A few years ago (yeah, my blog is almost three years old) I posted about unschooling, and how we thought it was a brilliant idea and we were planning to do it with our children once they reached pre-k age. My audience, brand new and not all…sympathetic, shall we say, to the alternative lifestyle, was understandably skeptical. What did we really know about schooling at that point, with our oldest barely 20 months old?
Well, in some ways, not much. In others, some. (If you didn’t know, my husband was homeschooled from 3 – 12 grade. So we did have his experience to go on. To those who like to mention socialization, which I think is a very silly argument, my husband is far more social and better adjusted than I am when it comes to interacting with others. And I went to public school.)
Anyway…there wasn’t a lot of homeschooling going on when my kids were 20 months and 4 months. It was all theoretical. It was fascinating to us and we were passionate, but I couldn’t have said what it would actually look like in our home.
But now, with my oldest 4 1/2 years old, and my second 3 years old, well…things are a bit different. My oldest is in “kindergarten” this year. I know she’s technically a year away, but she’s familiar with all the prerequisite skills and she’s very eager to learn. The beauty of homeschooling is not having to worry about how old your kids are or what “grade” they ought to be in; you get to go with their actual needs and desires! My second is 3 and he is pre-k age. I’ll be doing more with him as preschooler than I did with my daughter simply because he’ll be around while I’m schooling her. Not that I’m really “schooling” her anyway, given that we are “unschooling….”
Things will be getting busy since, as you may have read on Monday, we’re expecting baby #4. 🙂 Which means I better get my act together soon so that I have a good plan in place before the baby comes. Are you curious what it actually looks like in our home?
What is Unschooling, Really?
“Unschooling” means schooling without a formal curriculum. But it does not mean schooling with nothing. Schooling happens in everyday life, and it happens based on what the kids are interested in.
An unschooling parent must be very on top of a child’s skills and interests. The parent’s job is to notice what the child has learned and discovered, and what the child is in the middle of learning and discovering, and bring him or her age-appropriate activities to help further that knowledge. It’s not about leaving your child solely to his or her own devices; an unschooling parent must be involved in the child’s learning!
(This is important to understand. People have said to me, “But what if your child doesn’t want to learn math?” or “What if your child just wants to play video games all day?” You don’t just let them skip over entire subject areas forever or do nothing but play video games. You entice and involve them in the learning process. The vast majority of kids who have always been unschooled will not have these sorts of blind spots anyway, at least not in the long run. They may go through phases where they don’t focus on a particular subject much or they do just seem to need a break from ‘learning,’ but it just doesn’t work that way. These sorts of struggles are more typical in children who were in formal schooling at some point in time and have developed a distaste for a particular subject, usually because they struggled with it and were taught in a way that didn’t work for them. Unschooled children have no such experience so usually do not have the same issues.)
So far I have found my children eager to learn. Sometimes they don’t want to learn about certain things or in certain ways. Other times they’re all about it. But we don’t force — we find another way or we take a break. We always circle back around to whatever it is they “need” to know.
How Do You Know What They Know?
I’m sure all unschooling parents have a different way of doing this. And probably many aren’t really concerned at these young ages what their kids do and don’t actually know. I, however, always like to be aware. 🙂 I like plans and charts and goals. I like lessons and structure. I just don’t like forcing kids into things because “it’s on the plan” or “the book says you need to know this” and I really don’t like fighting with them about activities they don’t want to do. So I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want some kind of record of what they’ve learned.
(Side note: in Ohio, you have to do some kind of formal assessment each year when you homeschool, to ‘prove’ your kids have actually learned. This may be standardized testing — which I will refuse — but it may also be a portfolio assessment, which I choose to do. About half the states have the same law as Ohio does, so this is something to consider when choosing how you will assess your children. Doing what I do helps me organize activities and ideas in my head, but it will also cover my rear legally, when that time comes.)
Anyway. So what I’ve chosen to do is create a chart of “skills” that I want them to have. These are pulled from online general curriculum, as well as from simply skills or knowledge that I think is important to our family and lifestyle. Some things are also skills that they have shown particular interest in. I keep this chart on my computer, privately. The kids don’t see it. When I notice, through our activities and interactions, that they are consistently able to do or talk about or demonstrate a particular skill, I quietly check it off on the chart. There are no tests. There is nothing formal.
This has some benefits.
- True Mastery — I can be assured, since I am going based on a series of real-life interactions, that they have actually mastered the skills. If they can demonstrate the skill(s) in real-life settings on a regular basis, without any knowledge that I am “testing” them or even paying attention to certain skills, then they clearly “really” know. They aren’t just “memorizing for a test.”
- No Anxiety — Because there is no test, there is no anxiety over performance. They are not trying to win or get a grade or looking for any sort of outside source of approval. They have only the intrinsic value of having new knowledge or skills, which they are typically excited about.
- No Distraction From Art of Learning — When they’re learning, they’re learning because they want to. Because they enjoy knowing new things. They have no concept of a test or assessment of any type (and at least while they’re young and forming their learning skills, I don’t want them to). Learning is just a part of life, and there is no beginning or ending to it, no units, no extrinsic ‘reward’ for having learned. This is critical in the early years, to foster a love of learning and determination to continue learning “just because.”
Pretty awesome, no? And great for kids who are naturally anxious about tests or performances of any kind. Remember that they are learning just fine, they just do not have to ‘prove’ it formally!
You can take a look at my Homeschool Skills Checklist. Feel free to use or adjust it as you wish. Mine is also based on my kids’ current interests. (No, they don’t *need* to know the names of planets, but they really like space.) Also, the music section reflects the fact that I am a music teacher and want my kids to be involved in music! My oldest has expressed a strong desire to learn violin and we may begin this year, so that’s what the ‘instrument skills’ is about.
So What Does It Look Like?
Not much. We go outside and take walks, and we identify plants we see along the way. We bake bread together, taking turns measuring, dumping, mixing, and kneading. We color a lot of pictures (they have a 3-coloring-sheet-per-day limit, just to save paper). We sit at the computer and they type the letters that they like and tell me what they are called, and what sound they make. We watch Youtube videos on subjects they say they want to learn about (‘ladies having babies’ is a favorite, and so is “How It’s Made”).
They play with Legos a lot, and they build towers and design objects for their other make-believe games. They play with dolls sometimes and they “take care” of them. They also rough the dolls up and tell me that this is the way they treat pretend babies, but not real ones (sigh). They climb everything in sight. They use their pretend food in their pretend kitchen to cook and serve meals. They pile up pillows and blankets to make forts or to jump onto from their indoor playground. They read lots of books with us and ask us lots of questions.
They like to play these “games” with us. And we can quietly hear what they learn, and what they know. It’s fun!
Over the next few months as we do more “schooling” and more interesting projects, I’ll share our favorites with you. Hopefully a little inspiration from our home will help in yours!