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Monday, March 5, 2012

unschooling flowers

If I was a more traditional homeschooler, I would call this a unit study on flowers. And I would have had it blocked into my calendar for spring. 

But, since we are more organic and interest led, we approach things differently. Our intention is to explore, discover and learn about the world together. Luckily, my kids (and I) are wildly curious - so we never run out of things to learn about and try. One topic usually leads to another and another and we end up with these beautiful threads of content that are real and deeply learned.

I would hate to dampen the enthusiasm for learning they have. It is so easy to do and usually involves me taking over and demanding that they finish a project a particular way. 

As long as I remember that the goal is not fixed - that it is open ended, we will do amazing work. If I predetermine what I think they should learn, there will be no exploring or discovering and the learning will be really shallow. 

So, I leave my expectations out of the equation.

I offer a little guidance and set up, but largely let them organize their own experiments (just as I am doing next to them as a co-learner). And I am so glad I do. In this project, each child came up with a completely unique approach to their work that I had not even considered. And because they were autonomous - they owned their experience and truly learned. And they learned from each other. It is a much richer experience when you have 3 or 4 or 5 engaged minds instead of just one.

Sometimes, I journal about what we are working on and how it goes and flows and becomes and evolves... It is always rather organic and circuitous. This month our family has been delving deep into botany.

It is spring. There are so many flowers blooming. Right now our Tababou tree is full of pink flowers, the azaleas have pretty much finished up their show, our loquats are perfect for picking and snacking on. And, the citrus trees! Wow - nothing like the smell of orange blossoms!

When we were at Trader Joe's we picked up some daffodils. I had the idea of dissecting them after reading this book. My kids went to a worm dissection class last week and loved it. When I suggested cutting open flowers and learning how they worked, they were really excited.

So, out came the scalpels, microscopes, paper, pens, camera, syringes, and reference books. We first did a classic dissection and tried to find all the flower parts and talked about what each part's function was. We discussed the evolution of plants and insects and their symbiotic relationships.

And then the kids were off on their own. 

He figured out that water can collect in the flower and run down to the roots.

We went to the yard and picked every other flower we could find and dissected them and compared them. We tried to use the proper scientific names when talking about each new discovery.

One kid spent alot of time looking at the stem (something I had not even thought of) and made several hypotheses about the fibers running the length of the stem and what their functions might be used for. She also chopped bits up with water, smeared the goo on slides and looked at them under the microscope - something she had heard about doing.

Another kid, dissected several flowers and then organized the same parts from each flower, putting all the pistils, petals, and ovaries together. He compared the different structures and parts. Making observations about the different ways pollen gets to the stamen.

I reflected back on the last few weeks and realized how much of our time has been spent on studying plants. One big reason is that my son is really into botany right now. The other is simply that it is spring and we usually notice and become interested in what is happening around us.

Other plant based projects have been:

-In the yard, some broccoli had gone to flower, reminding us that when we eat broccoli, we are eating flower buds.

- We have been planting all kinds of bulbs and watching them grow. Each time we are at the store, we look for new kinds to plant. My son has been spending his birthday money buying bulbs to plant in the yard. 

-My daughter has been working on her fairy garden on the side of the house, planting and replanting flowers. My husband or I will wander over there and be amazed at what she has going on. She even replants the ends of lettuce and resprouts them. 

-We have been sprouting seeds in wet paper towels and watching them "wake up."

-We have been collecting epiphyte balls from our yard, the woods and plant shops.

-We have done this classic experiment (I think we do it at least once a year).

-We painted this cherry blossom tree after seeing it on Pinterest. The flowers are made by dipping the bottom of a 2 liter bottle in paint and printing with it. This reminded us that we really want to see the cherry blossoms in Washington DC.

-After spouting so many bean seeds recently, I felt compelled to  make a little poster about what was inside the seed, to help me remember. 

-And we have watched some good documentaries. 

The Secret Life of Plants is old, weird and amazing. It is a definite must see for any nature loving kids. I can not even begin to describe it - but trust me, it will make you think!

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan explores plants' evolution and how they make certain aspects of themselves highly attractive to humans so that we become unwitting participants in their evolution and survival. Another one that will make you question what you thought you knew.

And so it goes. This is how unschooling works in our family. Our "units" do not have clear beginnings and never really end. There are no rubrics or predictable outcomes. There is only a curious, passionate and excited group of people studying hard, asking big questions and having a whole lot of fun. 


  1. I love how you said your "units" never really end. Even though a lot of times we will have a beginning to a unit and I'll do some planning, it ends up being something the kids take off with and new ideas to explore are always coming up. There can't ever really be an end to anything unless we turn off our curiosity.

  2. awesome post. i love how your approach to education is organic, student led and flexible. so many great ideas here.

  3. I love plants. I recommend this short documentary called Smarty Plants: Uncovering the Secret World of Plant Behaviour. I watched it about a week ago off this website shortly after it aired on TV.

  4. This is great! My daughter would love dissecting flowers. We may do this tomorrow. Great post!


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