on Immersion Learning

Earlier this month, I innocently chimed in on a conversation on Ben Hewitt’s blog. He was jawing on about unschooling, which is what he and his wife call their method of teaching their boys. Well. I think they do a whole lot more than that. “Unschooling,” to me, and I think to a lot of people, connotes not schooling. I do know that most proponents of unschooling do work very hard to insure that their children are learning every day. I just don’t favor the term. The first picture that pops in my head is Mom on the computer in a wild and cluttered home, with the kids–who knows where?–running amok.

Once again, that’s not the way I think about it. But why is that the picture that always enters my head when I hear that term? Maybe because I knew somebody who “unschooled” her children, and her situation was this: she would take her computer into her bedroom and shut the door, and leave the kids to run the house by themselves. It filled me with horror when I found out that this was the way it was at her house most of the time. Lord of the Flies. This is not schooling, it’s not even parenting, for Pete’s sake, to shut your children out of your life and expect them to raise and teach and care for themselves.

This isn’t the path most “unschooling” parents take, I know. But I’m not an expert on unschooling. I’m just an expert on how we teach our children, at our place. And that’s the beauty of the fact that we have this freedom. I thank God for this every day! I savor the hours that I spend teaching my children by my side, and some of these precious, finite hours are spent across the kitchen table, giving spelling tests and teaching English grammar and some of them are spent in the living room, reading history and discussing current affairs, and some of them are in the garden, learning how to thin radishes and how to plant beets. Some are spent in the kitchen, learning how to bake bread and make bone broth.

Some are at the kitchen table in the evenings, learning how to play games like Catan and Pandemic and Qwerkle, and learning how to be a good loser. And a good winner.

There are so many things to learn in life, aren’t there? How to identify which mushrooms are good to eat, and which could kill you. How to plant trees correctly. How to gut a chicken, and how to cook it up so it’s good to eat, too. How to make a chicken vomit. How to be good to your sister even when you really don’t want to be. How to shuck corn. How to make angel food cake (oh wait, I need to go learn that from my mom).  How to clean out the chicken coop, and why we should do it. How to, how to, how to. It fills every day to the brim. And then some.


That’s where I was coming from when I made my innocent comment on Ben’s blog post. I merely mentioned that I didn’t favor the term “unschooling” where his family is concerned. I liked something like “Immersion Learning” much better, since that’s clearly what Ben, his wife Penny, and their two boys Rye and Fin, are doing. That’s the life they are learning.

You know what “Language Immersion” is, right? Here, from Wikipedia:

“In complete immersion, almost 100% of class time is spent in the foreign language. Subject matter taught in foreign language and language learning per se is incorporated as necessary throughout the curriculum.”

I’ve learned bits and pieces of several languages: French, in high school classes with the excellent Mr. Spirk. Dutch, when I went with a group of college students to do mission work in The Netherlands. Italian, when Bryan and I spent a semester in Italy. And now Latin, with my own students at home. Each time I’ve learned a language, I’ve thought about how much easier (and harder!) it would be to learn a language if I were just dropped into the native culture and had to assimilate it all on my own. Language Immersion is tough, but it works. (Ask any baby.)

When you are homeschooling your children, you are engaging in Immersion Learning. Your children learn from you–day and night–no matter what. No matter if you ever crack a book open, or not. They learn how to react when you are frustrated. They learn how you act when somebody messes up your plans. They learn how to can tomatoes. They learn how to take care of animals and friends and neighbors and grandparents. They learn about cellular biology and why praying mantises look like they’re praying and why the sun goes down in the west and up in the east, and why yeast makes a bread rise and why it’s not proper to shoot Mom with a water gun when she is unarmed (cough). And how quickly she can arm herself, when in that situation (ahem). Why you should always consider other peoples’ needs first. Children are naturally inquisitive and will ask, and ask, and ask. By bedtime every night little Mack has asked enough questions (and rebutted enough answers!) of me to render me nearly mute. This Immersion Learning is a tiring business. It’s what we used to call “Life.” Meanwhile, Mack is soaking up everything I say (bless him) like the proverbial sponge.

