Free Range Learning

To be yourself, in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else, is the greatest accomplishment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I write this, I’m not completely sure how long I’ll be homeschooling. I plan to take it one year at a time with my kids, and see how it is working for all of us. But regardless of whether or not I do it forever, homeschooling and unschooling will always be close to my heart. I was homeschooled until college, so I’ve seen firsthand how it encourages creativity and frees up time for kids to follow their passions. I’m grateful for the time outdoors and the travel and camping that homeschooling allowed my family.

This post isn’t meant to “oppose” other types of schooling. It’s just meant to explore this one type of learning – while there are many out there and I definitely can’t speak for all of them from experience. What’s the best for my family now may not be the best later. And what’s best for your family may be completely different. And maybe there is no “best thing” at all. Us parents are all just trying to navigate this world and give our children a meaningful education that will serve them well into the future.

I recently read the book Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything by Laura Grace Weldon. I’ll be completely honest with you. It wasn’t an easy book to read, but I powered through it and took away some gems of wisdom. Here are some of the main points that stood out to me and made me smile.

Support Interests

“The child who has learned that his or her interests and unique abilities lead to fulfillment is already aware that self-worth doesn’t come from popularity or possessions,” Weldon writes. I can relate to this statement. Growing up I had a unique opportunity to cultivate my interest in filmmaking. I recruited my other homeschooled friends and made short films that taught us all valuable lessons – and went on to win multiple awards at student film festivals. I knew I had a gift for storytelling and I had already learned how to use it on my own, with minimal intervention or instruction (but lots of support) from the adults in my life.

I write more about following kids’ interests here.

Model Behaviors

Weldon goes on to explain that children will model behavior they see, more than behaviors they are taught. Sometimes this means that I just go about my day – doing laundry, baking, working out, reading books, and invite my kids in. It may feel selfish at times, but they are absorbing more than it looks like.

“Children flourish when they are not the center of attention,” Weldon writes. “The child wants to be a part of the process, not the sole reason for the process…. If the only adults a child sees tend to sit in front of a television or a computer after a long day away, the child doesn’t have activities to model. If, instead, the people in the child’s life engage in activities such as gardening, making repairs, preparing food, talking with friends, practicing music, and so on, the child has enlivening examples of adulthood.”

Teach Optimism

We live in a pessimistic culture. Hope is empowering, despair is not. Try to couple difficult truths with organizations and individuals who are making a difference in those situations. Keep it age-appropriate and don’t overwhelm your young children with overly heavy subjects. Protecting childhood awe and innocence is something I’m personally very passionate about.

I was a worrisome child, and my children take after me in that way. I try to teach them to make good decisions, but protect them from excessive fear, doom, and gloom. When it is time to teach difficult subjects, empower children to make a positive difference themselves.

Embrace “The Flow”

One of my goals on a daily basis, is to get my kids into The Flow state of mind for at least a couple hours. In The Flow they are truly present and focused. They lose track of time, getting fully absorbed in play, or drawing, or whatever the activity is.

The Flow activity can’t be too easy or they will get bored. It also can’t be too hard or they’ll get frustrated and give up. Weldon describes The Flow as “The sweet spot where interest and the willingness to be stretched intersect.”

I have memories of experiencing this in my own childhood – playing with toy dolls or toy money or sometimes riding my tricycle. I remember losing track of time, being so focused on my activity that I forgot all else. I remember my parents were within earshot, but they weren’t there with me when I was in The Flow.

It’s ironic because nowadays we parents are made to feel guilty if we aren’t down on the floor playing with our children at all times. We believe it’s unsafe or neglectful or selfish of us to expect them to ever play themselves. Instead, we turn to the TV when we need a break, forgetting that playing alone is a skill that can be learned.

But the result is burnt-out parents and kids with no attention span. According to the book, more than 2 hours of TV a day is proven to lead to shortened attention span. I know from experience that once we reduced our kids’ TV time they got better at playing.

Much better.

They still ask me a lot if it’s TV time, but they have no problem making up their own pretend games, drawing, writing, and otherwise entertaining themselves for hours when it isn’t TV time.

It may sound extreme, but Weldon explains that the free range child is, in a sense, responsible for their own learning in a situation of freedom and safety.

Less Structure

While kids thrive on a certain amount of structure, there is no need to be rigid and overbearing. Go with the flow and be spontaneous with your kids.

Weldon says that it’s okay to welcome slowness, stillness, simplicity, even boredom. There is much to be learned during unstructured outdoor play. Removing toys and electronics from the picture will unlock the imagination. Sticks, mud, rocks, and trees can all become excellent learning tools.

Natural consequences are also learning tools. “It is when we deprive children of the consequences of their actions that we short-circuit learning,” Weldon writes. Of course, you shouldn’t put your child in danger. But a mild natural consequence can teach a child volumes more than a lecture from an adult.


This is when a parent casually leaves resources around the house where the kids will find them. Maybe it’s a magazine subscription or a coloring page. Maybe it’s a book on a topic they’re interested in, or a game or a puppet. Just trust that the kids will know what to do with them. This works for babies as well as older kids. Educational resources are everywhere, but often the child has to make the “discovery” themselves in order to be truly interested.

Some other ideas for “sneaky learning” are:

  • Chores
  • Collections
  • Trips to the library
  • Games
  • Songs and dances
  • Reading together
  • Sketching outside

Growth Mindset

Lastly, Weldon reminds us to put an emphasis on effort, not perfection. The last thing we need is our kids to be stressed out about earning our love or performing in order to make us proud. They should feel secure – that our love isn’t based on anything they do, but simply who they are to us.

And yes, they should learn to work hard. But that means that they get congratulated for trying something new and difficult, even if they “fail.” That “perfection” is empty and unattainable. That no matter how they “perform” they make us proud. I remind my kids often that I love them regardless of their behavior. It doesn’t mean they should act however they want, but it does mean that my love is unconditional – even when they are suffering consequences for their actions.

How does this idea of  “free range learning” differ from your idea of traditional homeschooling?

How can these principles be applied in everyday life, even for those who aren’t homeschooling?

Do any of these concepts remind you of your own childhood? The Flow, natural consequences, modeled behavior, growth mindset?


Photography by Liana Mikah

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