Natural learning: 9 things l have learned about (naturally)!

By Pushpa Ramachandran, Pune

I live in Pune with my family. I am a full time homeschooling mother. I have two daughters Veda (7 years) and Vinaya (4 years) who learn at home. Unschooling entered my life as l tried to meet some unique needs that motherhood placed in front of me. Meeting an unschooling mother locally, Hema Bharadwaj 8 years ago led me to discover that there were more families in Pune and around the world that had travelled down a path less frequented, a journey of learning without the boundaries of classroom and school.

I also work part time as a speech therapist, with much support from my family, to pursue another passion of mine-helping individuals with communication disorders.

I first read about natural learning in graduate school for speech therapy. To be honest l didn’t remember much of it, since there was only a paragraph about it in our book. It seemed interesting then, but l saw very little of it being done in therapy with children with disabilities where I worked or in typical schools or clinic settings..

Fast forward 10 years and l have kids of my own. Through some unique circumstances, l enter the world of homeschooling and then discover unschooling and found myself reading about natural learning all over again. That vague memory got renewed and l thought to myself “How did l not know about this all along?”

The interesting thing about the term “natural learning” is that it gets thrown around a lot, and defined in many different ways! So that made me examine the term a bit more closely.

What is learning? Why the term “natural learning? Are there other ways of learning that are unnatural? These questions have stayed with me and continued to stay with me as l try to learn along side my two daughters Veda and Vinaya. They have not been to any kind of school, not yet.

I still don’t know if l know everything that is to be known and understood about natural learning. Without attempting an expose on the technical definition of what it encompasses, l thought it might worth an attempt to pen down a few things l have learnt (perhaps naturally!) over the past 8 years watching my children grow and learn..

1. My children learn all the time…Every minute, every hour, every second. If I ever thought the learning happened within the doors of a closed classroom and that weekends were off days, I now know that it doesn’t work quite that way. They learn so many things on the weekend when their dad plays with them, we take trips to the local park and we go on vacation. No public holidays for learning at our home. Vacation days just go by faster as we get to explore and play and generally do more. Diwali, Holi, Republic Day, etc., all bring up new topics of discussion, new threads of conversation, the making of perhaps new personalized traditions and revisiting old traditional ones.

2. My children are innately curious. They want to know more, see more, hear more, try more things. Sometimes though they are not curious about the same thing that l am at the same exact time and those are good moments to learn from. Veda is curious about the world. She is the queen of quizzing e.g., “”Why did the lyrics say “if money grows on trees?”; “How come its morning here and night somewhere else at the same time?”; “Did the dinosaurs die all at once or one at a time?”

3. Strewing helps. That’s a term l learnt from unschooling mom and author Sandra Dodd. It’s best explained as bringing interesting things and leaving it in their path to find and explore. Interesting to me is usually how it works since l am quicker to bring in those things into their path. I am learning to keep an eye out for things l might not be naturally inclined or drawn towards. Veda’s interest in cooking and crafting has led us into a world of art, craft and design. She has learned that people can sell crafts, that people can sell raw materials to others who craft, that craft varies from place to place and country to country.

4. One thing leads to another and everything is connected. My elder one learned about Barbies, then discovered there were factories where toys are manufactured and that they were in China, and that there was something called trade and that countries ‘imported’ and ‘exported’ things. The lines of thinking and learning go on as she learns more everyday..

4. It takes a village. My children are not in school yet they cherish quality time with family and friends. They make deep bonds with cousins, relatives and friends, and living in a joint family has been a blessing in this journey. Interacting with all age groups has happened naturally! Oftentimes, I might get a comment from strangers or acquaintances that my kids might be shy or reserved, but I have learned over time that they learn to navigate the world of communication on their own terms, at their own pace.

5. Play is the highest form of research. Einstein has been proven right yet again. I have learned to look at play in a completely different way now. Play sorts mental concepts, helps analysis, problem solving, lends space for creativity and for energy catharsis. Learning happens during play, and it’s hard to not learn while you are playing. Vinaya loves to play with sand, water , homemade playdough, chappati/roti dough. They play in our little urban balcony garden with seeds, pots, water and discovered that somehow miraculously things grow.

6. Travel helps! Every trip opens up a whole new world. New names, new places, new maps, new travel companions, new smells, sounds and tastes. The world is indeed our oyster as l see my children learn exponentially during the trips that we take! Veda learnt on a trip abroad that different currency had different names. She was thrilled to find the ‘Gandhiji Note’ displayed at the money exchange. A barrage of questions followed. She decided that it was unfair that the dollar was worth more than the rupee. Maths ensued on how many rupees would be needed to buy something in a foreign currency.

7. Learning takes time. Patience is virtue that can help many a parent. Learning takes time, but when it happens right, it stays forever. Rushing a child into learning something she is not ready for doesn’t help anyone. Children learn well in a positive, stimulating environment. It’s hard sometimes to have all that together, but it’s a good idea to keep that as a goal in mind. It’s hard for me not to get frustrated at an abandoned karate class or an unfinished project, but I have seen that my children get something from every experience.

8.Learning does not have to cost a lot. While we live an urban life with material pleasures every learning opportunity does not have to come with a big budget ticket item. Being resourceful goes a longer way many-a-times than being wealthy. Some of the best learning opportunities have come our way at a very low cost. Local free exhibitions, artists shows, nature trips, university walks all add to creating a rich environment. I have come to appreciate free or minimally priced events for the value they add to our lives.

9. Learning together fosters togetherness. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, sorting, socializing ,and just living together is all learning. It’s been helpful to keep an eye out for the learning that happens naturally as we do all this together. Learning is living, our lives are about learning.