Raising Self-Directed Learners in Any School Environment (with Laura Grace Weldon)

In this episode: Janet continues her conversation with Laura Grace Weldon, author of Free Range Learning, about how parents can facilitate their children’s natural instincts to discover and learn in a conventional school system. Laura and Janet share their personal experiences as parents and discuss what they’ve learned while parenting their own children through a variety of school choices.

Transcript of “Raising Self-Directed Learners in Any School Environment”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m thrilled to have Laura Grace Weldon back to discuss how her self-directed, free-range learning ideas can benefit children who go to traditional schools like mine did. And we’ll be discussing a lot of other things as well.

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Laura Grace Weldon is the author of Free Range Learning which is a comprehensive guide for families interested in homeschooling and unschooling. In our previous podcast together, Laura shared an extremely compelling case for homeschooling. If you haven’t listened to that episode and you’re interested in exploring less conventional schooling possibilities, it’s really a must. The tile of that podcast is “Adventures in Free-Range Learning,” and I know you’ll be as inspired as I was by Laura’s experiences and discoveries. Her whole journey. It’s really incredible and I believe she’s a genius.

Laura agreed to join me again to explore the other side of the coin, conventional schooling, which is still the route that most families take by either choice or necessity.

Welcome Laura and thank you so much for being here.

Laura Grace Weldon:  Hello Janet. Thank you so much for inviting me again.

Janet Lansbury:  So in the personal story that you shared last time, you mentioned that your children were originally in school and you touched a little bit on how you were an advocate for their education and their individuality in that setting. Can you talk a little about how you managed that and what, if any, progress you were able to make?

Laura Grace Weldon:  I think like many really involved parents, I volunteer in classrooms, I served on committees, I managed to work with a group of moms in institute and all of day work program where we brought working artists into the school, which shows that our school had a lot of flexibility to work with us. I did plenty of things that weren’t successful, like try to change the school lunch room offerings to be healthier and tried to advocate for my kids when there were mandated things. I remember one was an all school Sea World field trip and I very politely said that my kids would be staying home that day because I didn’t want them to learn about marine mammals in a captive situation.

I think I was the only person who did that and considered crazy by everybody else but I think we always have the right to stick up for what we care about and whether that’s saying that there is no research showing that homework is a value in elementary grades and that we advocate for our kids to have less or no homework at that time. It’s something we have the right to do. Maybe to advocate for our kids not taking standardized tests, which more and more people are doing, is a way of sticking up for our kids. I know that I ended up having to take one of my kids out of the school and take him to Case Western Reserve University for IQ testing because they didn’t want to put him in the gifted program because he was not getting his work done because he was bored but that was one of the qualification is you had to be super responsible kid.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh my goodness.

Laura Grace Weldon:  Yeah, we just had to follow our instincts and do what we think is right, even if it’s hard.

Janet Lansbury:  What was your approach in those days with their after school time and their weekend time and their holiday time? Did they have the balance of self-directed learning and lying around and deciding what that time was about?

Laura Grace Weldon:  We always de-emphasized structure programs outside of school and in part, that was because so many of the families we were friends with, once their kids were school age, they were just gone incessantly. They were in travel soccer or they were in so many theater lessons or they were just gone. It was like our kids plans were completely unavailable unless you scheduled them in and it made me so sad for what childhood. So, I was the horrible mom who would throw away those little flyers that came in backpacks that tried to have all these enticing things to do and I even threw out the sports things, which I know is just unbelievable to so many people but when I tried to research it, it showed that, at least for elementary aged kids, there’s no real benefit to early sports and kids who start young are not any more likely to be high school athletes and about 75% of kids who are in league sports drop out by the time they’re 13. So, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, which gave my kids all sorts of time to ride their bikes and read library books and go hiking and make their own little inventions and do kid things.

Janet Lansbury: Also, there’s this idea of allowing them to assimilate, even just for educational purposes. To be able to have time pondering what you’ve taken in, the learning experiences or the enrichment experiences that you had. I mean, children need a lot of time down to be able to absorb and throw it around in their mind and make sense of it and that is real learning.

Laura Grace Weldon: Right and that’s true for all of us. I think the more low-key approach makes it so much less stressful for everyone in the family and parents are not incessantly driving around and trapping the littlest ones in car seats and strollers to the older kid’s activities and everyone is just a great deal more relaxed when you have a low key approach.

