Why did I start The Willows?

Written by Kelly Humphrey, Founder of The Willows Child Development

Why did you start The Willows? This was a question I was asked during a recent interview with a friend of mine. I thought I would share my answer with you as it feels important that people know our WHY?

As a child my brother and I were given the freedom to play totally as we wished - but only on the weekends because during the week we had to go to a place that felt like a prison, some call this place school.

We were lucky enough to grow up on a farm with open fields, a forest, a river and even an old world war 2 pillbox to explore. We used to take our quad bikes on long rides through the forest and along the river bank. We were driving old trucks around the fields as soon as we could reach the pedals. Our friends used to love coming to play, we would play hide and seek, but on an epic scale with walkie talkies, massive hay stacks and even lorry cabs to hide in. We were free to play exactly as we wished, with no adult intervention or guidance. It was the best time. Our freedom wasn't because our parents were aware of the undeniable benefits of self directed play, it was because they simply worked too much to keep us occupied all the time. And this was fine to a certain extent.

As my daughter approached the school starting age, which in the UK is just 4 years old, I felt uneasy about sending her away to an institution for 30 hours a week. I felt that I had done a good job in educating my child up until this point so why did I need to hand the reins over to a stranger who quite frankly, had only just come out of the schooling system herself? I was told that my daughter would be allowed outside for half an hour a day (15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon) and would only be allowed 20 minutes to eat lunch. Yes that's right 20 minutes!! Also, if my daughter needed a drink, was hungry or even needed to use the toilet she would have to wait until she was allowed. In my mind this was an infringement on her human rights and it just didn't sit right with me. We were used to spending whole days outside, and we had the freedom to do whatever we liked.

Not only did I find that the schooling system is fundamentally flawed and is serving an injustice to our children, but it is also having a major impact on the mental wellbeing in thousands of school age children, with anxiety and depression being clinically diagnosed on an unbelievably large scale. 1 in 8 to be precise.

"This change was largely driven by an increase in emotional disorders (including anxiety and depression), which for 5-15-year-olds rose from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017." - taken from the mental health.org.uk website.

Emotional disorders have become more common in five to 15 year-olds – going from 4.3% in 1999 and 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017. - National Centre for Social Research, the Office for National Statistics and Youthinmind.

I'm not saying that the schooling system is entirely to blame, I'm sure the use of social media in older school children does play a part as does other factors, but we have to acknowledge the fact that children have never been under so much pressure to perform at a high standard. Kids have SATs tests, GCSE's, homework every day of the week (because 6 hours a day in school isn't enough?), pushy parents enrolling their kids in every group going because they believe the more time they are occupied the happier they will be.

When I looked into home education, I was amazed to find that anyone in the UK can legally home educate their child. You don't have to be a qualified teacher, nor do you have to follow the national curriculum or stick to any schedules. Basically you are free to learn whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want with whoever you want! I didn't think twice about it, my heart was telling me that this was the right decision, I just had to convince my husband. We came to a compromise that she would attend school when she was 7, just like children in countries like Sweden. She is now almost 11 and still not in the schooling system.

I started looking into the different learning styles and philosophies, I came across unschooling and found that this is how we had been learning all along, so why change it now? So, 7 years and 2 more children later, this is the approach we take. All 3 of my children have their own unique passions and abilities and I'm wholeheartedly convinced that unschooling is the way to go for us as a family.

I know I have expressed my dislike of the schooling system but I must stress that I don't have a problem with teachers. In my opinion, I think teachers are underpaid, overworked and really don't get enough credit. If only the Government would trust teachers enough to do what they are good at - teaching children rather than just ticking boxes and following the national curriculum (which will probably never serve a child well unless it's to pass a test)

I can't remember the last time I used algebra or trigonometry. I have however, had to learn how to set up a business, take out a mortgage and budget my money which is not taught in schools. I won't go on too much about how schools fail to teach life skills. I think you get the picture.

Finding the unschooling - or autonomous learning style, led me to research even deeper about self directed play/learning. I learned just how important it is for a child to experience uninterrupted play for long periods of time on a regular basis.

Even when we started our unschooling journey, the groups and clubs we attend were directed by adults. There was never much time or space where the children (all of mixed ages - I'll talk about the importance of mixed ages in a different blog post) could just be free to play of their own accord. We would take the children to the playground after a group or club and they wouldn't want to leave. They wanted to stay and play. They would be completely immersed in their own worlds that they had created.

I wanted to create a place where children could play as they wished in a natural, outdoor environment - similar to a forest school but with an open green space for freedom to run, be free and play sports, an indoor space with open ended toys, resources, games, art and craft supplies, dressing up and STEM activities. I looked back on my own childhood and wanted nothing more than for every child to have access to that type of freedom (without the quad bikes and trucks, unfortunately our insurance doesn't cover that, although we do have an old truck the children pretend to drive!)

I wanted to create a community, with no more than 15 children per day.

The space my brother and I grew up became available and after a year of research, courses, tears, various trainings, love and a massive leap of faith I gave up my part time waitressing job and The Willows Child Development was born. Lots of friends helped, from building the compost toilets and setting up the 8 metre bell tent to volunteering their time help out in the early days. You know who you are and I'll always be grateful x

6 months in, we had to close due to the Covid pandemic. Since reopening in September, we have increased our home ed days from 2 to 3 per week due to the high demand. Lot's of parents are taking their children out of school for various reasons, the main one that we have seen is that as they have seen massive drops in their child's anxiety levels since they have not had to attend a school setting.

If you read this far, then I thank you massively. You can subscribe to the blog if you like 💚

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