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Our First “Official” Year of Unschooling: In Review

admin May 2, 2014

In the picture above, they are posing with one of their many projects from our unschooling year.  They made “flags” and strung them up on a ribbon to decorate the room.  And as cute as Nathan is here, he looks so much less “baby” now than he did then.  Sniff, sniff.  It was only a couple months ago.

I decided I would unschool my kids when my oldest was only about a year old.  It might have sounded silly then — what did I know about parenting, or education, or, well…anything?

But unschool we do.  My oldest is now almost 6 1/2 and had her “kindergarten” year this past year.  We did more actual “learning” (if you can call it that; unschooling doesn’t follow a curriculum) with our older two (5 1/2 and 4 last fall).  I have to admit I had doubts at certain points.  I felt weird that we weren’t “doing school” even though we were homeschooling.  And at certain times their gains weren’t obvious.  By the end of the year, though (within the last month or so), suddenly their gains were very obvious and I realized — wow, they are really learning a lot, even though I am not “teaching” them anything.

What Does Unschooling Mean?

Very quickly, I’ll tell you what unschooling means to us.  There are probably as many ways to unschool as there are families.  The general definition is no formal curriculum; learning while living.  But some people are more ‘radical’ and do no book learning or plans whatsoever, and some take a more academic approach (that’s driven specifically by the child).  We fall in between.

We have no curriculum.  We have dabbled in workbooks, but never really stick with them.  The kids pick up workbooks now and then more for “fun” than anything else — and I don’t assign them any specific work.  We’ve also done various printables with them, generally on request (again, no ‘assignments’).

If they’re interested in something, we try to answer their questions and help them learn.  But it’s all child-guided.

What Our Learning Looked Like

This past year, we focused on having a lot of opportunities available.  We always have building toys around — Legos, Duplos, K’Nex, Pipeworks, etc.  We have memberships to local kids’ museums, and this comes with reciprocal memberships to science and history museums around the country (and we take advantage of that to visit other museums near our family members a few times a year).

We also have our “school drawer” with all our general materials — paper, scissors, glue, crayons, pencils, pens, staples, paperclips, magazines, and various other “odds and ends.”  We also had a small bookshelf with several reading books, and some “how it works” type books.  We swap out the books that are available from time to time so they have new things to look at.

Once during the year, I did a “skills assessment” where I sat with each child individually and asked them some questions and had them “play games” with me.  Our state requires portfolio assessment to prove gains in several areas, so this was my answer to that requirement.

We got together with friends usually every week or two for play dates.  Sometimes for crafts, stories, trips to parks, the zoo, museums, etc.

That’s all the stuff that *I* provided.

What Their Learning Actually Was Like

The real key is what they did with all of these things.

They rarely used their materials in the “intended” ways.  They would use their books for stacking up, putting down the slide, or otherwise “creating.”  They would sword-fight with Pipeworks.  They were always thinking of something creative and unusual to do with what they had.  (I literally never hear “I’m bored.”)

They counted pretty often.  Especially in the car.  They would count people in the car vs. people (from our family) who were not.  They would count days until some event that was coming up.  They would practice addition with these numbers, calling out things like “If there are 5 people in the car and 1 person at work, that’s 6 people all together.”

We read a lot before bed, especially with our oldest.  At the beginning of the year, we simply read the story.  Now, we read together and she says the words she knows as we go.  We show her new words as we go, especially words that are interesting to her.  “Princess,” “Christmas,” and “Belle” have been favorites and easily remembered. 🙂

They would ask questions.  A lot of questions, which we would try to answer:

  • “How do babies get inside a mommy’s tummy?”
  • “When it rains, why is the sky gray?  Is it really the sky, or is it the clouds covering it?”
  • “How do the clouds get up there?”
  • “If God knit me together in your womb, then isn’t He my real father, and not Daddy?”
  • “How do apples grow?”
  • “Why are watermelons pink?”
  • “How do they build skyscrapers?”
  • “Is there life on other planets?  Are they like Earth?”
  • “Which material is sturdier, wood or metal?”
  • “How do we make gum?”

