Over the years, I’ve done a few posts on unschooling. I did a Day in the Life (that’s a few years old), How Unschoolers Learn to Read, and Unschooling as Kids Get Older. I’ve found that people really want to know more…especially as kids get older.
Things have changed a lot for us in the past couple years, as we went from having mostly younger kids and non-readers, to having some older kids with half of them reading. We’ve found our stride, as unschoolers…so I wanted to show all of you exactly what that looks like.
This isn’t to say, at all, that this is the only way for unschooling to look…or the best way. This is what has worked for us, and we’re open to changing it if it ever doesn’t fit for us. Right now, it’s working.
What Unschooling Actually Looks Like
I know that a lot of people who are curious about unschooling need some concrete examples, because all the ethereal “trust the child, follow their lead, let them do what they choose!” is hard to swallow. It seems like kids, if given the choice, would just play all day and not do anything meaningful or ever learn anything.
That has not been our experience. At all.
Rather than giving a daily run down, I’ll give an overview of what we “do” over time — what structure we have evolved, and how.
(Yes, unschoolers do have structure — it’s just the kids choose it on their own or in partnership with their parents. The parents don’t just tell them what to do.)
On a fairly regular basis — every week or so — I talk to my kids and ask them how they’re doing, what they’d like to learn, if they need any help or support, etc. We make goals together, talk about the future, and generally just spend time together. They let me know if there’s anything they need from me — new materials, for me to sit with them and answer questions, etc.
Of course, they come to me at random times and just tell me what they need or want, too.
Random conversations often turn into learning opportunities. My 9-year-old came into tell me he was “being a jumping bean,” and I asked if he’d heard of Mexican jumping beans and knew what they were. He didn’t, so we found a video that explained it. We have a lot of moments like these, and I try to seize opportunities as often as I can.
Each of the kids (ages 5+) has a 1″ binder. In this binder are sections for math, language arts, puzzles, and science. They request what they want put in the binders, and I add it. These can be math worksheets (they do a mix of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, and a few other things), sudoku, word searches, crossword puzzles, mad libs, etc. We pull from a bunch of different websites as needed.
They choose to sit and do work from these binders usually about once a week, although they go in phases. Sometimes it’s daily, sometimes they don’t touch them for a couple weeks. The work isn’t “assigned,” it’s available when they desire to do it. (Which they do!)
Since the kids all learned to read, they’ve gotten really into the library. We go once a month for a homeschool gathering/event and they spend an hour meeting new friends and doing little activities. Then, we pick out new books. If they need more books in between, I reserve them online and pick them up. Each of the older kids is reading around 6 – 8 books per month at this point. Their favorites are Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Creeper Diaries, and Captain Underpants.
They are allowed to read whatever they want to. We suggest books to them, and we have offered them Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other classics we loved as kids. But it’s fully up to them what they want to read. Some of them also choose to read non-fiction. My daughter especially likes to pick up books on nature — books on identifying plants, facts about countries or bodies of water, stuff like that. She also enjoys cookbooks and reading about different cooking techniques.
We also do a variety of “projects.” The kids choose to cook a lot, and know how to make several meals. (They do muffins and quick breads, yeast breads, eggs, burgers, pancakes, salads and dressings, grilled and fried meats, etc.) The boys also have books on computer coding, and have been learning to program. We have art supplies available, and they will work on creating various things, depending on what strikes their moods. They often incorporate nature items into their creations, and look to solve problems around the house or yard.
We also occasionally do classes or lessons around the city, if the kids have an interest. The boys have requested to do a creative writing class monthly.
We do watch TV. Sometimes, it’s kids’ shows, like Wild Kratts. (They’ve learned a lot about animals from it — they tell me things I don’t know!) Sometimes it’s TedEd — they really enjoy the history and puzzles videos. And sometimes it’s just whatever cartoons they feel like watching.
The kids also really like to use phones or computers to text with us. My daughter has the Messenger Kids app, and she has a few family members and a friend that she texts regularly. She’s learned how to spell a lot of words from doing this.
The kids also like to sit with me while we write each other messages on my computer. It started off with silly sentences so they could learn to spell and use punctuation, and now we write each other poems in different styles. Haiku and acrostic were what we did recently, and the boys enjoyed writing their haikus a lot.
What Do They Actually Learn?
It sounds like a lot of play time, right?
Play is learning. Sitting down with worksheets is a tiny part of our day, because while that looks like “work,” it often doesn’t lead to meaningful gains in knowledge. Many students spend a lot of time doing busy work, but that doesn’t mean they really are learning.
So far, they’ve learned to do basic math (four functions, plus decimals, fractions, order of operations, measuring, basic geometry), read (they would all now be considered at/above “grade level”), lots of science (especially earth science), history (American history, ancient Greek history), writing (they’re learning to spell more complex words, and learning forms of poetry).
I’m not sure I can even quantify all the things they know, since they don’t take tests or have grades (not that those actually prove anything, anyway). I just notice when they share ideas with me casually that they know more things!
What’s the Parent’s Role?
