Thoughts on Back To School Time

Thoughts on Back To School Time

As summer winds down and school starts up my mind has been busy thinking again about education and the role of schools. Mostly I have been thinking about  how we are going to equip our kids to live the best possible life in this new and fast paced world. If you have been following our blog much you know we have some unconventional thoughts on school.( If you haven’t here are some posts to fill you in.) I find myself more consumed by these thoughts lately than ever before. Maybe it is because Jackson is now almost 6 and would be starting kindergarten this year, but I had to get some of these thoughts out of my head and see if they sounded crazy when they were written down.

I apologize in advance for the randomness of this post, but I haven’t quite got it all figured out. I can’t put it into a nice package with a summary at the end. This is a process and one in which I am sure I will change my mind, change course and have multiple flip-flops along the way. I just hope that on this crazy journey that we are always thinking about our situation, our kids and what is best for them. I hope we keep an open mind about all types of schooling and never become so devoted to one type that we put a philosophy above what is really best for our family at a given time. I hope we keep our goals in mind and evaluate the best tools to get us there. So having said that here are my current thoughts, in no particular order.


Jelly Patterns

I am increasingly disturbed by this notion that learning and playing are separate.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”- Fred Rogers

This is just it. PLAY IS LEARNING. Play is kids acting out real world situations. Learning how the world works. Learning physics, math, reading, emotions, relationships. It is learning not in the abstract, as we like to think about learning, but in the real. Play is the foundation on which abstract learning can happen. If there is no real world, hands-on experience to connect it to then the learning is so often lost. Think of it this way. There are two cliffs and on one side there is a real experience, ie a kid throwing a ball. The other cliff is the formula for work W = Fd. We are trying to create a bridge that connects these two things. The bridge allows the kid to use the real experience and the equation together. If they are trying to figure out life they can walk back and forth over that bridge to use either tool. Without either cliff the bridge falls. The knowledge is lost.


The second part of this disconnect between play and learning is the over valuation of knowledge and the under-apprication of wisdom. In our society we value the  accumulation of knowledge. Knowing things equals smarts. It doesn’t matter if those things have any real application or if they help you live a better life. Wisdom is the ability to take knowledge and use it. I would rather my kids know less, but know how to use what they do know. Play is the perfect vehicle for this. My son now almost 6 demonstrated this so well the other day. We were having lunch outside and he says “lets see which is heavier.” He then took his sandwich over to one side of a teeter totter and put his sister’s bowl of cereal on the other side. “Cereal is heavier” he concluded as he saw his plate up in the air. He doesn’t know yet about fulcrum, or levers but he knows that practically he can use them to figure out what weighs more. Now had he memorized the formula for using a fulcrum and could recite it most people would think he was a gifted 5-year-old, but I think knowing how to use the fulcrum to answer a real world question is far more valuable.


This leads me to my second point. Learning happens all the time, but we don’t see it.

Recently my brother-in-law came to visit. Like a great uncle he brought toys for our kids and I was struck by the toy he gave our youngest, 5 months. It was a little steering wheel with lights and gear shift etc. I was reading the back and the incredibly long list of things this toy teaches; colors, numbers, social skills, alphabet, animal sounds and recognition, numbers, counting, adding and subtracting, cause and effect, the list went on and on.

At first I thought this was just a marketing ploy. I mean it does have letters and numbers on it, but it isn’t really teaching them the alphabet or counting. Then it hit me. It was true. By just being exposed to these things my baby will learn about them.  We seem to have forgotten that as humans our minds are constantly absorbing information analyzing it, filtering it, and trying to use it. Babies and kids have this trait to the Nth degree. It is just how we are made. We learn. So I am learning to recognize learning all around. I think we are given a list of things our kids learned at school and think wow, there is no way they could have learned all that without being at school. Truth is that if we look and labeled our kids activities in terms of learning opportunities it would be amazing.

Here is an example of looking at life this way. This was one morning on a  recent trip:

Crab-at-sea-centerReading/Alphabet: Word World, reading menus, signs and fliers.

Writing: Tracing letters on iPad.

Math: Bubble Guppies, numbers and counting in hotel hallway and elevator.

Time: Watching the clock and waiting for pool time.

PE: Pool time with Daddy. (both my kids are proficient swimmers now age 5 and 3 with no lessons)

Money: Counting coins and learning what coins are worth for buying candy at gift store.

Geography and directions: Navigating around Sacramento. Identifying bridges and landmarks.

History: RR museum also worked on reading, money, numbers and culture

Physics: pushing stroller down/up hills

Real life: learning about spending money, budgeting, learning how to buy tickets, order food at a restaurant, speak with adults, figure out where the bathroom is.

