Friday, September 7, 2012

unschooling and food

What does food have to do with unschooling?  Food is not only a necessity, it can be a joyful celebration of life.  Children can learn so much through a participatory role in the food that they eat.

 raw salsa, harvested and chopped and enjoyed by a 5-year-old

Gardening:  seed-starting, soil science, composting, an appreciation of the rain and sun and dirt and farmers, life cycles, beneficial insects, bacteria, chemistry, nature art, minerals, Earth science, plant/tree identification, foraging, medicinal herbs

Raising animals for meat, eggs, or dairy:  birth, death, biology, taxonomy and classification, Latin (names), compassion, feeding and watering and caring for creatures, predator/prey relationships, ecology

Preparing food:  measuring, fractions, metric conversion, chemistry, kitchen skills, fire safety, nutrition, patience, history and diversified cultures (preparing foods from different cultures and time periods), myths, finance (shopping for food)

Sharing food:  manners, cooperation, a sense of community, responsibility, equity

Food choices:  listening to one's own body, anatomy, physiology, exercise, enjoyment, comfort, and lack of food issues

These lists could go on and on, they could be much more overlapping and inclusive, but you get the idea I think.  Not all children (or families) are going to be interested in all of these aspects of food, but even one small part, taken further, could expand in a myriad of directions until a web of learning connections could spread throughout all aspects of life.
a 9-year-old choosing to go for a mile-long run up and down the hill 
(little speck in the road)

Not all unschoolers take the leap that many radical unschoolers do, and allow their children a wide range and freedom of food choices, but we do.  It is not only limited by what I bring into the house and my preferences, but by their requests and discoveries when shopping together, as well as experimental trying-out "here, you might like this..."

I don't think any of my girls have ever tried a Twinkie, for example, but if one of them expressed a strong interest, I would certainly buy a small package for them to try.  And I wouldn't fret about it.  Given a wide variety of healthy, tasty, intriguing foods, no child will choose to eat only Twinkies!  It is when foods are forbidden or highly regulated that kids will be drawn to over-indulging, sneaking, or feeling ashamed.
a 2-year-old happily choosing roasted pumpkin seeds over candy corn and chips

Camille often doesn't like the way that she feels after eating a lot of gluten, but she is guided by her own preference whether to eat certain foods or not.  I don't try to control her food, but I do try to offer as many gluten-free or low-gluten alternatives as she is willing to try.  Today she made a Chocolate-Bottom Pumpkin Tart from The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook.  She chose to substitute whole grain spelt flour for all-purpose, and I baked a pumpkin from our garden to use in place of canned pumpkin.  Yesterday, she chose dark chocolate-covered ginger pieces over any other treat in the store.  Ayla chose golden raisins, and Sylvia chose candy corn.

If we eat homegrown veggies and eggs for lunch one day and fast food French fries and milkshakes the next day, I have faith that our choices balance out, and that we are choosing the least amount of stress and most amount of enjoyment available at the time.  I would chose a low-nutrition snack eaten together joyfully over a higher-nutrient meal eaten in anger or stress, any time, AND I think it would be the healthier choice physically as well as emotionally.

I started trusting my children to know themselves and their bodies when they were babies nursing at my breast as often as they liked (rather than on some 'experts' schedule).  And for a while, with one young toddler, I felt so on top of the organic, whole foods, no-processed-sugar thing, but as my family grew (and grew opinions and the ability to express them clearly), food choices opened and expanded to include any edibles that we could easily procure.  That means that sometimes, I cook a lovely healthy dinner and Papa and I are the only ones to sit and enjoy it right away (which isn't necessarily all bad ;).  The girls might eat just some of the veggie, or just the meat, or opt for something different altogether, or come back for the leftovers when they are hungrier.  It also means that sometimes when I'm sitting at the computer typing a blog post about unschooling and food, an Elfin princess (Camille) and a baby cow named Meadow (Sylvia), come in from playing outside to offer me tiny yellow pear tomatoes from the garden carefully stuffed with basil and wild sorrel.  Really!

Food choices and ideas about what is the ideal human diet are so varied over time and culture and can be fraught with emotional issues and attitudes, that I'm not claiming to offer advice about any of it, just sharing how it works in our family right now.

As always, please feel free to leave me a comment, even if you wildly disagree with what I have to say :)

 sorting and roasting pumpkin seeds 

Mama's lunch, roasted cabbage wedge with garlic and parmesan,  raw salsa and organic tortilla chips, roasted pumpkin seeds

 No-Bake Chocolate-Bottom Pumpkin Tart


  1. I love reading about you and your wonderful family. I have a hard time imagining me making those choices in my family, but i know that it's because I would have to make a really strong effort to also change the views and attitudes of EVERYONE in my household, in order to allow these certain freedoms to my children. It seems impossible! One reason I couldn't stick with unschooling is that I am not particularly quick about coming up with lessons and information off the top of my head, and feel better about having a quide for schooling. Your list above is really wonderful. I think it takes a very smart and creative mom to consistently be teaching and learning together with your kids. I have to say, it's a beautiful thing you are doing.

  2. Thanks so much for the kind comment, Jen. Some of these choices stretched my comfort levels pretty far in the beginning, but a series of small-ish changes brought me here, not one big leap, which made it doable for our family. I've also read a LOT written by other radical unschooling families that have older children (or grown adults at this point) that show me that this can work as a long-term way of learning together (of course, we will shift gears if it stops working well for us). I don't do much that I would consider 'lessons', but we are constantly seeking out information together and I try to offer them lots of interesting opportunities and activities. I really appreciate your words here, and I know it's a s-t-r-e-t-c-h for most families, which is what makes it both fun (and a bit vulnerable) to share here.

  3. What a lovely, thoughtful post, Nikole. I love the idea of your girls coming in with a yummy snack (and it sounded divine!) just as you were writing these words!

    We have talked about food and food choices since my kids were tiny. (Well, we've talked about everything since the kids were tiny! Every choice and wondering question makes for an interesting discussion in our house :) )

    Since we became vegan (AND wheat-free), the discussion has expanded and become a big part of our daily lives. We became vegan together, after a big family discussion at the table one day. The kids haven't wavered since and are passionate about their choice. In fact, I've noticed the kids are actually more aware than me—they've been the ones consistently asking to look at ingredients in the supermarket and in restaurants. They've even asked friends if they can look at a packet of food they've been offered to check it has no dairy or egg. I'm dazzled by them, inspired.

    I agree that when something is eaten without anger or stress, the outcome is always better. We've definitely had some less than happy meals when I have let food fears (like, She/He has to eat their broccoli tonight, or they'll "always" this or "never" that!) get into my head. Life always feels more beautiful when we flow together, listen to each other, allow each other to be free in our choices, as we do so often now.

  4. Helena, I love that you and your family have chosen to be vegan and that you can each support one another in that choice. I think people assume choice means that kids will eat nothing but 'junkfood' and yet I've seen again and again that children can be just as passionate as adults(or maybe even more so)about healthy food choices When they own those decisions for themselves! It's awesome that your kids are so inspired and inspiring in your/their vegan lifestyle!


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