Nature, environment, travel play role in children’s education

Flexible home schooling | The Wasyliks help on the farm, raising animals and growing produce

VERMILION, Alta. — The Wasylik family is like any other on a busy fall day.

They breathe easier now that the crop is harvested, but bushels of apples still need to be turned into cider, jars of jams and pickles are still on the kitchen counter and need to be taken to the cold room, the sauerkraut is in the corner slowly turning from cabbage to kraut and the garden has yet to be cleaned up before snow.

Despite the work remaining before winter, there is a sense of calm in the family that includes three children: Charlotte, 16, Nicholas, 14, and Alexander, 12.

The home-schooled children have yet to start their studies for the year and are able to pitch in and help with harvest.

“It helps to have a very flexible schedule,” said Johanna.

The Wasyliks didn’t set out to home school their children, but a drought in 2002 forced them to sell their cattle, leaving them free to travel. The family spent nine months with Johanna’s family in Nevis, West Indies.

“It was a nice education for everyone,” said Rick.

While in Nevis, Charlotte attended an old-fashioned British-style kindergarten where she was given a solid start to her education.

Instead of repeating the year when they returned to Canada, the Wasyliks opted for home schooling.

“We look at each year as it comes,” said Johanna.

“It seems to be working. The kids are enjoying themselves and learning.”

It’s that freedom from a regular classroom that has allowed the family to take other trips to the West Indies, or to Johanna’s home in New York.

It was also in Nevis, on a later trip, that Charlotte fell in love with birds. She had noticed the colourful American gold finch at the feeders at her Vermilion home, but the Caribbean island was full of birds with bright plumage, and she was soon hooked on birds.

Charlotte recently returned from six weeks at the Long Point Bird Observatory, a research and bird monitoring station in Ontario focused on the conservation of birds and their habits.

Birding has become an obsession for Charlotte since she spied the American gold finch at age 11. She now takes part in the local Christmas bird count and the May bird count of returning birds and has started her own Alberta Birds Facebook page, with 600 followers.

Charlotte counted 20 species of birds during the last Christmas bird count and identified 75 to 80 birds when they returned in May. The toughest birds to identify are gulls, which can look different depending on their age.

“It takes a lot of practice. I just kept looking at bird books and memorizing,” said Charlotte.

Charlotte started a bird blog during a trip to the West Indies in 2011 as a way to record her bird sightings in a more permanent location and document the sightings. It also has a large following of bird enthusiasts.

Johanna said the birding community has welcomed Charlotte into their fold and are willing to share their knowledge with the young birder.

While her younger brothers complain about her bird chatter, they occasionally ask Charlotte the name of birds they see fly past the farm.

Charlotte’s next wish list trip is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to study birds and other wildlife.

Having children with a flexible schedule also helps with the family’s certified organic farm, where the family raises barley, oats, cattle, eggs, broilers, turkeys and hay.

Rick didn’t grow up on a farm, but he spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ and relatives’ nearby farm, was in three 4-H beef clubs and always knew farming was still in his blood.

“It’s fun. There are so many ways to use your abilities on a farm,” he said.

With only a small farm, and Rick working full time in his construction business, the Wasyliks knew they couldn’t compete with large conventional farmers.

Instead, they chose to be organic. It was during a trip to an organic food market in Herefordshire, England, that the couple realized the potential for organics on their small farm.

The couple chose to raise their children on the farm instead of Johanna’s New York City home.

While their Vermilion home is different than Johanna’s private school life in New York, the family believes they have plenty of opportunities living in central Alberta.

It’s not uncommon for the family to drive to Edmonton or Vermilion for a play or even look at the slough across their road for a natural history lesson.

When a pipeline recently went through the slough, the family took an interest, and Charlotte joined the biologists in the amphibian relocation program.

She also joined biologists in identifying birds in the area before the pipeline came through.

It’s those kind of opportunities the family tries to take advantage of as one more way of living and learning on the farm.

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