When you can spot a home educated child a mile off...
“Look! These are red ants…they are fighting!” exclaimed the girl, with a mixture of amazement and pride, as she held her lidded transparent plastic beaker under our noses. “You have to be careful because they can bite!” My mum and I peered down at the two ants- they alternated between fighting each other and scuttling around the circumference of the beaker, which must have felt like a stark contrast to the dark damp underside of the log where they had been blissfully going about their lives until just a few minutes earlier.
“You can get one of these and a brush from over there!” she continued, pointing to where we could collect the necessary tools to join in with the bug-hunting activity, which we had stumbled upon while following a Gruffalo trail at our local environment centre. It was the centre’s annual fun day, and we were surrounded by families enjoying some quality time together on a Saturday afternoon.
After stopping to look at the ants in the beaker, my five year old son replied to the girl, in his typical blunt but honest manner, “I don’t want to get one!” and kept walking in the direction we were headed before, beautifully displaying his autistic strengths of direct communication, focus and ability to complete a task (because after all, we were supposed to be looking for Snake’s logpile house).
After thanking the girl (who I’ll call Ella) for sharing her discovery with us, we kept walking, and my mum leaned in towards me and said “I bet she is home educated”. I nodded in agreement, and as we continued along the trail I tried to condense the fuzzy gut feeling that told me my mum was right, into organised thoughts and words. It was Ella’s innate confidence and abundant curiosity, her ability to easily approach and converse with both adults and children, her keenness and lack of embarrassment about sharing her knowledge. These are, of course, qualities that come naturally to almost all children when they are young, and they are alive and kicking amongst the many home educated children I know (my own included). But sadly, the longer many children spend in the school system, the more they become “socialised” into only feeling comfortable around their age mates, not speaking out unless they are asked or given permission, and not wanting to appear too knowledgable, for fear of being labelled a “know it all”.
Later on, we found ourselves behind Ella and her younger brother in the queue for the climbing wall, as the fun day activities were drawing to a close. My soon-to-be-three-year-old daughter was sitting comfortably on my back in a carrier, and my son had only just made it onto the row of small chairs that formed the queue when the climbing instructor put up the “closed” sign immediately after him. My mum and I stood behind the seated children, supervising and eavesdropping simultaneously as they intermittently moved their bottoms from one seat to the next, towards the front of the queue.
Flying in the face of the commonly asked “but how will they learn to socialise?” question, Ella’s 7-year-old younger brother had sparked up a conversation with my son about pythons and Ella, 9, was deeply engrossed in teaching hand clapping games and rhymes to a girl of a similar age who was sitting next to her. She turned to her brother to get him to demonstrate one particular hand clapping pattern set to the words of “pat-a-cake”, and he obliged willingly, as yet untainted by any strange idea that clapping games were only for girls. The girl asked Ella which school she went to, and Ella explained that she doesn’t go to school- then reeled off some of the many associated perks that she enjoys, such as getting museums and parks all to herself while most children are at school. My mum and I exchanged eyebrow flashes, quietly pleased that we had correctly detected this after spending just 30 seconds with Ella earlier on. Ella told her new friend that she learned with both her mum and dad, and looked puzzled when she was asked “do you have to put your hand up [to ask a question]?”.
I introduced myself to Ella’s mum who was also nearby, and commended her daughter’s friendly and enthusiastic approach in our earlier interaction. Even for the most confident home educators it is always nice to be reminded that you aren’t “crazy” for swimming against the tide, and that you made a good decision in trusting your child’s natural ability to learn in the style that suits them, and socialise with real people in the real world.