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Natural Learning: How to Trust Your Child's Path

February 9, 2021

In Part 1 of this interview excerpt, Rachel Rainbolt discusses natural learning. She addresses common fallacies and how we can embrace it as a valid form of education.

Sarah with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting

Hello. I am Sarah with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting and I am so excited today to talk to a kindred spirit, Rachel Rainbolt, of Sage Family.

It seems like I should have met you a thousand times in real life. We were homeschooling in the same part of the country for a very long time. We have tons of mutual connections. And we are now just meeting for the first time.

Rachel Rainbolt

Oh, I love that feeling. I love when like the two souls finally cross and you're like, yes, you're my people. So yes, it's amazing that we hadn't met sooner, but I'm glad we've connected now. I look forward to all of that brings in the future. 

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting

I'd love to hear a little bit about you and your journey of natural learning.

First of all, I have to say I love your name -- Sage. The connotation is just lovely; the healing herb as well as the inference of wisdom. Tell me a little bit how you got started and what you do these days.

Rachel Rainbolt on the birth of Sage Family

Yeah. Well, first of all, I did this business with the birth of my second. His middle name, Sage, is where it came from.

It's like the nature and the power of nature combined with wisdom and insight and evidence, and then of course my love for my kiddos, so it felt like a good fit for my work.

Presently, I have three kiddos who are 15, 12, and almost 9. I am a homeschooling mama. We have been homeschooling for I don't even know how many years at this point.

Those of you who have read the Sage Homeschooling book (afflink) know that we put my oldest in school. She was in school for a couple years and then we bailed. We have been homeschooling ever since.

I have a master's degree in marital and family therapy. When I graduated,

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rather than going into private practice or agency work, I wanted to continue doing the work. I was passionate about helping families. But I wanted to do it in a way where it could be integrated with motherhood -- and I could still be fully present for my kids and homeschooling my kids.

So, that is how Sage family was born. Over the past 12 years,  I've written a series of books, homeschooling being the most notable of them.

I have a bunch of online classes, the bucket system being the biggest one, and then I've been doing coaching with families around the world.

Sarah on integrating natural learning into our lives

You said such a magical word a moment ago: "integrated."

One of the things that I love most about what you do is you don't really seem to describe homeschooling as a method per se. You talk more about natural learning as a way of life.

That ties in so beautifully with gentle parenting and this holistic view of what goes on within the walls of your home.

Let's help parents understand that how natural learning can happen outside of the traditional brick-and-mortar version of education.

How can parents really come to terms with trusting their children as partners in their education?

Rachel Rainbolt on the integration of natural learning

Yeah, there's so much to that question. First, the integration piece is one of my battle cries.

I think that for women, especially, there's this societal expectation of compartmentalization -- you're a lawyer over here, but  you're a mother over there. You're a you're a wife over here...It's as if all these things need to be separate and that sets everyone up to fail. It's not sustainable. - Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning

It doesn't honor the fullness of who you are. It short changes everyone because when I show up as my full and authentic self, everyone benefits from that.

Now for the the lifestyle bit of the homeschooling and natural learning, yes, I love that you picked up on that nuance. I talk a lot about that. It's not an educational approach per se.

I mean, technically, it would check that box, but that's not how we apply it. That's not how it plays out or how we live it.

It really is just a lifestyle.

It's not something that we do between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. We do it around the dining room table. It's happening all the time, as my kid is falling asleep in a cuddle with me. That's natural learning, too.

It happens as my kid is working on the coordination to floss their own teeth. That's natural homeschooling, too. I mean, all of these things are natural learning.

It's all of the facets of daily living, in addition to the bigger, more typically 'school-y' stuff that my kids do. There are really no distinctions or delineation or subject silos for us. We're just always in this state of wonder, following our curiosities, honoring our passions, and supporting our challenges. - Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning

All of that is really playing to our strengths; nurturing them. All of that is part of natural learning.

There's this misconception that when your child turns five, it's like all of a sudden, the only way to learn is sitting at a desk, going through worksheets, being lectured to by a teacher in a classroom -- but nothing fundamental changes about the way human brains work or the way psychology works, or the way learning works -- at the age of five.

