It’s the perfect time for me to read Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything, which author Laura Grace Weldon sent me for review consideration. My husband Aaron and I spent much of February visiting schools because our five-year-old son Ezra will be eligible to attend kindergarten next year. Although we’re planning to enroll our boys in school, I’m glad I read Weldon’s book, which champions a way of homeschooling that verges considerably from what most public and private schools offer.
Weldon calls for highly individual, interest-led, experiential education that gives children lives full of “conversation, music, play, stories, struggles and overcoming struggles, chores, laughter and the excitement of examining in depth any of the rich wells of knowledge that humanity has to offer.” She’s critical of any system that “makes the child a passive recipient of education” whether it’s a public school or a homeschooling curriculum that prescribes conformity to standards. She doesn’t advocate any one prescribed style of homeschooling, but a flexible mix and match according to what best suits a family’s needs.
At 301 pages, published by Hohm Press, Free Range Learning looks like a textbook, but it’s not a dry read. Weldon’s writing is as clear and lively as on her popular blog, and she presents considerable eye-opening research about the value of homeschooling, like the following:
One study tested homeschooled as well as schooled children using the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, a measure of social development. On this test, the homeschooled children scored higher in socialization, communication, daily living skills and maturity. Overall the mean score of the schooled children stood at the 23rd percentile. In contrast, the mean score for the homeschooled children stood at the 84th percentile.
Weldon also gives homeschooling parents and homeschooled students a voice in pages of anecdotes, like this one by Linda from Ohio:
I did not plan to stay home with Jeffrey. As a licensed occupational therapist, I’d been eager to get back to work in a hospital setting. But when we put him in school he did very poorly. They slapped three labels on him before he turned six. We put him in private school. That was worse. We could see school wasn’t an option for him. So Matt and I reassessed. Now I have a part-time practice at home. … I think our family is closer as a result of this style of education, and Jeffrey has no evidence of the problems the school pointed to. I’m glad our son didn’t adjust to school and we didn’t accept their labels.
When we chose not to send Ezra to preschool this year, I realized how counter-culture homeschooling is. “Which preschool does he go to?” we’re asked regularly when we’re out and about. When I reply that Ezra stays home, many well-meaning parents relay the importance of preschool for a child’s social skills and development. I’m quietly heartened that the research suggests that young kids who stay home with involved parents thrive. In the same vein, I imagine homeschooling parents breathe a sigh of relief when they read Weldon’s supportive research and case studies.
She devotes the second half of the book to providing reams of ideas for exploring different subjects with kids, including all of the usual school subjects as well as business and finance, volunteerism, and ethics. In nearly every chapter, she provides an abundance of resources, including lists of youth organizations, mentorship programs, learning communities, online courses, service travel agencies, etc.
Weldon’s ideas and resources are impressive, but her real gift is her compelling and joyful vision of what a quality home education can look like:
Among today’s homeschoolers are children who wonder aloud any time of day and whose questions are answered. Children who stay up late to stargaze, who eagerly practice the violin and study Latin, who slosh in the edges of a pond to see tadpoles, who design their own video games, who read books till noon in their pajamas. These children are empowered to be free range learners.
I was lucky to grow up with voracious lifelong learners, who were my greatest teachers. Books were stacked on every surface in our house. On weekends, we visited ghost towns and museums, attended history lectures, and met all kinds of interesting writers and thinkers. My parents liked to joke that they homeschooled us, but we also went to school. I hope to follow in that tradition with my kids.
Truthfully, when my older sister went to school, I begged my parents to send me to preschool, and I loved school all the way through college. As an adult, though, I’m increasingly concerned about our approach to schooling. As Weldon points out, our standards-obsessed education system, with its focus on test scores and grades too often discourages creativity, curiosity, risk-taking, and initiative. As my first child embarks into kindergarten, I’m just as concerned as Weldon that “the very structure of school makes the child a passive recipient of education designed by others.”
My family is fortunate to live in a community with an abundance of school choice, and we’re planning to send Ezra to a public alternative school that favors interest-led, project-based learning and favors cooperation over competitiveness. I hope it’s a good fit for him and that he loves school as much as I did. If it’s not, we’ll re-evaluate and happily consider other options, including homeschooling. No matter what we end up doing, I’m thrilled to have Laura Grace Weldon’s beautifully written book at hand. It’s every parent’s job to create an enriching household that fosters a love of learning, and Weldon offers an invaluable resource for doing that.