Frequently Asked Questions
"Homeschooling" is a legal term.
"Self-directed education" is a philosophical approach that some homeschoolers use.
"Unschooling" is a homeschool style that focuses around young-person-focused learning without a formal structure.
General homeschooling information is available below under "How does one register as a homeschooler?"
Self-Directed Education (SDE) Basics
An informative video about self-directed education (3:56)
An informative essay
"A Thousand Rivers" by Carol Black gives a wonderful overview of the philosophical underpinnings of self-directed education. It is THE essay we recommend to interested parents.
An informative website
The Alliance for Self-Directed Education has a lot to say about the larger SDE movement.
An informative podcast
Akilah S. Richards' podcast Fare of the Free Child
A brief history of SDE, from NC Co-founder Peter Bergson "Homeschooling” is a term that was coined in the early 20th century that literally means ‘school at home’ and describes the instruction of young people, particularly in academic areas, by adults or others. It was utilized primarily by people who couldn’t get to a school because they lived in isolated areas or families who traveled either so much or to parts of the world where traditional school attendance was not an option. They would buy curriculum from an organization or a company and take it with them and do school at home. In the late 20th century when particularly, but not exclusively, conservative religious families started withdrawing from school because of the secular nature of the curriculum. Even though they had access to free schools, they chose to do school at home. John Holt was very clear in his concerns that this kind of homeschooling was not addressing issues of failure of schooling because it merely replicated school at home. Holt wanted to promote the idea of learning through self-direction through the youth’s pursuit of their own interests in their own way with the support of adults as available, as needed, as requested. He coined the term “unschooled” to mean “education not in school and not in a school type manner.” Self-directed education correlates highly with unschooling as opposed to homeschooling.
Natural Creativity Basics
NC History Natural Creativity was founded in 2015 by Peter Bergson and Chris Steinmeier. Peter Bergson opened Open Connections with his wife Susan Shilcock in 1978, where they offered programs with a specific approach to self-directed education based on creative group problem solving and nonviolent communication. Shortly after, he lamented the lack of economic and racial diversity in the community and began thinking of how to change that reality. Fast forward 36 years, and Peter teamed up with local nonprofit leader Diane Cornman-Levy, who received start-up funding to launch what would become Natural Creativity, Inc. In 2015, they hired Chris Steinmeier to lead the programming side of the center they were designing. Chris and Peter worked closely to choose Germantown as the hub from which to launch the Natural Creativity Center in January 2016, in a single room in the First United Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) with a community of 18 young people. After 4 years at FUMCOG, the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to shift our program several times, including a virtual component and a fully outdoor component (from March 2020 through November 2021), and through it all, we continued to grow until we needed more space! In July 2021, we signed a lease for our Pulaski Avenue location, and after several months of renovations, we officially opened the Pulaski space in December 2021. Krystal Dillard was hired as co-director, along with Chris, in January 2020. Peter retired in June 2020.
What makes NC different from other SDE centers in Philadelphia? Because self-directed education abhors standardization, every SDE center is different. We are one of hundreds around the world. NC is a function of the particular chemistry of its staff, families, and location. Some of our traits include: our focus on making SDE accessible for families from all income levels, our partnership model for relationships, our location in Germantown, our Narwhals teen program, and our Family Support Coordinator role.
How does one register as a homeschooler? Most basic information from the PA Department of Education. The Dandelion Project has a wonderful FAQ page about this. For residents of School District of Philadelphia: This page has the document packet you need. It includes a generic "educational objectives" list that you can copy for your own packet). Email these forms to the homeschooling office by August 1 before the desired homeschool year; send evaluations due by June 30 after the year is complete. The Family Support Coordinator is available to walk you through this simple process. NC has an in-house notary public and contracts with a homeschool evaluator familiar with self-directed education to provide free evaluations in the spring. Assembling a portfolio is a lot simpler than you think!
What’s in a name? In the early years of Natural Creativity, we switched between calling ourselves “Natural Creativity” and “Natural Creativity Center” a few times. These names had philosophical and logistical distinctions that have faded over time. As of 2020, we are “Natural Creativity” or “NC.” The “NCC” name lives on in our Instagram and our longtime families.
Why do you say “young person” rather than “child,” “kid,” or “student”? We use the term “young person” (plural = “young people”) to emphasize that they are people just like us. They are not a separate class of being that adults should control or be viewed as “less than” in our society. Their feelings, their ideas, their rights are every bit equal to those of adults. It is not only unnecessary, it’s inappropriate to amend our behavior because somebody is younger, particularly in a dominating way. That is not to fail to acknowledge that there are obvious developmental differences in terms of knowledge and skills, but we aim to be respective of who they are in the most basic ways.
