by Laura Madsen, contributor

It’s a Thursday morning, about 11 o’clock. Breakfast remnants are still on the table and floor, the dishes unwashed. My 7-year-old is sighing dramatically as his pencil goes flying across the room again. My 5-year-old is moaning on her unmade bed, paralyzed by the mountainous task of getting dressed. The 3-year-old twins are fighting over who snatched something from whom, and the fight is escalating. In moments like these, when being alone with my kids all day long, attempting to teach them responsibility, character, everything a second-grader is supposed to know, how to negotiate peacefully and the millions of things parents are in charge of in their kids’ lives — I change tactics. “That’s it. We’re going to the creek,” I say. The kids start moving in four different directions and approximately an hour later, we are outside, where there is enough space for all of us.

I always thought I was an outdoorsy person. Growing up on 2 ½ acres surrounded by farms and state trails, I spent most of my childhood up in trees or exploring swamps. But somewhere in between getting through school and finding work and a husband and having kids, the outdoors became a place to exercise, to visit, to rake and shovel, not a place you just spent time.

When my oldest was 4 and my twins were no longer infants, we discovered Free Forest School. I had been trying to figure out what preschool would look like if we decided to homeschool, and how to get 4 kids under 5 up and out the door in the morning, and then what to do with them. A mom friend of mine added me to the Free Forest School Facebook group, and we tried it out. The first time I walked up to the group of moms and kids, two babies in my arms and two toddlers clinging to my shorts, I felt like a spectacle. However, we soon found an amazing, supportive group of friends who were willing to help in any way they could, encouraging us to come back and applauding my ability to manage my little crew. The philosophies of Free Forest School brought me back to my love of the outdoors — the simple, sweet joy of just noticing nature and being in it. The rules say the kids lead the way and firmly encourage adults to step back, allowing their children to find their place however they want to in the woods. We attended for 3 years, and even though we have aged out of the official Free Forest School meetings, we continue to meet friends and go regularly to the wild spaces around us.

Minneapolis is an incredible city for homeschooling. Not only are there many nature centers, parks, nature preserves, and refuges, there are countless areas to explore along the rivers and creeks. My kids and I have spent the last 2 years slowly wandering down Minnehaha Creek, between Lake Harriet and the Mississippi River. Getting out in the woods, stepping back and being quiet, and giving kids a chance to figure things out is my ultimate form of unschooling. I am proud that my kids can identify several types of mushrooms, but prouder that they feel comfortable and confident to try and climb trees, and can spend hours digging in sand or playing with rocks. This attitude of slowing down and stepping back, responding to questions and modeling curiosity can translate to other subjects besides nature study.

This is our first year of official, documented homeschooling, so I feel like a beginner trying to find my way. So far all I know for sure is that when I try to force subjects on my kids, they balk. We have workbooks for handwriting (The Good and the Beautiful and Zaner-Bloser), reading, and math (Mammoth Math), and have dabbled in science, history, and art curriculum (Build Your Library), but the kids are by far happiest and most engaged when they are doing what they choose. For my 7-year-old, that means playing strategic video games on the tablet, building with all different types of materials (mostly Duplo, Lego, K’Nex, and paper and tape), and learning the names, top speeds, acceleration, engine size, and cost of the world’s best sports cars. For my 5-year-old, that means going to dance class, playing with dolls, picking out words in her favorite Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious books, and drawing/painting/coloring. My 3-year-old twins are close on their heels, learning letters and prewriting, playing with play dough and making up stories and songs. We meet regularly with a homeschool/unschooling group for field trips and social time, and visit all the museums, zoos, and play areas.

As my kids get older and homeschooling becomes more serious, I hope they hold on to the confidence they get from making their own decisions about what to do, both out in the woods, and in their quieter pursuits. Meanwhile, I’ll be practicing my tree climbing, noticing the animals and plants in the changing seasons, and trying to memorize all the types of birds and trees right along with them.