Unschooling is not for the lazy. The parent actually has to be heavily involved…just not in a commanding role.
My job is to constantly expose the kids to new ideas. I challenge them to try new things, and offer them new options.
For example, it was my idea to sit down and say “Hey, want to learn about these styles of poetry?” If they’d said no…we wouldn’t have. But since I don’t push things on them, they are generally pretty curious, so they said yes. They enjoyed it so much that they often asked in the subsequent days if they could write poetry with me again!
I spend time researching ideas, and I purposely start conversations about different topics with them to see what they latch on to. I offer them local classes. I show them books to see what they want to read, and encourage them to give the books a try (but they don’t have to finish them if they don’t like them).
Basically, I “invite them in” to new things.
It’s true that unschooling can be done badly. If parents are expecting their kids to just know that ideas and information are out there with no assistance at all, no exposure to those ideas, well, that’s not going to work. Parents need to fulfill the role of mentor — they work with the kids.
Interesting Things I’ve Observed
In public schools, things seem to march on in a pretty predictable fashion. Kids are expected to gain “one year” of growth in several subjects in a single school year. (And it’s really all pretty arbitrary.) They’re expected to study whatever the school tells them to. And if they don’t have an interest or don’t get good grades, they’re labeled in some way. (Slow, learning disabled, ADHD, etc. Some kids legitimately need support; but a lot just need a different educational situation.)
Plus, since many kids are not developmentally ready for certain skills, or not interested (and there’s a wide range of abilities in a single classroom), there’s a ton of silly, fluffy activities to try to help kids grasp concepts. For example, a letter B scavenger hunt, coloring in the letter B, tracing the letter B….
With unschooling, things don’t work that way.
Kids learn skills when they see a need for them…and they learn them fast. It’s often as easy as saying “that’s the letter B.” If they’re ready, they say okay, and they don’t forget it.
They often go in spurts. Some particular skill or bit of information interests them; so they’ll expend a lot of time and effort to work on that one thing. They may focus on it for several hours a day for days or weeks at a time. They may make huge gains, amount to multiple years’ worth of public school curriculum, in a few short weeks.
Then, they may abandon the topic entirely for months, and move on to something else. Their gains will generally hold, or they may only need a quick reminder when they get back to it, because they actually learned it the first time. It wasn’t something they were forced to do, they didn’t go through the motions. (I believe this is the biggest reason for the “summer slide” — kids don’t remember what isn’t important to them and they don’t care about.)
One of the best “side effects” of unschooling has been that they don’t have the same expectations or connotations that children in school do. They don’t care if they are “ahead” or “behind” in a subject; they trust themselves to get there when they’re ready. Sometimes they ask me to grade their work, but whether they get an A or a D, they don’t actually care. There’s no stigma attached to any of this. A “D” to them would mean they just need to work harder at that skill, or take more time with it.
Sometimes, they approach learning a topic in a totally random way, and go from seeming to not understand it, to being totally competent.
My 5-year-old wanted to “do math” with us at the beginning of the year (when he was not quite 5). While he could do basic addition if he had manipulatives to count, he struggled with it and could not figure it out in his head — not even a simple “1 + 1.”
He wouldn’t have even been in kindergarten yet, so we just set it aside. Then, in the late spring/early summer, he started asking me math questions constantly. “What’s 1+ 1? What’s 5 + 7? What’s 100 + 100?” It went on for weeks, and he asked me increasingly complex problems, sometimes getting very silly with it (“what’s 1000 + 1000 + 200 + 7 + googleplex?”). Then he stopped.
This fall, he asked for math sheets again. I printed him a couple that had pictures to count, and a couple that didn’t. He sat down, and wrote all the right answers in without needing any help, and without needing the pictures to count. He asked me for the information he needed, processed it in his own way, and figured it out — with really no help from me, other than my being willing to answer him.
Are they REALLY Motivated to Learn?
Yes, most of the time.
Every kid has time when they just want to play and be left alone. And I don’t exactly expect them to spend all of their time engaged in “learning.”
But yes, they are motivated to learn. My 9-year-old originally got motivated to read by a combination of the summer reading contest at the library, and wanting to be able to read the in-game chat on the computer. Now he just enjoys reading books for pleasure. He’s learned to spell a lot of words for the same reason. (Video games are not useless!)
Sometimes my daughter announces “Let’s do school!” and gets out her binder, and sets goals for herself — and often talks her brothers into it, too.
In general, they want to know things about the world. When they see new information or skills that will help them do more things, they want to achieve that.
Would You Change Anything?
No, I wouldn’t.
Yes, in the first few years, it seemed like they were kind of “behind” in some areas, and some people looked at public schooled kids and thought that I was screwing it all up and neglecting their education — and occasionally, I had my doubts, too.
But then, it all started going in fast-forward. They picked up skill after skill so quickly. They jumped “grade levels” in ability in a matter of weeks. This began around age 7 – 8. That’s when I knew we were on the right track.
And now? The kids come in and tell me how much they like learning, and like that I teach them things. They’re happy, they’re learning, and that’s what matters.
What does unschooling look like for you? What questions do you have?
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