It sounds like NC is a place where childr--excuse me, “young people” gather each day. How are you not a school? There are some basic parts to our model that mean we cannot legally be called a school. Mainly, we do not have attendance requirements, and we do not have mandatory organized instruction. We do not have a curriculum, tests, or grades. Here’s a longer philosophical explanation from co-founder Peter Bergson: “School” and “education” are traditionally used interchangeably. When people talk about “improving education,” what they’re usually talking about is some form of improved instruction method or environment. Education is not an external product. You don’t “get” an education and someone isn’t “educated” by another person; we are not direct objects of education. Rather, education is an internal process. It’s the process of connection-making and synapse-building that occurs between the ears of the individual. “Schooling” is an attempt to foster education. My view is that it often stymies and discourages education. As an example, consider the situation where you may have an algebra class with 20 young people in it and a teacher who is identified as a gifted teacher. The teacher conducts a lesson after which most other teachers and math supervisors might say “that was a great lesson, you’re a terrific educator.” In that class of 20 young people, five of them really get it: They make the connections, they understand, they comprehend, they can even go so far as perhaps applying what they just learned to show they have developed the confidence and mastery. Another five of the 20 in the class may be absolutely clueless and lost and have no more understanding of what was just presented than when they walked through the door. And the other ten in the middle have some gradation between the two poles. All of them were exposed to the exact same instruction and yet the results are significantly different. This shows that education is not stimulus-response; it’s the work or activity in the brain of the learner.
I’m sensing a pattern here--you’ve got a new term for everything. What are adults working in the space called? “Unyoung people”? And what do they do? Adults in the space are called “facilitators” if they are staff, or “Visiting Specialists,” if they are adult volunteers invited in to teach or share something. Facilitators do not call themselves “teachers” because everyone and everything is a potential teacher. Additionally, the “teacher” title implies a power dynamic of adult-as-authority over young-person-as-empty-vessel that we do not support. NC facilitators may dabble in content (showing a young person how to use the sewing machine, for example), but they mostly focus on facilitating the process by which young people explore the content of their choosing. Adults in the space do recognize their special role in the community. They are ultimately responsible for the survival and smooth functioning of the program. On a day-to-day basis, facilitators focus on holding the space in which young people can be free within the boundaries of safety and respect. They are always available to help young people if and when they ask. Facilitators focus on the process of connection-making. They identify where you are in the process of pursuing your own interests and then help you to the extent that you ask for it and that is helpful in mastering particular bodies of knowledge. Each facilitator at NC brings their own interests, skills, and expertise to their role. Facilitators are shape-shifters, adjusting to the needs of a particular moment or young person. In a given day at NC, a facilitator moves among being coach, teacher, partner, group leader, parallel-player, referee, witness, problem-solver, or chaperone. We encourage parents to take this same eclectic and responsive approach when they are interacting with their young person outside of NC.
What do you mean by “partnership”? Partnership is the foundational current of all relationships at NC: Young Person--Facilitator, Young Person--Parent, and Facilitator--Family. It is informed by a collaborative “power-with” orientation, rather than a domination “power-over” one. Practically, it looks like every young person is paired with a “facilitator partner.” Their partner is their go-to person for ideas, challenges, and whatever else is on their mind. The partner is also the go-to person for their parents regarding matters related to self-directed education (or anything at all, really). Young people in Axolotls (ages 9-12) and Narwhals (13+) meet with their partners every other week for check-ins. Partners meet with whole families three times a year to discuss overarching development.
So are you like...
a Montessori school? Our program and Montessori are similar in that young people are given more freedom to make decisions about what interests them and how to pace themselves. The Montessori model asserts that a specially trained and caring teacher can guide a pupil to gain developmentally appropriate abilities better than a young person could themselves. It also asserts that each specific material has a specific use, and there is little space for variation from that relationship. In contrast, our model gives young people even more freedom to choose any activity, and makes no assumption about how individual young people will learn, what materials to use, or indeed what a person should be learning.
a Waldorf school? Waldorf and Natural Creativity both care about the whole young person. Both models do not require that young people learn to read early, and both value deep and intensely involved play as crucial to the growth of young people. The Waldorf model as founded by Rudolf Steiner has a specific developmental theory that informs timing and access to media and technology, and endeavors to move young people in a particular direction of spiritual and social change. In contrast to Waldorf, we don't encourage any particular path of spiritual, social, or emotional growth.
a democratic/free school? We are inspired by and philosophical cousins to democratic/free schools (also known as Sudbury Schools), who blazed the trails of self-directed learning in community. The biggest difference is that we are not organized as a school; we're a homeschool resource center with no required attendance policy. Another difference is that our participatory decision-making model is based on Creative Problem Solving (based on the Synectics model of group problem-solving, as introduced by our co-founder Peter Bergson) and a Nonviolent Communication model of observations/needs/feelings/requests. We also tend to have a bit more adult-initiated activities than democratic schools.
unschooling? Our program is similar to unschooling at home in many ways. You could see our program as an "un-school." Both value self-directed learning without the use of coercion or extrinsic motivators and both trust that young people will learn what they need to when they need it. However, young people who attend our program get more time away from their parents in a consistent community environment of other young people and adults. This enables them to take on responsibility for their own choices. It also enables them to practice living in a community with all of its rewards and challenges.
homeschooling? “Homeschooling” is a legal term that means a parent, guardian, or person having legal custody of a young person has declared the intent to home school their young people as an option for complying with compulsory school attendance. Pennsylvania young people must register for school or homeschooling at age 6. All NC attendees are registered homeschoolers (unless they are 4 or 5 years old and have never been to a school before). See more from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the School District of Philadelphia
daycare? The thought of young people playing all day without anyone forcing them to sit at desks may conjure up images of a daycare. But because young people at Natural Creativity are not told what to do and are not constantly entertained, they must constantly decide what to do with their time. Freedom is not as easy as you may think, especially for older young people who are not practiced in it. Responsibility is even harder.
