The Home Schoolfluencer

Many home-schoolers feel misunderstood. People assume they’re religious adherents, hippies or anti-technologists who distrust institutions, when, in fact, they have a wide range of backgrounds and motives.

Perhaps the most irritating misconception is that remote schooling, which is what the pandemic has foisted upon millions of families who normally send their children to traditional public and private schools, is the same as home-schooling.

Philosophically, they are worlds apart, say proponents like Ainsley Arment, of Virginia Beach, Va., the founder of Wild + Free, a home-schooling community and company that connects and supports parents who educate their children at home, or are considering doing so.

“Our approach is less about replicating the classroom at home and more about awakening a desire to learn in the natural environment, from exploring nature and leaning into literature,” said Ms. Arment, 42, who for 10 years has been home-schooling her five children, ages 5 to 16.

Men are a part of Ms. Arment’s community, but she said she tailors her message to “home-schooling mamas” because the vast majority of home-schooling work, in her observation, is carried out by women.

“We recognize that many husbands play a role in schooling, but Wild + Free at its core is for moms,” she said. “The point is not to say the women are relegated to this role or to being at home, the point is to empower women who have made this choice.”

She has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in a grass-roots community that, long before social distancing, decided to reject mainstream schooling and rather educate within the family. “For me, this is a part of holistic living,” she said, calling from her car parked in a hotel parking lot in Franklin, Tenn.

Her husband and business partner, Ben Arment, 46, and their children were checking in after a nine-hour drive from the Wild + Free Farm Village, a 190-acre center in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Head Waters, Va. (on land formerly owned by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross). The previous weekend the company had hosted an immersive medieval-themed weekend for about 30 families who came with R.V.s, tents and costumes.

“Wild + Free is a philosophy of parenting more than home-schooling,” Ms. Arment said, laying out her pitch to skeptics. “It’s about seeing what happens when you strip away the middleman, the curriculum, the grades, the things that come along with getting a traditional education. It’s about being there to see what is lighting your child up and going down that road and knowing you can go back to teaching grammar tomorrow.”

The image espoused (and Instagrammed) by Ms. Arment of children and adults reciting poetry and hiking nature trails is alluring, especially at a time when many have their noses pressed to Zoom screens for hours on end or are sitting at plexiglassed desks with masks on, uncertain if a Covid-19 outbreak is just around the corner, like a menacing bully.

But home-schooling, as Ms. Arment openly admits, can be exhausting and dispiriting work, and it will prevent the primary home-schooling parent from working another job outside of the home, if at all. It requires a certain level of means and is most difficult, if not unattainable, for single parents.

Even as she acknowledges these difficulties, Ms. Arment argues that if there is a will, there is a way, and that families can adopt elements of Wild + Free’s “intentional parenting” regardless of their school choices.

‘Learning for Learning’s Sake’

The Arments had gone to Franklin for what was supposed to have been one of Wild + Free’s semiannual conferences for nearly 1,000 people. Instead, there were 50 attendees; it will be simulcast for virtual conventioneers paying $179 apiece on Oct. 24.

Speakers included Leslie Martino, a former New York public-school teacher who now home-schools her four children, ages 6 to 10, in Central Florida, and works from home as a home-school coach for other families. “I talk a lot about something I refer to as ‘slow schooling’ or ‘schooling with joy,’” Ms. Martino, 43, said in an interview.

“I don’t want a traditional model of rushing from bell to bell, from subject to subject. Our model is about incorporating meaningful work into our routines and traditions. Tuesday we have poetry teatime. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, and sometimes it’s an hour. We take nature walks. We read together as a family. I measure our best days by the experiences we have, not by grades.”

After the pandemic, Ms. Martino said, she and her children will reconnect with their network of other Wild + Free families for group play and book clubs.

Like so much these days, Wild + Free grew out of an Instagram account. In 2014, after several years of sharing her practices, ideas, inspirations and lifestyle philosophies on social media, Ms. Arment branded the community “Wild + Free,” whose name comes from Henry David Thoreau’s deduction thatall good things are wild and free.”

Of course, not everything is free. Among the company's offerings are “content bundles,” which cost $19 per month (they include a monthly magazine and “concierge customer service”) in addition to supplementary courses like a $49 program on nature journaling. The products “help immerse mothers in the Wild + Free lifestyle,” Ms. Arment said.

Though it draws from Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason and “unschooling,” Wild + Free does not dictate a specific educational philosophy, but rather gently suggests that parents are the most intuitive educators of their kids and that a daily schedule should be built around imaginative play, spending time outside and reading great works of literature.

“We as parents have been conditioned to believe that if something can’t be measured, it isn’t real learning, but science and education have been disproving this for decades,” Ms. Arment said. “Play is productive. Curiosity leads to discovery. Movement develops the brain. Stories ignite imagination, and children really do become readers on the laps of their parents.”

