Where Nature is the Classroom
By Banta Whitner
When the science bell rings, seven-year-old Leif is nowhere near a classroom. He is outside collecting black swallowtail caterpillars for a butterfly habitat.
As her peers settle into desks for Language Arts class, 13-year-old Kaia curls into a hammock with her book and journal, the backyard chickens at her feet.
For these homeschooled students, the family homestead is the classroom. Whether a large farm or tiny urban plot, the homestead offers learning opportunities not readily available in a traditional school setting. Experiential hands-on lessons happen spontaneously—the birth of a calf, a deserted beehive, a hornworm infestation in the garden. As homeschooling parents know, learning happens everywhere, all the time.
“I don’t think life should be lived indoors,” says homeschooling mom Lisa Coffee, whose 12-acre Black Mountain farm is home to chickens, ducks, bees and plenty of wildlife. “Just as important as the three R’s are skills like growing your own food, cooking, caring for animals, simple carpentry. These are all part of our everyday life.”
Maria Muscarella, a fiber artist in Leicester likes the flexibility and freedom of choice that homeschooling affords her kids. “We always have the option of taking the lessons outside—for a nature walk, to forage for mushrooms or follow a rabbit track,” Muscarella says. “Depending on the kids’ mood or energy level, we can get out of the house and into the woods any time of day.”
For many homeschooling parents, the homestead provides a unique learning environment for their children, one that fosters active curiosity, teaches life skills and instills a love and respect for the natural world. Parents also choose to homeschool for religious reasons, or because their child is gifted or challenged in ways difficult to manage in a traditional classroom. It works best when the needs of the child, family circumstances, educational values and interests all align.
Know Your Child
“Ditch the mold and trust your instincts,” says Ainsley Arment, founder of Wild and Free, a global community of homeschooling moms. Use a curriculum if you like, Arment suggests, but be flexible and let your child’s needs guide the lessons.
When you understand how your child learns, you plan lessons accordingly. They may be project-based, experiential, visual, verbal or a hybrid of multiple styles. On the homestead, there is no artificial separation of school subjects; art, science, math, literature and history become interwoven in the daily homeschool experience.
“This type of learning feels more ‘organic,’” says Amanda Riley, who homeschools on a small plot in Black Mountain. “Our daughter has developed a strong sense of responsibility for the workings of our ‘homestead’ and that goes a long way toward keeping her motivation and interest stoked.”
Accountability and Support
While mastery takes precedence over grades, even homeschoolers must meet attendance requirements and pass an end-of-year exam. In North Carolina, the Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) provides this oversight.
The DNPE estimates the number of homeschool students in NC at nearly 187,000. More than 20,000 are in Buncombe and surrounding counties, where co-ops and other resources support the movement.
For example, On the Forest Floor in Asheville offers outdoor classes to area homeschoolers, with lessons in animal tracking, plant biology and primitive skills like starting a fire and building a shelter. The NC Arboretum offers third- to eighth-grade students an incentive-driven program called EXPLORE that highlights one area of field ecology per season—such as birds, reptiles or amphibians.
Sixteen-year-old Dylan attended a homeschool collective at Earthaven Ecovillage in Black Mountain. “I expected to be way behind when I got to high school,” he says, “and was shocked to find that was not the case.” His outdoor lessons—from plant medicine in the woods to hydrophysics by the creek—gave him a common sense foundation that many of his peers lacked.
Dylan attributes his sense of personal responsibility to his outside-the-box education. The homestead ‘classroom’ encourages a child’s natural state of wonder and curiosity. The measure of a homeschool’s success is the extent to which the student becomes his or her own best teacher.
- Division of Non-Public Education: ncdnpe.org
- Asheville Homeschool group: ashevillecoop.org
- Forest Floor Wilderness Programs: ontheforestfloor.org
- Global homeschooling community: bewildandfree.org
- Waldorf Homeschoolers: waldorfhomeschoolers.com
- Montessori Homeschooling: montessori.edu/homeschooling.html
- Simply Charlotte Mason: simplycharlottemason.org