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Day 42 – Unschooling Part 3: How Does it Work?

Today I’ll continue answering common questions people have about Unschooling. Keep in mind that I’m not an expert, just a parent who likes to research and who is eager and willing to share what I’ve found. Also keep in mind that I’m not trying to persuade anyone to Unschool. The purpose of this blog is to encourage others like me who already want to Unschool or who are new to Unschooling. I hope that as you read through the research and resources you gain confidence in the educational path you have chosen.

Question #2: How Does it Work?

Now that we’ve established that Unschool really works, I think we’re in a good place to discuss how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, Unschooling is more of a philosophy than an educational method and everyone fits in somewhere on the spectrum according to their gifting, calling, time, and comfort level. This looks different for different families. Heck, it looks different per child, per year, per season of life for my own family. The thing to keep in mind is that regardless of how it works, it does work.

At the bottom of the post there are examples and links to other family’s journeys and other styles. This is “how Unschool works” for us:

1. Seasonal/Yearly Schedule

At the beginning of our school year, I read this article, Back to Unschool, about not having a “first day of school.” For some families, there is absolutely no difference between Monday and Saturday, summer or fall. A key philosophy within the Unschool movement is that our children are learning all the time.

While we are 90% child led in our daily activities, I still jump in and help give life to their ideas. I’m learning right along with them. I also limit screen time. As a result, I have a little less time to myself and I need time–weeks even–to rest from always being on with my children. In the summer the girls watch movies, lie bored on the floor (ha), or play outside while I oil the wood paneling in my kitchen…or, uh, do whatever I want, I mean. During the school year I am much more engaged: reading, sewing, planting, playing, etc. So personally, I look forward to a summer vacation and also to a “first day of school.”

2. Daily Schedule

If you have followed the blog, you might have noticed that we have gotten a lot more relaxed and “Unschool-y” since we began. This is what our typical schedule looks like now:

  • 6:30am: Sera wakes up and hangs out with Josh. She reads or knits or plays legos and then the two of them share bacon and eggs (so sweet).
  • 8am: Amelie and I get up. She is usually in bed with me at by this point where it is nice and warm. When Amelie was a little baby, she would stay snuggled up beside me while Josh got up with Sera. These cozy mornings are a nice reminder of those times and also that she is still very little.
  • 8am-9am: The girls play together. This rhythm has happened organically as the girls got used to being together so much again after years of public school. They fight less and imagine more. I love it. I feel like we all need this time to wake up. I drink coffee while they play.
  • 9am: We read the Bible and pray together. We pray to be kind to one another. We pray for open eyes to see the wonder of the world around us. We pray for open hearts to the poor and needy among us.
  • 10am-?: “Learning Time.” Here is a small sampling of what I “count” as learning:
    • Reading
    • Listening to audio books
    • Research
    • Asking questions
    • Sewing
    • Cooking
    • Digging outside
    • Building with sticks or Legos
    • Climbing trees
    • Making paper snowflakes
    • Watching documentaries
    • Singing and/or writing songs
    • Collecting leaves
    • Collecting bugs
    • Bird watching
    • Feeding the chickens
    • Painting
    • Dancing
    • Telling stories
    • Writing letters
    • Playing games (Yahtzee, Scrabble)
    • Playing with a cash register
    • Field trips
    • Nature walks
    • Grocery shopping
    • Open play with other children
  • 2pm (ish) to evening: In the late afternoon we have sports, activities, and usually run errands. Occasionally I’ll let them have free “screen time” but this is pretty rare and mostly reserved for weekends.

3. Facilitating Learning 

Recently I was telling my brother about how the girls were learning about the American Revolution. He asked me how my kids knew about it and how they got interested in it in the first place. There are varying opinions regarding the level of influence and involvement a parent should have in the life of the Unschooled student. Some parents do not sway or influence. Educator John Holt suggests that “forced learning” stifles the curiosity of the young student, and that compulsory education, testing, etc. inevitably destroys the love of learning that exists naturally in children.

While careful not to “force” anything, I do facilitate, and for us, that means providing resources and encouragement.

Resources:

  • Books. Books, books, and more books. Books EVERYWHERE. We have bookcases full of poetry, fiction, classic literature, sci fi, etc. We also have field guides, encyclopedias, atlas books, and dictionaries. These books are easily accessed by the children. If I say, “Mom needs quiet time; go read a book,” they have plenty of options.
  • Field Trips. I feel very fortunate to live within a few minutes drive of the zoo, the museum, the Adventure Science Center, and a botanical garden. Not to mention hundreds of historical sites (specifically, Civil War sites). The girls are always happy to go explore a new place.
  • Art Supplies. You know how I feel about crafting. Nevertheless, we have a small cupboard space dedicated to glue, paint, glitter, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, modeling clay, etc. The girls also have sewing kits.
  • Outdoors. So much learning happens outside! I know not everyone has this luxury. We have a yard with a good tree for climbing, but we also have a pretty great nature park nearby. If you are stuck in an apartment or another small space, I highly recommend finding a park or another outside space to let the kids run around in.
  • “School” supplies. I keep a few math workbooks, cursive practice books, math blocks, maps, rulers, calculators, and other textbooks on hand. I don’t force these things, but I make them available.
  • Documentaries. We watch a lot of documentaries. The girls don’t watch many (if any) typical kid/tween shows. I am not saying that entertainment is devoid of value (we like watching movies too), but I think it would be really hard to get them interested in educational films if they were used to being constantly passively entertained. We watch animal shows, science documentaries, biographies, and have recently discovered River Cottage—a sort of farming/sustainability/cooking show. The girls actually became interested in the American Revolution after watching a cartoon called, “Liberty’s Kids.”
  • Internet/Computers. This is a sort of controversial point. Some Unschoolers forbid all screens. Others do not limit them at all (including video games). We are somewhere in between. The girls were given iPads by their grandparents last year. From the beginning they have had very strict rules. They can’t use them (at all) without permission. This includes listening to music. Our rule for school is that they have to try to find their research first in books. If they can’t find the information on our shelves, or if it is not easily accessed at the library, they can then use Internet research. This doesn’t apply to all situations—if there is a question that needs immediate answering, or a bug that we want to identify right away, we sometimes use the iPads or my computer.

