A Day in the Life: Self-Directed Learning in the Wild

It’s 1:00pm on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting cross-legged on a pile of rocks. My eyes are closed, head tilted towards the bit of sun peeking through the branches. It’s quiet, except for the sound of the creek and cracking of leaves and branches some distance behind me. My youngest son is sitting next to me, cross-legged and eyes closed too as we await the next instructions on our guided meditation. Our calm and peaceful leader, a young girl, just a year or two older than him, prompting us to take a deep breath and think about five things we are thankful for. I exhale. This. This right here. 

I spent the Fall Equinox volunteering with my youngest son’s learning pod. A group of about five or six self-directed young people exploring the lush wildlife and woods of Philadelphia’s historic parks. I thought I knew what to expect. After all, I know what learning without “school” looks like. I’ve seen firsthand the lessons that happen during play. The curiosity that is ignited in conversations. I’m so passionate about this way of learning because I know it works, I’ve seen its possibility within my own home. But in the middle of the woods with a group of self-directed young people that weren’t my own, I felt my understanding expand.

I thought I arrived at the park ready to assist and support. Two words I often use in lieu of “teach” when it comes to our educational approach. And it started just like that. All of us together working on a single activity. The adults functioning sort of like the classroom volunteers you may remember from conventional school. Pretty quickly though, other ideas and intentions began to arise. I think what I wasn’t expecting, on this scale with more young people involved, was the level of autonomy amongst them. Even me, with my big ideas and beliefs, arrived with a schoolish mindset considering myself more “chaperone” than anything else. But once the first couple of young people proclaimed they were heading to a fort they discovered in the woods, I quickly realized that I would be learning just as much as they would that day. 

Over the next few hours we explored the forest. There was a handstand competition. Lunch in a fort. A clean-up and negotiation regarding who gets to occupy a second fort. A visit to a creek. And then a challenge to cross said creek. A meditation. And an adventure back to base.

When nervous parents ask me about self-directed education, one of the questions that always comes up is how do we know that the children are learning? How do we know for sure that learning is happening? My response for those curious and well-intentioned parents is always: Look for it. Learning is always happening. If you look, you’ll find it. Tuesday, I got to look for my own. Here’s what I learned:

  • Nature is a great gym. And, in my personal opinion, maybe even the best one.
  • How to identify poison ivy. This…is good information to know. 
  • How to mark a trail so I can find my way back to base after exploring. My new favorite phrase: That’s a mark! 
  • A new way to meditate: visualize a place, imagine my seating environment, and choose the sounds I want to hear. 

But really the most fascinating part of the day, was seeing how when we observe, trust, and partner with young people, we can truly see them for who they are with their own strengths, talents, and gifts. Each of the things I learned on this magical day, a young person taught me. When I removed my own lens and began to approach the day, not as a chaperone or leader, but as a person simply there with them, I truly understood the partnership concept at scale. I didn’t simply entertain the meditation, as adults sometimes do, but I actively engaged it. Instead of absentmindedly following along, I listened intently and learned new things from young people who were passionate, curious, and eager to share.

I posted this photo on Instagram with the caption: “The world is a classroom”. But perhaps I should add an equally important note—and we can learn from every one of its teachers.

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