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Homeschooling Walden-Style Part 1 by Theresa Willingham

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By Theresa Willingham

(Originally printed in Home Education Magazine, in 1996)

The rabbit was digging busily in the garden by the front window.  We thought it was finding choice weeds, but when we looked later, it had dug a shallow den. Was it moving from its big burrow we’d found under another window, we wondered?

We went into homeschooling for much the same reasons that Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden:  To transact some personal business, to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” to see if we could learn what life had to teach us.  Home based learning, it turns out, is a perfect Walden Pond where we can live deeply and in true Thoreau fashion, “suck out the marrow of life!”

Being of a solitary nature anyway, we always enjoyed quiet treks into field and woods, exploring zoos and museums during off hours, and combing beaches midweek with nary a soul in sight. We enjoyed our own company and felt little need for more. As the children grew, however, I found it helpful to join up with small groups of other like minded families so we’d have sufficient numbers for field trips and company for activities that were enhanced by it.

As our own learning styles evolved, though, it became evident that home learning trends were evolving, too. More and more people were accepting the evidence that learning outside the public school system was not only academically successful, but also personally satisfying. Before long, our solitary adventure was turning into a somewhat crowded one.


We went into homeschooling for much the same reasons that Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden.

Later that same morning, our family gathered by the front window, entranced as the small rabbit methodically harvested dry grasses from the clumps of ornamental grass growing along the walkway. No one moved or spoke as, for nearly an hour, the rabbit gathered as much grass as she could hold and began stuffing it into the tiny new burrow.

Nowadays, I’d venture to say it’s almost as crowded at a homeschool activity as it would be on a public school field trip. It’s become as easy to be an over-driven homeschooling “soccer mom” – scurrying to sports practices, music lessons, reading groups, and social activities –  as it is to be a public schooled one. Today, we have to consciously and purposely evoke our original Walden Pond image to maintain the pristine ambience of solitude and simplicity that marked our first steps into the wild woods of home learning.

And I would suggest that this is an evocation and invocation that’s vital to the spirit of independent learning – a focused and deliberate return to our cherished “unhurried time” to think, read, watch and wonder that drew so many of us away from institutionalized learning in the first place.

That’s not to say that the multitude of support groups, home learning cooperatives, and clubs that have sprung up around the nation don’t have their place. It’s wonderful to gather with like-minded friends and peers to visit places we couldn’t get to as an individual family, to benefit from group discounts and simply for the fun of it. And I love our local group, where several members have become good friends.  But, for the most part, I don’t believe real and enduring learning can take place in a crowd.

A truck coming down our street startled the rabbit and she bolted for more familiar cover. We went on about our own business, deciding to check back on her later in the day. It was early afternoon when we looked again. The rabbit had obviously returned, and magically, it seemed, perfectly re-covered the small den.

Every piece of mulch had been neatly distributed over the disturbed ground as if smoothed by human hands. If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest burrow earlier, we would never have suspected there was anything new in our garden. My oldest daughter, a 14 year-old budding naturalist, went out and very gently pulled away a bit of mulch. The den, she found, had been completely filled with dry grass before being covered.

We’ve walked nature trails with a group, and the same trails by ourselves. The group experience is never as satisfying. Animals are scarce, the clump of many feet disruptive, the presence of so many bodies confining.

Alone, with just our little family unit, and the path unfolds before us as for the first time, a pallet of color, luminous with life. Where the crowd complained of lack of wildlife, now we see creatures everywhere: squirrels, snakes, turtles, butterflies, and insects too numerous to name. Sounds are rich and detailed: the rustle of leaves in the topmost branches, bird calls, insect trills, lapping water. Where do all those things go when there are more than us?

As my children have grown older, they themselves came to mark the difference between an experience as a family and one in the company of others, and, more often than not, they prefer the experience of solitude and family.

And yet we naturally crave the company of like minded souls.That’s why clubs and special interest groups emerge almost constantly. Homeschoolers, especially, often want justification and reassurance about their paths in life and naturally turn to one another for support. As a consequence, there’s a learning group for nearly every taste and temperament. And just as quickly as groups grow, there is often some wistful reflection by “veterans” of those groups: “Remember when it was just us?”

So how do we balance our need for the solitary intimacy of learning as a family with our very natural need to know we’re not alone in our lifestyle? Perhaps the old fashioned way: with a few good friends. Organized groups may feed our need for legitimacy, but friendship is what most of us are really after. And time to ourselves is what most of us do, in fact, need.

Every day we looked, but we didn’t see the rabbit any more and wondered if she’d changed her mind and abandoned the nest. It was, indeed, a nest we learned. Eastern cottontails, like the one we were watching, built small nests just like this one, and lined it with dry grass and their own fur.

Part 2 of Homeschooling Walden-Style coming up tomorrow. Don’t miss it!

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