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Kristen Marra on Unschooling the Arts

by Jean Van't Hul
March 17, 2008

Kristen Marra Self Portrait

Kristen Marra is a former preschool teacher with a background in the arts who now homeschools her three children (ages almost 4, 9, and almost 13) and blogs about their artful life at Pepper Paints.

JEAN: Thanks for agreeing to an interview, Kristen! I understand that you homeschool. Can you describe your homeschooling style?

KRISTEN: As far as our homeschooling style goes I would have to say we are unschoolers. Although we are probably too structured to be considered radical unschoolers, we are not very schooley so we don't fit under the homeschool label either. We are really busy living our lives and pursuing our interests.

Play Clay

JEAN: How did you decide to unschool/homeschool, especially after being a preschool teacher?

KRISTEN: We decided to homeschool when my son was five. We are fortunate to have a great preschool in our neighborhood that is play based. My son went there for 3 years two mornings a week. He never loved the idea of going to preschool but enjoyed himself once he got there. He had no interest in going to school all day when it was time for kindergarten so we thought we would keep him home for a year and send him the following year. Well, when August came around we still weren't ready for a whole day away. And the more we lived a life without school the more we really could not imagine living a life on a school schedule with homework. I really disliked the idea of my son being stuck inside and sitting a good part of the day. So much learning just happens when you live a rich life, full of meaningful experiences. We believe that happens naturally outside of school. So we started homeschooling for one reason but sort of came around to it for another reason.

Teaching preschool gave me so much experience interacting and setting up activities with kids that homeschooling, and especially unschooling, is just an extension of that time. I help my kids find the answers to their questions. We follow their interests by seeking out instruction or experiences to meet their needs.

Art Supplies on the Table

JEAN: Is there a typical "day-in-the-life" of your homeschooling family?

KRISTEN: There is not a typical day in our house because everyday we have a different schedule. But week to week is similar. I spend a lot of time driving around! Monday afternoons we have a reading tutor appointment. Tuesdays my youngest goes to preschool and my other two go to their circus class. After picking them all up my middle daughter has an art class while the rest of us meet up with friends for coffee and snacks and then we drive back across town to her clay class. Wednesdays we try to stay home other than delivering our paper route and a quick trip to the library. Thursdays are preschool, gym classes, and then usually ice skating or a field trip. Thursday nights my son takes a break dancing class. Fridays again we try to stay home other than the sewing class my daughter and I take together after dinner leaving my husband and son time to hang out together. This is just the typical stuff. There are always rides to friends and sleepovers and skiing and trips to the grocery that seem to sneak their way in. We are actually taking an intro to scuba diving class next week! Just reading that makes me tired!

JEAN: Wow, that's a lot! What are your children's favorite subjects?

KRISTEN: Since we don't really compartmentalize our life too much into subjects I would say my kids' favorite things to do are as follows:

Son with Face Paint

My son is a teenager and socializing is his favorite thing to do! He likes to read and ride his skateboard. He is really into hip-hop and break dancing lately.

Crazy Crafter Made a Pillow

My middle daughter is so busy all day long. She is a prolific creator of all things. She sews, crochets, paints, glues, draws, and generally makes a mess all over the house.

Youngest Daughter

My youngest daughter is happy to do anything! She is really into games and books and breaking things. Can't take your eyes off of her!

JEAN: Can you tell us a bit about your art education background?

KRISTEN: As far as my art background goes, I grew up with a crafty Mom and took photography classes and various art classes while growing up. I graduated in Art Education, and after college I taught preschool for five years. While there I learned about Reggio Emilia and loved the way art was a way of life and not just a subject there. I learned to prepare the environment to encourage creativity and to see art in everyday things. I even began an annual art show at the preschool that is still happens every year. Little did I know that working at that preschool would prepare me well for homeschooling!

JEAN: How do you incorporate art into your children's education?

KRISTEN: Arts and crafts surround our family in so many ways. We visit galleries and museums pretty regularly. We have tons of neat stuff in our house. Both displayed as well as available for us to use at any given time.

Collector of Many Things

I am a bit of a pack rat. We are so lucky to have productive working artists as close friends and teachers. As you can see by our schedule, we spend much of our time at art and dance classes. Most of our days are immersed in one form of art or another.

JEAN: You mentioned that you learned to prepare the environment to encourage creativity. Will you expand on that? I'd love to hear more about how to do that.

KRISTEN: I love to try to encourage new interests and try to introduce my kids to new things all the time. I am a strewer. I leave books in places I know they will pick them up: the bathroom, the car, the kitchen table, the window seat. I will put an ant farm on the bathroom counter or binoculars and a bird book on the table near the windows, a stargazing chart taped to the back door. As far as art supplies I often change the way I present them: different types of paper, different colors or shapes, crayons (markers, pencils) in a basket, crayons (markers, pencils) separated by colors, placed in a different location.

Paintings Inspired by Miro

I also think inspiration can come from many places, most importantly the place you spend the most time-home. I hang pictures or postcards or newspaper clippings of shows we have attended so we can revisit them. I like to set up little still lifes around the house. Like I said earlier, I am a pack rat of all things thrifted and flea marketed! We have disco balls hanging in our living room and some old puppets hanging in our dining room. We have bowls of sea glass we have collected as well as huge pinecones. We have a great art room that has shelves filled with various materials from paint to wood to wire to tissue paper. I would like to say we do most of our activities there but truthfully we spend a lot of time at the kitchen table.

JEAN: What are some of your family's favorite art activities?

KRISTEN: My kids have been involved in the circus for about the last nine months and are really loving it! They are so fortunate to be learning from a third generation circus performer with a dance degree as well a Julliard-trained dancer and choreographer. Not only has it been fun for them but it has really brought both of them out of their shells and stretches them to great lengths for their personalities. It has been a huge confidence builder for them. They are really enjoying performing in front audiences.

Son in the Circus Daughter in the Circus

JEAN: Anything else you'd like to add?

KRISTEN: We are really lucky that we can be at home (as in not at school, but certainly rarely at home)! Doing the things we love to do. We have had the opportunity to do some traveling and we have had so many great experiences that have influenced my kids' creative side. Art is everywhere in so many different forms. The more we can expose our kids to various arts and cultures the better!

Bathtub Painting

JEAN: Thank you Kristen. Your family sounds wonderfully artful! I think I'll have to work on my "strewing"… And, I especially love what you said about so much of learning just happening when you live a rich life!

For more information about Kristen Marra and her unschooling family's fun with the arts, visit her blog at https://pepperpaints.com/.

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