When we got married, I knew Ben had been homeschooled almost all the way through high school. I knew he wanted our children to be homeschooled, and I agreed. We’d discussed his experiences with curriculum and learning and entering college at age 16, and felt that our kids would do best if we taught them at home and allowed them to work at their own pace, at least when they were young. We agreed that at high school age, they would be offered a choice to go to “real” school if they wanted (Ben was offered that choice and turned it down).
That was really as far as the conversation got at that point. But after Bekah was born, I started to research homeschooling more, and came upon a theory called “unschooling.”
The theory is generally that if you allow a child to simply explore his/her interests without any set curriculum, he/she will learn everything he/she needs to know. There is no curriculum, there are no lessons, there is no bookwork, tests, or papers. It is completely unstructured.
Early studies show that children who learn through this approach, especially in the elementary years, ultimately score far higher on tests because different learning aspects and approaches are favored, such as creativity and self-starting. Children are allowed to follow their interests and work on projects as they choose.
This approach is actually a lot of work for parents, but in a different way. They don’t have to seek out good curriculums, match them to their children’s needs, assign and oversee lessons, etc. Instead, though, they have to pay close attention to each child’s interests in order to draw them out and see how they could learn from them, and then provide them with the tools and experiences they need to keep learning.
For example, one unschooling mom once asked, “My son’s only interest right now seems to be video games. Should I let him play them all day? What can I do?” The answers were great: find him a game designer to learn how to program them. Find a musician to teach him how to compose game music. Help him to write his own small games. Get him games that are puzzles and require critical thinking skills to solve. Video games could open up lots of worlds for him!
Here are the reasons we are attracted to this method of homeschooling:
*No need to choose curriculum
When I was a music teacher, I had the hardest time picking a set of books to teach my students from. I didn’t really like any approach. Some were better than others, but I ultimately always ended up writing some of my own material and picking and choosing from different books, and it was a lot of work. I don’t anticipate that homeschooling would be any different, if I had to choose. I don’t think I’d find it easy to choose one curriculum in any subject that would really meet our needs, and if I found one, it wouldn’t work for the next kid. I could spend a ton of time and money on trying to find the “perfect” curriculum, or trying to create one, but it just wouldn’t be worth the effort.
*Children can truly work at their own pace
Some children who unschool don’t learn to read until they’re nearly teenagers. Some learn when they’re 3. But either way, they all eventually learn to read (and do math, etc.). There is no pressure to have to learn a particular skill at the same time and pace as everyone else. There’s nothing that says 6-year-olds learn to ready, 8-year-olds learn to multiply, etc. Every child is different, developmentally, and every child can work on each skill as they are ready and interested (by the way, one girl who didn’t learn to read until age 11 went on to write professionally and publish a book by the time she was 14!).
*Plenty of time for “non-basic” interests
Sometimes, homeschoolers can get caught up in having to do all the reading, writing, math, etc. that they don’t have as much time as they would like for “outside” interests, like art, music, robotics, programming, etc. With unschooling, everything is centered around those interests. They are the focus, not the afterthought.
This is “all the rage” these days in schools, but is hard to do when the focus has to be reading, writing, math and standardized testing. But at home, in unschooling, the child picks and interest and can start a project based on that interest. Perhaps the child wants to learn to build a robot. So the family visits museums to look at robots, talks to engineers who currently build them, reads about how to build them, studies designs and plans about building them, carefully selects parts to build them, then actually builds one. This involves reading, writing, math, communication, science, and all sorts of other skills. And it’s a real world application, so the lessons are much more likely to stick.
When children are allowed to come up with their own projects, they can feel free to think of anything. Maybe a child wants to be a chef, so they are allowed to work in the kitchen, creating recipes and writing a cookbook. (Which, by the way, involves reading recipes to learn how food goes together, writing recipes, doing math to see exactly how much of what should go in to make the recipe work, chemistry to see how foods will react, etc.) Perhaps another child wants to write a symphony. Or another, a collection of poetry. Or another, starting a business! The options are endless.