The comparison that makes the most sense to us is that NC is like a public library. We have a physical space, materials, caring adults, activities, and resources available for the whole family in an open, nonjudgmental atmosphere. We see ourselves as one part of a family’s educational journey. We do not believe we are recreating school; we are supporting families to self-define “education” and “childhood” for themselves, however that looks.
Our Community & Demographics
Is there a specific “type” of young person that would benefit more from a self-directed education over conventional schooling? We have welcomed many “types” of young people – from the highly academic young person who would probably thrive in school to those who tried school and hated it. Young people who are best suited for our program include: bright, highly motivated young people who want to surge ahead and challenge themselves; young people with unique learning styles who want to move at their own pace; young people who are “different” in some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness; social young people who want to be part of a community; young people who are passionately engaged in exploring and creating; high-energy, restless young people who want to be active; frustrated young people who are sick of schooling; shy, sensitive young people who want to pursue their own interests; and self-directed young people who are ready for responsibility.
Is there a specific “type” of parent who does self-directed education? All kinds of parents and young people have come through our doors. Some have stayed for years, some leave after a year. The only common quality in parents who do self-directed education is that they are willing to prioritize their relationship with the young person directly in front of them, rather than external expectations about what the young person “should” be doing. They commit to being youth-led in their parenting and education. A common quality in parents who stick with it long term is that they are committed to challenging their internal schoolishness and academic anxiety and raise the young person in front of them, rather than an imaginary one in the future. Those who stay with us long term see us as partners in their educational journey and generally align with our approach in most aspects of their life.
Do you accept young people with autism or other special needs? Neurodivergent young people are as varied as any others, so we evaluate their fit on a case-by-case basis, like all prospective young people. As with all of our young people, a decision about whether NC is appropriate for them would depend on the young person’s willingness to be self-directed and participate in at least some self-reflection, personal responsibility, and conflict resolution. A variety of neurodivergent young people have thrived in our program, away from the pressures of conventional school or socializing. Our program is not equipped to handle a young person who experiences severe difficulties in learning independently or self-care. If a young person is physically or mentally unable to be mostly independent (including using the bathroom, navigating conversations, and otherwise caring for their bodily needs), then this is not the right space for you.
Isn’t homeschooling just for [white/rich/religious/ highly educated] families? No. The mainstream representation of homeschoolers implies that all families who choose this are religious, white, and/or too weird to function in mainstream schools. That is a simplification of a broad and diverse population that numbers around 3 million young people, or 6% of total school-aged young people (National Home Education Research Institute). In a 2016 national study, 41% of homeschooling families were nonwhite, a statistic that has grown since then. See more statistics here (especially pages 6 and 8). Most homeschool research assumes families are doing structured school-at-home (think curriculum, textbooks, parent-as-teacher). Few of our families use this approach; the overwhelming majority do some sort of unschooling, self-directed learning, and holistic education. Families come to us for a variety of reasons, including the option to: - customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child, - enhance family relationships between young people and parents and among siblings, - provide a safer environment away from racist and/or gendered oppression in schools - teach and impart a particular set of values, beliefs, and worldview to young people. We’ve heard from parents that they really love the relaxation that comes with SDE: Without expectations of meeting arbitrary external deadlines, families are free to move and flow among what interests them, whether that’s travel, a several-yearslong focus on moss, a judo class, or a weeklong focus on World War II aircraft. The biggest gift (and challenge, for some!) that SDE gives is time. “I only have so much time before they go off into the world,” says one longtime SDE parent. “I want to maximize the chance to get to know them now.” Regarding family income: See below under “Cost & Finances"
Current numbers and ages Our community has grown each year since we opened in January 2016. On a given day, we have anywhere from 25-45 young people (ages 4-18) and 4-6 facilitators. For up-to-date numbers, inquire during your conversations with leadership. We seek to maintain a community size that is sustainable and connected.
What kind of community resources does NC offer? In addition to facilitating a physical and philosophical center for our families’ outside-of-home self-directed education, we provide additional resources and connections in a variety of ways. This includes: suggesting activities, events, and groups in the area, parenting/SDE materials, publishing weekly emails and bimonthly newsletters to families, intentional connections between families with similar interests/challenges/neighborhoods (great for carpooling!), and more. We also organize field trips, parent workshops, and host all-family dinners a few times a year. Many families enjoy using us as a hub for everything related to their SDE journey. NC’s Family Support Coordinator role (FSC) was created in 2021 to further support parents pursuing self-directed education. The FSC is the go-to person for any questions about SDE, homeschooling and evaluation protocols, how to deal with parenting challenges, facilitating problem solving meetings, and finding opportunities in Philadelphia for specific needs or interests. The FSC organizes parent workshops dedicated to hot topics. When parents write inquisitive emails or have longer conversations with staff, the results often end up as longer writing pieces, which you can read on our Resources page or blog.
Cost & Finances
What does it cost to enroll at Natural Creativity? Latest enrollment costs are available here. We are determined to be an affordable option for families of all socioeconomic backgorunds. Our program is funded through funders, donations, and tuition from families. Tuition is paid on a sliding scale, as determind by an outside financial aid assessment tool. Cost is determined by number of young people, number of days per week, and family's income. More than 75% of our families pay less than the full amount of our tuition.