Thank God I’ve got Wikipedia at my fingertips and a good set of encyclopedias, to boot, and that’s where I send him when I can’t answer a question that satisfies him. “Look it up, honey,” I say, and then we sit down and read about poisonous mushrooms, or wolf spiders, or the planet Mars, or the history of the bicycle together, too. How to be nice to your mama. I wonder if that is in Wikipedia?

Here Bryan puffs smoke into the boxes of bees, which will help them stay calm as he messes with them.

Here Bryan and Mack work with the bees.

Immersion Learning is a wildly effective way to teach your children, if you’re present and available to them. And I have no doubt that Penny and Ben are available. Else how would their children be able to do all the things they do–weave baskets, catch fish, hunt for game, help with harvest–so well, especially at such a young age?

The cool and obvious thing to me, too, is that Immersion Learning is based in scripture, and this scripture is the basis for why so many Christian folks home school: so they are there. Available. Present. And willing. In Deuteronomy 11, Moses is telling the Israelites how keep the law.

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”

Ben’s got a new book out that is causing all kinds of ruckus. He is shaking things up in the world of learning and education, and I think that’s a good thing. I can’t wait to get myself a copy. He’s a fabulous and self-effacing fellow, and I love to read his blog. His new book is called Home Grown and you can get a copy of it for yourself here.


Check out all the great links at The Prairie Homestead’s Barn Hop this week! This one will be there, in good company!



22 thoughts on “on Immersion Learning

  1. rita

    I came upon another aspect of parenting. The idea is that it’s a partnership. Once your children grow up, they will have stuff to teach you back. If you’ve done a good job establishing the lines of communication, then they can return some of the teaching. I think it’s kind of the finishing step, the closing of the circle. Have I explained this well enough?

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Of course, Rita, you’re absolutely right! I’ve learned so much from my now-grown-up children. Matthew teaches me to think deeper about issues, Andrew teaches me about new trends that I’ve never heard of, and how to enjoy life more fully, Bethany teaches me peace and how to be more patient. Timothy teaches me about tech issues, and also how to be quiet. (sigh) THESE things, among so many others. They are all such a blessing to me! You’re so right about that!

      1. rita

        Thanks! I kept feeling like I seemed a bit off your topic, but it was because I agree with everything you said so completely, that I went on from there. Thanks for seeming to understand that. xoxo

  2. Krithika Rangarajan

    Hey Amy

    I barely breathed while reading your riveting post! You have done a fabulous job outlining the various facets of ‘immersion learning’!

    Honestly, I am scared to be a parent because I don’t consider myself smart enough or successful enough. Some of my mistakes are very embarrassing and I fear being mocked by my kids. 🙁

    But it feels wonderful to surround myself with caring parents like you who lead by example and nurture a loving, respectful relationship with their kids #HUGSS

    Keep writing…

    Much love

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      It’s not as hard as it might appear to be a good mama. And God does us a favor, by giving us children in their baby form, when all you really have to do is keep them warm, dry, fed, and loved. And that’s the easy part. Once you fall in love with them, it’s really not so hard to figure out the rest, and you take it step by tiny step. Blessings.

  3. Alana(@RamblinGarden)

    At one time, immersion learning was called “life” and there wasn’t the divide between “school” and “non-school” that there has been for many years. And I know immersion language learning works I went to high school with a young man who spent the entire summer in Montreal. He returned a fluent speaker of French. We would do well to explore more natural ways of learning for our children – the way children learned for thousands of years.