This is just a sample of the kinds of questions they ask.  These are recent ones we’ve heard.  I’ve read the average 4-year-old asks over 400 questions a day…I’d say they ask *at least* that many!  Probably more…

They would ask to watch videos about planets, or volcanoes, how crayons are made.  We would pull these up on Youtube for them.  We also used “How It’s Made,” “Mythbusters,” “Magic School Bus” and similar learning videos from time to time.

They would help us cook — learning to measure, mix, and so on.

We did quite a lot!

What Did They Actually Learn?

Even though it’s probably obvious that they learned a lot, from what I’ve described above, some people would want to hear in a more academic sense how much they really learned this year.

  • In September, they could (sometimes) count to 20.  Now they count into the hundreds easily; my oldest understands numbers about through 1000.
  • In September, they could do simple addition (product less than 10) if they had something to count (fingers, coins, etc.).  Now they can do mental math if the product is less than 20.
  • In September, they knew most of their letters and some letter sounds.  Now they know all letters and sounds and can read some words.  (My 4-year-old isn’t reading really yet though.)
  • In September, they couldn’t tell time at all.  Now, they can tell on a digital clock, as well as knowing the hour on an analog clock, and “sort of” the minutes.
  • In September, they didn’t really recognize money.  Now, they can tell which coins are which most of the time.
  • In September, they couldn’t write most letters (or any, for my 4 year old).  Now they can write all/most fairly legibly and correctly.
  • In September, they couldn’t spell any words.  Now, my 6 year old can spell (and write) several.
  • Their fine motor skills improved a lot; they can trace objects accurately, use scissors well, etc.

My 2-year-old has picked up on his shapes — including 3-D shapes, some colors, and basic counting, none of which he could do last fall.  He also speaks in full sentences, using correct pronouns, which, again, he couldn’t do last fall.  Oh, and he’s potty trained too. 🙂

So, they’ve learned quite a lot.  I have researched what is “typical” in a kindergarten curriculum and have tried to expose my kids to those concepts.  I don’t sit and “teach” them or force it, I just show them these things.  They pick them up quite naturally, as they are curious about their world and what’s in it.

It’s more fun to remember coin denominations if you’re trying to see if you have enough money to buy something you want, than if you “have to” know for a test.  Same thing with reading a clock…is it time to go somewhere fun? vs. knowing for a test.  The motivation is totally different, and there’s no stress, so they learn.

What Will We Change?

You might be wondering, based on our previous year, what we will change for our upcoming school year.  And there are changes we’re making.

First, we’ll have two “school age” kids — our older two will be 6 1/2 and 5 going into the fall (so in their “1st grade” and “kindergarten” years).  Plus, we’ll have two “preschoolers” (ages 3 and 18 months in the fall).  That means our needs will be a little different.  A lot of our ‘school’ activities that happened last year (more hands-on stuff) happened while the baby was napping.  Only now he’s not so much a baby and he wants to be part of things.

Second, we really want to take advantage of the excitement and wonder of learning better.  We had an insane year with our business and learning mostly fit around that.  This year things should be more settled and we’re going to step it up with the experiences we create.

In that light, we’ve chosen to team up with some other local families and start a homeschooling group.  The group’s aimed at kids who are birth – third grade (roughly) and we’ll be meeting weekly.  Half the weeks are for field trips (local farms, metro parks, the zoo, science museums, etc.) and half the weeks are for “school.”  The vision of the group is to have adults as facilitators and mentors and allow the children to lead.  They’ll choose their projects and basically do the work themselves, with our supervision and input as needed.

Of course, that won’t work for the really little ones, and in that case, we’ll be bringing them simple experiences — crafts, sensory boxes, water play, etc.  Basically open-ended activities that are age-appropriate and which they need very little help to explore.

At home, we’ve changed how our school supplies are set up, and we’ll be doing informal “conferences” with the kids.  That’s really a post in and of itself, so I’ll tell and show you in a few weeks how we have things set up and what these conferences are all about.

Essentially, what we’re changing is having more opportunities to explore and create, and especially more opportunities to do so with a group of other children of varying ages.

That’s our year in a nutshell!

How did your homeschooling or unschooling go this past year?  What topics would you like me to address in the future?

