Most of our learning this year so far has been of the "informal" variety, due to the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves: living hours from home for 7 weeks while dealing with daily radiation, weekly chemo, and the fallout and difficulties that those cancer treatments caused. And then we moved home, and continued the informal learning, because the post-radiation healing process does not happen overnight.
In spite of our nontraditional approach, our children are thriving. Annie is reading more and more, the kids are both writing a lot, Finn is working very hard at learning French via a curriculum and a tutor (his goal? fluency by age 13...we'll see how that goes!), math is getting done. We have read about pilgrims, ancient Syrians, seeds, bees, ladybugs. We've read Frances Hodgson Burnett, J.K. Rowling, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and plenty of picture books. The children spent an entire day digging an enormous hole in the garden, trying to get it large enough to fit them both (as a hiding place!) and doing the measuring and calculating required to figure that out. Annie has learned to wash dishes and Finn is cooking. Annie opened a "Fixing Shop" where she charges money to fix broken things (so far she is pulling in a nice income taping up books that need help!). They both spend hours playing outside at an elaborate invisible road system they created--Annie pushes a play shopping cart and Finn drives a wheelbarrow. Annie has done a bit of sewing. In short, learning is happening.
For anyone else who finds themselves in similar circumstances, here are some quotes that help give guidance during times of "informal learning"....it's all about home culture and an attentive mentor!
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"The culture of the home has to be one which arouses intellectual curiosity and facilitates learning. Children need to have learning opportunities and materials available. Most of all they need a mentor at hand who sets the tone of activities and is there to interact and ask questions."
"The parent is as indispensable for informal as for more formally organized teaching and learning. The child has to acquire knowledge about the culture from the parent who has to play an active role in transmitting or mediating it. How do 'informal' parents do this? Partly by cottoning on to what the child is interested in and extending it, and partly by suggesting things the child might be interested in and seeing if they are taken up."
"An interesting feature of informal learning is that children are not faced with having to try to digest new knowledge which does not fit into or extend what they already know or does not arouse their curiosity or motivation."
"The converse of [not forcing a child to learn something before he or she is ready] is that parents can really capitalize when children do 'switch on' their attention. They are much more likely to be in the 'zone of proximal development' and therefore profit from attending. That is also why parents, especially those who use more informal methods, have constantly to 'keep their antennae out,' as one described it."
--from Educating Children at Home, by Alan Thomas (emphasis added)