Perhaps George Whitman, founder of the renowned Parisian bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, said it best: “All the world is my school, and all humanity is my teacher.”

Many people think of learning as something that happens only in an educational setting or purposeful situation, but we have experiential learning opportunities everyday, and as homeschoolers, we have even more of these opportunities because of the high rate of interaction we have with our students. Let’s call these opportunities “circumstantial learning.”

Circumstantial Learning

Circumstantial learning is the idea that one can learn from literally any circumstance that he or she is likely to encounter in the normal routine of a day, and the curriculum for circumstantial learning is simple: it’s life.

For example, consider these typical events that every youngster will likely encounter at some point: following a recipe, doing basic home or car repair, growing a garden, running errands with an adult, event planning, doing household chores, taking care of pets, creating digital photography, crafting, camping, getting hurt, meal planning and eating, sewing/stitching/patching, meeting and interacting with all kinds of people, and using the Internet. Now translate some of those normal, everyday experiences into circumstantial curriculum:

  • Following a recipe becomes a math lesson
  • Growing a garden becomes a science lesson
  • Running errands with an adult becomes an economics lesson and an opportunity to learn time-management skills
  • Scraping a knee or burning oneself on the stove becomes a lesson in first aid and safety skills
  • Eating becomes a lesson in nutrition
  • Talking to neighbors, people at church or in the community, becomes a lesson in interpersonal skills and communication

In my family, a recent weekend of circumstantial learning experiences looked something like this:

Friday afternoon: After spending the morning sketching out a plan for a doghouse, my husband and fifteen-year-old daughter went to our local home improvement store to buy the necessary tools and materials. While there, they spoke to several employees, compared prices, and weighed the costs against the quality. It had been several years since they had done a building project, and in that time, wood prices had risen considerably. On the way home from the store, they discussed factors that may have contributed to the higher prices: forest fires, trade disputes between the United States and Canada, and transportation problems. That one experience yielded lessons in math, architecture, engineering, and design (sketching the plan and building the house); interpersonal skills and communication (engaging in conversation with each other and with employees); economics (comparing prices, weighing the costs, discussing the concept of inflation), and current events (discussing what was happening in the world and bringing those events home). Suddenly, the abstract topic of tariffs and their impact was clear, and what was once just a story in a history book about a “tea party” in Boston made more sense.

Saturday evening: With the doghouse complete, our family settled in for a relaxing evening of streaming a movie. My daughter chose Dances with Wolves because it was my father-in-law’s favorite movie and she had never seen in before. It doesn’t take much to guess where we went with this one: straight into a history lesson. And then the next afternoon, when I found on the Internet the book on which the movie was based and chose a few passages for her to read, the lesson expanded into one about literary elements, differences between the book and the movie, and differences between written communication and audio-visual communication in general. If I had asked her to take our conversation, organize the key points, and write them down, then we have also had a writing lesson.

From just a couple of everyday experiences on a typical weekend in the life of my family, my daughter had studied an aspect of ten or so different “school subjects,” and the best part of it was that she didn’t even realize it: she was just living her life.

Some may wonder, isn’t this just another word for “unschooling?” No – because it isn’t always student-directed. The world at large and the world within the walls of your home of your home dictate the lessons, making every day an adventure as you seek out those lessons to be discovered. The art of circumstantial learning is really that simple: live life, and look for lessons to glean along the way.

You just have to keep your eyes open and seize the opportunities when they come.

Copyright 2019, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Rebecca Wilson

Rebecca Wilson resides in Arkansas with her husband of twenty-six years and her daughter who is currently in tenth grade. Rebecca homeschooled her daughter full-time through seventh grade and continues to homeschool her in English and history.