What does it cost to do self-directed education? There are costs and benefits associated with every approach. There is no cost associated with registering as a homeschooler (except maybe paying for notary public services; NC has a free notary on staff). Parents may pay out of pocket for activities, classes, books, museum tickets, or co-op/community participation. Of course, all of these fees may be incurred while enrolled at a public school too. Pennsylvania homeschooled students are eligible to participate in any sports or extracurricular activities at their nearby public school for free. With the appropriate paperwork and parental advocacy, homeschooled young people are eligible for compensatory funding for special education services through their school district. Our community is filled with parents who are incredibly creative with their finances; many arrange trades/bartering for class fees, carpool with others, and are always on the hunt for free and low-cost activities in the area. Finding rich educational activities does not require one to be rich: Visiting the library and walking in the woods are a weekly or biweekly event for a lot of families!
What if parents have to work? This is the major logistical question that parents have and it highlights the main purpose of conventional schooling in our society: to be a place for young people to go for 35-40 hours/week so parents can work. While we hope for a future where paid labor is not such a dominating organizing force of families, we are not there yet, and we assume that NC parents are juggling work, parenting, education, and life. Natural Creativity works with all kinds of income landscapes: 2-parent households with 2 full-time jobs, 2-parent households with 1 full-time job, single parents with part- or full-time jobs, 2 parents with multiple part-time jobs with self-employed hours, and everything in between. Some will arrange their schedules so parental work happens while young people or at NC (or others use that as a time to take care of themselves and pursue their own interests). In some families, one parent takes the lead on facilitating non-NC days while the other works full-time, but many split duties so that everyone gets quality time with each other. As parents expand their understanding of “education” to include the constant ebbs and flows of life, they also expand their understanding of “family” and who can support young people’s learning. Many rely on an expansive kin network: grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins, family friends, facilitators, and more. No one can do it alone, and no one has to.
Timing Our program runs Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 9am-3pm, at our space in Germantown. On average, 15% attend 1 day/week, 60% attend 2 days, and 25% attend 3 days. Young people sign up for the same days each week, creating a unique community each day based on that day’s combination of young people and staff. In considering the ways we want to partner with families, we encourage families who are able to do so to sign up for 2 days/week, as we have found this has numerous benefits for the young person and offers much in the way of connection-making without veering too close to being a replacement for conventional school. We also recognize that this may not work for every family, and so we are open to working with you to find the right fit. We follow the typical flow of the conventional school year: mid-September to early June, with a 2-week winter break around the New Year and 1 week spring break in March/April. We have no attendance requirement and there is no “punishment” for being late or missing a day; we know that illnesses, trips, emergencies, and busy schedules can change schedules at the last minute. We pride ourselves on being a low-stress environment around timing; we welcome you as you are.
Is there any structure in your program? Young people can choose to structure their day however they like, within the boundaries of safety, respect, and nonviolent communication. The community holds two mandatory meetings each day, separated by ages and led by facilitators: Morning Meeting (9:30-10) and Group Time (2:30-3). Clean-up (2-2:30) is also a designated time for shared responsibilities. Besides these whole-organization expectations, young people can initiate their own activities, join a facilitator-led activity, or engage with a Visiting Specialist as they wish. Some days feel busy, some days feel slow, but each one is different and youth-led.
How are young people grouped? Young people are free to mix freely among ages throughout the day. The only times when ages are separated are during Group Times, 9:30-10am and 2:30-3pm. The three groups have dedicated facilitators and Group Time activities tailored to their maturity and group dynamics. The groups are the Ocelots (age 4-8), Axolotls (age 9-12), and Narwhals (13-18), which includes the Launch program (16+). These ages are suggestions, not absolutes. As young people reach the age eligibility of a group, they decide with their parents and facilitators if they are able to meet the expectations of the next group. Special consideration is given to those on the age cusp. For example, Axolotls should be able to complete a multi-step project (with help) and sit comfortably in Group Time. Narwhals are expected to participate comfortably in group conversations and projects of a more reflective, collaborative nature. The group names (Ocelots, Axolotls, Narwhals) were picked democratically by the group participants. The evolution of Ocelot to Axolotl to Narwhal is not based on actual evolutionary relationships among these species :)
How are new young people placed into groups? Young people on the cusp consult with parents and facilitators about which group to go in, based on maturity, development, and group dynamics. Due to the time it takes to cultivate group culture, we accept new Ocelots and Axolotls each year, but very few Narwhals. If a teen wishes to join Narwhals after age 15, they have to demonstrate their willingness to engage with our Launch program with intention, self-direction, and community orientation.
What does a typical day look like? There really is no typical day in a self-directed learning environment. Each day is rich with opportunity that is only limited by the young people’ imagination and interests. When young people arrive, they sign in, put their lunch away, and usually go look for their friends. At 9:30, we split into Morning Meetings, grouped by age. During Morning Meeting, facilitators lead communal sharing about games, feelings, and plans for the day. Young people learn about what facilitators/Visiting Specialists are offering. Young people may share what they’re thinking about doing and how others may join. Open Tech Time takes place from 10-11 and some in the older two groups will find a couch to play and share games or videos. Eligible young people must take a short class and sign an agreement around Tech Time. Not all young people choose to participate in Tech Time. From 10am-2pm, young people move among spaces and activities. In fair weather, a group may go to the park. Young people monitor their own eating and bathroom usage throughout the day (with reminders from facilitators for some of the younger ones). At any time, you may see young people playing board games, eating lunch, laughing with friends, cooking, doing a partnership meeting with a facilitator, building in the wood shop, puzzling over a Rubik’s cube, sewing in the art room, or designing a vast imaginary world. Some are parallel-playing/writing/reading/drawing near friends. At the end of the day, groups gather for clean up and Group Time (2:30-3pm), where they process the day, play games, and explore topics related to social and emotional growth. Throughout the day, facilitators are available to lead an activity, parallel play/create near young people, problem-solve around conflicts, and whatever else comes up. Parents pick up at 3pm. We put together a little overview of one young person's self-directed day in March 2022.
