I count my blessings that I ran across the idea of unschooling early in my life as a parent. Not that I was entirely convinced, in the beginning. The idea of no school was intriguing and felt right at an instinctual level, yet I had a lot of questions about how it was going to work. I mean, what if… in spite of all the wonderful things I had read about children who were allowed to explore the world at their own pace and pick up knowledge as it appealed to them… what if MY children never learned to read, or couldn’t recite their multiplication tables, or didn’t care about memorizing the state capitals, or decided cursive handwriting wasn’t important…
Unschooling is most certainly a term better applied to those of us who have been schooled so thoroughly that we have trouble sorting the valuable information from the invaluable. For our children, it’s all just about living life.
Nearly ten years after beginning my own unschooling journey, I am now the mother of three. In school terms, I would have a fourth grader, a second grader, and one almost ready for kindergarten. We rarely use those terms, however. We keep them handy to toss out to the occasional person who questions, but grade levels only grow more and more meaningless as time passes.
I still have occasional anxieties. What should one think about a fluent and voracious reader who doesn’t write? What about a child who writes things daily, but doesn’t know the order of the alphabet? How about the child who refuses to count the numbers 9 and 13 simply because he doesn’t like them? Is there something, as mother, I should be teaching them? Will they hate me someday for not forcing them to learn?
Although, I don’t believe there is such a thing as knowing all the answers, this is the list (constantly growing and changing) that I have developed to quell my own fears. I share it freely with the understanding that unschooling is as fluid and diverse as the lives of the families who take this path. What we do changes with each child, with each season, even with the time of day.
- Trust. Faith in our children is the key. We have to believe in the innate goodness of our children. They are capable as individuals. This isn’t something children grow into. It is what they are. They know. They understand. They see. The most valuable thing they can learn from us is that we trust and believe in them.
- Forget about what we are NOT doing. Far too often the focus of unschooling becomes what we are not doing. When we find ourselves starting to describe our philosophy in negative terms (we do not follow a curriculum, we do not do worksheets, we do not limit our learning to school hours, we do not force the memorization of facts and figures), we need to stop and consider the message we are communicating. Unschooling isn’t about creating a vast landscape of things not done. It’s about doing. We interact with our children and respect them as individuals. We follow their interests, and we follow our own. We explore and learn alongside them. We are open to new ideas and experiences in a multitude of shapes and forms. We act as facilitators when their interests lead them to subjects we can not personally help them with. As unschoolers we DO, rather than do not.
- Know that not every day will fulfill our vision of a “perfect day.” There are going to be days when they sleep in, eat too much junk food, and argue like cats and dogs. We may have moments when we worry that they are frying their brains on too much television or endless hours of video games. There will be days when they can’t think of anything to do, or the things they do think of require our help and we just aren’t going to be in a place to give it. This doesn’t mean we have failed. This is life. Life happens. Life goes on.
- Everything is educational. We must stop dividing the world into activities that we deem educational and activities we deem not. Everything we do—whether we call it work, play, veg time, or study—has value. Their minds are growing and processing information, each at a particular and unique rate and process. Don’t panic when all they do is play. Look intensely at that play and know that there is value in it.
- Let them lead, but don’t be afraid to offer some direction. Just because we have decided not to set the agenda, doesn’t mean we, as parents, are without good ideas. It’s okay to introduce new topics and ideas for daily activities, but also be prepared to change course and let go when our ideas are not well received. If it was a really good idea (in your mind) go ahead and do it yourself, without the kids.
- When in doubt, observe. On the occasional day when we find ourselves truly questioning the decision to unschool, become a scientist. Study your subject in its natural habitat. Observe. Keep a book between yourself and them if you need a disguise or distraction. Watch what they do. Listen to what they say. Watch until you see and you are comforted. They are creative. They are full of information. They are thinking, generating new ideas, and reviewing old concepts. It’s coming out in a myriad of ways, but it’s there. Set aside your judgments and you will see.
- Whenever you get really stuck, explore your own interests. Unschooling parents are hardest on themselves when they forget that they should be learners, as well. Make sure we are exploring the world with the same zeal and passion we expect for our kids. Set aside time each day to delve into our own projects. Do an in-depth study of a topic of interest. Learn a new skill. Master a new language. Make sure there is always at least one item on the list of things to do that you are exploring entirely for your own benefit.
- Find a support group. Online or in person, find a group of like-minded individuals where the subject of unschooling or child-led learning can be explored. Look for people who energize you with their discussions. Find a community that supports you when things are rough. Unschooling can be difficult when everyone around you spends their time discussing curriculum or simply sending their children to public school. It’s not necessary to avoid those who do things differently, but it’s always nice to have someone to turn to who understands, more clearly, the principles that guide you.
- Don’t let anyone tell you there is a right way or wrong way to unschool. Know that even the most seasoned unschooling parent will not necessarily have the answers you are looking for. Keep your mind open to ideas and concepts, but don’t let yourself feel threatened by those more set in their ways. Assuming there are hard and set rules, after all, for unschooling, would be defeating its very purpose.
- Find record keeping strategies to quell your specific fears. Some people are comforted by turning daily activities into “schoolish” lingo to categorize achievements. For some, just keeping a journal or scrapbook is enough to surrender to the varieties of a life of unschooling. You might save every scrap of paper your child writes or draws a picture on. You might keep a list of every book you read together. Whatever it is that makes you feel more comfortable, just do it, and enjoy the process. Your needs for documenting your child’s education, just like their needs for structure and variety in daily life, will change over time.
If there is anything I have learned in my time as a parent and an unschooler, it’s that no matter what you learn, there’s always something else you don’t yet know. Unschooling allows us to embrace the change that is life. We are all growing, learning, using our minds and our hands in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of skill and fluency. This doesn’t change with time and age.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
Unschooling is all about becoming. Whether you are just beginning or have not thought of education in terms of school in years—embrace the change, embrace your children, and make it all about living life.
This article first appeared, titled "Thoughts on Unschooling" in the Nov/Dec 2005 issue of Live Free Learn Free.