Learning outside school: visits to desert country//spotting lizard tracks in the sand dunes //learning to light a fire with a flint //digging for tjala (honey ants) with cherished desert friends, and learning how to weave tjanpi (spinifex grass) //sunrise camp
In spite of the fact that our tiny rural school provides an intimate, warm and supportive environment for our children, as part of the public education system learning is structured according to rigid curriculum requirements and benchmarks. The constraints of the system mean that there is not nearly enough experiential learning going on – using authentic experiences and learning by doing – and in particular hardly any learning outdoors.
As we live in a remote area, we do not have access to a range of educational options, other than to homeschool or to use distance education for our children. For a variety of reasons, neither of those two options suit the needs of our family. Moreover, our children enjoy their school and it has many strengths. There are, however, many things we wish our children to experience and learn beyond a set curriculum or within the confines of a classroom.
So ever since our eldest started school, we have incorporated ‘days off’ into the school year. Far from allowing our children to skip school whenever they don’t feel like going, these days are deliberate and planned: either part of a longer family trip away, or to undertake a specific activity – one that the current public school curriculum does not encompass.
Skipping school is a controversial topic. Certainly at the public policy level, educators maintain the unwavering line that school attendance is compulsory (and it is illegal not to attend- although Australia is comparatively relaxed about enforcement) except in a few select circumstances (illness, religious events, or exceptional family commitments). Whilst individual schools or teachers may be able to interpret the ‘acceptable absences’ with a little more flexibility, if your child is absent for more than just a couple of unexplained days, the school and/or the Education Department may conduct an enquiry into why your child is not at school. Attendance rates are a critical performance indicator for schools, so they cannot condone the practise of skipping school – ever.
Amongst the public debate there are some who cautiously endorse the practise of skipping school, such as This New York Times article, which suggests that family time must also be a priority for children. The article cites advice from a child psychologist who suggests some simple considerations to take into account when deciding whether, how often, and for how long it is advisable to take your child out of school without negative consequences. Altogether without caution, ‘immersion’ learning (a kind of unschooling) advocate Ben Hewitt has written this great book describing the life-long benefits he sees emerging in his own sons, whose place and nature-based learning is not limited by institutional frameworks.
John and I have both lived and worked in numerous interesting remote, cross-cultural settings in northern Australia and across South East Asia and the Pacific. In order to honour connections to places and people with whom we have a long and important relationship with, we have taken our children out of school for weeks at a time to travel, or work, or just spend time in these places. During these longer absences, we have applied for and been granted a special exemption on the grounds that the experience will enhance the ‘educational interests’ of the children.
We also occasionally give our children one-off days away from school which do not revolve around travel. Typically, these days are designed to promote a different type of learning experience than that which is available at school, and most often they revolve around developing our children’s connection to and understanding of their natural world. It is usually John (when he is not travelling) who leads the boys on these all-day walks, where they learn to light and cook on a fire, forage for bush foods, recognise tracks and signs and sounds of animals and birds, and have access to a realm of other hands-on learning opportunities in the bush around them.
Our children are in early primary school, and we feel at this age it is an appropriate time for them to miss bits and pieces of school for these types of experiences, experiences which are not found within the classroom environment, and which we believe will enrich their lives in ways that institutional learning will not.
I am interested in how other parents feel about this issue. There is a line of thought which says that any absences from school are disruptive, potentially academically harmful, or can set up the child to think that ‘not turning up’ is ok.
Do you let your children occasionally skip school?
What kinds of experiences do you feel are lacking in mainstream education?
And do you feel it is ok to try and provide for these limitations by giving your children time off school?