An Artistic Strewing Success Story

Strewing can be a little bit like setting a trap, but not at all for meanness. It can be like leaving a gift to be discovered. It can be a little bit like the tooth fairy came, or the Easter bunny. ~ Sandra Dodd

Strewing for a child with Asperger syndrome is just a matter of trying things until you find the one that clicks. When something clicks, it clicks hard, and everything else falls by the wayside.

In my daughter’s case, the click came in the shape of an artist’s lightbox.

Fantasy creature. About age 11.

Frustrated Ambition

My then nine-year-old daughter seemed to enjoy drawing, but she generally ended up shredding whatever she drew in frustration. This behavior was not new for her – people had been telling me since she was a toddler that she was terribly strong-willed, whereas I knew that she was simply unable to adequately deal with reality that didn’t align with the picture in her head (a trait I now know to be typical of individuals with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism).

Portrait of a friend. About age 12.

When it came to drawing, she totally lacked the skills to draw the picture in her head. When she kept on drawing anyway, I knew it must be very important to her. I began to cudgel my brain for ways to help her over her frustrating learning hump.

I finally remembered an art teacher demonstrating how to hold a picture and blank paper to a window to “save” the good parts by tracing them, then redrawing the messed-up parts. For her tenth birthday, my daughter received a lightbox!

A fantasy creature (a naga) from her stories. About age 13.

At the art supply store and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a good quality 10×13 lightbox cost little more than a much smaller toy lightbox that would break in a few months. (And that first lightbox is still in use seven years later – always get real tools, not toys!)

Striking a Spark

My daughter’s demeanor changed overnight. As soon as I showed her how to put a blank piece of paper over her drawing to retrace the parts she liked so she could fix the parts she disliked, she began drawing for hours each day.

She not only traced her own drawings to fix them, she would find photographs and pictures from books and her older cousins’ drawings and trace them all. Her drawing skills are almost entirely self-taught, largely from her tracing in those first couple of years.

Same fantasy character, drawn just 11 months later. About age 14.

Lighting a Fire

My daughter’s subsequent education has largely centered on art. Of course, as unschoolers, we know how a single topic can spread out to encompass nearly every subject!

For instance, in our unschooly history co-op, one week we would watch a video segment on a historical period, and the following week each student reported on a specific topic for that period. No surprise, my daughter’s topic was art, and she gained a very decent grasp of the history of art through that study – as well as history itself, tied to her favorite topic.

Her love of drawing characters goes hand in hand with her love of writing stories. She writes stories constantly and draws her own characters more than anything, and that has led to mountains of completely self-directed learning.

Here is her own assessment of how drawing has affected her education.

Watercolor painting of a story character. About age 15.

My drawing is directly tied to my stories – if I draw something, there’s almost always a story behind it. That character has a life, a purpose, likes and dislikes. This means that even though I personally don’t care to know a lot about humans, I have to learn through my own creations.

I get obsessed, as most Aspies do. This carries over to my characters, because I always have to know more about the character than the character should even know about himself. This means I have to research history, clothing, culture, technology, recent scientific developments, food, animals, old folk tales, urban legends, the human body, diseases, malformations, and even genetics if I want to figure out what my character’s children are going to look like.

Self portrait. About age 16.

My characters are spread across a wide array of social classes, time periods, races, and even species if we want to count in magical beings. If I have a character, then I have to become an expert on that character and the world he lives in.

If he’s a young boy who grew up in a village in South Africa a few hundred years ago, I have to become an expert on that country and that time period. I learn how the politics work, who’s in charge, what clothing they wear, and if they make it or trade for it. I learn about rites of passage into adulthood and what they eat and learn how their village makes income.

To a more complicated extent, I could have an albino man living in America who’s an expert in chemistry. I research albinism and I find that albinos’ eyes are not in fact red, but are more often purple or blue and it’s common for them to have bad vision.

A character from one of her stories. Almost age 17.

I hate math with the passion of a thousand burning suns. But because my character likes chemistry, I have to at least try to understand chemistry – and the associated math – so that my character knows what he’s talking about. And because I have a reason to learn it, I enjoy it.

(Me again: I feel I should point out here that I have never given her a single spelling or grammar lesson, and this is her unadulterated writing. She turns 17 this month.)

So there you have an unschooling strewing success story. I paid attention to what my daughter was interested in; I strewed the tools, books, and resources she needed in her path; and I sat back and watched her achieve her goals … all because of a lightbox.

Read how unschooling has enabled my daughter to accumulate more than 10,000 hours of expertise in her field of art.

~ Carma


About: Carma

Carma is the mother of four children, always unschooled. As a homeschool mom, she has so much extra time on her hands she must look for ways to fill it creatively. Besides blogging, she doesn't have enough time for reading, scrapping, reading, knitting, writing, and reading. In addition to reading (did she mention she enjoys reading?), she enjoys writing about herself in the third person. She blogs about life, liberty, and the pursuit of learning at Winging It and also designs funny homeschool t-shirts and Christian-themed t-shirts."


  1. Karen Lee says:

    What a beautiful story. And I REALLY love her drawings!!

  2. Steph says:

    What a great story. And I love that you point out that she’s never had a spelling or grammar lesson. She writes very well.

  3. Loved seeing the progression in her artwork. Thanks for sharing. It’s fascinating to see how God works in the lives of our children.

  4. Our daughter has taught herself to draw in much the smae way. She is 16, Bi-Polar for the most part. Loves the Asian culture and draws a lot from it in her creativity.

  5. Ah! Thanks so much for sharing this story. As the mother of a 7 year old Aspie who is also a budding artist, this story really struck a chord with me. Just this morning I was struggling with the need to make sure that she ‘learns’ math from a Life of Fred book I chose for her. This reminded me of the need to step back and return to my unschooling roots and help her learn in her own way! Thank you!

  6. […] this morning I was directed to this great post: An Artistic Strewing Success Story by Carma. Man, this could have been written about my own daughter! She loves art. In fact, this […]

  7. tereza crump says:

    My DD9 loves to draw too. I will check into a lightbox. 🙂

    We unschool too but sometimes I struggle with trusting the process. Then we usually go into power struggles about certain things I think they need to know. Ugh! 🙁 Dear Jesus, help me to trust you more and stop looking at what the neighbors are doing.

    thanks for the encouragement.

    • Carma says:

      When I have something I feel they need to know, I will sit down and discuss it with them at length, the pros and cons of it, how it may impact their future college or job choices, etc. Sometimes I play the “hey, dad’s head is going to explode if you are unable to estimate the tip at a restaurant” card, too. 😉 The main thing is, we work it out together rather than either of us trying to win or impose on the other. Hope this helps!

  8. Valerie says:

    Wow, your daughter’s assessment of how drawing has affected the whole of her education has really given me some insight into how my own daughter’s world is. Our daughters sound very much alike…spending hours upon hours drawing and perfecting, creating characters with histories and worlds, etc. Mine will be turning 18 this month. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing this. Unschooling is truly awesome!

  9. […] Artistic Strewing Success Story shows how I figured out my daughter’s interests and hit on the right thing to “strew” in her path to spark her passion. Unschooling gives passionate kids the gift of time – 10,000 Hours of time – to make themselves an expert in a subject before they ever reach college age. And yet, it’s still okay to be a Scheduled Unschooler if that is what best fits your family’s needs! […]

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