We started off as reluctant home-schoolers, unable to find a kindergarten fit for our eldest.
When Adele was 4, my husband, Phil, nodded toward my nightstand. "The titles grow increasingly dire." Where once sat a dog-eared copy of The Fussy Baby Book, now there was a stack: The Highly Sensitive Child, Raising Your Spirited Child, The Explosive Child.
None of us were sleeping. We had a newborn, and Adele still woke several times a night. Her run-ins with food dye were case studies on why Red No. 40 is banned in Europe. Once, after I'd abandoned a full grocery cart at Heinen's to get her home, kicking and screaming, she scaled a bookshelf and declared, wide-eyed, "There are holes in the walls, and I'm walking through them."
We had to sort things out. I was exhausted, handling tantrums and fielding phone calls from her pre-K teacher. What was I going to do about my daughter's refusal to put her sitting bones on the story rug or wear her coat when it was 50 degrees? Was she kidding?
One night, making dinner, I heard a story on NPR about imaginative play, how children galloping like horses aren't just engaging in — well, child's play. Imaginative play in childhood develops higher reasoning, flexibility and problem-solving in adults.
I put down the spatula. Pretty much every unwanted outcome — dropping out of school, crime, drug use — is associated with difficulties in these abilities to self-regulate. Those results weren't hard to imagine with our preschooler hepped up on food dye.
Was that what she needed? More time to play, run herself ragged in the woods, work out her being-in-the-world?
The first year of home school was the best we'd had as a family. We had time — to paraphrase Theodore Roethke — to learn by going where we had to go.
Out of paper and newfound freedom, our 5-year-old constructed a toilet with a raiseable lid and a cart with functional wheels. She illustrated Russian fairy tales and embraced history books as invitations to costume and role-play. But what she loved, above all, was mucking about with home-school friends at Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights.
That year, as she played, Phil and I discovered our girl had a food intolerance. Once we put her on a low-histamine diet — avoiding aged and fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt and sausage — five years of intractable sleep issues resolved overnight.
There was more to sort out. But once we'd made the choice to step off the rails, what seemed at first a darkened field lit up, spokes of gleaming possibility stretching before us.
Another year like that? Yes. Please.
Several years later, with friends, our girls spent hours crafting an oversized kite. They worked out questions of material, aerodynamics and design, not to mention collaboration and leadership.
The kite never flew.
Somehow, I restrained myself as they duct-taped kebab skewers to a torn-up bedsheet, then swapped the skewers for thick branches. They floated hypotheses, kept alternating materials. It was downright empirical, that testing of physical boundaries, that sensory immersion of childhood that shapes how we understand the physical world.
In September, home-schoolers gather on Lake Erie's shore for not-back-to-school parties. A diverse and lively community — unschoolers and education professors opting for play-based learning; families concerned about bullying or academics; folks who planned to home-school from birth, and those who dip in briefly between schools, jobs, medical procedures.
Last spring, our friend Audrey orchestrated Medieval Day for home-schoolers at Squire's Castle. Bagpipes roused us from the 21st century through the bannered stone archway one family built with power tools, wood and paint. When we reached the castle, the Venerable Bede (sporting Phil's graduation robe and cap) rallied the knights, in medieval verse, to enter the field.
Other families set up archery targets and a homemade catapult, bocce, badminton, fencing demonstrations and tables where kids could illuminate manuscripts.
This fall, as Adele enters eighth-grade in a brick-and-mortar school for the first time, I'm amazed at the person she's become. It's less parental pride than gratitude, and wonder at the increasingly realized sketch of herself she's drawing into the world.
My former kindergartner, who once charged into Shaker Lakes wetlands that first year of home schooling, spent last year researching factors that influence reptile and amphibian populations at the Cleveland Metroparks Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. I picked her up one evening, only to find her covered in sulfurous, inky swamp. Wader malfunction, she grinned.
Home schooling changed us as parents too. Our emphasis shifted, at some point, from assignments we gave our girls to the real work they assign themselves. We learned to trust our children's development and ourselves as parents along the way.
When our girl was struggling, I couldn't see how to let her go. It was easier to keep her close, manage whatever we could. But now, we're all so ready.
I remember, as she learned to skate, contorting myself to prop her up around the rink. Eventually, she wobbled off on her own. I watched how her careening turned to rhythm, the way she'd leaned on me transformed into leaning lightly into the wind.
She was fine. I quit watching. I stretched my shoulders and set off around the rink.