Project World School | Designing Family Experiences and the Family Unit in Worldschooling
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Designing Family Experiences and the Family Unit in Worldschooling

Designing Family Experiences and the Family Unit in Worldschooling

After years running educational, immersive retreats and creating temporary communities in diverse locations with adolescents, doing the same for worldschooling families couldn’t require that different of a plan, right? Well… let’s talk about it.


I’m Wiley– the current intern working and traveling with Lainie and Miro (Just Lainie at the moment actually, we’ll rendezvous with the other half of Project World School in about a week in New York.) At the moment I’m curled up in bed with a warm mug of coffee and an open sunlight above me, tucked into a cozy loft in the artistic San Blas neighborhood of Cusco– not a setting for literary function in the least. Yesterday (or two days ago, depends on your definition) concluded our first retreat for families in Peru, and what I believe was the first family retreat that PWS has done since Ecuador in 2015, back before the majority of retreats they carry out yearly had debuted. I wasn’t present for this retreat, but I flew out to Ecuador for the teen retreat (in the same location) immediately afterwards (my second PWS retreat) and have been deeply interested in PWS, world learning, and temporary communities ever since. You may remember me from a possibly annoyingly verbose and lengthy article on the PWS blog in June last year, when I volunteered for that year’s Cusco + Sacred Valley teen retreat. This year found me back with PWS, thankfully for a longer amount of time– but for what would and will continue to be quite a different experience– first the family retreat, then on to Czechia to volunteer and speak at an alternative education conference in the countryside.


Today, though, I wanted to talk about a bit more than what we did on the family retreat; where we went, what experiences were had, how people learned and grew– I will fill you in as to those details of course, but having been a participant and volunteer in the Peru teen retreat in addition to this recent family one, I believe that there is a lot to be said of the differences in community, learning, and overall atmosphere between working with adolescents only versus adolescents + kids + adults in a retreat setting, which has implications for how those retreats actually run differently– those which both a prospective participant or PWS facilitator would surely take interest in. 


You can read the full trip summary, what we did and where we stayed and some of the highlights here. For those interested in the contents of past Peru teen retreats, well, there are older articles on the blog pertaining to those topics; I’d ought not waste your time and processing power ruminating over more ancient history in this piece. While previous Sacred Valley retreats have been based in Cusco for the majority of their running time, this one was not so. 


With the lengthy summary out of the way, I’d like to address two points quite relevant to this retreat and our experiences on it– Those being the differences between facilitating and participating in a PWS teen retreat vs a family retreat, and what benefit worldschooling and temporary learning communities like this have for families in general. While this family retreat may have been quite small, I believe that what we learned through it may be translated to an experience with a much larger group in some notable ways. 


For one, there is a stark difference in the direction of energy between a group consisting of teens, most of whom are unlikely to come in previously knowing one another, and one consisting of families who have often been quite close for the entire lives of many participants. Teen retreat participants form tenuous bonds quite quickly, rallying to each other around commonalities– through the retreats, these bonds will be tested, formed, and reformed, often through hardship, shared personal struggle, shared passion and experience. It is likely that participants going in with only cursory knowledge or each other (for the most part) is what makes the community so deep. 


With families, however, we have an entirely different situation– families are (for the most part) already deeply bonded to each other when the come on these retreats; as such their respective relationships compose unique family cultures which take important roles in community formation. Where one may consider a teen community to spiral towards one energetic nexus (though cliques are certainly a thing,) a family retreat must incorporate gyres of familial energy into its communal being.


It is worth noting that we expect to have more families present in future retreats than we had on this one, but even with the two families present we experienced some differences in culture– one family was much more used to hiking and physical exertion, while one was more comfortable with spiritual activity and hands on interaction. While both families practiced peaceful and attachment parenting, they were both at very different stages in their familial journeys– One family had kids (well, adults now) from previous marriages who were not present on the trip, but very clearly loved and missed. Another family was a single mother and single child family with a 12 year old; as such the parent-child dynamic of the two families was quite different. 


I don’t want anyone to get the sense that I am inferring that this difference is a negative thing, however– on the contrary, differing family cultures are what make the community beautifully diverse and interesting, and give individual families the opportunity to reflect off one another, building upon and strengthening their unique cultures while enjoying and learning from the presence of others. Different family cultures interacting so closely in such an intimate setting for a full two weeks gives ample opportunity for cultural exchange and hybridization, made dually significant and lasting when juxtaposed with the mind expanding effect of cultural immersion in the host country. 


We designed our family retreat with the idea that families could opt in and out of activities, but due to the small size of the group this didn’t actually happen. One thing that we learned, however, was that families certainly require more down time than teens, whose centrally aligned group energy keeps them feeding off of each other and raring to go (most of the time) for day after day of activity. Most people need at least some amount of time to themselves, I especially would know this– but with families, we learned that we should budget in “alone time” for the family unit as well, down time where the participants can reflect and relax with their loved ones so that they may be more present and passionate about the following activities. 


While family downtime is quite important, it is also important that we do not let the different dynamic affect PWS’s key goal of getting participants out of their comfort zone. Most participants come from a culture where disruption of social order, discomfort, individuation, and personal exploration are expected parts of adolescence. In contrast with this, a more concrete and developed family unit may not expect, nor be culturally primed to undergo discomfort and development in this way– though we believe that doing so as a part of worldschooling in general is often massively beneficial for a family and the individuals that constitute it. At PWS we seek to push people zone of comfort into their “stretch zone,” where they may question their own acculturation and behavior and expand their worldview. We do not push people into their “panic zone,” which is what happens when you go too far into this stretch zone– recognizing when people are simply uncomfortable versus truly distressed and in need of reprieve is a key part of facilitating a retreat, and it is something that Lainie and Miro (and hopefully I as well) have learned to do quite well over the years. As I stated before, families may be less willing to enter the stretch zone simply because they do not expect to (despite what we have stated on the website,) especially compared to an adolescent “on their own” (without their family) on one of our teen retreats. However, I believe that in the presence of family an individual’s stretch zone may be much bigger; the support and presence of loved ones in addition to the learning community enabling them to go farther and experience more than they would have otherwise been able to. This is especially true for family members who are more closely reliant on one another, for whom the initial shock of traveling away from family for a teen retreat may be inappropriate. 


Wrapping things up, I’ve begun to see how the unique aspects of a family retreat– the differences in community and facilitation between such retreats and the much more frequently offered teen retreats– take root in and shed light on the ways in which worldschooling, cultural immersion, and temporary learning communities are beneficial to the family unit. An adolescent on a teen retreat may have the opportunity to widen their personal horizons, but an entire family experiencing a retreat together with other families will grow and change how they interact with each other as well as others– in addition to their own personal growth. Through immersive experiences the entire family is able to put their own lives, worldviews, and cultures into perspective, able to reflect amongst each other, to learn from each other as a product of each individual’s unique take on each experience. As they learn about differences between worldviews, perspectives, stories, and cultures they simultaneously learn about similarities; such as love, kindness and hospitality between and amongst families, sharing with each other their constantly evolving understandings of what it means to be a worldschooler, a global citizen, and above all a human.

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