At first glance, it would seem that life for a homeschooling family wouldn’t have changed a great deal during the pandemic. It is true that baking, gardening, caring for farm animals and engaging in handwork have always been a part of our daily life. The home-based academic work that engages my older children wasn’t a new adjustment. As a mother and home teacher, I certainly felt very blessed that we had a strong set of family practices that would remain steady through the uncharted waters.
However, we were a very social family in days past. Friends, family and field trips – three pillars of our lifestyle – suddenly became off limits. The absence of these critical elements in my children’s educations and healthy development has been palpable.
Before this strange time descended upon us, my children spent hours each week playing imaginative games with their friends. The younger children learned the new joy of feeling connection to peers, seeing themselves reflected in others. They developed skills of communication and caring for each other and as they parallel-played, each at their own pace in the supportive environments of each other’s homes. The older children played richly and with intense focus, permanently taking over whole closets as entire secret worlds emerged from their minds and hearts. Pre-covid, my children would also enjoy lengthy visits with their grandparents. Overnights, complete with snuggles and elaborate pancake breakfasts, were a regular occurrence. We also actively put heart into our relationships with community members. Volunteers at local museums, mentors at the nearby nature center, local farmers, small business owners and librarians, were people to whom my children felt a real connection. Although our visits with these individuals were relatively short, they always proved worthwhile in terms of not only learning skills, but also a complex value system. As homeschoolers, my children were able to see the many positive ways people invest their time in our greater community, making a difference in many lives.
I can’t say that I took for granted the ability to make space and time for these relationships. I always knew we were very fortunate. I took comfort in the idea that we would enjoy this culture well into the future, with hopefully few interruptions. As I write this today, it is hard to believe that almost a year has passed since we enjoyed a sense of total freedom to play and socialize as we pleased. So, we have worked to develop new ways of feeling connected to our friends and loved-ones. By focusing on the development of home-based skills, even with the very youngest of our crew, we all find hope in the ability to send our love out into the world in creative ways.
Letter writing with friends is now a beloved activity for my children. When they are missing their friends and distant family, they can make use of cards and envelopes, various papers, scissors, a variety of markers, paints and crayons, and other bits and bobs, and they create something beautiful to send off to the ones they wish were closer-by. There is comfort in the thought that they can reach out to the world this way, sending a bit of themselves to people they care about. Luckily, many friends have accepted the invitation to be pen-pals. This new way of experiencing friendship might never have developed without the pandemic. It has given them something to anticipate with joy, as they watch for the mail truck each day and hurriedly approach the mailbox! Can you feel the excitement building? As months have gone by, the letters have gotten thicker between the children and their pals. They send friendship bracelets, finger knitting, and other small homemade trinkets. My oldest makes quilt squares and trades them through the mail with another friend. After many months they may just have enough to make a pair of quilts! Sending and receiving mail has grown to fill a big space in their hearts.
There is so much to be learned in the kitchen! I have sewn aprons for each child and they clamber to put them on when it is time to bake. We go through cookbooks, trying almost every recipe, leaving notes in the columns as to whether we’d make that one again. They are developing real skill in something they enjoy wholeheartedly. We often make double recipes and leave a fresh loaf of bread, or batch of cookies for neighbors or nearby family. Also, we are fortunate to have some recipes handed down through generations. Taking the time to appreciate a great-grandmother’s graceful cursive writing on a tattered and well-loved recipe card, carries with it an opportunity to experience a special type of connection.
I’ve enjoyed sewing on the machine most of my life, and my children are following suit. Starting at a very young age, they can sit on my lap and learn a bit about what the machine does – and how to protect their fingers. The littlest child doesn’t stay for long, but as they grow they can take it on as an independent activity. My older two and I now regularly make masks for their grandparents, their special contacts in the greater community and those in need. Our toddler can do the essential work of threading the elastic through the channels on each side of the cloth mask, using a large finishing needle. As a final sanitizing step, we iron the masks. They are all confident that their work is meaningful and it gives them a sense of self-worth to give protection to others. Growing up with the knowledge that you can do things to make the world outside a better, safer place for others – that is true hope!
The time we spend gardening is tremendously fulfilling. Little hands squish warm, dense potting soil in the kitchen, as we force bulbs indoors in the winter or start seeds in recycled paper pots in the early spring. Summer will find us pressing leaves and flowers to preserve them for next winter’s crafting. And in fall, we plant bulbs underground as images of “The Root Children” swirl in our imaginations. Our extended family shares a love of gardening, yet it is not only a family tie which brings us a feeling of connection. These activities bring us close to nature and the cycle of the seasons. Also, when we have seen the children’s friends, it has been strictly outdoors. There may be a little balking at first, but more often than not, unhappiness is short-lived. Children are swept up in the magic of the great outdoors, discovering things that they may not have in past days, when they often favored indoor playtime. With or without playmates, grounding and wonder flowers in children as a result outdoor play and work. There is nothing quite like being rocked in the arms of Mother Nature, especially when other comforts are less easy to come by.
A small pet can make a big difference to children when their human friends seem far away. We have kept farm animals in our yard since the children can remember and have all reaped many benefits. The farm provides us exercise, teaches the value of hard work and gives us fresh food, just to name a few! At the beginning of quarantine, we also adopted a small rabbit to live inside the house and have enjoyed easier access to this animal friend. The little creature reads with us, nibbles on carrot sticks at snack time, and even plays with Legos. Small animals can have big personalities and be a lot of fun. They are also very soothing and calming at a time when things feel uncertain. Some children hold a lot of feelings inside and need help finding coping mechanisms. The act of caring for our ‘birds and beasties,’ takes us outside of ourselves and our thoughts as we do the work that they need us to do. Countless studies have shown that the opportunity to pet an animal’s soft fur, or even just sit closely or play with a pet provides a chance to relax and calm our minds. It seems some animals just have a certain inner wisdom that makes them very special friends. We have been very blessed to have them in our lives, especially during this time of distance from fellow humans.
Our family has always enjoyed a focus on home-based arts, skills and pastimes, but what has changed is that they have now become a tool for connectivity. How incredible it is that as social creatures, we will find a way to touch each other’s hearts, support one another in times of need and our children will develop new skills and confidence in the process. We occasionally use technology to connect, as well. I find, however, that there is no replacement for the homespun, hand-kneaded, lovingly crafted gifts we can bring to life and share with others. Also, without this difficult trial, I can say for certain that we wouldn’t have reached such a depth of connection with the great outdoors or our fellow furry/feathered creatures. I cannot know for sure exactly how these experiences will serve the children in the future but I know that they are growing strong through their efforts and finding hope in many new kinds of connection.
Erika Loker Vass is married to Jay and mother and home teacher to their three children. Together the family enjoy farming, gardening, baking, cooking, hiking, making music and just about every other possible type of art and craft! Before her own children were born, Erika co-founded a Waldorf early childhood center in CT and taught mixed-age kindergarten. Erika enjoys watercolor painting and illustration, laughing loudly as much as possible, and counting her blessings.
Visit Erika on Instagram @erikalokervass or reach her via email at Erika.Loker.Vass@gmail.com