I'll admit it: the term "unschooling" sounds pretty far out there in left field. Left field as in, you have GOT to be kidding me.
I'm pretty sure that was my reaction the very first time I ever saw that term, which was in a forum that was not even related to homeschooling. Someone happened to mention it and did not explain it; therefore, I assumed that they were extremists (maybe even conspiracy theorists?) who believed the public school system to be an evil plot run by the government trying to brainwash our precious young. I always knew I wanted to try homeschooling my son, but I hadn't really spent much time thinking about it until my son started inching his way closer to preschool-age.
I was intrigued by the term, though, and decided to research it further. I am eternally grateful that I did. I learned that the term is not an official name for the type of homeschooling that is also known as natural learning, or child-led learning. In fact, I also learned is that there is no "official" anything when it comes to unschooling methods. My first guide to this method of learning and educating was the book, The Unschooling Unmanual:
I rented it for free at my library, which has a few copies. I learned a great deal about how it works from family to family, and I realized that it is not a complete LACK of education, as its name tends to make one think. It actually began to look and sound like something I was already doing - creating learning opportunities in every day activities, and looking for practical applications. These families also mentioned something illuminating to me: focusing studies on subjects that were actually geared toward specific goals. Forcing a child to learn something that they are not interested in is not only wasted time, but it kills the joy of learning. Pondering on this is what led me to continue researching.
Does my child need the structure of curriculum?
My son, Zhane, was an early talker, slow with motor skills but quick to develop advanced communication skills. He was also very quick to pick up on things like numbers, letters, colors, etc. It never crossed my mind to put him into a daycare or program to learn "the basics"; by the time he was old enough for preschool, he had already known all of those things for years!
Now, I promise that I didn't write this post to brag about my son (though he really is worth bragging about, because he is one smart kiddo). The point is that when I read the Unschooling Unmanual and then a few other books on the subject, what clicked for me was the fact that my kid actually DID learn all of this. Without workbooks. Without structured school time. Without structured parent-led play time. Without teachers.
Sure, he was a toddler, and toddlers learn through play. But this was more than learning how to share or what the color blue looks like. This was real learning. Reading, writing, counting, adding, subtraction, fractions, measurements...the foundation for the stuff they tell you can only be taught by someone with teaching credentials. When we baked together, cleaned up our rooms or folded laundry, we did these things together and he would be sorting whites and colors, counting how many cups of flour and organizing his car collection.
As I talked with more and more families (semi-locally and over the internet) who chose to unschool, I began to see that it didn't have to be something drastic or dramatic. My favorite aspect was the feeling that we could take life by the horns and squeeze the learning out of it with our kids. From the very beginning, my husband and I were joking about how our kid is going to be an adventurous little fellow and will have to hang on for the ride. Little did we know how true that would turn out to be! We have lived in 3 states and 7 houses since he was born and he is not even 5 yet! He has been on several long-distance road trips as an infant and toddler, his first cross-country airplane ride was when he was only a couple of months old and he has taken several since. We have always been a very active and outdoors-y couple, so yes, I have literally strapped him to my back. ;)
But can you actually do that?
Thinking about homeschooling, what made me feel the most hesitant - and maybe the most unqualified - was trying to duplicate the education system in my home. I grew up with several friends who were homeschooled, and I didn't notice a huge difference in how they learned the subjects I was learning in school. They had books, they sat at the kitchen table and read chapters, answered review questions, wrote essays, got graded, took tests. The thought of doing that with Zhane was all of a sudden overwhelming. What if he asks me a question I don't know? Am I patient enough? What if he gives me attitude and doesn't want to do the lesson? What do I do when he says he doesn't want to learn?
When I learned about unschooling, all of those doubts disappeared. What if he asks me a question I don't know? We look up the answer, together. I love learning as much as he does! We don't have to worry about getting sidetracked and losing time, not turning in an assignment in time to some faceless online program. Am I patient enough? To be his mom, yes. His friend, yes. His fellow researcher, definitely. If either of us start to feel frustrated, we can take a break. For as long as we want. What if he doesn't want to do his lesson? WHAT LESSON!? What if he says he doesn't want to learn? Let's find something that you DO want to learn, and maybe go back to that later. Or not.
