Unschooling from an Unschoolers Perspective

This is my explanation of unschooling based on my years of experience, research and exposure to it. We’re still pretty young in unschooling but we’ve learned quite a bit so far.  We have many friends we interact with both in person and through our various online support groups. Most of our friends are homeschoolers but not all are unschoolers. In my opinion this portrayal is much more valuable and accurate than a few hours spent reading a few books and scouring a few websites that are against the practice. I too read things against unschooling when I was first researching the methods of homeschooling. I can see now after having experience with it that those authors had a very narrow view of what unschooling is really about. I’m secure enough in our lifestyle that I don’t feel the need to defend it however I’ll gladly discuss what it is and why we do it with someone who genuinely wants to know.
To understand unschooling you first have to get rid of many preconceived notions of learning. You have to at least open your mind to the idea that school is not the best environment for everyone to learn, become socialized, participate in physical activity, nor is it the platform to a higher education. It helps to think of your adult life: what have you learned since your school years, where did you meet the majority of your true friends, what sorts of hobbies and activities do you like to do? I’ve learned to sew, cook, and drywall as an adult. I pursued those interests because they relate to my adult life. I didn’t have exposure to them in school. Most my really good friendships have been started because of my current interests-none of which I acquired as a result of being schooled. The activities I like to do were not offered in school and even if they were there would be community leagues I could join. We have a lot of misguided  notions of what school is supposed to do. But if we actually ask ourselves we can see that school does not benefit the majority of people. Success in school (good grades, popularity, athletic) does not guarantee a successful career, an outstanding social life, or a happy family. It does not often create kids who get along well with a variety cultures and social classes. It does not insure a healthy outlook of self. It does not foster open communication between kids and adults, parent and child. There are outstanding parents, teachers, and counselors who do push for those things. There are also a number of naturally ambitious kids who do think outside the box, manage to follow their interests and dreams, and succeed in life and career. But the school system does more to hinder that then promote it. Many people have found personal and financial success by making what interests them a priority. They’ve focused on learning all they can about their passions and they’ve been happier for it. But many times, like myself,  they don’t discover those things until later adulthood. By unschooling from the start, I’m giving my kids a chance to discover and learn about their many interests. I’m giving them the opportunity and suppor,t from birth, to love learning and find happiness.

This is what unschooling isn’t:
Its not bad parenting or lack of parenting. On the contrary it requires more parenting. Unschooling (any homeschooling) parent is with their child more. On a whole we know our kids better because of that. We’re able to work around their natural sleep/play/rest/eating cycles instead of adhering to a mass school schedule. When allowed to follow their own rhythms they are more alert and focused and more emotionally stable. Its not a lack of discipline either. Its true we let our kids be more wild-or as we prefer to call it, more like kids. We give them more freedom to make mistakes, explore their world, deal with conflict, test their own physical limits, and work through their emotions. We do so with guidance but not all knowing and commanding power-because frankly, parents don’t know it all and actually watching a child figure out her world can be a learning experience for us as well. Instead of sticking to a strict set of black and white rules, we as unscooling parents, are able to work with each child individually based on their set of circumstances, ages, and limitations. Because we spend so much time with them we know what they can handle as far as knowledge of “taboo” subjects. We can be honest and open with them and explain things in ways we know they’ll understand. We can witness closely what information they are processing and what needs further explanation.

Unschooling is not anti-education. In fact its very pro-education. We’re not just teaching our kids a set of facts that they have to memorize for a test and then quickly forget when they’re presented with a new set of facts. Because we allow our kids to learn what is interesting to them they naturally enjoy and retain the information they’re learning. Some like myself  loosely incorporate a curriculum and games to learn the basics in math and reading. Once a person knows how to read, the whole world is open to her. But its not forced, tested, or continued beyond what they find interesting and fun. Adeline has been absorbing written information (some of it stays, some is replaced) since she was about 5. We’ve always filled our shelves with books she finds interesting as well as some she might later find interesting-they are always available to her. When she wants to take an interest further than books we’re able to enroll her in a class, learn about it ourselves and teach her, or direct her to online tutorials or learning DVDs.
We’re not anti-school or anti-teachers either. I have a lot of respect for people who go into teaching because they actually love kids and want to teach, wether its in the school system or homeschool-that’s not always the case and one bad teacher can really create a lot of issues for a child. I understand that not everyone wants to teach, likes constantly being around their kids, or is qualified to teach their kids. For people who don’t genuinely like their kids better birth control is needed. For those who absolutely can’t find the time to spend with their kids or becoming learned themselves, school is the best option for them. But just because a teacher can be great, the school system is not so great for the majority-especially with the no-child-left behind-or as some teachers like to call it, no-child-can excel. For teachers who want to teach, the school system can be a real drain because they are forced to teach the standardized tests-with the primary subjects being math and english. This is mostly memorization and facts. Its not fostering a love of learning. Plus they are learning so many subjects at once that the information is barely retained.