What do enrolled young people do on days when they’re not at NC? A variety of things; we encourage families to apply the theory and practice of self-direction throughout the week, so that there is not a harsh binary between home = school and Natural Creativity = play (which can lead to a number of bumpy transitions, struggles, and/or resentment throughout the week). We believe life, play, and learning are inextricably linked, no matter your location. Here are some possibilities about what our families do when not at NC: The ebbs and flows of life: - Errands, appointments, house responsibilities (cooking, shopping, cleaning) - Homeschooling organizations (co-op with parent-led classes, outdoor groups, affinity groups) - Informal homeschooling swap with other families - combining playdates, some instruction, or trips - Online classes (Outschool, Khan Academy, learning apps), usually for a youth-determined amount of time each day - Working through a textbook at a self-directed pace - Watching informative videos on YouTube that inspire projects - Classes, sports, teams, trips, museum visits, hikes - Seeing friends and family - Getting enough sleep and having a relaxed, creative schedule! Says one longtime unschooling parent: "People ask me how my daughters socialize...I tell them my girls have a busier schedule than me; I'm a chauffeur a lot of the time!"
Why do you operate only 4 days per week? Will you go to 5? Beginning in the 2023-24 program year, we offer programs 4 days/week, which is more closely aligned with our approach when we first opened (we did 3 days/wk during 2020-23, the “Covid years.”). We still encourage families to enroll their young people for 2 days/week, if possible, as we have always sought to not be a replacement for conventional schooling. We believe our city has so much to offer in regards to educational experience and personal development that we recommend families attempt to fill their non-NC days with other cool stuff! We are happy to help figure out what that will be, and we always invite parents to listen to what their young people are asking for.
What if my young person just plays all day long? “Play is the highest form of research.” - Albert Einstein Great! Play is exactly what your young person should be doing! Play is learning. There is a reason that nature has endowed young people with an intense need to play in their earliest years, at a time when they are learning faster than at any other point in later life. Through play they also practice their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional skills.
What if my young person doesn’t want to do anything all day? “If you force young people to study things that they are not interested in, they may come to appear to be lazy.” - Jerry Mintz, founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization Depending on how many years your young person has been in a conventional school setting, they may go through a period of deschooling when they first leave school. We see this as a valuable and necessary transition time in which the young person gets back in touch with themself. This may include long periods of doing nothing at all. We encourage families to do at least some deschooling at home, separate from any program, before joining us. For some, this may look like leaving school in June, consciously deschooling in the summer (although this is somewhat of an oxymoron; deschooling thrives when the consciousness rests and the subconscious wakes up!), and committing to trying something new (with or without a place like NC) in the fall. It may take longer than a summer. Parents need to accept this as part of the process, as well as do their own deschooling. If parents do not recognize their schoolishness and need for deschooling, they will continually butt up against our philosophy, which can be quite difficult. For families who are committed to developing in self-directed education, our Family Support Coordinator is available for conversations and resources. Read "But my child is not self-directed"from the Learning Cooperatives for more.
How do young people learn if no one tells them what to do or learn? “Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process…the independent scientist in the child disappears.” - John Holt We believe that all young people are born with a strong desire to learn what they need in order to become an effective adult in the society to which they are born. In fact, our species would not have survived for very long without this inner drive. We live in a literacy-based world, so learning to read is an obviously relevant skill to learn. Our community provides young people with the time and space to get in touch with their own natural desire to learn without being told to do so.
How will my young person know what they like if they are not exposed to it (with classes, etc.)? “When you teach a young person something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” - Jean Piaget We live in the information age, where knowledge is available at your fingertips. Young people are free to explore and interact with peers and adults of all ages all day long, so they are exposed to a wide variety of conversational topics. Ultimately, everyone has gaps in their education no matter their schooling, because no one can learn everything there is to learn. Schooled young people are exposed to the same sliver of information, self-directed young people learn the sliver that best applies to their own lives. Content can be learned at any time, and we do not have to know everything by age 18. When an interest is identified as something that a young person might like to explore in a class, parents may ask around for recommendations, do their own research, or talk to NC’s Family Support Coordinator to learn about where to go next. Our community is diverse and experienced; it is easy to find at least one other family/young person’s interest and has a direction to suggest.
