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Life Provides Our Curriculum

by Gail Nagasako

We are what is known as "unstructured" homeschoolers. We trust in our son's inner drive and curiosity to compel him to learn what he needs to know. This is in contrast to its opposite where "authorities" (bureaucrats in the school system, parents in homeschooling families) believe they know best what the child should learn and insist the child learn those things. Either approach can end up with a highly-educated child and which approach one tends toward depends on one’s temperament and philosophical beliefs.

So our "curriculum" for the last 6 months has been marbles, because this is what Thumper (our son) is totally "into.” He has thoroughly studied two books on marbles, practically memorizing them and has searched at least 375 antique stores and booths in his quest to have a complete collection. Along the way he's learned how marbles are made (art, science, geology), when they were made and some about other antiques (history, anthropology, archeology), and in his buying, selling & trading marbles and other items, he's acquired grade level math skills without ever having any formal math. Now we're starting a book -- cataloging and photographing his collection, including listing values. He plans to include some articles that he's collected, including one cover story on marbles from the "Smithsonian" magazine. Did you know that marbles have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs? He also was hired at minimum wage by an antique store owner to sort his marbles by type and value because the man was impressed with Thumper's knowledge in the field. Next, Thumper will gather them into $5 bags and then sell them for a com-mission. Now he's into digging in ancient dumpsites for marbles and antique bottles and has begun to show interest in archaeology.

Besides marbles, we also do whatever crafts or science projects strike our fancy. He loves to draw and now has three drawings posted on the wall of the largest comics store on Maui. And we read lots of books because we both love good literature (Huckleberry Finn right now). I am continually amazed at his level of general knowledge, especially when I hear him explaining things to his schooled friends, all of whom are older than he. His broad knowledge comes not only from our voracious reading but also from the fact that he spends his time outside classrooms and so has rich and varied experience in the real world.

We tried doing a bit of phonics, but found it was extremely boring and not particularly helpful, so we dropped it. After reviewing Reading Without Nonsense, I decided to let natural learning prevail here, too. He's learning to read and write in the same way he learned how to talk, without sitting down to any formal lessons, and though he isn't at grade level, he is progressing at a good rate and I have total confidence that it won't be long before he'll have mastered reading and writing -- as he has talking!

This year I needed to show progress on "our curriculum" as an alternative to Thumper taking the SAT. I had doubts about my principle accepting "marbles and projects and living" as a curriculum so I wrote up what is our real curriculum anyway--the things I really feel are important to learn in these years before age 10 or so. Below is what I submitted. We've never found it necessary to formally teach any of this as life fully-lived provides all the lessons we've needed.

Realizing our knowledge was limited, we read voluminously, questioned everyone we knew about how they were raised and how they were raising their kids. We sought mentors, watched our son and other children of all ages, questioned our values, discussed our goals. From all this we distilled an approach to parenting with fit our beliefs, temperaments, and our son's interests and capabilities. We continue to read, think and revise but our fundamental approach has a prevailing consistency.


We are basing our home-education program on the premise that children eagerly and easily learn those things for which they are developmentally ready. Our main references for this approach are the works of five authors: John Holt, Raymond Moore, Jean Piaget, David Elkind, and Rudolph Steiner. Each, in his own terms urges parents and teachers not to rush children into academic studies. Piaget labels the ages seven to eleven the "concrete-operational" period and finds that this is when academic pursuits can most success fully be begun. Naturally, some will be ready to begin sooner; others, later. Waldorf Schools, such as Haleakala School, based on the writings of Rudolph Steiner, use physical maturation as the indicator of readiness for academics. Specifically, the change of teeth from baby teeth to permanent teeth signifies a level of maturity sufficient to begin academics. It so happens that our son has lost only two baby teeth while most of his age-mates have lost up to six.

Their own research and that of others, led Raymond Moore and his associates at the Hewitt Foundation to set an age of at least eight to ten as the point at which to begin academic work. If there's any doubts, they urge waiting until even later. David Elkind makes a good case for "growing up slowly" in his well-known book, The Hurried Child. The attached bulletin from The Hewitt Research Foundation does a good job of summarizing these points. As it all applies to us, we are not emphasizing formal academic studies at this time, though I do introduce such lessons from time to time to get more feedback on our son's readiness for such activities. As will become clear later, I'm sure, this does not mean important learning is not taking place.