Janet Lansbury: Definitely, and it gives them that space to figure out what they’re passionate about. So, my approach was more about really trusting them to know themselves during their downtime, during their after school time, weekend time and that meant, in a couple cases, signing up to do a sport or something that generally they did stay with and they didn’t ever complain about going to do these things because it was completely their choice. This was maybe one per child, a one day a week situation per child where they would have that after school. If they got an inkling that they wanted to try something, I saw that as a way to give them confidence in those voices inside and sometimes it was just, especially with instruments and thinking of one of my children in particular, she took probably four different instruments. Took lessons briefly in each of those instruments. We always let her quit and I know that’s controversial for parents. We trusted her to have gotten what she needed from that and move on to the next thing. Now, she doesn’t really play any instruments but she just graduated with high honors from college and she’s got a lot of talents and I’m sure she got something from those experiences.

Laura Grace Weldon: Yeah. Learning is never wasted and you took that approach where you were letting her explore and I don’t mean to say that we should just let our kids do nothing. What you were doing was letting your kids explore their passions, whether it was sports or music or whatever and I think that’s the key is we really pay attention to the individual child and some kids are more daydreamy and lie around on their stomachs and draw pictures and do make believe and some kids are more geared toward inventing things and building things and some kids are just driven to be with other kids and to sing and dance and act and that’s how we support their passion is make sure that they are exposed to new things but we still build in that freedom to explore those things and drop them if they’re no longer interesting.

Janet Lansbury:  So, we can still take a free range type learning approach, whether kids are in school or not, right?

Laura Grace Weldon:  Yes, absolutely. That’s actually how I ended up writing this book. I would be advocating to parents at a talk or at a gathering or something about less structure and more freedom and people would say, “Well, then, how am I reinforcing math and reading and how am I getting my kids to advance?” So, I would try to talk about what kids actually lean toward when we give them freedom and I ended up giving all these examples over and over, “Well, here are things that are open ended and unstructured to do and here are some other things.” And that became the last 100 pages of my book. I’ve got all these ideas that are appropriate for families or kids to do with friends or to do by themselves and they’re kind of spring board. So, say you want your kid over the summer to be doing work on math stuff and you don’t want to do worksheets. So, make up a secret code and sent messages. Sketch little maps, maybe a treasure map and hide some little silly thing or collect funny information about your family. Make a guess about how many times the cat sleeps here versus the time the cat sleeps there and you can chart it and find out. Track how much money you’re saving towards a big family event that you’re looking forward too. You can put math into all kinds of stuff.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. So, it’s meaningful to them and that’s how we all learn. When it’s meaningful, we learn quickly, we learn deeply, we learn best and it stays with us when we learn that way. So, how else have you supported your kids interests and passions besides their school time? Which for you, I guess, became all day.

Laura Grace Weldon:  One of the things I noticed is that kids seem so drawn to doing stuff with other kids and when left to their own devices, they kind of form these groups around interest. When a couple of my older kids were in a book group, my youngest and a couple other younger siblings of these kids were at loose ends and normally, I would have gathered them around in the books to remember something but instead, they started, in an impromptu way, making up and acting out stories. So, we called them the play rights and of course, every story they made up was constantly changed as they were then acting it out and they would come up with props, just from around the house or the yard and they had a hilarious, wonderful time and I ended up doing this for years and as they got older and were able to read and write, they would write down a rough outline of their stories and become more and more elaborate in the way that they acted it out and firstly, building all this emotional intelligence by arguing with each other about what was better and how to do it differently and stuff like that and it just seemed like this beautiful, organic group they had formed.

That happens often in a homeschooling, unschooling world, where kids get together and their parents help them to do that to expand on some interests like building electronics or learning darkroom techniques or something, and I learned slowly, but I learned that those things are most successful when parents don’t take over. If parents are super interested and, “Oh, let’s reenact Medieval History,” the kids usually are not the ones interested in doing it. It has to be the kid.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely, and I think that is why we love self-directed learning and why it’s so important for children because it does come from them and it’s a way of expressing themselves.