Whoever thinks that socialization is absent from a homeschoolers life has not really thought about all the people a homeschooler comes across. They’ve probably  only met the homeschoolers who’ve been kept from the “evils” of the outside world (usually for religious reasons). Or they’ve fallen victim to the idea that socialization can only occur in a structured environment with people their own age. School is not the ideal place to learn socialization. Frankly, putting a child into an environment where interaction is with a bunch of other kids who themselves have limited experience, knowledge, and logic is, I believe, a dangerous way to teach them how to socialize. Kids who spend most their time with other kids don’t get to see normal healthy adult interaction. On top of forced socialization with peers who have no better understanding of interacting, what they get is the manipulations of older kids and exposure to overworked and impersonal attitudes of teachers and playground attendants. Some people never overcome that mindset and keep those laws of the jungle throughout their adulthood and into their careers. However I know from personal experience, as well as a childhood that was at times a little unschooly, that my adult life doesn’t have to be full of cliques, drama, self-centeredness, and the eat or be eaten mentality. I had a great mom who included me in her life, her errands, her work, and friendships. With both friend time and extended family time the kids in my family were always allowed around the adults-we got to be a part of the conversation and witness how people interacted. As homeschoolers my kids get that in  abundance. I’ve always included Adeline and talked to her openly and honestly and continue to do so with my younger kids. I try to include her in conversations-especially when the other adults in the room ignore her. Like myself, she is often a quiet observer and a little shy. But once she gets to know someone and they take an interest in what she has to say, Adeline is quite a conversationalist. And even if she doesn’t end up talking directly to a person, she’ll often ask me or Josh what we meant or they meant when they said such-and-such. So even if she doesn’t participate she is aware of the socializing going on. Kids are, by nature, excellent observers and mimickers of behavior. My kids are with me when I interact with sales people, wait staff, librarians, friends, and family.

My kids play. They play with each other. They play by themselves. They play with friends-mostly other homeschoolers. Never are all the kids the same age.  They are encouraged to use their imaginations. They are allowed to make messes. Playtime environments are varied: playgrounds, grassy areas, gardens, forests, mountains, lakes, pools, living rooms, bedrooms, bathtubs, kitchen counters, sidewalks, basketball courts, homemade forts, and closets.Sometimes the adults are involved in the play and sometimes they are just close by. The kids are always allowed to interact with the adults but when lots of kids are around they usually spend most the time with each other. Kids do need other kids but they don’t need them the majority of the time. During play a kid is learning socialization, problems solving skills, and creativity-most importantly they are having fun.

Parental Requirements to be an Unschooler:

*We need to actually enjoy being with our kids. We spend the majority of our time with our kids and we have to know how to get along. Its as simple as that.

*We need to have patience and respect each others differences. We all have different personalities and sometimes the kid with the personality that’s most like ours can be hardest to get along with-that is usually because we end up seeing something in them that we don’t like in ourselves and take it out on them instead of bettering ourselves. But we have to respect that we’re at different stages of learning, logic, spirituality, etc. Since we do spend so much time together we all (even the parents) have to learn that each person is on a different path but that we all have to coexist. Just because we’ve already learned a lesson doesn’t mean another person is going to get it right away-especially when that person is still young.

*We need to free ourselves from expectations. We live our lives expecting it to go a certain way. But another person sees their life going  another way. Just because its a societal norm or religious tradition doesn’t make any one lifestyle the one and only absolute right way. Children need to be allowed to make their own path and they need to be shown there are many different paths. I see a successful person as someone who is happy with themselves-the rest follows. My kids don’t have to marry any one type of person or get married at all, they don’t have to go into a career that makes them rich, they don’t have to follow the same spiritual traditions that I do. As long as my kids are happy with themselves and the choices they make, then I’m going to be happy with them.

*We need to be okay with messes. People are curious by nature and that leads to lots of messy experiments. Not just kits and science projects. They like to know what happens when they take everything out of a box, the texture of pudding squishing between their fingers, the array of colors all dumped onto a table. I let them make messes and help them clean their messes up. If Adeline wants to sleep and play in a messy room than that is her choice because its her space-she can’t bring it all into the shared spaces unless she cleans it up when she’s done. And if she wants help cleaning, I make the time because I see it as time I get to spend chatting with her and showing her how to be organized. Play is messy. Learning to use our imagination is messy. Messy is good and we can be good parents by happily helping to clean it all up. If they see you grumble and whine when cleaning they are going to think its an chore to be avoided.

*We need to love learning and be able to educate ourselves-thereby setting a good example. Both Josh and I read, scour the internet, watch learning videos. take classes, etc. And we provide the same opportunities for our kids to do the same. Before we can unschool our kids, it helps to unschool ourselves.

*We need to be okay with failure. Failure is often really just success at figuring out how not to do something. I’m good at learning what doesn’t work for me by trying many different ways of doing them. I want my kids to have the freedom to try what they think works for them. That includes trying a hobby that they think they’re interested in only to discover its not all that enjoyable. Adeline has tried fencing, dance, soccer, and a variety of home crafts. She has a basic understanding of each and continues with the ones she enjoys. She’s quit others before its scheduled end and she’s never gone back to others when the new season starts. She can always return to them later in life or never again give them a thought-the point is she tried and figured out for herself what she wants to do with her time.

What they are learning:
If I had to break down her learning into subjects that a schooled person could understand they would be:
-consumer math, computer science, language arts, history, science, physical education, music, art, home economics, shop- But these subjects aren’t limited to a specified time of day. Also these subjects bleed easily into one another. While she’s reading a warrior cat book she’s also learning a little about cat behavior and the lifecycle of a cat (science and math). It should go without saying that anytime she reads anything she’s learning language arts. She saves money, she spends money, she’s figuring out the seasons and weather cylces, she cooks, she draws, she makes art on her computer. She walks, she swims, she runs and plays. And this is only the beginning. She has the potential to learn her entire life without limiting herself to one subject. If she wants, she can get into college or a trade school or do an internship. My kids (as well as myself and J) have the world and we’re going to take full advantage of it.


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