What is Natural Learning?

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

A parent (even if trained as a teacher) cannot “teach” her own child very well. It is best if parents continue to practice the art and science and instinctive skill, if you please, of “parenting” in order to successfully homeschool. Suppose a mother says to her 11-month-old child, “Well, Johnny, today we are going to learn how to walk. In order to walk you must first learn to lift up your little foot and move it forward. See? This is how it’s done. Now I want you to practice it ten times. Tomorrow we’ll practice it again; and after a couple of weeks when you can do it perfectly, we’ll learn the next part of how to take your first step….”

Preposterous, of course, but what really happens? Most mothers know exactly what to do. They don’t “teach” a thing. They support and encourage, they go about their own walking which the child observes, they hold out their arms to the child so he knows they will help him if he starts to fall. This is parenting. It is what parents have done successfully for thousands of years. It is the most natural thing in the world, and it works!

This same system of natural learning also works for reading, writing, math, and any other skill that is commonly necessary for survival in our society. The trouble is that parents have relinquished their responsibility to the school teacher for so long that they have forgotten how to be a full-time parent to a child that is older than five years old. But this ability can be rediscovered and relearned. Parents must find the confidence to believe that they really are equipped for the job. They should learn to listen to their own hearts rather than to the voices of so-called experts who would intimidate them by making it all so complicated.

Parents who try to follow the school-at-home method which incorporates the “I teach, you learn” approach, are soon likely to experience burn-out and feel inclined to put their kids back in school. Or they will hopefully gravitate to a less structured system of homeschooling. Most of the time, children at home learn in a logical, natural way. A child may ask, “Mommy, why does the water go down the drain like a funnel?” and mother explains about whirlwinds and dust devils and the earth’s rotation, or she finds an article in the encyclopedia or on the Internet that gives information about the Coriolis effect, and the child’s curiosity is satisfied. But the answer to his question is filed away in his memory never to be forgotten, because it was his question that was answered, as he sat in the bathtub watching the water spin down the drain. Plus, he has had the opportunity to observe how mother finds the answers she’s looking for, thus modeling for him the processes for eventually doing his own investigations.

At school, children are served up knowledge that is out of context with real life and meaningful experiences. They are continually presented with information for which they have not asked and are expected to master skills for which they have no immediate use. The teacher says, “Today we are going to learn about the earth’s rotation,” and the child thinks, “I wonder if Julie and Frances can come over to play this afternoon.” The teacher may even say, “One evidence of the earth’s rotation is the vortex formed when water goes down the drain,” at which point, if he’s still listening, he may think, “I’ve always wondered about that.” But having already lost much of the explanation, he may not have learned much after all.

One could think about working a jigsaw puzzle. How many of us start at the upper left-hand corner and methodically work across the board, row by row? Why do we think that children learn better starting at the beginning? Let’s say that Sally is hurrying to finish a puzzle before dinner and little brother wants to help. He tries to hand her a puzzle piece, but she has no place to put it and becomes frustrated. Schools provide information in much the same way. Disconnected from the life experiences of the learner, data become useless, confusing and frustrating. On the other hand, when mother asks Sally what she needs, Sally can tell her she’s looking for a piece that should have some blue sky and green leaves, judging from the near-by pieces, and then mother locates that very piece, Sally is overjoyed and the piece quickly becomes part of the picture. Mothers are continually amazed at how much their children remember of seemingly casual conversations, many years later.

There are basic survival skills that wild mothers in Nature instill in their young, sometimes with severe discipline. A fawn must learn to remain immobile when danger lurks. A bear cub must learn to climb a tree in order to survive. An eagle will have to learn to fly. And if example and encouragement don’t produce results, discipline—pushing the fledgling out of the nest—may be necessary. But in general, the parent leads the way and the young follow, learning what to eat, where to find it, how to catch it, learning mostly by imitation, through play, and with much trial and error.

The desire for knowledge is built into every living creature, though often we mistakenly suppress it. Skills are best learned through example and encouragement. Like wild animals in Nature, all parents instinctively want their children to be equipped to survive in our society. They can be successful at homeschooling if they will just practice the art of parenting as it’s been done for thousands of years. If parents will just take their children with them, include them in their activities, and encourage their inquisitiveness and efforts to play-practice, children will learn whatever is necessary to function as productive members of society.

Natural learning is not undisciplined chaos. Rather it is loving guidance and mental nourishment of the highest kind. It is like providing a growing infant with natural mother’s milk, supplied “on demand” naturally, compared to formula feeding on a rigid schedule and provided by total strangers in an institution far from home!