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11 Comments

  1. I didn’t realize I was an unschooler, ha, for the most part, I have a 14 year old checking off high school credits (I decided to do 5 years high school in order to allow more breathing room and internship with bakery or photography place) Anyway check out Popular Mechanics for Kids- videos, big hit with my 5 year old twin boys. They try to explain what they learned to me, and it’s fantastically entertaining and informative, all videos can be found on amazon prime. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  2. Our son is 2 and we’ve already started teaching him letters and numbers with unschooling. He can count to 13 and recognizes about 1/3 of the alphabet. I love it and want to keep going with him, but how do you find out your states requirements as far as showing work and progress?

    Reply

    • Hi Jamie,

      You can search google for your state’s requirements. I also recommend hooking up with people in your area who homeschool, who can help you through following the requirements especially the first year.

      Reply

  3. Our 14 and 12 year old kids have always been unschooled. It takes trust to do something perceived as ‘radical’ by so many, but it’s always felt right to us, and we’ve watched them blossom and become who they are meant to be. The benefits have been many and far-reaching! One great website for inspiration and for those times when you wonder “What am I doing??” is http://www.joyfullyrejoycing.com. So many great articles. Enjoy your kids! 🙂

    Reply

  4. “If God knit me together in your womb, then isn’t He my real father, and not Daddy?”

    I just wanted to say what an awesome question that is. 🙂

    Reply

  5. All of this sounds like stuff that most parents do with their kids in addition to regular school. Everything you listed in good to learn, but they could be learning even more with some extra “structure” built in. This is the time to do it, since children are naturally curious and excited to learn at your kids’ ages. What you listed doesn’t sound like a full year’s worth of education, especially for your oldest. Do you continue to homeschool in the summer?

    Reply

    • Hi Florence,

      Research doesn’t bear out that young children learn better with “structure.” In fact, they learn best when left alone to explore their environment and learn on their own. I was unable to quantify and list all of their gains this past year, because many came in their understanding of science and the natural world and those are harder to explain (or certainly longer). I do believe that they have made excellent gains in knowledge. And even if they had done “less” than they could have, they are clearly learning, and I don’t believe in pushing children. This frustrates them if they’re not ready and is not authentic. Have you looked at the differences in early education between the U.S. (academic-driven) and Finland (play-based and not starting formal education until age 7)? Finland’s system is FAR more successful than the U.S.’s. I think that says a lot. If you’re unfamiliar, I encourage you to look into it.

      Reply

      • Kate,

        Yes, I have looked into Finland’s educational system. I completely agree with play-based learning, but I do not think that is the only (or even the largest) factor in Finland’s success. Finland has a homogenous society and a much better system for funding education the the U.S., among other things.

        “Structure” may have been the wrong word choice. I’m not implying you should sit down with them at a set time every day and do workbooks. I do think that there could be more direction in their learning from you, though. It can still be child-led and fall into the unschooling philosophy, but you could expose them to more or delve deeper into a subject they show interest in.

        For example, I don’t know anybody who learned about money through a written test as you state above. Kids were given play money and there were items they could “buy” in the classroom (or at home–I remember very clearly having a cash register and play money as a child and I spent hours buying and selling!) They practiced making change, breaking large bills, etc. It was really fun and more practical than learning with real money because kids don’t HAVE real money and as you said, they might learn a few coins, but don’t do anything with larger bills.

        I am curious about your yearly assessment if you are willing to do a post on it in the future. Good luck in everything!

        Reply

  6. How neat Kate! We do a co-op where they go to school half the time and we homeschool the other time. For me, I need it to be more “structured” and for someone to tell me what lessons then I get creative with the concepts but I am glad their are options for each families needs. You seem to be great with unschooling!

    Here’s a post about how we “do” school: http://day2dayjoys.com/2013/08/a-sneak-peak-into-how-we-do-school.html

    Reply

  7. Unschooling is pretty risky but as I have read, the progress with your children increased. I think it works just fine with you and your kids.

    I see that you are a really great mom and I hope that over the years you have already developed a strong bond with each of your children, especially your eldest. Godbless

    Reply

    • Hi Donna,

      I wouldn’t say that unschooling is “risky” but I would say it doesn’t work for all families. You have to be very motivated and involved to make it work.

      Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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