A school naturally has to arrive at some sort of standardized curriculum with certain subjects being covered during certain years. Each child is thereby assured of covering an acceptable scope of subjects. To have each child study what interests him would result in chaos in the classroom and it would be a nightmare to try to keep track of the progress of each child. But in our family, with two adults and just one child, we have the luxury of using our son's interests as the main basis of our curriculum, knowing that eventually we will cover all important bases. Due to this low "pupil-teacher" ratio and the fact we know our "student" intimately, keeping track of his learning is a fairly simple and pleasant task. We try to impart the idea that learning is a life-long pursuit and that it is best facilitated by desire and the personal need to know. Our son is also learning that a very important use of knowledge is to help make this a better world.

John Holt expresses our approach excellently in the following passages from How Children Learn: (healthy children's learning) "leads them out into life in many directions. Each new thing they learn makes them aware of other new things to be learned. Their curiosity grows by what it feeds on. Our task is to keep it well supplied with food, (which) doesn't mean feeding them, or telling them what they have to feed themselves. It means putting within their reach the widest possible variety and quantity of good food -- like taking them to a supermarket with no junk food in it (if we can imagine such a thing) "Let me sum up what I have been trying to say about the natural learning style of young children. The child is curious. He wants to make sense out of things, find out how things work, gain competence and control over himself and his environment, do what he can see other people doing. He is open, receptive, and perceptive. He does not shut himself off from the strange, confused complicated world around him. He observes it closely and sharply tries to take it all in. He is experimental. He does not merely observe the world around him, but tastes it, touches it, hefts it, bends, breaks it. To find out how reality works, he works on it. He is bold. He is not afraid of making mistakes. And he is patient. He can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion, tolerance, and suspense. He does not have to have instant meaning to any situation. He is willing and able to wait for meaning to him--even if it comes very slowly, which it usually does. Children even as young as two want not just to learn about but to be part of our world. They want to become skillful, careful, able to do things and make things as we do In talking, reading, writing, and many other things they do, children are perfectly able, if not hurried or made ashamed or fearful, to notice and correct most of their own mistakes. . . "What is lovely about children is that they can make such a production, such a big deal, out of everything, or nothing. From my office I see many families walking down Boylston Street with their little children. The adults plod along, the children twirl, leap, skip, run now to this side and now to that, look for things to step or jump over or walk along or around, climb on anything that can be climbed. "I never want to be where I cannot see it. All that energy and foolishness, all that curiosity, questions, talk, all those fierce passions, inconsolable sorrows, immoderate joys, seem to many a nuisance to be endured, if not a disease to be cured. To me they are a national asset, a treasure beyond price, more necessary to our health and our very survival than any oil or uranium or -- name what you will. "One day in the Public Garden I see, on a small patch of grass under some trees, a father and a two-year-old girl. The father is lying down; the little girl runs everywhere. What joy to run! Suddenly she stops, looks intently at the ground, bends down, picks something up. A twig! A pebble! She stands up, runs again, sees a pigeon, chases it, suddenly stops and looks up into the sunlit trees, seeing what? — perhaps a squirrel, perhaps a bird, perhaps just the shape and colors of the leaves in the sun. Then she bends down, finds something else, picks it up, examines it. A leaf! Another miracle. "Gears, twigs, leaves, little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love? . . . "All that I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words -- Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves -- and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this 'reality' or saying bitterly, 'If I could put up with it, they can too.' "What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted. To do this will take a long leap of faith -- but great rewards await any of us who will take that leap." We believe we can. Thus, our approach to learning has been quite unstructured by school standards. We are confident that our son will eventually be exposed to virtually all the same subjects as schooled children are, though not necessarily in the same order, at the same rate, nor with exactly the same intensity.


From the first report we sent in, we have made it abundantly clear that we are emphasizing character traits and will not be pursuing formal studies to any degree until our son in dearly ready. To quote from my 1989 Year End Report, "We are basing our home-education program on the premise that children eagerly and easily learn those things for which they are developmentally ready." Our main references for this approach are the works of five authors: John Holt, Raymond Moore, Jean Piaget, David Elkind, and Rudolph Steiner (also see John Dewey, Arthur Gates and E. Thorndike).