Her ideas aren’t revolutionary among devoted home-schoolers. “Home-schooling is a lifestyle dedicated to the joy of learning,” said J. Allen Weston, the executive director of the National Home School Association. “True home-schoolers understand that learning is an adventure to be experienced and cherished, not a chore to muddle through to get a grade.”

Mr. Weston believes the modern gig economy and the inequities of institutionalized schooling have antiquated many aspects of mainstream education. “We are telling kids that they’ve got to do good in grade school so they can get into a good high school, and then they’ve got to do well so they can get into a good college and get a good job,” he said. “And then they’re working at Starbucks with a degree hanging on the wall. My hope is that one bright side of this pandemic might be that the country may get back to the idea of learning for learning’s sake.”

What Ms. Arment has done is package these ideals and helped communicate them to a wide audience. There are more than 1,000Wild + Free groups around the world that meet (pandemic allowing) for live play, field trips and hikes. Along with the bundles and conferences (in 2019, some 2,000 Wild + Free mothers convened in Frisco, Texas), there is an alternative scouting program and small group retreats.

Ms. Arment hosts the inevitable podcast and is publishing a series of books with HarperCollins, beginning with “The Call of the Wild and Free,” which came out last fall. Part memoir and part manifesto, it encourages mothers who are considering home-schooling and those who are ready to give up. It likens the method to today’s culture of organic farm-to-table eating and customized services like Uber.

“The purpose is not to outdo public schools,” she said, “it’s to simplify, because kids are overloaded and it’s interfering with learning.”

Since the pandemic, interest in “The Call of the Wild and Free” has picked up substantially, according to Judith Curr, the publisher of HarperCollins's HarperOne Group. By April 2020, monthly sales of the book had doubled, and by July, monthly sales had increased six times since the book’s September 2019 publication.

Ms. Arment said her readers are both home-schoolers and parents who want to enrich their children’s remote-learning experience. “What many of us have been doing for years is suddenly becoming a fast-growing trend with the pandemic,” she said, “so our message is simple: You can do this.”

Goats Over Grades

Ms. Arment had plenty of doubts herself when she started home-schooling. “I thought it was weird,” she said of the practice. She had attended public schools (her father was a professor, including for many years at West Point), and she majored in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She and Ben Arment married soon after she graduated, and she worked with him on his entrepreneurial endeavors.

During their oldest child’s year as a first-grader, she said she noticed his lack of excitement when he got on the school bus in the morning and his exhaustion when he got off. She hated the thought that his days of carefree child’s play were behind him, and it made her sad that a teacher got to spend more time with him than she did.

Ms. Arment started broaching the idea of pulling their son out of school to her husband. “His take was basically, ‘I don’t want our kids to be weird,’” she said. “I said, ‘I know, I know, and I feel that same way.”’ She started sending Mr. Arment emails with statistics, information and ideas, and he finally agreed they should give it a try. That was 10 years ago.

After making friends on Instagram with other mothers who were also home-schooling and hungry for connection, Ms. Arment created the Instagram account and planned a first get-together. One hundred and twenty-five showed up. Mr. Arment had experience in event production, which came in handy as they added retreats, camps, pods and conferences.

Stephanie Beaty, 43, is a mother of four children, aged 8 to 14, in the Wild + Free community. Before her husband retired from the Navy two years ago and they moved to New Port Richey, Fla., the family moved frequently, never staying in the same location for more than two and a half years, and she felt home-schooling provided stability and continuity. “My husband is a military guy, but I’m slightly anti-establishment,” Ms. Beaty said.

She follows a math curriculum for each child and does group read-alouds of history, Shakespeare and the study of virtues. In the past two years, she and her husband twice have packed up their R.V. and taken their children on monthslong outdoor excursions.

“One of our children is an avid geologist, so we stopped at places like Hiddenite in North Carolina, and the Grand Canyon,” said Ms. Beaty, who edits a magazine for the Wild + Free explorers club, an online-guided adventure program. “He would talk to the park rangers and learn about the rocks and terrain directly from them.”

The community connected Alison Fredenberg, a 44-year-old mother of 10 children ages 3 to 20, in Chelsea, Mich., to other women at a time she felt isolated and even persecuted. She decided to start home-schooling in 2004. “Everyone told me I was going to ruin my child,” she said. Wild + Free helped her overcome the isolation of rural living and home-schooling and strengthen her commitment to her personal vision for education.

Tending to cows and goats is part of a biology lesson; environmental studies involve planting of crops. “When you see patterns in the natural world season after season, it helps you to make sense of modern situations of instability,” said Ms. Fredenberg, whose oldest child now attends M.I.T. and whose second oldest was accepted at Harvard.

Ms. Arment said that one of the greatest advantages of Wild + Free for parents is the education they get in the process.

“One of my sons loves to take things apart and put them back together,” she said. “That’s how we have come to look at school and education. ‘How do we take it apart and rebuild it in a way that works for us?’”

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