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Resources for learning from home during COVID-19

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Image: Still from Biggest Little Farm

In Ontario, parents with school age children are heading into their fourth week of home learning -- a term I prefer over online or e-learning because everything around us is a learning opportunity. Some may be feeling fatigued. Hopefully, this experience is bringing home the enormity of the responsibility shouldered by teachers who guide society's children and youth through the initial phases of lifelong exploration and learning.

For any parents who want to change up the routine of worksheets and video games, here are some options you'll actually enjoy embarking on with kids spanning a wide range of ages, learning styles and interest. The best part is that your kids will take over the reins at some point and self-direct their learning based on personal interests, available materials and their own motivation to find out more. The simplest way to explain this plan is to jump right in. So, here we go!

The documentary The Biggest Little Farm, chronicles Molly and John Chester's dream of owning their own farm. It starts with a simple idea of growing a very wide variety of crops for Molly to cook. It progresses to a detailed business plan to attract investors to finance the purchase of 200 acres. And it really begins to take shape after they realize this is a much bigger and harder undertaking than they thought possible, which brings a mentor, Allan York, into the picture.

York, a biodynamic guru in all respects, leads the Chesters on their seven-year journey of successes and failures that ultimately results in the creation of an interdependent, interconnected, self-sustaining ecosystem in arid California. In other words, the Chesters and their team of biodynamic farmers eventually create a living, breathing paradise that can feed many with very little input. This is the type of truly sustainable agriculture the world will need to embrace if we are going to feed ourselves sustainably after this pandemic.

Watch this beautiful documentary with your family in its entirety and just enjoy. Then, over hot chocolate or tea, give everyone a chance to talk about what they did or didn't like; things that excited them; things that they learned; and perhaps most importantly why it's important to make mistakes and learn how to problem solve.

Then, use the ideas below to encourage your kids to find a topic that they would like to learn more about. Here's a list of ideas, but it is in no way exhaustive and all are adaptable for a variety of ages:

Research the differences between biodynamic, organic, and what has become the "conventional" North American way of farming. Which is more beneficial to Mother Earth? Which is sustainable? How does each impact climate change; maintaining healthy aquifers; sustaining a healthy ecosystem; creating a cooperative means of production; and reducing transportation to markets? Trace the history of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to post Second World War America and a stockpile of chemicals used in the war.

Look into ways your family can change the way they eat by having your kids research local community supported agriculture; community gardens; local markets; organic food box programs in your town or city. Then, have your kids cost out the different ways to purchase local food and find out which works best for your family based on budget, distance to pick up versus delivery, variety of choice and products, etc.

Do you have a kid that wants to try their hand at growing some of their own fruits and vegetables? Have them compare native and heritage species and their ability to thrive on rainwater alone. Look into Seeds of Diversity Canada and native species farms that will send plants and trees through the mail. Lacking space? Take up the grass in your front yard and have at it. You may be amazed at the gorgeous colours that appear when beans, squash and flax bloom. Sow garlic as a natural pest and fungus deterrent that segues nicely into finding out about companion planting and edible ground covers that will enhance the beauty of your edible garden and make it difficult for neighbours not to buy in.

Now that you have this wonderful food making its way into your kitchen, have your kids find recipes for your family to enjoy eating together. If you discover a budding chef, let them explore the path from high school to college to apprenticeship and finally, writing the provincial examination to earn Red Seal certification.

For kids interested in science, there is no end of possibilities. Look at the interconnectedness of aphids and ladybugs; monarchs and milkweed; duck poop, algae bloom and fish fatalities; animal husbandry; why eggs are the most perfect food in the world; bee keeping and the decline of bees; methods of preserving food; food-borne illness; good versus bad bacteria; how to create living soil; water as a limited resource and a human right that should remain in the public common.

Do you have a kid that is more of an audio learner? Use this interview of Molly and John by Rich Roll as their jumping off point. That might lead to an entire discussion around what makes a podcast good and how to effectively get it out to audiences. Have your kid plan and execute their own podcast.

For those wanting to include a social justice aspect, a good follow-up documentary is Theatre of Life. Follow chef Massimo Bottura and a team of over 60 international chefs as they create delicious, nutritious, beautifully presented meals for Italy's hungriest residents -- refugees, recovering addicts, former sex workers, and other disadvantage people -- from discarded food during Expo 2015. A visual feast in itself, the film puts a human face on its powerful message of social justice and the environmental impact of food waste.

Additional fantastic Canadian documentaries looking at local food security include Sovereign Soilset in Dawson City, Yukon and Gatherings, a six-part series from Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula exploring intentional farming communities.

Now, let your kids loose in the kitchen, armed with a recipe, ingredients and some basic tools like measuring cups and spoons, bowls, pots, pans, a hand mixer. If you are missing some of these, then help with improvisations. Include a safety lesson around knives and using a claw hand to protect the fingers on the hand holding the food being cut, as well as basic equipment safety.

They will make mistakes, but that's how we all learn. So, if that chocolate cake falls, call it brownies and slather it with whipped cream. If the tomato sauce burns, throw it out and cover that pasta with olive oil and feta. Keep in mind, some dishes and baked goods may have to be sacrificed in the name of learning, but have your kids dissect what went wrong and what changes to make the next time. Just be sure to keep it fun.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Still from Biggest Little Farm

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