Growing up, I went to public school. I was steeped in a world where classes, grades, tests, evaluations — these things all mattered. A lot. This was my view of education: that a classroom and a teacher were required, that there had to be formal evaluations to “prove” I had learned something, and more.
But as an adult, I was introduced to the concept of unschooling. It made so much sense to me that I instantly clicked with it — that was when my oldest was only a year old. Now, she’s 7 1/2, and we’ve been unschooling for a few years.
The idea of unschooling is really hard for a lot of people to wrap their minds around. We’re so conditioned that school = teachers, tests, grades. That that’s the only way that “learning” takes place.
Now, most experts and most studies show that, in fact, this is not the best way for most people to learn. A more hands-on, authentic experience is much better, especially in the early years. But most people struggle with that, because of years of experience with formal school. It’s hard for many families who are initially exploring or practicing unschooling to banish the doubts from their heads that this is “enough” for their kids. That their kids are really learning, even if they don’t have “proof” on paper.
So let’s dive into the ways you can “de-school” your mind and family!
7 Ways to De-School Your Mind and Family
1. Surround yourself with unschoolers
When you’re brand new to anything, one of the best ways to adjust to it is to surround yourself with others who do it or believe it, especially if those people have more experience with it than you do. Find unschoolers in real life or online. Talk to them, spend time with them, get to know how they do things, what it looks like in real life. This will give you more confidence in this lifestyle.
2. Realize how much can be learned through “play”
I know when I was still very new to the idea of unschooling, I went through several phases where I felt like I wasn’t “doing enough” with my kids and I tried to do some more structured lessons. This quickly failed because nobody paid attention, little ones climbed all over our books, older ones complained constantly, and it was all more frustrating than it was worth!
I had to remember just how much they were learning through play. Because they are. That is how all people learn – the experience of trying new things, doing things, being active. Think about learning to play soccer by sitting down and listening to a lecture on the rules of the game, the strategies of it, and so on. You might come to intellectually understand soccer, but can you really play? Whereas if you actually go play soccer, you’ll learn to physically do it well, but also learn the rules and strategies of the game along the way. It’s a more efficient way to learn.
Other things, like writing, reading, math, photography, etc. are no different. Really.
3. Brainstorm fun activities to do together
For some people, “doing nothing” sounds like it just won’t work. Like kids will never get a chance to really learn what they need to learn. (I promise that isn’t true.) Rather than trying to plan activities that deal with books and curriculum, plan fun “play” activities, like trips to museums, messy science experiments, geocaching explorations, and more. Basically, fun activities that are hands-on, play-based, but serve as their own educational experiences.
4. Read the research into education and how people learn
In my opinion, nothing helps you to feel more secure in your decision than having all the information and understanding why. I like to read and re-read the research that exists on a variety of topics and to check for new research from time to time as well.
Remember, too, that every child learns differently and at a different pace. Spend some time reading about different learning styles and figure out what will work best for your child, and his/her specific interests. With unschooling, you have all the time you need to explore it!
5. Give yourself (and your family) time
Regardless of what you do, this takes time. We don’t change our mindset overnight. In the first weeks and months, you will doubt the process. Others will make comments or ask questions that make you feel like it really isn’t right, or “enough,” whether intentional or not. Give yourself time to adjust to this new way of thinking about learning. Remember that you, too, are learning new skills!
If your kids are coming out of public or private school to begin unschooling, give them time, too. A lot of kids don’t quite believe it’s real at first. A lot are really sick of “school” and only want to sit and watch TV or do something else fun and relaxing at first. They need time to relax at this point. They need time to stop thinking of learning as something bad, something frustrating, something difficult. Give them the space they need to do that. This is not wasted time. This is a part of the process.
6. Keep track of what your kids learned
Part of the beauty of unschooling is not having to make plans or follow a curriculum. But, that means that you don’t have any tangible record of what your kids have learned. It’s hard to stick with it and believe in it when you can’t see the evidence.
So, for awhile, just for your own reference, keep track of what your kids have learned. (This may be beneficial for your state’s requirements for homeschoolers, depending on the laws.) I’m not suggesting testing your kid, but rather noticing the skills they demonstrate in the course of daily life, and making note of it. For example, my then-4-year-old sat down a little over a year ago and wrote out the entire alphabet. I had no idea he knew all the letters, let alone that he could write them. But obviously, he could. (Bonus? If they demonstrate these skills at random, and not because of some test they’ve prepared for, you can be sure they’ve actually mastered them.)
This is really helpful because if you’re feeling unsure, you need only look at the list to see all the things your kid is really learning. You can also share this list with doubtful family members. Plus, it’s really cool to see just how much is happening without any sort of formal academics!
7. Trust the process
In my experience, it’s easy to fall prey to mainstream thinking at times. It’s easy to think that kids “need” to do formal curriculum or bookwork in order to learn to read, or write, or do math. After all, there’s “evidence” of work with those methods.
But, unschooling is really a process. It takes time. (Kind of like all education. It doesn’t happen overnight.) Especially if you have not been unschooling always – if you’re moving away from another educational approach. Your kids are not going to be little geniuses (necessarily). It’s going to be different than parents who believe in starting early academics, trying to teach kids to read and do basic math at 3 to 4 years old. But! Studies show that kids that show “early achievement” end up doing worse in the long run.
Trust it. Give it time. It is really worth it.