‘Wild and free’: No TV, no computers, no smartphones

Published 10:52 PM EDT, Tue October 4, 2016

Story highlights

Niki Boon has been photographing her home-schooled children in New Zealand

The children live a life free of electronics: "They're just learning a little differently"

(CNN) —  

Photographer Niki Boon and her husband, Rob, decided to home-school their four children when they moved to a rural region of New Zealand five years ago.

But sitting around the table and learning didn’t go quite the way they expected.

The children resisted, so Niki and Rob switched to a more relaxed approach. Instead of following a fixed and rigid curriculum, each child explores his or her curiosities on the family’s 10-acre property in Blenheim, surrounded by waters and bushes and hills.

This decision was quite controversial among family and friends.

“We got lots of questions from people about how this is going to work, and were (my children) actually going to learn anything,” Boon said. “I don’t really like the term ‘unschooling,’ it’s such a negative term. They’re not really unschooling. They’re not ‘un-’ anything. They’re just learning a little differently than in a standard school.”

Photographer Niki Boon
PHOTO: Courtesy Niki Boon
Photographer Niki Boon

The former physiotherapist started making photographs as a record, she says, to show family and friends what her children were doing during the day.

At first, her images were mere snapshots that were neither capturing the true story of what they were doing nor conveying what it truly felt like to be doing certain activities.

That’s when Boon began studying photography, so she could represent her children’s lives better. Her photo series “Wild and Free” is a dreamy black-and-white glimpse into a childhood spent among nature and the environment.

“We spend so much time outside, and I want the kids to know that the world is theirs and that they’re free within it,” she said. “We’ve got a rural property, so they run wild and free and it’s something I try to capture in the pictures – that this is their childhood.”

The photographer’s decision to raise her children this way actually stems from a form of education named after Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. Steiner established what’s known as anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy that says human beings can optimize their physical and mental health using mainly natural means.

Boon’s eldest son, Kurt, is now 13 years old and spent a year at a Rudolf Steiner school when his family lived in a different district. He was 6 at the time, and the school did not have computers and encouraged families not to have TVs, Boon says.

“We embraced this completely and fully and we loved the idea so much,” she said. “We got rid of our TV, and we haven’t had one since.”

Kurt, Rebecca, Anton and Arwen not only don’t watch TV, but they don’t use any kind of modern electronic devices, either – no computers, no smartphones.

“It’s not that we don’t want them to have any access to it, it’s just not our first line of investigation of anything that needs to be found out,” Boon said. “We prefer them to find their answers to their questions either out in nature or in books.”

But Boon acknowledges that this probably won’t be the case forever. She says her children haven’t shown interest in using any kind of technologies yet – but if any of them were to start developing an interest, she and her husband would look into it at that stage.

“It doesn’t appear to have put them at any disadvantage at this point,” Boon said, referring to her children’s electronic-free life. “We don’t have any opinions on anyone else; each to their own. Everybody chooses what they believe is best for their children. Our children seem pretty happy and OK so far. I know that’ll change and that’s OK, but we just want them to start this way.”

A modern technology her children are clearly exposed to, however, is the camera. Boon shoots with a Canon 5D Mark III and 35-millimeter lens. Her children aren’t all that interested in what she’s making with it, though.

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“They live in the minute,” Boon said. “They don’t want to know what happened yesterday or what happened even that morning. They just want to know what’s happening now.”

Boon draws inspiration from some of the greats – Eve Arnold, Eli Reed, Eugene Richards – and one motivation behind her photography has to do with her own childhood: her mother passed away when she was in her late teens.

“It’s now as a mother myself that I would love to go back and ask her about my childhood,” Boon said. “But she’s not here to tell the stories. I don’t have the stories to pass on to my children, and the photos are so limited that I wish there were so, so many more. And that’s something that I want to pass on to my kids if something ever happened to me – and one day it will. They’d have those stories, and they can pass them on as well. I think it’s really important.”

Perhaps with time, Boon’s children will recognize the significance of their mother’s photographs. But for now, it’s all about living in the moment and learning from the moment, swinging from trees and sliding in mud.

Niki Boon is a New Zealand-based photographer. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.