2016 was the year we left the city to live with nature, untethered from schedules of work, school, or study. With my young sons, their mother, and a group of other adults and children, we did what so many people dream about and headed for the hills. It is the best thing I’ve ever done.
My sons attend a pretty wonderful primary school – Fitzroy Community School in Melbourne – perhaps as good as it gets. And yet, over the years a feeling had begun to gnaw at me. While their days were filled with good people, and enlivening activities, their days were still…filled. I was happy with what they were learning in terms of curriculum, but ever more concerned about the invisible lessons being learned – the hidden curriculum, if you like. I’m talking about the implicit lessons ingested over years of waking up to an alarm clock, going to an institution, spending time in a space with four walls, and having entire days mapped out.
We’d had our block of land for six years, and I already knew something of what happened to them when we stayed out there for a week or two. I’d seen the kids move through the same process again and again. On day one they’d often move around looking a little lost, occasionally saying, “I’m bored” or “I don’t know what to do.” By day two and three, I’d see less of them as they found things to entertain themselves, and ventured further from the barn where we had our meals. By day four and five they’d be gone for hours at a time, returning with stories of encountering wallabies, digging holes, building bases, and running from snakes. After a week they’d be writing plays for days on end, with characters for all of the children present, and the odd cameo – usually involving being killed – for one or more of the adults.
I became convinced that the “I’m bored/I don’t know what to do” phase was born of having come from their city lives, devoid of long stretches of empty space in which they were thrust back upon themselves and their own interests. The prospect of my sons spending their entire childhoods not intimately knowing the itch and burn of their own desire and interest terrified me. What does it do to a little human to be weaned onto a life that consists of managed time, and tasks to be completed?
It was the horror of this vision – the long term impact of marching to the beat of someone else’s drum – combined with my sheer delight in seeing them encounter and run with their own curiosity, that gave me the motivation I needed to dismantle a life in full swing: to wind-down my psychotherapy practice, take the kids out of school, pack up the house, and head for the hills of Wild Dog Valley. And so it was that we left the city at the end of 2015, armed with little more than a deep curiosity and enthusiasm about what might happen to kids left to their own devices for the better part of a year in the woods.
Fast-forward eight months, and I’m standing at the door of the barn. It’s dinner-time and the sun is going down. We haven’t seen the five kids for over four hours. I ‘cooee!’ a couple of times, and then eventually hear their voices – their tinkling conversation. I walk towards the sound and wait. Coming around the bend of the creek about eighty metres away I am met with a vision that fills my heart with joy. The five of them are walking fully clothed, backpacks on, in the creek, water up their belly buttons. In little five-year-old Ilaria’s case, the water is up to her neck. Their faces are sunburnt red and ruddy beneath a layer of dirt. Their smiles are broad as they greet me.
So much that was good about our year away is captured in those full smiles and that hearty greeting. Their faces and voices are bright, proud, unconcerned, and responsible. They are not school children, managed and corralled day after day, looking to me for instruction, praise or censure. They are at ease, quietly confident, carrying themselves with self-knowledge and self-assurance. This is the gift of a year without school.
We have returned to the city now, and that is another story altogether. But whatever happens from here on out, I feel at peace knowing that their little bodies and bones know the taste of freedom and self-determination. They know that there is life beyond externally imposed schedules. They know that beneath all of the noise and activity that fills their days, is a burning curiosity and desire that is all their own.
Every child ought spend a year in the woods.