So, how DO children learn beyond age five if it's not through worksheets and lectures?

The exact same way they learned before the age of five.

Your kid can learn to read the same way they learned to talk; in the same way that they learned to walk.

Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning

Sarah on how natural learning works "in action"

Yes, beautiful -- and we certainly don't give them talking or walking lessons. I mean, aside from helping my child learn how to say "Mama" when she was tiny and only knew, "Dada! Dada!" -- I might've been guilty of focusing a little extra more on the "Mama" part for awhile.

Besides that, though, we don't "teach" our kids all the words. And we don't say, you know, "Put your left foot in front of your right..." for walking. Kids just learn these things.

Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning 

The notion of that is completely ludicrous and absurd. We just trust that it'll work out. Even in your example of emphasizing "Mama," we still do that in in all of the areas of learning. It's normal.

If I'm trying to put something together and my husband has put this thing together before, he might be like, "Oh, look. You turn it this way. Turn it around. There you go. Yeah, that's it."

That's normal. That's a part of how we learn things. That's a perfect example of how how we can be supportive.

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Natural learning and the child's environment

I think the environment plays a lot into natural learning. I will plant things in the environment based on my kids' interests that might resonate with them -- and then let go of my attachment to what they do with that object or that thing. 

We can be supportive of their learning journey without taking ownership.

If you want a self-driven, intrinsically motivated human being, then you have to let them own their learning journey. It's their life. You get to be a coach, guide, support, and consultant along that journey. - Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on the invitation to natural learning

I love that so much. You just said another magical word in my teaching vocabulary: "invitation." We invite our children into the exploration of that which we are exposing them to. If it is forced, that comes from the parent and isn't natural learning. This is an invitation.

You also talked about a really key point that I want people to internalize. You talked about relinquishing control. We need to trust that our children are going to grow and learn and pick up what they need to pick up in life.

Can you talk a little bit more about that process of relinquishing control and replacing it with a sense of trust?

See related mini-course: Ways to Make Homeschooling Easier

Rachel Rainbolt on relinquishing control in natural learning

That's really a stopping point for a lot of parents as they try to engage in this way of learning.

Insecurity sort of breeds anxiety, and anxiety breeds control. When we feel anxious, we lean way far forward and we take control of things. Interestingly, studies show that when we take control, it reduces the parental anxiety and it increases the kid's anxiety. When we lean forward, they have no choice but to lean back. If you're taking up all the space, there's no space for them to grow into. - Rachel Rainbolt on releasing control in natural learning

If you want your child to be motivated and passionate and driven and independent, you have to give them the space to grow into all of those qualities.

Trust will grow one moment at a time, one interaction at a time, one gesture at a time.

Look for an opportunity where your kid is making a request or  wants some sort of freedom. If your anxiety is telling you, "No, take over here" -- instead, just lean back and observe.

Just observe what happens. Notice what's happening in your kid. Get really curious. Wonder what's happening within them; what things are developing through this experience.

...

I have never, ever had an experience where I leaned into trust and I later regretted it. - Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning 

I've never been like, "Oh, I really I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone there and I trusted them to know themselves and it was awful" -- because no matter what experience may have been, they learned from it.

It's this golden experience that they get to have;  they learn more about themselves. They learn more about the world. Even if they fall down, they integrate that experience into their web of understanding about the universe and their place in it.

There's all this gold that comes out of those experiences, even hard ones.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on failure as part of natural learning

Exactly. It harkens back to the walking example that we shared a little while ago. If a child falls down, they will learn in that moment, "Oh, maybe I don't just keep walking straight off that step. Maybe I need to bend my knees  next time."

We can look for opportunities to teach "in the moment." Last night, for example, my child asked why oil and water don't mix.  That's not a question that I dismiss. That's one where I can say, "My child is inviting me into her learning." Guess who has a science unit coming up on why oil and water don't mix?

