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Homeschooling Outside of the Box

Have you ever seen that brain-teaser with the nine dots arranged in the shape of a square, the one where you have to connect all nine dots with just four connected straight lines without lifting your pencil? It looks like this:

Nine Dot Puzzle


I ran across this puzzle for the second time recently and, even though I’d seen it and the solution several years ago, I still couldn’t solve it. I did remember that the answer had something to do with seeing the spaces around the dots differently, but after several intense minutes of focus I still couldn’t come up with it.


I tend to think of myself as a fairly creative person, and I love brain-teasers and puzzles that make me think another way, that show me where my “edges” are. It was surprising to me, though, that I’d forgotten the solution to such a simple puzzle. Why is it so hard to “think outside of the box” (there’s your hint if you haven’t solved it yet), even when I’ve seen the answer before? Even when I know there is a box (which isn’t always the case) and I want to move outside of it? As I stewed on these questions for a few days, I started wondering what I could do to challenge my own perspectives and limitations more regularly. Even more importantly, I started wondering how I could also help my kids cultivate their ability to see things differently, to think creatively.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this is a question that could change the world. It’s hard to deny that there are some pretty serious problems in front of us right now that our children (and likely their children) will have to confront as they grow into adulthood. And in order to solve these problems, we need to help the next generations develop solid problem-solving skills, not the least of which is creativity. As a homeschooling mom of two boys, I’m in a great position to help my sons develop these skills, but how?

And as I’ve continued to ponder, I recognize that this is about more than just solving problems, too. Life is certainly about more than that. Even if we weren’t facing our current set of challenges, I would still want my children to develop to their full creative potential. Some of the most enjoyable and worthwhile aspects of life are brought to us by creative people: movies, music, fine art, architecture, food, fashion, books. What would life be without these? What’s more, there are countless wonderful inventions, and life-saving medical treatments that have come from creative bursts of insight. It may look different from person to person, but I’m convinced that we all have strong creative potential, it’s just that the process for recognizing and cultivating it can be elusive, lost somewhere in our “to do” lists and schedules.

So I’ve been kind of obsessed with these questions lately – something about this line of thinking has really struck a chord. And while I was washing the dishes the other night, it hit me like a flash: the kind of creativity I’m seeking isn’t limited to a discrete activity like solving puzzles or painting pictures. It’s not about output or products. The type of creativity I’m yearning for is an approach to life, a philosophy that permeates everything and helps me see the world differently. It would reveal my self-imposed limitations, help me recognize and break free from expectations and patterns, and encourage me to challenge the “status quo” and “common wisdom”.

I’m on to something. I’m feeling inspired. But now what?

As a homeschooler I’ve definitely got some experience doing these things, going against societal norms and questioning ideas that have always been givens. And yet, as I reflect on the past five years of my family’s homeschooling experiences, I recognize a concerning pattern: when in doubt, when worries about “falling behind” or getting into college spring up and the path forward isn’t clear, we have inevitably been drawn back to the established system. For example, my older son’s 7th grade year with an online charter school that included lots of testing, and enrolling in a distance school with “due dates” and grades for my younger son’s 6th grade year. We’ve also had periods when we’ve over-enrolled in classes, lessons, and sports activities which left us stressed and exhausted by the end of the day – too much scheduled time, not enough free time.

I see now that with those decisions we were seeking the security that comes from operating within the standard framework and familiar belief systems. I wanted to make sure my kids were “socialized” and not missing out on “normal” experiences and relationships. And there was nothing particularly wrong with these choices, but in retrospect I understand that we missed an opportunity to challenge our fear, to trust our inner wisdom, and to create something different. We lost sight of the real reasons we’ve chosen to homeschool, and haven’t taken full advantage of the freedom and creative possibilities that this lifestyle offers.

Fear lead us back to the box. Time to burn the box.

In all honesty, I don’t really know what this means for us yet. All I know is that I feel like I’m seeing things more clearly now, like I’m suddenly wearing a new pair of glasses with the right prescription. And I’m noticing and appreciating things that I missed before, like how much more relaxed and energetic we are on our slow days, how genuinely happy the boys are when we’re spending time outside or going somewhere new, what great questions they ask when we just hang out and ponder life together, and how excited they get when I take time to play a game or cook with them.

I’m also noticing how quickly and regularly the anxious voices kick in: Are we doing enough? Is this the best use of our time? Yeah, this is going to take a while. I seem to have developed a habit of seeing most things as a problem and a tendency to try to anticipate the next obstacle, the next difficulty. So, my first step is to make peace with those voices of worry, to notice what’s here now, and to listen more closely to my intuition. And I’m going to include a lot more unstructured time in our days, too — time for both play and solitude, time for spur of the moment adventures, time to totally immerse ourselves in new interests and interesting conversations. In short, time to create the life we’ve been looking for.


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