but is increasingly perceived as a global classroom to be managed by others for us.

I want to document with this section of the HoltGWS site how all children and teenagers, not just those who are homeschooled/unschooled/free schooled, can learn in their own ways. If you have video or other documentation of a child learning by doing, on their own, or with others, with or without adults (as long as it is the children asking the questions and doing things, not the adults!) please contact me about adding it to this section.

I envision another section about homeschoolers who win awards, sail around the world, gain academic kudos, and so on. I want to keep these issues separate because I sense that both parents and teachers are increasingly losing their nerve about how competent children really can be. I hope these examples will give heart, hope, and patience to adults to relax and support children's self-directed efforts to make sense of the world around them.—PF

Children Learning On Their Own and Teaching Each Other

Sugata Mitra: ". . . in the absence of supervision or formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they're motivated by curiosity."

Why do so many teachers doubt this can occur? Here are children learning in the street, developing computer skills, language skills, and social skills without adults directing them. Sadly, a friend who trains teachers told me she shows this video to her teachers-in-training and they cannot believe it! Rather than marvel at the childrens' abilities and the value of open-ended explorations, they do not believe what they are seeing. Are we successfully schooling the very notion of self-directed learning out of people? It isn't that we don't need teachers, but rather that we don't need so much compulsory schooling so we can allow these new places, interactions, and opportunities to develop.


Children Helping Adults Do Real Work

This keynote by Micki and David Colfax, authors of Homeschooling for Excellence and Hard Times in Paradise, discusses not only how the Colfax boys helped keep the family afloat but also how they grew and developed through their work on the family ranch and then, without any formal plan, went on to success in college and work.

How Children Learn From Everyday Life and Work.


From the GWS Archive:

GWS 35, p. 22

From Cindi Bigelow (PA):

. . . Aeb (21/2) is very intrigued with numbers, and is extremely mechanically minded. At Christmas time, he embarrassed his 13-year-old brother, Shawn, by teaching him how to work the new TV set. But, we do adjust . . . . Just the other day, I heard Shawn angrily insisting that Aeb put down some toy and show Shawn how something or other worked. Not that Shawn isn't just as mechanically minded, it was just easier to get advice from someone who had experience with that particular object.

Shawn, for instance, just a few weeks ago repaired a non-functioning record player for my Sunday School class. I wouldn't have thought much of it if so many people didn't constantly remind me how incapable and untrustworthy children are' The postman still refuses to hand the mail to our 4~-year-old daughter when she is outside playing, and Gramma still drives or walks our 10~-year-old and almost 14-year-old the five blocks from her house, crossing streets so quiet, one could almost layout good china in them to dry . . . . Besides which, years ago, they were both crossing one of the busiest streets in New Orleans to get to and from school every day.

Don't get me wrong—after many years of careful conditioning, I don't quite trust my children either. But we are all learning together, and we learn to trust them more and more each day; in exchange for which, they are learning to trust their parents more and more each day . Aeb is a big help in that respect, as he really calls me to task on my shortcomings . About a month ago, having had an extraordinarily long day which was only half over, I was tired and really snapping out crazy orders like "Sit still, be quiet," while helping his sister get her shoes on to go for a walk. Aeb got very annoyed with me and said, "Mommy, don't spank me'" To which I replied, still tired, "I won't spank you if you'll just sit still." "Mommy, you spank me with words'" Boy, did that ever stop me cold in my tracks; he was absolutely right, that was just what I had been doing, and when we went out the back door for our walk, they had a much more patient mother going with them . . .


GWS 46, p. 9

Eric Larson, a 10-year-old homeschooler, wrote in the Minnesota Homeschool Network Newsletter:

. . . Because of my concern for peace in the world, I started a club called KIDS FOR PEACE . It has over 35 members, which isn't bad since I just started in it November. I have already put out one newsletter, and by the time you read this, I will have put out a second . I know several members of WOMEN AGAINST MILITARY MADNESS . . . They even put an article about KIDS FOR PEACE in their newsletter.

I also got on television. In the Twin Cities, you can call up some local computers and leave a message. I left a message about KFP on one of them. A man named Phil Johnson, who produces a show called "People, Places & Things," read my message and wrote to me. Twelve members of KIDS FOR PEACE (including myself) taped the show on January 26. It aired February 10.