My child is interested. My child is invested in this, and from there, I can trust that she is taking that metaphorical step to the next level of her science education, in this example.

She's growing and learning every bit as much, if not more, than if I'd have put that worksheet down in front of her saying, "Here's a picture of oil and here's a picture of water. Let's study it now." That would have been zero context. She wouldn't have cared. Now, she cares.

A lot of the current teaching methods are not the same as natural learning. It's not about retaining and spitting out the information for a test. You never think about it again. Natural learning can enable a deeper assimilation.

Rachel Rainbolt on the role of the parent in natural learning

I love your example about falling while walking. Think about the role of the parent in that in that learning.

It's not our job to protect them from falling. It's not our job to get them walking. It's our job just to be there with loving arms if they come to us crying because they hit their knee on the floor. Be there when they need us and cheer them on when they're proud of themselves. - Rachel Rainbolt on natural learning

We just need to continue that beyond the age of five. It's this deeply intuitive natural version of connection that human beings are hard-wired to thrive in. We just need to carry that through for the long haul.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on encountering the naysayers of natural learning

Let's jump to the naysayers for a second because obviously you and I are totally on board. We are speaking the same language here, but somebody is going to be watching this video or reading it later as a blog post and saying, "All I know are worksheets. All I know is the method with which I was raised. Prove to me that your method works."

How do we do that? What kind of validation do we have that natural learning works?

Rachel Rainbolt on the efficacy of natural learning

I love this question because I think even more so than the homeschooling parent being the naysayer, I find that it tends to be others who are naysayers and sometimes those voices work their way in and get stuck [in our minds].

When the parents come to me with those those questions, it's not really their questions.

First, I want to be really clear about where those fears are coming from. Whose fears are those? Do they belong to me or do they belong to someone else? - Rachel Rainbolt on addressing the naysayers of natural learning

Because if there's a concern you have, that belongs to your child or belongs to you.

I want to pay homage to that and I want to sit with the question of if it's a fear or judgment that belongs to someone else. [If the latter], I want you to give it back to them.

We're talking about letting people to have ownership of their own stuff.

Let your kid on their own journey. You are on your own journey. Let other people own their own journey.

If someone on the street were to come up to me and say, "Does this work?"

I'd be like, "Yeah," and then move on with my day because I'm not responsible [for their judgement of natural learning]. It's not my job to make them feel better about my life choices. They can feel however they want to feel about it. They get to own their feelings and their experience.

So now, does [natural learning] work?

The short answer is yes. I'm all about evidence-based practices. There's always evidence, depending on the question.

So for example, does unschooling work for math?

We have a lot of evidence that shows that the level of math anxiety that kids start college with actually puts them at a disadvantage, whereas kids who have had formal math instruction when they start college progress farther, faster.

In daily living, the average person only uses math up to about 5th or 6th grade. Any math beyond that is considered specialized math.

So for me, who runs a business and a family, I consider myself very successful. I live a very happy and fulfilling life. I don't use math beyond 5th grade math.

I know this us because I've gone through all of the math curriculum at various times with different children of mine, interested in learning different things. Beyond 5th grade math, I don't ever use it. I never, ever used it, even in grad school.

I use statistics a lot, and statistics is a pretty isolated specialty that has nothing to do with, say, geometry. I wasn't doing geometry at any point in college or grad school, so math beyond that is specialized.

If you have a need to learn something and a desire to learn something and you know how to learn, you can learn any of those things.

If a child around the age of sixth grade has never had any formal math instruction instruction at all, they can learn the first five years of math something like 20 instruction hours.

So, it takes 20 hours to learn K through 5 math if you are in sixth grade. Once your brain is a little older, you can learn this stuff really quickly and really easily.

If you had never been taught the days of the week -- no one ever sat you down with a chart and made you recite, "What day is it today? You know, there's a poster on the wall. Today is Monday."

It drives me crazy when I see teachers or homeschooling parents posting little videos or photos of them drilling their kids. Like, how do I get my kid to sit for this and they're not reciting it back to me.