The beauty of the freedom to learn
One of my favorite quotes is this one, by Joyce Fetterol: "The goal is not to unschool. The goal is for children to learn joyfully." Most important to me is that my children love learning. The love of learning makes anything possible and is above all, the most important aspect of education.
For me and my husband, our wish is to raise children to take responsibility of their learning, to focus on a goal (career) and work on attaining that goal. Their childhood and adolescence is short; this is the time they have to train for a career. Why do they spend 180 days a year, for 13 years, and come out with not much more than a piece of paper that qualifies you for an entry-level minimum wage job? Is it any wonder so many middle-aged adults return to school?
Of course, the notion that a child can begin training for an adult career before they are adults is not a new one. In fact, it is the other way around. Historically, in just about every culture and society you can name, children or young adults were apprenticed to someone in the career that they or their parents selected. Ideally, they learned the trade and when they completed their apprenticeship, they were ready to perform that career on their own. I feel that although society and the economical structures have shifted, it is still possible and reasonable to expect a young adult to enter adulthood with more words on their resumes other than just diploma.
I have many, many years before the subject of college will be applicable to our family, but if/when that day comes, I am confident that my son will rise to the challenge. I have seen several families with this upbringing whose children have thrived in the college setting and we able to complete their career goals at a much faster rate than their colleagues. Personally, I feel that this attitude toward life and learning is what will make the difference in the society of tomorrow. We live in a world that is constantly growing in technology that demands "the next big thing" faster than you can sell today's news. This explosion of knowledge has changed everything about how we live our day-to-day lives - except for our school system and curriculum.
To quote Alvin Toffer, acclaimed writer, futurist and renowned business leader: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
So what do you do?
Everything! Now that I know that this is the route we will be going with our children, I plan to make full use of our days together. We do a lot of activities in and out of the house, planned and spontaneous. I do make sure to have plenty of downtime, however, and I encourage the kids to play by themselves and explore. Fortunately, my kids are usually pretty good about doing that, and if they are dragging their feet and are wanting to be entertained, I start a project of my own. They can choose to join in or go off and play. They love to help me with dyeing projects, but get bored when I start sewing.
I find that Pinterest is invaluable for finding ideas of things we can do together. Some of our favorite activities have been painting hot rocks with crayons, homemade playdough, homemade air-dry clay, watercolor techniques, fun science experiments and more. My Pinterest boards are full of fun ideas! You can check them out and repin as many as you like:
Hubby and I want to mix in several different learning techniques, including strewing, DIY Montessori-inspired games and maybe loose non-mandatory purchased curriculum to keep around the house, but the idea is to let Zhane lead the way and decide which ones look interesting. We can follow that theme and incorporate an almost limitless number of subjects within those genres. For example, at the moment, Zhane is very interested in his gymnastics class. He has been taking gym for almost a year and now is nearing the age where he will graduate from Tumble Bugs into the Boys Only class (squeal of excitement). We like to watch pro gymnasts together (movies, internet) and I mention how these were little boys once who had to practice, practice, practice, and they have to eat right. This leads to a discussion about nutrition and bone health, and we could have quickly pulled out the kid encyclopedia he has, and looked up more information on anatomy.
That is just one example; a study of dinosaurs involves learning ancient geology (Earth's "ages"), paleontology (fossils), modern geology (minerals that form fossils), reading, crafts projects (making your own fossils, baking a dino cake or drawing and coloring), writing, math...depending on the age of your child, the possibilities are endless. Most of the time, our conversations are spontaneous and random. He asks a question and we look it up. That might lead to a longer discussion or not, but either way, he is learning.
Ultimately, every family is different, and just as there are different types of public school families, there are many, many different types of homeschoolers. If you feel 100% confident in your choices and you commit 100% to them, your child's education will be a success. As a kid who was public schooled for most of my school-age years, I do not feel like I was disadvantaged at all, but I did wish for more. I am happy that my husband and I can offer that to our children, and I hope and pray that it can always be this enjoyable.
Meet & Greet
Hi! My name is Astrid and I am an unschooling, working mama of 3 with an intense need to design, craft and create. Follow me for ideas, tutorials, DIY projects, homeschooling resources and more.