How do young people learn the basics (reading, writing, and math)? When a young person is ready and willing, the basics like reading, writing, and math are quite easily learned. Traditional schooling forces young people to learn these at the same age and at the same rate, often before they are ready or interested. Thus, the process seems to be difficult and time-consuming. The fact is that we have seen young people teach themselves to read, some at the age of 4 and some as late as 11, with absolutely no instruction. By age 13, you can’t tell the difference between the young person who learned to read at 4 from the child who learned to read at 12. As for math, it has been proven that all of the K-8 math content can be learned in just 6 weeks when the young person is ready for it. Imagine all of that time saved for valuable play! For young people who want to read (because their friends are reading, for example) but are having trouble, parents may turn to tutors or reading specialists. We have seen an 11-year-old go from very low reading skills to being fluent in 6 months, reading voraciously, and writing a novel at age 15. The key was motivation: they wanted to learn, and so they were ready for instruction. Behind this question there is sometimes parental concern that a young person will not learn the same things at the same time as their schooled peers, or that they will be “behind” those peers. This is certainly a possibility, but we believe it's all a matter of perspective. Self-directed learning necessitates a paradigm shift away from comparison and towards intrinsic acceptance of each individual’s unique path. “Behind” is a concept tied to standardization and competition. Here are some more resources to start: “How Do Children Learn When They Don't Go to School?” Article by Dr. Naomi Fisher “Why Math Instruction Is Unnecessary” (TEDx talk, 11:49) “Young people Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning” by Dr. Peter Gray "When Less Is More: The Case for Teaching Less Math in School" by Dr. Peter Gray “Children’s Natural Ways of Education Themselves Still Work: Even for the Three Rs” by Peter Gray (chapter from Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education, 2016)
How will my young person set personal goals? “Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” - Alfie Kohn Even though adults may not notice it, young people set goals for themselves all day long. When they are young, the goals are usually small: making a card for a friend; learning how to play a game, or balancing a stick. Some goals are larger, like proposing a new rule or planning a field trip. In our program, young people learn how to accomplish these goals for themselves. As their confidence grows, so do their goals. The important thing is that young people don’t rely on anyone else to set goals for them. Goal-creation and pursuit are frequent topics in partnership meetings with facilitators.
My young person follows an online curriculum. Does that work with your program? “Just as eating against one’s will is injurious to health, so studying without a liking for it spoils the memory, and it retains nothing it takes in.” - Leonardo da Vinci Some people immediately see the social value of our program and think they can fill the perceived academic void by having their young person follow an online curriculum at home. An online course is fine if it truly is your child’s choice. However, academics or extracurricular activity that is forced upon your young person is at odds with our program’s philosophy. It sends a mixed message to your young person that our program is for playing and the “real” learning takes place at home. We encourage families to integrate self-directed learning and philosophies into their family lives, no matter the context.
Life after NC
What if my young person transfers to another program, such as conventional schooling? “When young people are constantly having to make decisions [in a self-directed environment], they begin to know who they are, and to know how they feel about almost everything. When these young people go into an authoritarian situation, they do not feel threatened about losing their identity; they see the situation, instead, as a game that has to be played in a certain way.” - Jerry Mintz, founder of AERO Each year, some families (or individual young people in a family) choose to go to a conventional school after their time at NC. Sometimes this move is directed by the young person; they may want to experience the social aspect of conventional school life or receive dedicated instruction in a particular area. Sometimes life circumstances (parents’ work schedule, moving house, income change) dictate a need for childcare five days a week, and a family reluctantly goes to school because it makes the most sense. In our experience, most of our young people who (re)enter school transition comfortably into the new social and academic environments--perhaps because they are deliberately choosing it, rather than being forced into it. If a “gap” is recognized in a young person’s knowledge or skills in order to transition comfortably, a short amount of deliberate focus on a subject area in the summer before is enough to get them ready. Check out this video for more: What About the Transition to "Normal" School? (5-minute clip)
How will my young person get into college? Will they be ready? We often encounter this question from parents whose young people are over a decade from even thinking about this question. We encourage parents not to convert the anxiety of the unknown into obsession with the future at the expense of the young person directly in front of them. Natural Creativity will “graduate” its first “class” in 2024 (with one 18-year-old graduate!), so we don’t have statistics yet about our young people. Here’s what we do know: There are no structural barriers to a homeschooler entering or graduating from college. If a homeschooler follows the transcript and evaluation process in their high school years, the resulting parent-created diploma is equivalent to a high school diploma. Completion of the Narwhals’ Launch program provides additional preparation and recognition of a young person’s readiness for higher education and can smooth over some of the questions an admissions officer may have. Others choose to also get a GED, take the SAT/ACT tests, and/or take community college courses to further solidify their credentials and entry to college. Colleges admissions offices are prepared to work directly with homeschoolers to understand their unique high school experiences. They have told us that they really appreciate the self-direction and intentionality of homeschoolers! Once they arrive, they are often more prepared for college life than many of their peers because of their well-honed “real world” skills of self-motivated learning, communication, and time management. We also don’t subscribe to the idea that an individual needs college precisely at age 18 in order to have a successful life; there are many paths and timelines that move a young person into adulthood. Some may enter the workforce, take a gap year, complete a 2-year associate’s degree while working, or enter an undergraduate program after a few years of working, travel, and exploration. There are lots of resources on the topic: College Without High School by Blake Boles Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree by Blake Boles How does Self-Directed Learning Benefit People Headed to College? For more reading and statistics from more established democratic schools, see the Circle School's alumni study and writings on Sudbury Valley alumni.
What happens when my young person gets out into the real world? “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” - John Dewey A self-directed learning center is much more like the real world than conventional schools; our young people have the challenge and opportunity every day to figure out how they want to learn, grow, connect, get help, and build a meaningful day. Self-directed learners are particularly prepared for a fast-changing world in which self-initiation and lifelong learning is a must. We can learn content and facts at any time, but the process of how to build a life, make connections, contribute to a community, and ask for help? That’s harder to teach and necessary to practice. That’s our bread and butter. Check out these stories from Grown Unschoolers.
