Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Home-schooling families take play seriously

To members of a Long Beach home-schooling group called Dragon Tree, playing in the park for as many as five hours or more at a time is an important part of school.

Home-schooling families take play seriously

A dozen or so parents — mostly moms — sit in a wide circle on the grass at El Dorado Park in Long Beach.

As the adults chat, their kids do whatever the spirit moves them to do.

This could be flipping through one of a handful of educational books in the center of the circle. More likely, it’ll be an improvised activity of some sort, perhaps working together to produce an impromptu play. Or playing a game of touch football — an all-ages, low-stakes game in which, at some point, an older kid might carry a younger kid clutching the ball across the goal line.

Related: Home-schooling enters mainstream

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon for the Dragon Tree Home Learners, a group of home-school families who meet once a week so their children can socialize and play.

Mind you, this isn’t recess; Dragon Tree takes playtime much more seriously than that. To them, playing in the park for as many as five hours or more at a time is an important part of school.

“Those long hours of uninterrupted play — nobody ringing bells and telling them to stop right in the middle of something — lets them develop very elaborate things to do,” said Pam Sorooshian, a founder of the 18-year-old group who shows up every Wednesday even though her own three daughters are now college-educated young adults.

Sorooshian herself subscribes to a form of home schooling known as “un-schooling,” which rejects the highly structured approach taken by public schools and many private ones. She argues that the public school system has actually become more cookie-cutter than ever, which in turn is driving record numbers of people to educate their children at home.

“Back in the ’80s, you had whole language, constructive math, multiple intelligences,” she said. “With the advent of things like (the federal) No Child Left Behind, that all went out the window. Now it’s all about being ready for standardized tests.”

The Dragon Tree group is definitely a nontraditional crowd. Some of the boys in the group wear their hair long. Every summer, the group celebrates the birthday of Harry Potter with a potluck and wand-making party.

But in the years since the group’s 1995 inception, most of the students have wound up attending four-year colleges and obtaining their bachelor’s degree, Sorooshian said.

Why home schooling

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, several parents at the park shared their reasons for home-schooling their kids.

Laura Jane, a yoga therapist from Long Beach, said traditional schools can have a way of squeezing the passion out of learning.

“I love the idea of my kids just loving learning,” she said. “To come out of it loving writing, loving reading, loving math. It’s a really exciting idea. Perhaps that can happen more easily if it wasn’t something that was forced or structured or judged or evaluated.”

Jane herself has a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State and a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine University. Although she all but disavows it.

“Now I can see how that system got me off track,” she said. “I spent another 10 years trying to figure out what really was my way.”

Angie Williams, a hairstylist in her late 30s who colors her own tresses pink, didn’t like high school until she was allowed to complete a year at home through independent studies.

“I didn’t like learning from books,” she said. “I didn’t like being cooped up in a classroom. I didn’t like being told what to learn and when to learn it.”

It was then that she decided she would like her own children to learn at home someday. Now they do. Williams says she plans to home-school her 10- and 6-year-olds all the way through high school, unless they request otherwise.

“My son knows that he has that choice, and he is not curious about school at all,” she said.

In part, that’s because his friends who do attend traditional school have all that homework.

“He gets perplexed by the idea that they can’t come out to play until 5 or 6,” she said. “He’s like, ‘My gosh, they go to school all day and have to come home and do more school?’ I’m like, ‘Yep.’ ”

Some home-schooling parents opt for more structure than others. A parent named Melinda — who declined to provide her last name — said she and her two children don’t divvy up the day by subject area.

“When we’re home schooling, we’re not really focused on whether it’s math or history or social studies,” she said, noting that the kids do occasionally attend classes for home-schoolers. “But they get math and history and reading and language — it could be all coming from one source. They like to watch YouTube videos. They like to play video games. They don’t know it, but they really do like math and logic. Puzzles and games.”

Conversely, another parent, an anthropologist from Sweden who declined to share her name, joined an independent charter school called Sky Mountain that provides some curriculum. Every 20 days, an education specialist from the charter school pays a visit to ensure the students are on track.

“We like to start off with that, to make sure we are not completely losing our way,” she said.

The Dragon Tree parents tend not to fret much about college.

Melinda said that because her son wants to be a pilot, a four-year school might not be necessary.

“We kind of live in a day and age where college may not be as important as maybe going to a tech school,” she said.

Her husband, she adds, is a successful network engineer who never finished college.

Jane feels the same way, although she said her 12-year-old daughter has already expressed a strong desire to go.

“Not because she thinks she should or has to and won’t be a success if she doesn’t, but just because it sounds fun,” she said. “Which is kind of the way we like to live.”