Laura Grace Weldon:  We had a bunch of boys who decided they wanted to do science club and the parents really ran this for a while and that we’d meet at different homes and the parents would have an activity out and all the materials and the boys would do mouse trap cars or some experiment and then the parent would explain if things didn’t go right and the boys were interested but they also wanted to play afterwards, and as the parents got more laid back and the boys got older, they just took over their science club and that became the play for them, is engaging in science and they would come up with these bigger and more elaborate projects they wanted to do and nobody was there explaining the scientific principles. Nobody was ruling over them, telling them how to do anything and they put so much rigor and depth into what they were learning and they made these marvelous projects. They build a hover craft that actually hovered. They built tennis ball cannons that shot amazing distances and that became this endeavor that was so important to them that they did this for years. They did this until they went off to college and I’m not sure if this is relevant, but a number of them did go into science fields. I can’t attribute that to science club but it showed the power of just stepping back and letting them do this on their own.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. For me, the joy in parenting has been the stuff my kids come up with and that’s been since they were born. Seeing that they were staring at something for a really long time that I never would have noticed and to them, it was interesting and learning about them through their self-directed activities and their passions and their hobbies, which there’s so many surprises along the way as parents and for me, that makes all the hard stuff worthwhile. That’s the gift in this, to get to be excited about the unfolding of our children. Seeing how powerful it is for them to feel that we appreciate them as they are. We’re not trying to make them a little more of a pianist or a soccer player. That we just get a kick out of exactly where they’re at and who they are.

Laura Grace Weldon: They’re still oriented towards their own wholeness and their integrity if we give them space to do that.

Janet Lansbury:  I was thinking of this before we talked today. I wanted to ask you if you’d ever had the sense that any of your children would have preferred conventional schooling at any time or did they want to go back, any of them? Did they ever ask about that or were they quite immersed in enjoying what you were able to give them?

Laura Grace Weldon:  I know a lot of homeschooling, unschooling kids are interested in schools if they hadn’t ever gone and I think it’s really nice to have the freedom in a family to say to your kids, “Of course you can try it out. Of course you can go back and see what you think or start school and see what you think. Some kids do go back in the junior high or high school years. Since my kids had been in school, they did not express any interest in going back into it because they were pretty familiar with what that was like and they wanted those structures to be done. So, it goes both ways.

Janet Lansbury:  In our last podcast, I had a longing for the ability to give that to my children. It really sounded so nurturing and so exciting. But we live in a pretty small community and for two of my three children, to have all the children they knew going off somewhere that they weren’t going, it would have been a punishment to them. They are both all about other people. So, I realized that the way you’ve done this, they have had incredible social experiences and a lot of opportunity for that. Where I live, they wouldn’t have had that.

Laura Grace Weldon:  Being in a small community and far from everything, I have certainly done my share of driving 45 minutes for anything that seemed enriching and fun and before my kids were homeschooled and after, I was always a big fan of having stuff at my house. It’s easier for me. Maybe it’s the hermit in me that’s like, “You guys come here.” When they were tiny, the thing that we did was family is we would do box parties, which was in BYOB, bring your own box and the coolest families brought refrigerator boxes or giant couch boxes or something like that and then the adults would sit comfortably in chairs and chat and drink and laugh and the kids would make things out of these boxes. Quite often, they joined them all together into mazes or cool castles or something and they could play the entire afternoon and well into evening just with nothing else but boxes. We always and still do have art parties, just because I like to have all sorts of cool supplies out and we have 50 people over and the kids do all sorts of fun stuff and the adults do fun stuff and those kinds of things are fun for me and it builds this sense of community that’s multi-age. I don’t know, it’s a different kind of a support that you can do whether your kids are in school or not.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, I loved having the children over at my house too, especially when they were very little and I was so into the philosophy I now teach and I wanted to be able to practice this with my children, with other children and if our neighbors were happy to have me babysit all the three year olds and it was great. I guess what I wanted to add to our talk last time was to reassure parents that they can still benefit from trusting their children’s passions. They can still allow children to explore all those things while also attending school.

Laura Grace Weldon: Absolutely.

Janet Lansbury:  The school that my kids went to, they had art and they had music. It was all much more structured then I would have ever designed it or wanted it, but they had this foundation from the early years that they could do these things themselves and that their way was the right way in terms of creativity, and those things were part of who they were, because that happens in the early years. That’s when children do get this core of self. I felt like they had a balance. They had a balance of when they weren’t in school, it was their time.

I was not going to tell them what to do or definitely not insist on anything and it helped them to keep trusting and it balanced out that time where they were in a structured learning situation. And I can also say, this definitely isn’t as true with public school, unfortunately, but at the private school, having that personal feedback and I guess you can call it assessment, but it was more the consultations you would have hearing about your children and how they’re doing. These people became my extended family, some of the administrators at that school. It was so reassuring to have them say, “They’re doing fine and this is what we see.” To have that outside assessment of your child that for us, as parents, we’re so in it that we really can’t get that objective sense of how they’re doing. So, that was a gift for sure that we were privileged to have. The way you did it, you had to trust even more.