The main purpose of the club is to write to government officials , urging them to participate in actions that would promote peace. Ages now range from 8 to 14, but any age is accepted. If you would like to become a member, just write to: KIDS FOR PEACE, PO Box 4153, St Paul MN 55104 (Feb. 2012: Note this is no longer an active address). There is no membership fee, but donations are welcome. Members will receive (1) an introductory letter (2) a picture of the official KFP symbol (3) a business card (4) a bimonthly newsletter . . .



GWS 46, p. 9

Dorothy Combs (MI) writes:

. . . During the NCACS conference in Ann Arbor, I told Amanda (7) she could use the 35mm camera to take pictures . I quietly showed her where to change the settings, and she said, "Mom, I'll figure it out by myself." Since we do not usually use a flash, you have to get all the settings perfect, or the pictures are blurred, or too dark or light. Her pictures were great! When we got home she followed Dad around, taking pictures of the construction of the house. They all were great! Before reading John's books, I would never have given her the 35mm camera to figure out on her own.

Nor would she and Heidi (11) be down in the basement right now, by themselves, building doll furniture with a hand saw and a hot melt glue gun, out of scraps of wood . They are also building a 3 x 2 x 2' bird cage with two compartments, out of thin strips of wood, for their two parakeets.

. . . Heidi and Amanda's penpals are Rachel and Sarah Barton, violinist and cellist from Chicago [See GWS #45). The penpal experience has been wonderful. The girls have so many common interests, even though Sarah and Rachel live in a large city and Heidi and Amanda live far from anyone, in the country . . . Our mailbox is a long distance from the house, and the whole family shares in the excitement when one of the girls comes back riding her bike and waving a letter from their penpal friends in the air.

The girls are doing a lot of baking now on their own. Our oven on the electric stove does not work, so the girls do all their baking in the wood range, and they have to keep wood in and watch the dampers to keep an even heat .



GWS 46, p. 9

From Susan Shilcock (PA):

...After our family's garage sale last spring, our daughter Emily (7) said, "It seems like the people who came were mostly interested in the adult things for sale and the children didn't have much of a chance. Are you allowed to just invite children to a garage sale?" We didn't see why not, so one Sunday afternoon in May our three girls, Emily, Amanda (9), and Julia (4) hosted a "Children's Garage Sale." They rented sixteen table spaces to friends and acquaintances at $2 each and then used about half that money for advertising in local newspapers and creating flyers. We don't live in a neighborhood to which people can easily walk, but we had over 100 people at the sale, and some traveled over an hour to participate. With planning and a good network of friends, even a relatively isolated family can make this work.

Here are the guidelines our children decided on:

Only children selling—Adults are of course welcome to help, but it is designed to be run by and for children.

—Suggested ages are 5-12.

—No selling of junk foods or candy. Homemade treats are OK.

—Suggestions of things to sell were: homemade items, used toys, trinkets that would be good for inventing, miniature things.

Most of the children who participated were between 5 and 8 . . . Children set their own prices and then figured out the correct change, sometimes with adult help . . . The older children (9–12) were more likely to be aware of the relation between expenses and profits, while the younger ones were interested in the immediate transactions going on .

Two best-selling items were "fruit on a stick" and healthy plants. Children also sold other homemade foods, crafts, and games, as well as old toys and books. (One family donated all the unsold items to needy refugees.) It was a nice opportunity for kids to see that their own work, such as growing plants, crocheting doll clothes, or inventing games or greeting cards, could earn them some money. A child 's profit varied, but the range was between $6 and $25, and we stressed process over product.

The preparation was as exciting as the sale itself, if not more so, although, as Amanda says, "You have to prepare yourself to do a lot of preparation." Our children made "exhibitor badges" for each child who signed up. These not only helped everyone learn names, they also helped the "public" identify the sellers A well-advertised sale, guaranteeing that the children won 't spend a lot of time waiting for customers, can provide a chance to do real work involving money and strangers, and children enjoy this.

We held our sale from 1–4 PM, but 1–3 would have been long enough, especially since in our case many of the children were quite young . . . We were lucky enough to have outdoor play space available for younger siblings and those at the tables, who would often take a break from selling to shop or play . . . I recommend that each family personally invite at least 3–5 other families; this way, everyone will be sure to have customers. It is also helpful if a child has seen or participated in an adult garage sale.

How much help should the adults give? As Amanda says, "Leave that up to the children!" . . .