Thursday, July 19, 2012

unschooling: some musings

The beauty and the challenge of unschooling is that it doesn't look the same from family to family.  There is no prescribed method.  It depends on the temperament, learning style, interests, ages, and skills of your own unique child(ren).  It could look like legos and robots and dinosaurs, or painting and baking and knitting, or a deep interest in television and architecture, or much more likely a combination of some or all of these and much, much more.  Some children delve very deeply into a specific interest, some flit from one seemingly unrelated interest to another.  Both of these are very valid ways of gaining information about the world.  When Camille was 5 years old, she was introduced to origami by a friend of ours from Japan.  She loved origami.  I bought her different kinds of paper and checked out origami books from the library, from there we delved into Japanese culture and sushi, geometry and angles, compasses and dodecahedrons, other paper toys and crafts and automatons, and cranes and their connection to peace.

At some point she gradually lost interest in origami and later became equally interested in pioneer life, or aikido (a martial art), or Harry Potter and wizards.  Each of these interests branched out into such a web of learning that they would at times intersect.  At almost 9, she is still very intellectually curious, but she doesn't currently have a deep passion for a particular subject.  So far this summer, community theater has been taking up a similar spot in her life.

Sylvia, at age 5, is much more physically oriented.  She loves to dance, climb trees, dig in the sand, sing, garden, and giggle.  Last year she loved painting and clay and play dough.  Today, I brought out some paints and brushes and paper, but she was uninterested.  Ayla quickly took over the supplies.

Undoubtedly some unschooling families have a more consistent rhythm to their days, seasons, and years, but we are all over the board.  On any given day, you might find us (individually or as a family unit) swimming, hiking in the woods, reading (or writing) a book, watching a Phineas and Ferb marathon on Netflix in our pajamas, playing board games or card games, conducting a science experiment or a baking experiment, painting our toenails, knitting, gardening, learning about astronomy or the Chinese zodiac or Napolean or Fibbonacci, jumping on a trampoline, going to the library, participating in community events or attending homeschool field trips or classes, trying to make ink out of charcoal and rubbing alcohol, tiling a bathroom floor, using a nail gun, playing computer games or putting together a puzzle, eating doughnuts or freshly sprouted sunflower seeds, sewing, putting on a livingroom play with live chickens, playing guitars and drums and harmonicas, pickling eggs, shooting a bow and arrow or twisting balloon animals, or dancing in the rain, or ....

Life without school (or curriculum) is full of learning opportunities.  Am I ever worried that Camille doesn't get enough physical education in a week, or that Sylvia won't know who George Washington is by 3rd grade?   No.  I'm not.  Camille moves around all day in ways big and small that don't ever have to include dodge ball if she doesn't want it to.  Sylvia may know a lot about identifying edible plants and their medicinal properties by age 5, and not know about Thomas Jefferson until she's 11, and will surely do things I haven't even considered yet by the time she's a teenager.  Any 'gaps' in their education would easily be filled in as soon as it became apparent there was a gap and there was any interest in filling it in.

As an unschooling parent, it is my responsibility to provide resources and encouragement, and ideas and opportunities for learning and exploring and living well in this world. I don't have any great desire to, say, build a potato gun, but should one of my children decide that it would be just the thing to do (and they had the skill set to do so safely) I could easily find the directions and resources to help them do that, although we would surely start with a marshmallow shooter or some such.

I think my point here is that I don't have to have it all mapped out in order for unschooling to work, I just need to stay one step ahead of (or at least alongside of) my children and their interests, abilities, and needs.  The knowledge base that I think is ultimately important for them to attain is how to interact respectfully with others, how to find joy in their lives, and how to use and maintain their creativity, curiosity, and ability to learn.  These are skills that would serve them well for whatever they choose to do in the future.

*photo by Camille

All of these musings have been brought on by an inspirational (and physical) lull.  The girls are all down with head colds and we are collectively between creative projects.  While I'm not at all sure where we're headed next in our unschooling journey, I am sure it will be somewhere interesting....

Some of my favorite collections of writings on radical unschooling can be found on Sandra Dodd's Unschooling site and Joyfully Rejoycing.  I also found Stephanie's series of Unschooling Tools to have lots of good practical inspiration.


  1. I love this post. I love your take on education. And I do agree with your idea that if there are "gaps" they will be filled when and if the need arises. Now, if we could just convince my local homeschool registration board of this...

    And LOL - my girl somehow acquired a potato gun and has been nagging me for days about potatoes.

  2. Beautiful post and you've explained this amazing life so well! Love it!!

  3. You are an inspirational teacher/mama!


I love hearing what you have to say. Leave a comment?