Natural Learning

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From the brochure …

Also known as Unschooling or Self-Directed Learning.

The term ‘natural learning’ applies to any less structured learning approach that allows children to pursue their innate curiosity. Parents watch their child’s interests and provide tremendous support, structure and direction in fostering the child’s inherent leanings.

The child is surrounded by a rich environment of books, learning resources, and adults who model a lifestyle of learning and are willing to interact with the child. Formal academics can be pursued and textbooks used when the need arises.

Natural Learning can be more challenging than other approaches to document, but the use of diaries, photos, etc. can be more than adequate if used well.


To Elaborate …

Natural Learning is one of the broadest categories in home education. As well as the alternate monikers mentioned in the brochure (see excerpt above), some christians prefer the term God-Directed Learning, while others adopt Child-Led Learning, Free Learning, Interest-Based Education, Autonomous Learning, or even Child-Delighted Learning. In our home, with our recent changes of practice, we’ve joked that we’re now “Free Ranging”.

While our terminology is jocular, there is significant truth in our light-heartedness, too. Just as free range chooks are said to be healthier, happier and the producers of more nutritious eggs than their caged or barn-restricted counterparts, it could equally be said that we, too, are healthier, happier and the producers of richer quality life in every area than we were with our former experiences with other approaches to home education.

Home education pioneer John Holt contended that children have an innate desire to learn and a curiosity that drives them to learn what they need to know when they need to know it. Holt believed that both desire and curiosity are destroyed by the usual methods of teaching. He advocated access to more of the real world, plenty of time and space over their experiences, and opportunities to make meaning out of them.

With Natural Learning, learning is not imposed or controlled by another person. It is not necessarily unstructured, as the child may choose a structured approach for themselves as they learn about some subjects.

Natural Learners tend to see that knowledge is interrelated rather than compartmentalised. It is also understood that human beings, including children, are intelligent, and can generally learn what they choose to learn, when they perceive they need to learn it.


Quote from Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison in “How Children Learn at Home”

Chapter 2 – Towards Informal Learning, page 13

“…in tracing the course of informal learning, it is not ordered or sequential in the sense that it is in school, though the sequence obviously makes sense to the child. A curriculum or a programme of learning would be deemed very poor indeed if it were not logically developed and graded into digestible morsels. However, in the maths example just mentioned [previous paragraph] progress was by no means linear. There were apparently inexplicable advances and regressions, things were learned and then forgotten or suddenly grasped without the smooth upward progression expected in school and could easily lead to parental frustration with the apparent muddle of informal learning.”


This quote expressed succinctly what we had observed and known for years, and it was extremely gratifying to see the phenomenon expressed by academics in the report on their research findings.

Children do learn in a very higgledy-piggledy kind of way, and there is often very little observable pattern to how and why the bits all come together into the well-developed understanding you suddenly hear your child expressing to a stranger.

Patience to wait for the process to run its course, unseen by parental eyes, can be the greatest trial for some parents. It can equally be the most rewarding.
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Some Advantages

  • low stress
  • child-centric
  • tends to produce life-long learners
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Some Disadvantages

  • possibly little correlation between your own child’s notable skills at certain ages and that of their schooled peers
  • potential ready criticism from those who assume you are disadvantaging your child
  • children who desire age and level parallels with schooled peers may be frustrated by lack of formal instruction (yes, some do exist)
  • not for parents who like to be in strict control
  • can be difficult to accurately confirm learning
  • documentation can seem tricky, but it really is quite doable
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Personal Comment

There are many nay-sayers of Natural Learning, and indeed, we used to be numbered with them. However, as we have become better educated ourselves about how children learn, our prejudices have fallen away so that we now see things differently. The beauty of this approach to home education is that you can take it to whatever extreme you like – you can change your lifestyle completely and leave the rat-race behind if you like, or you can simply adapt your methods functionally while remaining in suburbia.

Back in our very structured days, one Natural Learning style mum said to me, “Oh, I trust my child completely to know what they need to learn!” At the time, I found that odd. Since, I’ve learned that what she expressed was simply a matter of human respect, and another area for me to grow in myself. Just as I don’t like to be forced to talk about an experience until I’ve managed to articulate it to myself, I’ve learned to afford my daughter the same courtesy.

It’s a very foreign concept to most parents, and certainly to teachers: “What do you think the problem is asking, Johnny?” The truth is that Johnny might actually be thinking the problem through in a deeper or different way to what is expected, but he’s interested in his own train of thought, not the short, simple answer that we’re pushing for.

Many times during our first year of natural learning, I dropped a topic of conversation because my daughter would not engage with it, or me in the discussion of it. Usually only a short time later – perhaps later in the day or the week – she would raise the topic again, presenting a view that was rounded and articulate. I found that at that point, she was happy to present her thoughts, having made sense of them in her head, and to discuss them inside out and back to front, asking questions, defending points, all with confidence. Her earlier reluctance was because I was asking for articulation of something that hadn’t yet taken shape in her mind. By allowing processing time, the result was far less controlled (or contrived) and much more certain within her, because she owned the process as well as the result.

Perhaps the greatest gift in a Natural Learning style is the respect it engenders between family members, which is unforced and very mutual. Along with that comes added patience, trust, and excitement for the future.
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Useful Links

  • A to Z Home’s Cool
    Anne Zeise from Milpitas, California has compiled a remarkable list of resources relating to home education – the best from all over the web. This page is specifically of links related to Natural Learning.
  • Unschooling.com
    A site with lots of information and links for parents and children who “have learned to trust themselves and each other”.
  •  Homeschool Australia – Beverley Paine on Unschooling
    This is one of a great many articles and several websites provided by South Australian home educator Beverley Paine. A great way to educate yourself about all aspects of home education, including Natural Learning
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An internet search will yield additional resources, which you will be able to assess according to your own criteria.
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Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.
~ Native American Saying

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