Testing and Evaluation
How will I know my young person is learning if they are not being tested? “All I am saying … can be summed up in two words: Trust Children.” ~ John Holt Science has shown that high stakes testing doesn't significantly improve learning, and may in fact contribute to stress, depression, and anxiety disorders. Testing focuses on an external performance-based perspective on learning, rather than an intrinsic, self-fulfilling approach. It funnels young people into competition where there must be winners and losers; a system where they are encouraged to distance themselves from their own desires and align with those of adults. A big leap that any parent must make before enrolling their young person in our program is the willingness to trust them. You must trust that they will learn what they need to in their own way and in their own time. Once you shed the notion that real learning can be measured, you will begin to see your young person in a different light and trust your own instincts about whether or not they are growing. Check out this video: How can self-directed learners monitor learning and growth? Parents may choose to track the family's activities for the purposes of facilitating the evaluation process that takes place at the end of the year. Some keep a record in a binder or a series of photos on their phone.
How does your program measure growth or evaluate progress? “Nobody grew taller by being measured.” - Roland Meighan NC facilitators strive to be non-judgmental of young people and their interests and skills. We enjoy celebrating successes, but we do not compare young people nor assume to know what is best for them. Instead, we encourage young people to trust their own assessment of themselves and of their efforts in meeting personal goals and challenges. Young people’s development is a regular topic of conversation in conversations with parents and partnership meetings (3 per year). Learn more about how the ‘evaluative gaze’ of testing in schools influences young people’s learning: “Children, Learning, and the 'Evaluative Gaze' of School (How a watched pot loses the desire to boil)” by Carol Black (https://carolblack.org/the-gaze).
What are the standardized testing requirements for PA homeschoolers? The Pennsylvania School Code states that the portfolio for home education students in grades 3, 5 and 8 must include the results of the statewide tests for reading/language arts and mathematics or nationally normed standardized achievement tests. Parents may choose from a variety of tests, which vary in cost, timing, and proctoring requirements. Families may not opt out of these tests (unlike conventional students) and there are no consequences related to test results. NC parent and homeschool evaluator Teresa talks testing here: https://youtu.be/Q1Kk-Y-s93s?t=671(2:40). More information from the Pennsylvania Dept of Education here: https://www.education.pa.gov/Policy-Funding/BECS/Purdons/Pages/HomeEducationProgram.aspx
Safety and Discipline
What are the rules and what happens if someone breaks them? The simplest answer is: We talk about it…a lot! The closest thing we have to “rules” are our Guidelines for Harmonious Living. We encourage young people to see themselves as a member of the community, whose needs are constantly in negotiation with those around them. When we each take care of ourselves, we are able to treat each other (and the community) with care.
Is your community like Lord of the Flies? “We have a cultural notion that if children were not engineered, if we did not manipulate them, they would grow up as beasts in the field. This is the wildest fallacy in the world.” - Joseph Chilton Pearce This is many people’s initial reaction to hearing that young people have a lot of control over their days at Natural Creativity (and at home too). The truth is that most young people value order, peace, and connection wherever they are. When they feel that there is enough space and time to get their needs met through prosocial means (discussion, contract-setting, de-escalation times, self-regulation), they do not have to dominate others to meet those needs. Here’s an interesting historical look at a real Lord of the Flies.
How does your community handle bullying? We view bullying like any other behavior: a means of communicating needs and feelings. Lashing out at others through verbal or physical means indicates unmet needs and unclear boundaries. When we witness this behavior, we employ a Nonviolent Communication perspective that focuses on observations, feelings, needs, and requests of all parties involved, with an eye towards repair. If a young person is demonstrating difficulty adjusting to these expectations, we will bring in the parents to discuss further steps. We have seen many young people who experienced peer aggression in schools come to our space and go on to heal and thrive.
Mandated Reporting All NC staff have completed the appropriate mandated reporter training and background checks and are legally required to report any indication of child abuse that we witness or hear about. All adult volunteers who have extended contact with young people are required to submit a criminal background check and child abuse history clearance.
Technology and Screens
What if my young person spends all day on the computer? Through lots of discussion and collaboration, the community developed the concept of "Tech Time." Open Tech Time is available for Axolotls (8-12 years old) and Narwhals (13+) for designated hours in the day. Young people must complete training and sign an agreement with their parents to access Tech Time, as well as bring their own devices. Not all eligible young people opt in to Tech Time. During the initial deschooling phase of self-directed education, young people must recover from the expectations of schoolishness. This looks different for everyone, from sleeping to jumping into a bunch of projects to “zoning out” for hours in video games or YouTube videos. We do not buy into the idea that screen time is inherently negative; we recognize that computers are the most important tools of modern society and that there are many advantages to playing with them. We’ve seen them build connections, soothe during overstimulated times, and support lots of creative projects. If a young person wishes to use a device for a specific creative activity outside of Tech Time (writing a story, making an animation, printing a photograph for an art project), we make a contract with them for their device’s appropriate use.
