March-April 2008 Selected Content
Free Range Learners - Laura Weldon
"Don't help, Mom," Claire says as I go to pick up the three-day-old chick. So I watch instead. It's peeping helplessly at the side of the ramp leading up to the chicken coop. The mother hen and her other chicks are already at the top but this chick can't find the way. The hen answers each cheep of distress with distinctive low clucks. After a few attempts to hop directly up to its mother the chick turns and scurries back, finds the bottom of the ramp and hurries to the comfort of her waiting wings.
"See?" Claire says. "It's already learning."
I'm amazed that a chick that tiny could go away from the sound of the hen's voice in order to ultimately find its mother, but it did. I guess I still need to trust that things tend to work out fine without well-intended intervention.
Once reams of instructional books languished on our shelves. Shiny packaged educational programs with CDs or tapes sat waiting for my children to learn foreign language, history and math. But they always had better things to do. Sometimes that looked a lot like reading a book on the couch, looking things up on the net or lying by the pond with the dogs. Other times that looked like someone running around gathering oddities from the dusty basement for an experiment. Or like all of us hustling off to a field trip with friends. The textbooks came in handy as references; the fussier educational materials were packed away in boxes to pass along. We know a new homeschooler may need to go through the same ritual of grumbling over them.
My children have ample opportunities to explore their interests out here in the country. Currently Ben restores old farm equipment in anticipation of running his own farm some day. He's so busy that some of his projects have become long-term decor out near the beehives. Flowering vines decorate the hay rake tines and birds nest atop a tractor. Right now he's making a custom desk out of a circular saw blade for a friend. The garage glows as he welds, one of the many skills he taught himself.
Claire observes everything with a scientist's eye. She journals about her hikes in the woods, her daily farm chores and her volunteer work rehabilitating birds of prey. One summer she made a practice of examining a dead muskrat as the decomposition process reduced it to a skeleton. Her descriptions to the family (yes, at the dinner table) clearly demonstrated how wondrous she found the natural world, even though her age group is depicted as finding more meaning at the shopping mall.
When Kirby isn't playing his guitar or bagpipes or computer games, he likes to stroll around with a camera. His photos show that he sees things in a different light. He's interested in the science and art of sound, and using the money he earned from cleaning stalls at local horse farms, he's made his bedroom into a recording studio. Friends come to have CDs made of their music. Kirby can edit out the laughter.
Sam, who was once the master of finding snakes and toads everywhere on our property, is now intrigued with greater feats than grabbing hapless creatures. He investigates the engineering behind propulsion systems and then conducts his own experiments. This involves shooting tennis balls, potatoes or pumpkins long distances (often in collusion with his brothers). He's been talking about designing advanced fuel systems for cars. Fortunately, he's not old enough to drive.
While Claire and I watch chickens, she points out how the newly hatched chicks are perfectly suited to learn naturally. These tiny fluff balls listen and respond to different sounds from their mother, which clearly tell them where to find food and when to run for cover under her wings. They locate each other through the underbrush, ramble into the pasture under the cow's feet safely and come into the coop at dusk as the older chickens do. They range across our property yet stay close to their mother at this age.
"Compare them to chicks we bought from the hatchery," Claire says. I see what she means. Several times we have purchased a batch of day-old chicks and kept them in a large pen. We brought them out of the house each day to a grassy enclosure so they could forage, but the chicks raised for their first two months with their age-mates were very different from the chicks hatched by their mothers and raised with the flock. The confined chicks were more sickly, more easily panicked, more overtly aggressive or passive. Even after they were released out with the flock it took them some time to catch up. They didn't problem-solve as easily. And it took them longer to react naturally, such as taking flight and roosting in low branches when sensing danger
Interestingly, the agricultural extension offices and poultry manuals insist that the treatment we've given the confined chicks is the best care possible. We're cautioned to maintain them on a diet of protein-enhanced feed, keep them under warming lights and watch over them carefully for their own good. Aside from small family farms there are few chickens living in natural conditions---roaming freely in pastures and woods without fences, choosing their own food and affiliation groups, living with roosters and a few geriatric flock members as well. Even those described as "free range" are often left inside with only a small door open to meet that definition. This door can be a single opening inaccessible to the hundreds of chickens in the flock.
Claire, who has experienced both schooling and homeschooling, can't help but see a comparison. "Doesn't that remind you of how people treat children? They always know what's right for them. I mean, how are you supposed to learn if you are stuck in the same situation all the time? You're supposed to be out with your family learning as things come up."
I think children thrive as free-range learners. We encourage them to follow their innate curiosity and explore freely. We guide children to be a meaningful part of family and community, aware of their place as both givers and receivers. We help children to know themselves so they listen to their bodies and spirits. As they grow we want them to be able to integrate what they've learned and use it to meet their own potential. Although there are worlds of difference between raising children and raising chickens, we can trust children to forage for interests that sustain them.
© 2008, Laura Weldon