All this before lunch. Treat life like the package of a toy and you will be surprised at how much learning is going on all the time.

Skiing-coordination, self confidence, muscle memory, left and right, physics, exercise, making memories with dad.

Skiing-coordination, self confidence, muscle memory, left and right, physics, exercise, making memories with dad.

Unfortunately however,  in our society it isn’t learning that is valued, it is learning the right things and in the right way, knowledge. We seem to have bought into the notion that direct instruction is the best and most effective way of learning, even though it isn’t our first way of learning. Babies learn almost everything through curiosity and experimentation. They don’t understand language and can’t learn through direct instruction, yet they learn to nurse, use their hands, roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, and talk and more within a year.  Then we abandon that most basic way of learning for direct instruction. We give tests and flash cards to measure how much our kids know, but give them no time in the real world to see if they can actually use any of that information. We don’t let them figure things out. We tell them how it is.  (there is a great article on the potential damaging effects of direct instruction for young kids here.)We don’t allow for curiosity and experimentation, it is to dangerous and to time-consuming. We go from school to tutor to sports to dinner and homework them bed. Repeat. No time for play and understanding. No time to assimilate the knowledge and build bridges.

Lastly, for now at least, I have been really evaluation What is the goal of education? For us it is RESOURCEFULNESS

I have been thinking about what I learned in school. Why do we learn history? Why algebra? Why anything? I am not saying we shouldn’t learn these things, but just seriously questioning why. I want to start from a new framework when I think about my kids education, resourcefulness, not knowledge. I want them to know how to figure things out, how to find answers, how to interact with people who can help them find answers. I want to give the tools that will make them able to handle any life situation be it earning a living, having a family, adventuring, anything. There is no way I or anyone for that matter, can teach them everything. I am not sure it would even be beneficial, but if we can teach them to be resourceful there is almost nothing they can’t do. So I want to focus their learning on cultivating that basic learning model of curiosity and exploration. I want to bring tools, ie reading, math, physics, cooking, riding a bike, swimming etc. that will help them understand the world. I want them to feel like the world is open to them and that they can accept challenges be it physical or mental. I want them to know they don’t know everything, but can figure out almost anything.

With this framework there is freedom. The end goal is simple and lofty at the same time. They will have knowledge gaps, but who cares. All of us do and manage to go on living. With each new skill they will have more tools, they will be able to increasingly explore more and learn more. They will learn what actually excites them, what they are good at and what they aren’t. I hope that with these tools they will go into life knowing they are a success.


Living is great preparation for real life, but we usually don’t realize it. Case in point. I was in the hot tub this past week and overheard a dad quizzing his son on some math word problems. His son was completely disinterested. His dad looked at me and said “his mind has turned to mush this summer. He used to be able to that without even thinking. Too much pool time I guess.” The kid then left the hot tub, jumped in the pool, swam underwater across the pool and popped up on the other side. Maybe not knowing the answer to a math word problem will get him a lower grade, but being able to swim, hold his breath and keep his head while in the water can save his life. I’d say his mind is sharp.

Here’s to more living, more learning and more “pool time” in life.


Hi, I’m Monica.  If we’ve not met before, let me introduce myself.  I am a wife and mother to 3 kids 5, 3 and 5 months old. We lived in Santa Barbara for many years and after losing everything and moving into my parents’ garage, my husband and I began the exciting process of reinventing our lives.  As J.K. Rolwing said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation from which I re-built my life.”  We’re now living a life of our own design, which includes our quest to work less, live more, and travel the world with our family.  You can check us out on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

  • Judah starts Kindergarten on Monday, we went to the orientation today. His K teacher is actually all about play and self-guided learning.

    I don’t know my opinion yet on public school, we shall see. But I can say that it does cater to the lowest common denominator of “child care” needs in the industrialized USA. I think if public school is all a kid had, they would grow up to be sheep. But as Clark once said, kids with involved parents will probably turn out fine regardless of the schooling method.

    We shall see…

    • Monica Vandeventer

      I think what you guys are doing is awesome. Use the school system as your tool, don’t become a slave to it. I am looking forward to seeing how Judah likes it. I know some kids really do well in that environment. It is like I said in the post, constantly evaluating what is the best situation for your family.

  • Annie

    Really enjoying your blog! We are a homeschooling family of five (kids ages 7, 6, and 2), and just came back from our third trip to Europe with the kids. We did two home exchanges this time, which was amazing! Super-grateful to you and the other families out there who keep us inspired to continue sharing our passion for travel with our children.

    • Monica Vandeventer

      Thanks for reading our blog! We would love to do some home exchanges. I will have to pick your brain on how you get them, unless you just know people there.

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