I recently joined a group of Muslim mamas on Facebook who have shared passions—attachment parenting, homeschooling/unschooling, and natural family living. When I told Urbndervish about it, he lit up saying “you’ve found your niche!” Sweet soul that he is spoke nothing other than the truth. I’ve found a robust group of women trying to live naturally, parent gently, and raise their children sustainably. In this group I’ve even met another vegan Muslim family; the first we’ve ever met! Other than talking about breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and natural mosquito repellants, it’s great that we can also talk about our faith journeys, favorite Qur’an reciters, and preparing our homes for Ramadan.
The group is a gem in many ways but the discussion topic of most interest to me right now is unschooling. The concept of allowing a child to freely discover, learn, and pursue what interests them has always appealed to us. We like the idea of embracing a lifestyle of learning, not relegating education to certain times, days, or months in the year. But what does it practically look like? How do you plan a day or week with such uncertainty? What daily rhythm and home environment best support this free-spirited experience? If we lived in the United States, this decision would be a no-brainer for us. Most major cities have an abundance of museums, libraries, and parks with homeschooling co-operatives to explore them with. However, the reality is that we don’t have a homeschooling community, varied outdoor activities, or even a library in our small town of Nizwa. Our nearby park was demolished to widen the roads, so on weekends we venture further out to a large park about 20 minutes away. A local hotel has a kiddie pool, which we take Lil’ Z to regularly, and we look for fish, frogs, and dragonflies in the coursing water channels of a nearby village. We would love to set up some playdates but have difficulty finding families who share our views on discipline and childrearing.
Occasionally, we head to Muscat for some variety—playdates with Lil’ Z’s buddy, lunch with friends, and visits to the beach (too hot for that now). There are plans to open a children’s library in Muscat but for now we rely on our own collection of books, in both Arabic and English. At the moment, this is the best we can do. Putting together the sum total of our efforts, both outdoors and indoors, we often wonder if it’s enough for her or will it be enough in a year from now. Can we effectively unschool… on our own…in Oman?
On Saturday, the answer to these questions was a resounding “YES!” One of my dear friends is returning to London, and we wanted to do a fun excursion as a send-off. We hired a driver to take us to Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountains. We ascended 45 minutes up a mountain range so steep that only 4WD vehicles are allowed on the road. Once we reached more level ground, we dismounted from the Land Cruiser to feel the mountain air, the first naturally cool breeze we’ve felt in months. We peered down the canyon to behold terraced hills and historic villages.
Our next stop was Wadi al Ayn where we walked through the narrow alleyways of a small farming village, passing rose bushes, fields of corn and pomegranate, peach, and walnut trees. As Lil’ Z reached up to touch a low-hanging pomegranate, still green and not yet ripe, she understood that we have to wait until it’s bigger and turns red before its ready to eat.
We asked about a nearby tree and could hardly believe it contained walnuts until our guide used a rock to crack open a small round green fruit, with the nut nestled in its center. This is unschooling.
A later stop at Wadi Bani Habib required a long descent down an endless set of steps. After crossing the dry valley, passing the pear trees, and ducking beneath the large tree branches, we met a mulberry tree glistening with little red berries. Our guide Ahmed picked a few berries for us, not yet sweet but edible. Lil’ Z wanted a taste too and filled her little belly with sour berries, walking along berry-stained rocks requesting even more. This is unschooling.
We then climbed up a short staircase to a structure that appeared to be in ruins but discovered a small mosque, still in use, at its core. We saw bright red patterned carpets, a prayer niche, and a picture of the Kaaba hung on the wall. This is unschooling.
Whether we use the term “unschooling” or “life learning”, we have to ask ourselves what do we gain or lose but placing our home and family life at the center of Lil’ Z’s education. A quick scan of the last nearly three years of her life show just how much she’s learned at home: how to wash herself, dress herself, prepare food, fold clothes, pour water, set a table, and whatever else she attempts. Then there’s language, letters, and colors, but more important than all of this is her character. All of the etiquettes and habits of our daily life and interactions are reflected in her speech, behavior, and ideas. Yes, those little brains are sponges, but so are those little hearts. They absorb the models of character around them, both big and small. Entrusting Lil’ Z to a school, even an inviting and beautiful school, still means entrusting her to the people in it. We’re not paranoid, trying to shelter her from bullies and boo boos, but we do want the foundation of her character to be strong and firm before spending a significant portion of her day without us. The responsibility is great, the task is daunting, but at the same time, I love the learning adventure we’ve been on, and I’m intrigued to see where it will take us.
Within the framework of our value system and home environment, Lil’ Z is thriving. She asks questions freely and experiments on a daily basis. She’s young and curious, and there is no curriculum to confine her, just principles to guide her and love to sustain her. Even though I often wonder if we’re giving her enough “fodder” for her flame, she seems to be burning bright and if her learning light begins to dim, then we’re prepared to reflect and adjust, so she can continue to shine.