  4. Minette

    I love the concept of immersion learning and while I don’t home school or unschool my kids, I admire people who choose that route. What I know for certain in our house is that we are always engaging WITH our kids, spending time talking to them, learning about them and with them. To me, this is what parenting is all about, staying engaged and interested. My kids teach me something new every day! One of our most important routines is family dinner – it’s the one time of day we all sit down and talk to each other about our days. Also, my hubby and I both work from home which we love and we get to be here when our kids here. Spending time together is crucial to creating an environment where everyone gets to share what they know.

  5. Nathana Clay (theengagedhome.com)

    I really enjoyed this blog post! We are hoping to someday homeschool and I have been reading up on different approaches. I think you worded best the route I would like to go. The reason I want to homeschool is because not only can you teach grammar, history, and math, you can teach it through canning, gardening, sewing, nature, the Bible, etc. I have to admit, thinking about homeschooling makes me realize how much I still have to learn. But I think that is part of the joy of it, you learn with your kids. 🙂 And no matter how old we are, the learning is never done!

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Thank you so much. The blog post that I really need to write is “What my adult children have told me: what worked and what didn’t in our homeschool.” Sounds interesting, eh? Also a bit scary for me to delve into–but one of these days, I will! And you’re right about the learning never stopping!!

  6. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA @ Cerebrations.biz

    For what it’s worth, I love your terminology much better. I find the issue today is that folks opt for the dramatic, for the “statement” in their terms- and not for the “statement” in their actions, in what they do, in their thoughts. And, to me, that is exactly what is wrong with our great nation- and why we now posture and don’t act.

    BTW, I love the new look.

  7. Amy Bovaird

    I had never heard the term, “non-schooling.” But I had heard of “immersion teaching.” When I was in Japan in 1990, I was interviewed for a teaching position in one of the islands that had been disputed over between Japan and Russia. It was to be the first immersion school in Japan, I believe, and would be a model for other schools to follow. I loved language and thought this was very cool and even better when I actually got the job. But I didn’t take it. Instead, I started my MA program in Bilingual Bicultural Studies. 🙂 I understood you meant “immersion,” as in homeschooling. It’s a wonderful idea when parents do know how to teach the types of things you mentioned!:D

  8. Salma

    I’ve heard of the term un-schooling, but I never really knew what it meant. And that picture you described in your head kind of scares me too, especially as a mom of two toddlers. This was a really great informative post. Thanks!

  9. Judy - Pedagogical Artist

    Deep breath 🙂 I’m a bit shocked with what’s about to come out of my mouth, or should I say the tips of my fingers.

    I have been an Educator most of my adult life in a suite of roles and learning settings in a few countries. As a result, I have lots of bones to pick with the System going back to my own school days. If it were up to me, if I could have my way, I would do away with the school system and the teaching profession altogether (There! I have said it!) and rebuild it from scratch using an entirely new model and structure, which in many ways resembles, Amy, what you call Immersion Learning.

    Following your blog and the blogs of the other Miller young women, I am in awe of your family, your life style and the way you have raised your children. There is no doubt in my mind that this has been a life mission and a life vision. As mentioned in some of the comments above, you bring together the best of both worlds: schooling/learning and parenting.

    The thing is, as much as some parents would love to be there for their kids, to give more to their kids, they simply can’t. It’s not that they are necessarily neglectful or uncaring. They don’t have the skills, the personality, the drive, the support. They wouldn’t know where to begin. What they don’t realize, like you state very clearly, kids learn from EVERYTHING one does as a parent and it doesn’t end when your kids reach adulthood. You continue to parent and role model your entire life.

    Our school systems, as flawed as they may be, are there to support those who are dependent on them. Indeed, I believe that there are better ways to go about it, but I will leave that for another time.

    Thank you dear Amy – one of YOUR fans 🙂
    HUGS <3

    1. dramamamafive Post author

      Judy, the way we’ve done things (it has been a lifestyle choice, too, you’re right, not just a schooling choice, and there have been sacrifices, as you might imagine) has worked well for us. But I realize it’s not for everybody, and I’m glad that there are great teachers in the public and private schools out there who diligently work with the system (or in spite of it) to educate children.

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