*No busy work
This was one of Ben’s biggest complaints about homeschool, and mine about public school. So many things rely on busy work. That is, “now that you’ve learned to add, do these 30 problems to practice!” It may be that some people enjoy practicing this way, but it’s not a “real world” application, and most people don’t need that many problems to understand the skill. Children don’t need to read prescribed passages in a reader to learn to read; books that interest them work just fine. Busy work is just wasting a child’s time, and yours (for having to check it).
When you are at home with your children and working closely with them on a day-to-day basis, you know whether they understand something or not. You don’t need a test to tell you. A child who is excited about building a robot will tell you ALL about it (whether you want to hear it or not ), and clearly understands it. Another child will show you how to count by helping you decide how many apples to buy in the store. There are plenty of real-life examples to know how much your children really understands (by the way, many schools are attempting to do this now — it’s called “authentic assessment” and they rely on portfolios and samples of the child’s work because they can’t have a lot of 1:1 interaction with 30 kids and 1 teacher in the classroom). I know Bekah knows colors because I can ask her to bring me “the red lid” for a container, or that she can sort because she puts the silverware away properly. I don’t need special toys or worksheets or tests to tell me.
This might bother some people, but not us. I like a general routine but I can’t stand schedules. I feel trapped after awhile. I want to know that maybe one day we’ll stay at home and work on some projects, and another day we’ll go to the zoo and identify animals. We don’t have to do the same things everyday, and yet we can always still be learning.
We are lucky because we live in a major area, and we have a great zoo, COSI (a hands-on science center for kids), AHA! Children’s museum (another hands-on science museum), lots of parks, many homeschool groups, youth orchestras, bands and choirs, church youth group, story times at many libraries, summer camps for kids as young as 2, and lots more. We have so many opportunities that our kids will never be lacking for ways to learn, nor friends to learn with.
I am very excited about our unschooling journey! And because it’s so non-structured, we have really been “unschooling” since birth. Bekah and I work on colors all the time, numbers (“Bring me 3 lemons to make lemonade”), animals, and lots more. And the older she gets the more we’ll be able to do!
Here are a few challenges of unschooling:
*Motivating some children to take on projects
Some children go through unmotivated stages (more than others). They just want to play outside, or play video games, and they don’t want to start projects or do work. It can be hard to motivate them to do something new, especially when there’s nothing really driving the projects other than themselves, and they know it.
*”Knowing” what your child really understands
Sometimes you might feel bad because you aren’t testing your child, wondering “Does s/he really get it?” Sometimes I see my friends with their toddlers, who are naming colors and counting and saying words Bekah doesn’t, and I worry that she is behind or doesn’t understand. But you have to remember that you see examples everyday of what they do and don’t know, and they probably know more than you think. Perhaps Bekah doesn’t say “red,” but she can bring me the red lid if I ask, so she clearly understands what “red” is. She doesn’t have to do flashcards and worksheets that teach “red” to get it. If it makes you feel better, though, you can keep a file (quietly) of major skills and check them off when you’ve seen your child demonstrate them. Then go look at it when you forget how much they know.
*Criticism from those who don’t get it
Some people think homeschooling in general is bad. And even some homeschoolers think that unschooling is crazy. People think that if you’re not sitting down with a curriculum in hand and specifically teaching a lesson, your child must not be learning. It can be hard to hear that all the time from generally well-meaning people. Your best defense is to ignore them and allow your children to keep learning, then show up at science fairs and recitals doing an awesome job.
*Finding sources for your child’s projects
Depending on where you live, it may not be easy to find the experts or materials for your child to work on the project he is really interested in. And it takes a lot of time for you to find those experts or materials, sometimes. It can also take a lot of time if you have to travel to see different experts or go to different events, yet you HAVE to because it’s your child’s “school.”
Unschooling isn’t for everyone, but it is a valid and awesome method for some families.
Do you homeschool, or will you? If so, have you ever considered unschooling?
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