Encouragement:

  • Answer questions. The girls are so inquisitive. The other day Sera asked how a flame occurs. This was just a question she had at the breakfast table. I found a video explaining it and we talked about it for a good portion of the day. Before homeschooling, I never really thought about how much learning could occur if I just stopped and answered (and researched) all of my children’s curiosities. But I also didn’t have a lot of time. I’m thankful that Unschool allows us the time to chase each rabbit trail.
  • Provide Ideas. I don’t tell the girls what they should learn about, but I do make suggestions. If they are bored or stuck, I offer ideas. I also bring up things I am curious about, subjects I am learning about in college, or project ideas that I think would be fun.
  • Motivate. This is tricky, because I think there is a fine line between “forcing” and “motivating” someone to do something. I probably “motivate” more than some and less than others. Again, this is so personal. Our real life example: Recently Sera actually stopped being interested in the American Revolution, but Amelie and I were still really excited about it. I could have taken a more traditional school approach and demanded that she learn the facts. Or I could have let her do something else while Amelie learned on her own. But my favorite part about Unschooling is learning all together and being together. I told her that when I am excited about learning something new, I want to share it with the people who are close to me. I asked her if she would consider sticking with the American Revolution with us, and in return she could pick what we learn about next. All together. She agreed, and it looks like we’ll soon be learning about “the history of medieval food” (her pick). In the end, once we started talking, reading, and watching about the American Revolution, Sera didn’t want to stop. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of motivation.
  • Leave a Trail. This was one of the best ideas I came across as I planned to Unschool. Some parents leave “ideas” just lying around the house: new library books, a scale, or binoculars from a thrift store—you get the idea. The “trail” doesn’t have to consist of expensive things, and it doesn’t have to induce mind-shattering learning. Your kids might ignore the trail altogether. Or they might wander down the path and discover a passion they didn’t know they had.

4. Stories and Examples from Real Life

Again, I find the testimony of others so helpful. Here is a list of resources I’ve compiled and hopefully you will find a rhythm and method that is right for you.

Joyfully Rejoicing: How to Unschool

It isn’t up to us to make sure they get Ancient Egypt. It’s up to us to make sure there are interesting things in their lives to encounter.

Sandra Dodd: Definitions of Unschooling

I think unschooling is the way to go, but unschooling is not being neglectful, not even *healthily* neglectful. If you are having pangs of guilt, then I would listen to that. But the answer to those feelings of guilt does not lie in giving them schooling. The answer is your investing your life’s energy into truly connecting with your children.

The Natural Child Project: Ten Tips for New Unschooling Parents:

Many parents just starting to unschool feel intimidated by the assumption that educational activities have to be scheduled into each day. Because they have attended school, they learned the invalid but relentlessly taught lesson that some things are “educational” and others are not. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Living Joyfully with Unschooling: Unschooling Doesn’t Look Like School at All:

The learning is found in the living. Once your family is enmeshed in unschooling, it’s life.

Simple Homeschool: The Myth of the Uninvolved Unschooler:

I watch my children learn to read without formal lessons. I watch them learn to write and calculate numbers the same way. Not necessarily on my own timetable, but on their own. I listen to their declarations that they love books, they love math, that they can do and be anything.

Bohemian Bowmans: A Typical Unschool Day: This is a blog sort of like mine. I haven’t had time to delve into each post, but this post chronicles a typical day. It was so great to see another Unschooler’s day look so much like ours.

Hippie Chick Homeschool: Peaceful Parenting: This is another post chronicling a “typical” unschool day. Very helpful.

Sandra Dodd: Ginny’s Typical Unschooling Day: This post is so helpful because it helps us see all of the learning that actually occurs when we choose to view the day through “Unschooling eyes.”

You know, my daughter won’t have a 5th grade language arts completed workbook to show in her portfolio this year. But she will have a list of all the books she read on her own, (probably close to one hundred) and a thick file folder of stories she has written, and copies of our family newspaper with her imaginative, well-thought-out contributions inside.

I hope this post has been helpful! Remember, if you still have questions, or if this prompts more, don’t hesitate to ask. Next week’s post will be all about reading.

While careful not to “force” anything, I do facilitate, and for us, that means providing resources and encouragement.

One of our “school” shelves.

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