Family Afternoon

Five hours. Six kids. A hatchet. A fire. Zero drama.

My family discovered self-directed learning at the end of summer 2016. We’ve been reflecting on the ideas and putting them into practice regularly with our own children with a lot of amazing adventures so far. And when I say “amazing” this is what I mean: The children are focused yet relaxed, collaborative yet independent, playful yet serious, negotiating yet compliant, and exploring yet safe.

This holiday season, not too long after moving to a new house, we were able to host our family to celebrate Thanksgiving. We decided to gather for a brunch and then visit. My son had been asking to get a fire going in the backyard for a few weeks and we had some new limbs to burn up so I asked the cousins and my dad and brother if they wanted to join us. Almost everyone got a jacket on and came outside. I set forward no agenda for the afternoon except that we were building a fire. Grandpa manned a chainsaw while I got out a hatchet and a pair of garden loppers. One of my nephews asked if he could use the hatchet. I gave him a few pointers and set him loose. The younger cousins started their play in the dirt pile. A few kid’s shovels, a usable kid excavator, and some toy dump trucks seemed to be all they needed to fulfill their playing fantasies.

The uncles got the fire going while the play started to go in separate directions. My son found some things to do in the far woodpile, I worked with another nephew that wanted to try the hatchet, and a niece went and climbed around on our playset. The atmosphere was busy but completely engaging. By the time the fire was built and much of the brush was burning the boys had discovered some long logs that would make fine fort material.


At the risk of sounding too idealist or some daydreamer wishing for simpler times, I think this is what school should look like.  Do you have any idea how much more our children are open to learning when they’re happy? How much time and resources to we put into getting kids to do things they don’t want to do anyway? It’s not like the kids were learning valuable woodworking skills, or structural engineering skills, or digging skills that would someday be a living for them. They were learning how to direct their focus toward something and see it to completion. We don’t know what the jobs of 2030 will look like yet, but what we do know is that workers will need perseverance, and the best kind of perseverance is the kind that is developed during joy. They’re learning how to believe in themselves, listen to the ideas of others, teach others new skills, and complete projects on their own. They’re learning self-sufficiency. It’s something they’ll always need. Why shouldn’t schools set up an environment that encourages them to become self-sufficient?

I may be wrong about self-directed education. But I know what I saw today, and if self-directed education is anything like that, then IT is the path to a new future, and the results are amazing.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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