A mum-of-four who was so worried about social media pressure that she took her youngest children out of school insists that allowing them to explore nature and choose their own curriculum has better equipped them for adulthood.
Believing that the arrival of social media put young people under extra stress, Amy Sayle, 41, and her concrete pump operator husband, Steve, 44, decided to take their daughter Ebony, now 18, out of mainstream education in 2015, when she was 13.
Seeing how she flourished under an 'unschooling' regime—where children learn only what they want to—the couple, of Balnarring, Victoria, Australia, then did the same with their younger sons, Bodhi, nine, and Kai, seven.
Although they have not always had such an unconventional approach to learning, having sent their eldest Jesse, 23, now an air conditioning mechanic, to a traditional school for his entire education, they are now both firm advocates for child-led learning.
Amy, a photographer, explained:
“When social media came into play, the world completely changed—and with it came extra pressures and anxieties for children."
“With Ebony, I felt like the peer pressure was very harsh. Image and the internet was part of her life by the time she was a teenager, whereas Jesse didn't have any of that when he was at school."
Bodhi, Kai, Ebony, Amy, Steve and Jesse (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I didn't like it. I felt a bit of a disconnect with the schooling system, so we felt as though our children would do much better if they learnt for themselves."
“When children learn for themselves it takes the pressure off them by not telling them they need to be at a certain standard by a certain age—and in turn they flourish."
Speaking out as a grassroots group of educators in the UK have called for a reduction in the number of exams students must sit next year, to protect their mental health following the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, Amy has insisted that children can learn far more from the earth than a rigid classroom routine.
Amy and Steve Sayle (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I know everyone calls it unschooling, but I'm not really a fan of that term."
“I'd much rather call it nature-led learning or earth schooling because there is so much kids can learn from the earth, animals and the planet."
“Steve and I don't have fond memories of our own schooling experience, so in some ways, it feels great, that we can remove that pressure from our children."
Initially, when the couple took Ebony out of traditional school, they tried homeschooling her—but soon found it difficult, and so Amy began researching alternatives.
“I started researching, trying to broaden my horizons, and then I came across online forums of other families discussing earth schooling."
“Their stories were really inspiring about how their children learnt for themselves and that encouraged me to take the plunge to nature led learning."
Amy and Steve Sayle (Collect/ PA Real Life)
But although Ebony, who now works as an artist, happily agreed to try the radical way of learning, her parents still had some reservations.
“At first, with Ebony, we found it challenging. We still had this strict school brain that we couldn't shake off."
“It took a long time to get over the guilt of not doing what we were supposed to. But after a while, it started coming naturally and it has turned out to be the best decision we ever made."
Amy, Bodhi and Kai on the beach (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Ebony had always been a timid, artistic girl, but when she started learning for herself, she flourished."
“It really allowed her to immerse herself in things she enjoyed, like writing and painting—something she wouldn't have been able to do as much of at school."
“Sometimes she'd write stories, or watch make-up tutorials, and she got into face art too. She'd just wake up and get on with what she wanted to learn about that day. She was very good about it. she didn't slack off."
Amy and Steve Sayle (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I'm lucky because I work as a freelance photographer, so I was able to stay home with Ebony."
Seeing the positive impact earth schooling had on Ebony, Amy and Steve decided to follow suit with Bodhi and Kai.
But while some unschooling families allow their children to make every single decision, from when they go to bed to what they eat, the Sayle brood do have to adhere to some rules.
Steve, Bodhi and Kai outside their campervan (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I completely trust the children when it comes to learning, but I still think they need a steer when it comes to food and bedtimes."
“The boys don't have a set bedtime, but we do have set quiet time before they go to bed."
“They tell me one thing that they're grateful for and one thing that they've learnt that day and then, usually, they nod off after that."
Bodhi, Steve and Kai paddle boarding (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“It's the same with food. Every morning I make them a packed lunch of either a sandwich, a wrap or cheese and crackers with fruit, nuts, yoghurt and a sweet treat like chocolate or a cookie or banana bread, and they tend to graze on that all day."
“They can pick and choose when they eat, and if they're still hungry they can just help themselves to more food."
In April 2018, with the children not restricted by a set school timetable, the family decided to spend some time traveling Australia in a camper van—selling their home, and all their belongings, to fund their travels.
Kai Sayle (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Setting off, they visited every state in the country, Amy said:
“Every day on the road was a learning adventure. We saw so many different and wonderful things."
“The children would play games with new friends they had met. They'd go kayaking and create things with sticks they'd found in the bush."
“They saw so many different animals, like camels, dingoes, bulls, snakes and lizards, whales and sharks up close. They learnt about which waters to swim in, and which ones not to because of crocodiles and stingers."
Kai on a beach (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“They learnt all about the different species of fish, what hooks to use, and the best time to fish. It was a bit like going back to caveman basics."
Amy and Steve also used the practicalities of being on the road as a tool for teaching the children maths and English.
“As a maths lesson of sorts, we'd encourage the kids to keep track of how many kilometers we were traveling in a day, and what the cost of fuel was."
“Being around Steve and I all day meant they were privy to conversations about budgets and money—something they wouldn't usually be exposed to in school."
“For English we'd encourage them to read signs and maps, and geography was obviously a massive part of the adventure, too."
As well as constantly learning, the children developed skills like resilience and adaptability—especially when they visited Western Australia.
Kai in a lake (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“It's so remote and baron. There's no shop five minutes down the road, so we learnt to always have a plan in place and rely on our skills to make a fire or go fishing – the boys loved it."
By sharing candid snaps of her travels and daily life, Amy has racked up almost 10,000 Instagram followers.
While most of the comments she receives are fully supportive of her lifestyle, she has been subject to some negativity.
Bodhi, Amy and Kai in a lake (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I have had some negative comments that have bought me down. But me and Steve always say, 'Come and live with us for a week, see how it works and then you might get it'."
“I think people only say negative things because they're not educated on how it works."
“Earth schooling isn't for everyone and I appreciate that."
Amy, Ebony Bodhi and Kai (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Returning home in September 2019, Amy is now reaping the benefits of her time on the road.
“Bodhi used to be a very anxious child and he never used to speak to anyone except close family and friends."
“But now he's blossomed, like a lotus flower. He's learnt to communicate and trust other people."
Kai and a kangaroo (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“While Kai was Mr Sociable Bunny—he spent the entire trip barefoot and topless—he's gained so much from exploring and learning of his own accord. "
With no plans to travel again in the future, with the family buying a new home, Amy and her children are getting back into the swing of earth learning at home.
“It's been hard because we have been stuck in the house because of the coronavirus. The children don't have their freedom to roam and learn at the moment."
Ebony and Kai (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Right now, they're playing games and watching movies, but hopefully, they'll be able to get back to exploring nature again soon."
Though initially nervous to take the plunge and ditch mainstream education, Amy now firmly believes it is the best thing she has ever done for her children.
“Don't get me wrong it's not all sparkles and rainbows, but we don't hide any of our problems from our children."
Ebony and a kangaroo (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I think it makes them much more equipped for adulthood because they have so many more life skills."
“Life is short and precious, so there's no point in stressing about whether your children are learning their phonics at the right age. I trust mine to learn for themselves."
“The world is changing, and I think nowadays children can pick their own pathways."
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