When a single mum of two children was told to look at 'alternative education options' for her son with Autism, she began a unique journey towards 'Earthschooling' that has changed her family's life.

Interview with an Earthschooling family

Interview with Dana Atkinson

Hi Dana, thanks for chatting with us! Can you introduce us to your family?

We are a family of three living and adventuring in the beautiful Wet Tropics of North Queensland. There is my daughter Nala (Rylee), the little chief of our house Jarli (Kellan), and myself. When we are not busy attending appointments or activities, you will find us mountain biking through fern gullies, swimming amongst the rocks at secret waterholes, or even foraging for bush-tukka while walking in our luscious rainforest community of Paluma, the little ‘Village in the clouds’.

*Australian indigenous people may have a number of names. For example, a person may have a European first name and surname (Rylee), an indigenous name (Biralee - which means beautiful baby), and a skin name (Nala).

Earthschooling family

Tell us about what brought about your decision to homeschool your kids

Our journey began after Jarli had finished his preparatory year of school. There were multiple reasons for my decision to withdraw him from mainstream, but the overall reason was that there just wasn't another option better suited.

When Jarli was two and a half years old, he was diagnosed with high functioning Autism, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Non-compliance aggressive behaviour, which later manifested into Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Having spent two years in early intervention, he was finally making progress and was able to graduate from AEIOU, a school for children with Autism. I had spent the last year of his program, meeting with school advisors and administrators, trying to find the best environment, as there were no autism specific schools available.

Earthschooling boy playing with toy train

The school system was not able to provide support for Jarli.

The majority of the schools I had met with were zoned, which meant he would be placed on a waiting list. As for the private schools in the area, they were able to assist, however, it came at an extra cost that was financially beyond our means. The more I interviewed, the less confident I became that his needs would be met.

At the time I was working within the state education system at Nala’s school, so it seemed an ideal situation to have Jarli there with us too. I thought that at least then I would be available to provide assistance when needed. I could never have anticipated that he would actually regress at school.

Life became all about putting out a succession of fires - absconded behaviour, aggressive meltdowns, classroom disruptions, then suspension after suspension. It had become evident that the classroom setting was not a suitable learning environment for Jarli.

The final straw came when the authorities of the school advised me of their concerns for the next year. They told me that they would not be able to provide the much-needed support in the classroom nor would they be willing to apply for the extra funding that was available. They made it very clear to me that they didn't want my son at the school. Their final words to me were “perhaps you should look at alternative education options… “

So here we are, two years into our ‘alternative education’. And while I might add how frustrated I was towards the school having given up on my boy, the truth is, I am very grateful for their honesty.

Interview with an Earthschooling family

Just like many families starting out, finding the learning style and rhythm that best suited the needs of my children was the biggest challenge. Initially, we began to homeschool via distance education. That lasted a term before we found our feet and I realised that it is important to me that my future adults have input into what they would like to learn. It’s also just as important for me to provide them with a learning environment that will inspire them.

After much research, I became inspired by the Waldorf philosophies. I was, however, looking for a secular approach to learning that enabled a flexible but natural process. That was when I discovered Earthschooling.

I think that what it basically came down to was finding a gentle approach to learning based on the needs of my family but also being able to provide them with the freedom that enables the natural learning process to unfold.

Interview with an Earthschooling family

How do you define your unique blend of homeschooling called 'Earthschooling'?

Earthschooling is a complete but flexible curriculum that follows a holistic and earth-based approach to education. While it is a secular Waldorf methodology, the education is based on learning from nature, cultural aspects, natural rhythms, real-life experience, handwork with natural fibres and arts.

I favoured this approach for many reasons. Jarli is extremely imaginative and is a kinesthetics/tactile learner, while Nala prefers auditory stimulation. So, the idea of introducing more creativity into their learning seemed very appealing and I felt the earthschooling elements would suit both their needs quite well.

I was impressed by the cultural aspect that the earthschooling curriculum honours. It introduces input from people from other cultures who make a place at the common table of our shared humanity.

Earthschooling children reading a book

Can you share some influential books or resources have you read that helped you decide on earthschooling?

I would say that our community has been the most influential. Having the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef a stone throw away, the use of the World Heritage Area as an educational landscape seemed like a wonderful and rich environment to learn from. But there have been some inspirational books too.

Taino Earthschooling in the Diaspora: My Early Days by Anani Kaike.

This is an inspirational chronicle written by 8-year-old Anani, a Taino child who shares with us her rather unique homeschooling environment, and the strong connection that her family teaches her about respecting our Mother Earth while at the same time honouring her ancestors.

Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability by Michael K. Stone

I found this an aesthetically pleasing resource that is eloquently written and contains inspirational images.

In my efforts to raise environmentally aware children, both of these books have not only been influential and inspiring, but have also been an excellent addition to their learning. It scares me to think of the environmental burden that my children will face in the coming years but more, who will lead the movement to the sustainable future.

Share with us what a day in the life of an earthschooling family looks like

Ha ha!! It’s not always rainbows and unicorns with my tribe.

One of the things that I love about where we live is that we are in close proximity to adventure. Exploring the different environments from beaches to the outback and of course the rainforest.

Each day we have a different focus for too much structure would inhibit, rather than help, especially when it comes to Jarli’s requirements. Suffice to say, numeracy and literacy are the two core areas we fit in daily through real-world learning, as this is a procedural requirement through the home education unit (HEU).

Because every day is so different for us, I love that education is anywhere learning occurs, and that even unintentional learning can be powerful.

Interview with an Earthschooling family

What do your kids think of earthschooling and have you noticed any changes in them since they left school?

The biggest change I have noticed is the step back they have taken from the fast-paced world that we were once part of. Being able to breathe in and out with a rhythm that suits their needs.

I find that Jarli is calmer, happy to engage with learning but most importantly his behaviour has improved.

For Nala, it has encouraged deeper discussions on topics that are of importance to her, such as her indigenous heritage.

Overall, they love the freedom, and I love the flexibility to be able to approach their learning in ways that will work for them. If we’re having a bad day then we ditch our plans and head into the forest.

Interview with an Earthschooling family

Nala and Jarli - learning to love and care for their country.

What is a mantra you live by?

“Children are born with a sense of wonder and an affinity for nature. Properly cultivated, these values can mature into ecological literacy, and eventually into sustainable patterns of living.” - Zenobia Barlow

To me, building my children’s love of nature and cultivating a deep emotion to their ways of thinking and behaving is a major factor when it comes to teaching them about their place in nature but it is also an integral part of their identity.

Dana was interviewed by Grace Koelma.

Did you find Dana's story as inspiring as we did? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Dana Atkinson

Dana Atkinson


Dana is an Earthschooling mother living in North Queensland with her two children. When she is not running from snakes, shooing spiders or removing leeches, you will find her tucked away in the hammock with a nice cup of brew! She's on Instagram @the_education_of_little_tree_

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