Do you really think that your kid's going to reach adulthood having no concept of days of the week? As if their friends will say, "Hey, you want to meet up and hang out on Friday night?" And they're like, "What's Friday? My mom never taught me what Friday is."

If it's relevant to us, then we learn it. If there's like a gap in our knowledge or understanding, we're driven to understand it and to learn it and to know it. - Rachel Rainbolt on how motivation works in natural learning

What does it mean to you for it to "work?"

I'm curious what you mean by "work."

Does work mean that my kid goes to an Ivy League college?

It makes me curious about your definition of success because I would argue that my definition of success would be, for each kid, whatever their definition of success is.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on context in natural learning

I love that so much. And I'm still giggling about your Friday night example, because that was classic.

Case in point about contextual and natural learning, I asked my seven-year-old daughter recently, "Hey, do you want to grab about a third of the pizza out of the fridge?"

I haven't taught her fractions, but she went and she figured out the pizza.

She realized, "Yeah, that's applicable to my life. I get to eat a third of a pizza right now." Fractions make sense in context.

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Rachel Rainbolt on what drives children to learn

Yes, and even as they get older that can include things like classes or more academic-type things. They're driven to do that because it's tied to a specific goal.

My teenager is very excited. She wants to be a lawyer and she's really excited to do this dual enrollment college program. So next fall, she'll start at the community college. 

She's taking an essay writing class through Brave writer. She's reverse engineered the skills that she wants to work on because it's connected to something meaningful that she wants for her life.

As they get older, even if things might look a little bit more academic or specific or focused, that's all unschooling. This is all self-driven based on what she wants for her life.

And that's a beautiful thing.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on following the child's passions

What a great example. Let me emphasize it for one more second for those who are reading or watching this. Your daughter 15 years old. She's ahead of her game academically if she's already looking at dual-credit scenarios, and that's from unschooling.

...

Rachel Rainbolt on her daughter's natural learning path

She took the entrance exams for that program when she was still 14 and she passed all of them.

So of course, yes, I believe al of my children are brilliant and wonderful, and they're totally normal children.

None of us would be categorized as having genius IQs. We're all totally normal. We have unschooled, and she passed all of those exams easily -- the same ones that all of her schooled peers are having to pass in order to get into this program.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting on natural learning for reading

We know that, naturally, reading can happen as young as three-ish, but it's also totally okay, in some scenarios, if a child doesn't learn to read until 10, 11, 12 -- that can still be totally within the realm of "normal." They can pick it up naturally without specific reading lessons. It's fascinating stuff.

But trusting in the kid's timeline is sometimes tricky.

Those of us who did grow up, you know, I called it a traditional brick-and-mortar school earlier, but that was really a misnomer because traditional school wasn't brick-and-mortar at all.

Traditional school was on the farm and it wasn't until 1918 that elementary school was even required in the United States.

This is all pretty new, relatively speaking.

Rachel Rainbolt on using interests as "doorways" 

Yes, and the man who passed that first compulsory education law homeschooled his own kids. Just to throw that out there!

My middle kid is passionate about sailing. It can be a doorway for accessing all of these other areas. Through that interest, he's doing all of these amazing things around the world, learning these amazing things, and whatever interest your kid has -- there's a doorway to get at all of other really important juicy life skill stuff through that interest

In terms of the reading thing you brought up, I just want to share a quick tip.

If you're struggling with the trust thing -- if you want more of something in  your family culture -- then embrace it for yourself.

So for example, if you want reading to be a more prominent part of your family culture, then read more books. Read aloud. Read books for pleasure in the middle of the house. While your kids are running around, you read. Have audiobooks playing when you're driving.

A lot of times, parents will come to me and say, "How do I get my kid to practice the piano? I want her playing piano every day."

I would say, "Well, it sounds to me like you want to play the piano, so you should play the piano." You turn a lot of this stuff back on yourself. If you're feeling like, "Oh, I want more of this," then do that for yourself.

And there's the role modeling piece. There's the home environment piece that you're bringing it into. There's the family culture piece and that's going to be a really powerful influence on the whole family system.

Related post: Child-Led Learning

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