Those of us who went to conventional schools, and even a few second generation homeschoolers I’ve met, have a hard time recognizing the learning, the academics, that happens when our children explore their interests.
Our conventional school background, and current school thought, has centrifuged life down into basic academic elements, aka subjects. And sometimes It’s hard to recognize that the elements are parts of a whole, rather than separate little pieces.
When your kids have the time and space, and freedom, to explore their interest, the academics and learning come as part of, naturally.
Let’s take an example. Last year Kgirl set aside all conventional academics and just about everything else in her life for three months, to pursue her interest in cake decorating. Yes, cake decorating.
But what did she learn? A marketable skill, yes. but so much more. Let’s put it through the Subject centrifuge:
Learning a new craft or skill takes money for classes, books, tools, and materials. Kgirl had to creatively finance her cake decorating interest. She had to figure out how much classes and materials were going to cost and how to pay for them within her and I’s budgetary restraints.
She honed her ability to compare costs, use coupons, discounts, and sales for the best deal, budget her materials and her money, and estimate ingredients needed.
Because she preferred projects that were interesting, her cake sizes weren’t standard, so she had to expand her ability to adjust recipes and proportions to meet her projects.
For each cake project, she was buying raw ingredients (rarely mixes) to bake the cake from scratch and decorate with icing she made from scratch. She had to estimate how much time it was going to take, plan her time to meet her deadlines, and figure out how much she was going to need, allowing for problems and re-dos.
In all this, there were pre-algebra skills of fractions, decimals, percents, proportions and ratios, etc. There were algebra skills in solving for the unknown. Not to mention regular old fashioned arithmetic of adding, subtracting, dividing, multiplying, and estimating. All real world math practically applied.
Yes, there was researching and reading recipes, recipe books, websites, and decorating books and magazines. Not to mention literature (audio books) she listened to while baking and decorating. But as Kgirl progressed in her interest, there was so much more communication going on.
She was taking the adult Wilton classes, communicating with adults in class, outside of class, discussing ideas and techniques, expanding her personal communication skills.
She baked and decorated cakes for others, emailing and talking with adults to be sure she had their order details correct, sharing her ideas, and following up via email, practicing her business communications skills.
She took it upon herself to teach the youngers and her young cousin simple decorating skills, one-on-one, building her training and speaking communication skills.
Baking is an art, but also a science. So much chemistry and food science was happening during this period. I had to make an appointment some days to use my kitchen.
Experimenting with cake recipes and icing recipes. Finding the right density of cake to hold a shape. Figuring out how to get the Giant Teddy Bear cake not to spill out or collapse in on itself (took three tries and lots of patience!)
Oh the time she had figuring out how to work with an icing recipe that tasted fantastic but melted in our warm humid weather!
And then, she spent hours experimenting with icing recipes trying to find one that crusted well, but also tasted delicious. Those experiments were all about chemistry and how ingredients react with each other, and how temperature and humidity impact the result.
And because she was baking and decorating for others, sanitation and food safety became of utmost importance. Discussions and practical implementation of how to keep work surfaces, ingredients, and tools safe were necessary. She had to learn how to store her cakes safely during each stage of the baking and decorating process.
And then, oh, the challenge. Transporting a decorated cake. Wow. How do you move and transport a cake without it getting ruined?
Let me tell, she and I have a much greater respect for decorators who do wedding cakes! One wrong move and 12 hours of work goes down the drain. Yikes. Heat, humidity, jostling, force, murphy’s law… oh my.
Outside the periodic discussion over the history of baking cakes and how cake decorating has changed or not through the years, and ponderings over how this all was done without modern conveniences of appliances, mixers, and refrigeration, she really didn’t cover a lot of history.
But she did listen to a lot of history-related literature on audio, because that’s her habit, listen to audio books while creating whatever it is she’s creating. So we’re good.
Cake decorating gave her something productive to do with her hands while she listened. or is that listening gave her something productive to do with her mind while she created with her hands? Not sure which. But it doesn’t matter, she was learning through the process.
Because I didn’t have the budget to pay for all the ingredients and tools, and everything else she needed for this interest, Kgirl had to get creative on how she was going to finance it. And actually God had a plan.
Others were willing to pay her to do their birthday cakes and special occasion cupcakes. So she used those to learn. She did her cakes and projects for her Wilton classes, and then did at least one cake a week for others for over a two month period of time.
During this process, she learned about the cake decorating business, about working with customers, the amazing effects of word-of-mouth marketing (she had to turn down business), the power of social media, the impact of using pictures to show your skills, and the perseverance to do a job when you are tired and really would rather be in bed.
Doing cakes for others took her through the process of getting the order, sourcing the ingredients and tools, creating the product, dealing with the unexpected, meeting deadlines, and communicating with customers.
Things went wrong, very wrong, several times. And I was so proud of her. She dug deep and did the work, didn’t complain, freak out, or give up. Nor did she ask for me to bail her out. She just started again and got the job done, and created something special for her customers. Perserverance. Very valuable, real world business lessons.
And she learned a lot about herself and what she’s made of, able to handle. Something only real world experience can teach.
Cake decorating is seriously an art. Not only did she learn how to take that creation in her head and use an art medium (icing) to create it in real life, she got a lot of real world experience doing it. Is she a professional? No. But she could be if she wanted.
She spent many hours looking at other designs, trying to figure out how they did it, what they did, learning the techniques of the trade. Her appreciation for the art of cake decorating and those who pursue it grew in this process. To make something that tastes delicious and looks amazing is indeed an art.
One of the most important lessons Kgirl learned was about her own health and physical fitness. Baking a cake and decorating it is an act of endurance.
The process, depending on the complexity of what she was creating, took anywhere from 8 to 12 hours start to finish. Most of it on her feet or holding an icing bag.
She’d forget to eat, or drink. She’d be up decorating until 2 or 3 in the morning and then have to get up the next day and make a delivery – with a good attitude. Then she’d sleep and hibernate for a day.
She had to learn to pace herself. She had to learn to take care of herself, so she could take care of her customers and projects. She had to learn to make sure she ate and exercised, and slept, so she could handle the physical demands of her project.
I’m so glad that she could learn these lessons now, lessons that it took me 40 years to learn. For if the lessons stay with her, then my prayer that she is healthier than my mother and I will be answered.
Recognizing that Academics are a Natural Consequence
Why did I allow her to go down this road? Because I knew the lessons from it were going to be greater than any isolated academics she could be learning from a curriculum. Did I know that it was going to encompass all this? No. Could never have imagined or planned for it.
But over time I have learned to recognize that allowing my kids to follow their interests, however deep they want to take it, facilitating it, and if necessary, getting out of their way, allows them to have a much richer educational experience than I can ever plan for and create for them.
Yes, I could have turned cake decorating into a formal unit study, goodness knows I love unit studies. But I didn’t need to. And if I did, she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the same experience out of it.
All I needed to do is let her explore her interest, facilitate it, and quietly recognize the academics and learning that were taking place as a natural consequence.
As we are designed, as we live our every day lives and pursue our interests, learning does not happen in isolated academic subjects, but rather the individual subjects are small bits of a greater whole.
The same is true for our children. Allowing them the freedom to delve into their interests, as deep or as shallow as they want, creates amazing, rich learning opportunities.