Laura Grace Weldon: Yeah, I do think it’s so terribly important, public or private school to have a really respectful and friendly relationship with the teachers and staff. It sounds like your assessment situation worked out really well, but I also had kids who were underachievers and their grades didn’t match their IQ and to my regret of taking things away from a particular child, the things he really loved to do, all of his sciencey, nerdy, interest hand radio and model trains and stuff delayed to his assignments and some part of him was just, “I’m still not finishing these things. This is who I am. I’m not fitting into this structure.” And it’s that tug because your mom self is saying, “He’s already whole and himself as he is and the school is giving him this label and he is not enough.” It’s the structure and it is grievous. That doesn’t happen to every family but most creative kids do have trouble fitting into situations like that, and I know I read a study that the kids who were most deemed trouble makers in third grades were the kids who were very gifted. Often unidentified gifted.

I just finished David Sedaris’ book Calypso, which is another wonderful book of his and I had read about his childhood. Talk about a kid who did not do well in school. He had so much anxiety and so many compulsions and ticks that in school, he counted his steps, he hit himself in the head and he couldn’t stop himself from licking things, including light bulbs and light switches. He was deemed to be uneducatable. He talked on college and did odd jobs through his 20s and from an assessment rep, David Sedaris was doomed and here he is, this best selling rock star of an author who everybody loves. It is kind of interesting.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah and there are thousands of stories like that by the way, I’m sure you know-

Laura Grace Weldon: Yep.

Janet Lansbury:  Of very successful people and-

Laura Grace Weldon:  I sometimes think that as our kids get to the pre-teen, teen years, they’ve got 100 problems that are adults are telling them, “You can do better here and you need to be more motivated.” And I think sometimes that the kids who seem like they’re failing at challenges are actually just really looking for a worthy challenge, something bigger.

Janet Lansbury:  Self-chosen.

Laura Grace Weldon:  Yeah, and I think sometimes we have to talk with our kids about what really big challenge do you want? Let’s buy this beater MG. If you can fix it in three years, then you have your own car at 16 or how about you earn money this way and you and your friend can go on a backpacking trip when you’re 16 or some bigger challenge. Some service trip. It’s often the kids that you would least likely give those kinds of privileges who need them the most and rise to the occasion relies. Those are my regrets about what I didn’t do for this child that I kept taking the things away from because he wasn’t giving into the school mold.

Janet Lansbury:  We’ve gotta keep listening, I guess. We’ve gotta keep observing. Every child has interests and talents and things that they would focus on and have a very long attention span for if we can be open to that, but it’s hard when you’re trying to fit them into a mold that’s not working. I think these are all very hard choices that we have to make — these educational choices — and it feels like a big deal and I think parents should know that they can make changes, and it’s a process, and they don’t have to have all the answers, and they don’t have to get it all right the first time, and it’s okay. Children learn from all these situations. And if we stay their advocate and we stay on their side and believe in them and have that basic trust in them.

Laura Grace Weldon:  Right and it’s not an all or nothing. We don’t have to pull kids out of school because of a problem, we can just maybe a little fiercer in our advocacy for trusting them as who they are.

Janet Lansbury: Yes. Well, thank you so much Laura for talking with me again. I feel like we can talk all day and night and-

Laura Grace Weldon:  Well, thank you so much for including me and it’s always good to talk to you.

For more about the helpful ideas that Laura shared here today, please check out her book Free Range Learning. It’s available on Amazon and elsewhere and you can also check out her website lauragraceweldon.com and her Facebook community, Free Range Learning and please check out some of my other podcasts on my website janetlansbury.com. There are well over 100 and they’re all indexed by subject and category. So, you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in and remember both of my books are available on audio at audible.com. That’s No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and  Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them also in paperback at Amazon and an Ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple.com.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. My daughter did addition today…no ‘formal’ education. She is almost 5, but she was setting the table and said, “Not two plates…we are three, so here’s three.” I just count and point things out in books, during reading time, and when I am doing my own work in the kitchen. The other day, we put together a shoe tree and I had her lay out the parts and pointed out why it helps to know the alphabet and numbers, because it guides us in directions. We had a great time. She was amazed by the process. But I didn’t have her do the alphabet, I just casually mention these things.

    Parents cede all authority to teachers, which I find so sad, as I believe my daughter watching how our family works and conflict resolution and the constant learning that there is going on…it forms her foundation.

    I love Laura’s book and it is giving me the confidence to go against family opinion on homeschooling and trust my instincts—which go back thousands of years: school is so new in our history.

    Thank you Laura and Janet.

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