What kind of technology/computers are available for young people to use? If a young person is engaging in Tech Time, they can do so on their own device (phone, Nintendo switch, laptop, tablet). Virtual reality headets are not permitted. We do have a few laptops/chromebooks available for projects if someone doesn’t have one. We also have a 3D printer in our makerspace. Any devices not listed above (a remote control car, for example) are permitted only after a young person has made an agreement with a facilitator about its use.
If my young person becomes a self-directed learner, will my role change from parent to friend? “If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.” - John Holt It is true that NC facilitators treat young people in an egalitarian style, without condescension or coercion, and encourage all to speak up for themselves. This doesn’t mean that your young person will stop appreciating the wisdom of experience, provided that it is not forced upon them. The reality of the matter is that parents will continue to make big decisions in their young people’s lives. We believe that parents should be sensitive to that and treat their young people as respectfully as possible, much like you would treat a friend. This change doesn’t happen instantaneously; it takes several years of parental deschooling and trust in the process to get to a place of minimal friction…and then life will throw a wrench in your plans because development is not linear! We help parents be flexible and responsive as they move towards a more partnership-oriented style of parenting.
Will my relationship with my young person change? “We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.” - Alice Miller Your young person will mature and grow in unexpected ways while attending NC. That is the beauty of self-directed education! As with any other relationship in which one person is changing, the other may have to make adjustments as well. Parents have told us that their young person begins to ask for more autonomy and respect at home (sometimes in ways that are hard to hear!) and they have to adjust. If you are open to making changes in the way that you relate to your young person, then your relationship, and your young person, will blossom.
We don’t have a democracy at home. Does that work with your program’s philosophy? We recognize that parents make the biggest decisions in a young person’s life. Not everything has to be put to a larger discussion, but the more your young person feels control over their own decisions and the more their opinions are valued at home, the smoother your family will operate. We emphasize consensus-building and collaboration where all parties contribute to finding creative solutions to meet the needs of the people involved. It takes effort and practice to hear each other’s ideas and make requests that can be heard by others. It’s beautiful when it works!
How do I manage multiple young people in the family with different educational needs? Young people are all different, even in the same family. Every sibling combination of education exists in our community: one sibling at NC, one at school; one at NC, one at another SDE place/home; two at NC, two at school, and so on. In case you couldn't tell, we are anti-standardization at all levels; we assume that every young person is going to be looking for something different. We are exactly what some need, and not what others need.
Skepticism & Doubts
I’m not a teacher and I don’t know enough to teach anything. How will I homeschool? If you are a product of conventional schooling and you don’t feel confident sharing knowledge that you learned back then, then how “good” was that schooling? Like a lot of students, you probably sat through some things you liked, some things you didn’t get at all, and a vast sea of forgotten learning in between. You encountered a lot of content that was not relevant, too developmentally low/high for you, or covered up by life/other interests/health/social dynamics. You probably also encountered meaningful learning opportunities unrelated to conventional classes--important relationships, hobbies, sports, games, family experiences, etc. Many things went into your development, all of which are relevant as a self-directed parent. Being a product of conventional schooling doesn’t mean you’re not able to pursue SDE; it means you have some deschooling to do. Remember, you won’t be their teacher for most things! This is self-directed learning, not parent-directed learning. You are focused on process, not content: Helping them find resources, suggesting things with an open hand (and willing to hear a “no thank you”), making connections, chauffeuring, nurturing the relationship, and witnessing and responding to the specific person in front of you.
This seems like a lot of work. Do I have to change my whole life to do it? Yes and no. Yes: Giving young people agency and control over their own lives is deeply countercultural, and anything countercultural is going to be challenging and require a deep paradigm shift that takes years. Some parents arrive at our doors with firm convictions about what they’re doing and are comfortable bucking the norm and doing something different. Most are not this comfortable; they have questions and doubts and get tongue-tied around concerns from relatives and cultural messaging about how one “should” raise a child. They stumble through a bunch of different approaches as they try to figure out how to do it, alongside their young person. As parents see their young person grow and thrive in a self-directed environment (or, at the very least, heal from the wounds of school, if relevant), they grow more trust in the process. When the young people recognize that trust, they become more confident in their self-direction. It’s a beautiful cycle! No: Do you remember when your young person was a baby or a toddler and everything in the world was interesting to them? They learned to walk and talk through some unseen mechanism in their brain and body and you saw them becoming their own individual self without much outside instruction. This is self-direction in its purest form: before we force them into chairs and boxes and labels. What if that openness and orientation towards creativity was cultivated rather than “left behind” in toddlerhood? This is what self-directed education does. Many parents note that relaxing into self-directed education is about giving up things (control, expectations, comparisons, “shoulds”), not doing more things.
If you would like to learn more about enrolling in our program, please go to our enrollment page.
Because of the efforts we put towards building our culture, we generally have more openings for young people under 13 years old, and fewer opportunities for 14+ years old.
We accept inquiries throughout the year, and focus on the next year's enrollment starting in March. We enroll families for the whole year.
We are committed to building and maintaining an economically and racially diverse community and because of this, we acknowledge that enrollment decisions will be impacted by how closely our community demographics match our intention.
Thank you to the following entities for their generous contributions/permissions to this page:
Sunset Sudbury (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Pathfinder Community School (Durham, NC, closed in 2021)
Peter Bergson, co-founder of Natural Creativity (2015)
Chris Steinmeier EdD (co-founder of Natural Creativity)
Tess Liebersohn (Lead Facilitator, Family Support Coordinator)