The Fairies Taught My World-Schooled Kid to Read

When we left Seattle four years ago to begin our life as a nomadic family, Matilda was seven years old, and she was not reading. This was a great frustration to her; her friends were already into cool books, and she felt left behind. The only school she’d attended at that point was a sweet little forest school on our green island, where the kids sang songs to the earth and learned how to make a poultice from grass and their own spit to soothe the many nettle stings. 

On that first one-way flight to Paris, at the top of Matilda’s backpack was a short book, “Ada Lace is On the Case”. On flights and ferries, on trains and in moments of boredom Matilda would pull out this book and I would sit next to her and read with her. She’s bright and determined, but for the next six months that little book was her personal torturer. Every vowel combination another turn on the rack. Progress was slow, a paragraph per sitting. The edges started to bend and fray from her desperate grip and the cold pages swallowed her tiny tears without a care. We didn’t push her, but she pushed herself and found only continued stress. For the first six months of our travels Ada Lace made regular, fruitless appearances, growing more dog-eared and tear-stained. At a certain point we said, “Matilda, let’s just take it easy on reading. Come to it when you’re ready.” So she stopped. 

A year and a half later we were staying with friends in Byron Bay, Australia. They’re an inspiring family and have raised their five children with imagination and respect. At some point on our journey our kids had been introduced to the idea of building fairy houses, tiny little structures and features made using whatever they could find in the yard. They loved this, and spent hours outdoors crafting tiny worlds. There were elevators, kitchens, toilets, feast halls… Our friends in Byron Bay played this game too, with the addition of mailboxes where they could leave tiny handwritten notes for the fairies. The fairies would take the notes (Michael, creeping in the middle of the night) and reply with their own small curling scrolls written in a flowery script. The fairies would tell them their names, what they do for fun, how they fly, what they do when it rains, all the things curious kids need to know. 

On our second day there Matilda came to me, wide-eyed, to tell me about the fairy notes. “Dad,” she said, “I have to know what the fairies are saying”. A lot happened between that moment and our departure two weeks later; plenty of coffee, pancakes, surfing, hugs and hikes. But I don’t remember hearing about reading, I don’t remember any tears. And when we left Byron Bay Matilda could read. Not falter, not sputter and stumble through See Spot Run. She could really read! Ada Lace stayed in the backpack for a while, but was never read again. It was too boring, Matilda said, and besides she had all these other books to get through. Now, at age 11, Matilda reads above her age level. Far more importantly, she loves it.

When we departed Seattle we committed to this idea that learning was not something that had to happen in school, that trusting our kids and giving them a dynamic life would be the best way to prepare them for the future. It sounds sensible in the abstract, but the ramifications are radical, and, at first, terrifying. What happens if you step off the track? 

Seattle’s a high-achieving kind of city, filled with smart parents feeding their kids organic kale and lovingly coaching them towards success. When Matilda was 18 months old I recall someone asking me what classes she was taking. “She’s a baby!”, I said with a confused look, “she’s not learning Mandarin, she still poops in her pants.” But I worried. Were we already behind? 

But the answer to why kids were doing what they were doing always seemed to be so that they would hopefully excel enough to get to the next thing. A good pre-school leads to a good primary school, which leads to a good middle school, then a good high school. From there it’s a quality university and then, of course, a good job which gives you money and fulfillment and happiness.

Except it doesn’t. We all know this. Happiness and fulfillment are true and delicate creatures. They may come to live in your home, but not because you got good grades or a job at Amazon. They can hear the small voice of your spirit, but if YOU cannot hear it they get bored and move on. 

Still, there’s this question, is it really the right thing to withdraw from the system? What if they want to go to a “real” school someday? What if they want to go to Harvard? How will they pass the SAT’s?

School has changed little since its design was cooked up at the dawn of the Industrial Era as a way to quickly prepare the masses to keep the industrial engine growing. But that was a long time ago. The world looks wildly different now, and when our kids are graduating from high school it will look even wilder.

Universities are admitting that test scores are not a good indicator of success at their institutions. Students who’ve spent the last 12 years (or more) learning how to take tests are poorly prepared for the full cerebral stretching that a good University provides. While the SAT slips from the admissions package, it’s replaced by the portfolio, the story, by questions like what do you care about? What have you done? 

The factors that will best prepare our kids to solve the biggest problems, to do whatever job they want, to find wholeness and happiness, will be their ability to think in new and unique ways, to see the value in all kinds of perspectives and to analyze with insight from broad sets of data. They’ll need to know that there are many ways to create something and that genius can come from anywhere. They’ll need emotional intelligence and the courage to try, to fail and to use that moment to their advantage. They’ll need adaptability and grit.

And in the years between then and now they’ll enjoy themselves. They’ll learn in ways that suit them, they’ll follow their noses and learn to work hard because they know the value of seeing a dream realized. If each step is only there to prepare you for the next step, the logical conclusion is that you will spend your life preparing to be really great… at dying. And while I hope we all are great at dying by the time we get there, all we actually have is THIS moment. I know the fairies would agree.