When we first moved to Tasmania, part of the allure was the prospect of finding our tribe. People who would approach life similarly to us and be there to support us, and us them. When we began home educating, we knew more than ever that we needed to find that tribe. But here's the thing, although we had wonderful friends all over the place, a tribe they were not. Yet.
And so we learnt, slowly, that in order to find a community, you need to build it.
So set about building it we did. The path hasn't always been smooth, but it has been enriching and fulfilling and I'm happy to report that we now have that tribe and love them with all our hearts…
Three years ago, I wandered past the local playground and noticed some work had been finished on a little cottage within the playground perimeter. A little research revealed the cottage was available for hire and so with a seed of an idea, I took to Facebook to ask some friends… "Would you come along to a homeschooling group?" A bunch of positive replies later and the Hobart Natural Learner's Co-op was born. I chose the word co-op, as the intention was that it was run co-operatively between families and although it has swayed from that intention from time to time, the intention is there and what we have created now is a nurturing, loving extended family for our children. And a network of caring, supportive and interested friends to spend each week with.
What does an unschooling/homeschooling co-op look like?
Each will be different, but here's what ours looks like: We meet at our cottage on the same day each week. Usually I'll open up, seeing I'm the local with the key. Friends will wander in and we'll slowly unpack art materials to give children free access, tea and coffee supplies and books from our recyclibrary. Then we'll wander outside and I'll push Tiny on the swing for a good half hour (I have playground RSI - seriously).
If its a sunny day, we'll spread out some picnic rugs and have a chat in the sun as friends arrive through the morning. If we've organised an activity, we'll set that up and begin when most families are there. For the most part, the children are just happy to play. Our space is fantastic for a range of ages, as it has a fenced playground looking out to an open field. The older children tend to spend most of their time out there, enjoying space to run and a little freedom from the adults and smaller children. If they're more keen on play than an activity, we don't push it. But usually at least a few children will get involved and the adults have fun and learn lots too! Some weeks we run workshops facilitated by teachers brought in to pass on a specific skill, which shakes up our program a bit and keeps things interesting.
Later in the afternoon, a small group will usually wander over to our community garden plot to investigate how it's growing, weed, mulch or water and harvest. Some weeks we wander down to the beach or the skate park through the gully, making sure to return in time to share the packing up and a last cuppa for the day. Each week is diverse and as gentle as it can be on members, who are glad for the company and friendship. Generally we arrive home exhausted, but with hearts full, looking forward to next week.
Running the administration and tricky bits...
Another founding member is the group treasurer and she takes care of the money tin and sign in sheet. I organise insurance through the Home Education Network. We've changed our format over the years but currently we offer seasonal memberships. Each family signs on for a season and pays up-front, with the intention to come to as many weeks as possible. The benefit of this is reduced paperwork for our treasurer, and commitment from members…
We keep a Facebook group for communication between families and brainstorming ideas. All ideas are welcome and encouraged and if families have a skill or something to share with the group, we'll fit that in. We're providing a support network of mentors and other reliable adults around for our children, which is so wonderful.
Words of advice for setting up your own co-op...
1) Buddy up - I read this wonderfully helpful blog post a while ago, when we almost threw in the towel, which suggested you just need to find at least one other family who are willing to commit to showing up every week. And so our trusty treasurer /long-time dear friend and I set about showing up, no matter what. If you build it, they will come, hey?
2) Be consistent - We've tried fortnightly meet ups and twice-weekly… But the right balance for the whole group seems to be one day each week. Consistency is the key to maintaining friendships. It keeps that day free in everyone's heads and creates a beautiful rhythm for the children - Yay! Co-op day! Or… how many sleeps until co-op?
3) Pick a format - It might work better for you to leave it an open invitation - this is especially helpful when you are wanting to locate other like-minded families. You may prefer a big gathering. For our group, a week-to-week format meant flexibility and welcoming lots of people to our community, but it also meant we didn't know who to expect each week. On weeks where there was a really awesome activity, suddenly we'd have huge numbers of people. Which can be wonderfully abundant and so lovely. But it can also mean that lots of the organising and clean-up can fall on the shoulders of a couple of people. And then it feels weird on the weeks where there are only a few of you again… We've fairly recently chosen a seasonal subscription format with just one big abundant, casual visit, open day each season. This is with the intention of knowing who to expect each week and everyone contributing equally. It's smaller, but closer knit and is helping to draw skills and interests out of the quieter members as they grow more comfortable with our group - mission accomplished! A co-op!
4) Be open and stick to the plan - Try and keep the lines of communication open for everyone to have a voice. At the same time, act in the best interests of the group and work to maintain your combined vision. Sometimes this may mean re-thinking how you do things. Sometimes this will ruffle feathers. That's ok. Stick with it.
5) Your co-op isn't for everyone - You may be left scratching your head about why a good friend feels your group isn't for them. You may have expressed a desire to take everyone's ideas on board and make your group work for everyone who's willing to contribute. And they still might not feel comfy. And that's totally ok! You may find some members identify a common bond and set up their own group that suits them better - how wonderful!! And possibly heartbreaking. And wonderful!! You possibly have an extended group of friends out there and a broader, more enriching and diverse range of activities available to you. Awesome! Communities will shift and grow and shrink and move all around. Your job is to stay zen with it, catch up with the people who matter at other times, and just build that little tribe slowly and steadily.
It's putting yourself on the line a bit, but so rewarding when you find a friendly bunch to just share the time with. It becomes a highlight of your weeks. A social outlet and support for the more difficult days. And a place to celebrate the best days together.
Happy tribe building. xx