Each, in his own terms, urges parents and teachers not to rush children into academic studies. Piaget labels the ages seven to eleven the "concrete-operational" period and finds that this is when academic pursuits can most successfully be begun . . . Their own research and that of others led Raymond Moore and his associates at the Hewitt Foundation to set an age of at least eight to ten as the point at which to begin academic work. If there's any doubts, they urge waiting until even later. David Elkind makes a good case for "growing up slowly" in his well-known book, The Hurried Child.

In my 1990 School Year Report, I included four more pages of quotations supporting the educational approach of emphasizing character and happiness in the elementary school ages. As A. S. Neill of "Summerhill" wrote, "I hold that if your emotions are free your intellect will look after itself." I also quoted Daniel Greenberg Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School, "We felt that the only learning that ever counts in life happens when the learners have thrown themselves into a subject on their own, without coaxing, or bribing, or pressure . . . In order to be true to ourselves we had to get away from any notion of curriculum, or a school-inspired program. We had to let all the drive come from the students, with the school committed only to responding to this drive...We figured that everyone, with the help they could muster at school, could find out for themselves what was and what wasn't necessary to know in order to get where they wanted in life. "This tied in rather closely with the character traits we were hoping to foster. More than anything, we wanted people to experience the full meaning of responsibility. We wanted them to know what it is to be a responsible person -- not just from books or lectures, or sermons, but from everyday experience." Thus it has been clear from the start what our curriculum is and why we are pursuing these goals as the major emphasis of our curriculum:

Cares for the welfare of others and takes responsibility for their welfare; is friendly and kind; has good manners; contributes to the goals of groups to which he belongs; is fair and honest in his dealings with others; cares for plants and animals and helps preserve the environment; contributes to making this a better world especially by engaging in volunteer work without expectation of personal gain.

His natural curiosity, concentration, and love of learning is preserved; has a love of books and a wide vocabulary; understands that the purpose of reading, writing and talking is communication; math ability commensurate with his need; is extroverted and confident of his ability to find answers to his questions; has expanding knowledge of the world at large and of the various laws that govern its functions, including political and physical.

Has a high level of integrity; is cooperative yet stands up for his own beliefs; knows he is a loved member of a fully functional family; is learning such important lessons as that strength does not need to mean aggression, that bad actions do not necessarily mean bad people, and that peace begins with each of us; is learning positive lessons from his father and other males what it is to be a male and a father; understands the interrelatedness of life; is free of prejudice and has the courage to stand up to peer pressure; is learning our religious beliefs and is respectful of the religious beliefs of others.

Is physically fit, knows and applies rules of good health such as proper nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep and fresh air. Cares for his body without catering to it unnecessarily, is aware of and can avoid dangers such as drugs, alcohol, and AIDS; enjoys participating in a variety of sports for the fun and exercise, not just because of the competition.

Understands the various machines and appliances in his environment and is achieving competence in their use; contributes to the family by doing chores commensurate with his ability, can take care of his own needs such as making his own meals, cleaning up after himself, entertaining himself without adults or TV or Nintendo, and using his phone book to call up friends; understands from first-hand experience the relationship of work to the accomplishment of ones goals and has observed a wide variety of occupations and possible careers.

Is playful and has a good sense of humor and knows how to have fun without harm to himself or others; has observed and participated in disputes and learned how to negotiate to resolve them to a win-win end; is loved and loving; is learning how to deal with so-called negative emotions such as anger and grief; has his self-trust intact and is aware of the strength of the force for good in the world and energetically engages in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Enjoys numerous types of art, music and dancing both as a spectator and as a participant; enjoys the theater (as in plays, not movies); cares for his possessions, including, taking care and pride in his appearance; appreciates the peace and beauty of nature; is creative.

Thumper's Curriculum for 1995-1996 (he was 12-13 then) set by Thumper, Sept., 96, not everything done)

  1. Reading - stimulating activities, reading aloud, do booklets
  2. Use appliances and tools (make list)
  3. Build stuff - fence, ramps, other projects
  4. Sports - strengthening, esp. thighs; surf; hike; skate; bodyboard, Dano's
  5. Field trips - surfboard shaper
  6. Typing
  7. Crafts
  8. Baking
  9. Survival skills
  10. Art - drawing, clay
  11. Science projects
  12. Work - wrap fish for Jordan, make LiHing Mui lollipops, build ramps.

Gail Nagasasko lives in Hawaii where she homeschooled her now-grown son.

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