Education is something I excelled at both as a young child and into my early adult years. I was one of those students who never had to study very hard to pull the good grades out of the bag. Why then having been through the school system myself would I choose not to do the same for my children? I believe learning is so much more more than just academics and exams. Despite doing well at school, having suffered from bullying and stifled creativity I feel my younger years could have been spent much more wisely had I had the freedom to explore my own potential rather than being pigeon holed into a structured and categorised learning system which is, on the most part, disconnected from nature and life itself.
Now my oldest child is nearing on six years old I am often asked that question, ‘What school does he go to?’ When I reply I am reluctant to use the word ‘unschooling’ as people have a hard enough time getting their heads around home schooling. Nevertheless I attempt to explain the natural learning path I have chosen to walk down with my son and the questions go a little something like this, in no particular order….
- How will he learn social skills and socialise with other kids?
- How will he learn the three R’s?
- What will you do if he wants to go to school/college/university or take exams?
- How will you keep him busy?
- How will he get a rounded knowledge of all areas and what if there is something you don’t know how to teach him?
- Isn’t the full time, stay at home educating role only for those parents who can afford it?
Perhaps the best way to describe unschooling is to to define how it is different from home schooling. Unschoooling is very much a child-led approach, and this does not necessarily mean never directing or guiding your child into a structured activity or group, far from it, unschooling parents tend to make a great effort to facilitate their kids getting out and about regularly.
Children are natural explorers and have an innate desire to learn whatever captures their interest. Home schooling is much like transferring a set curriculum taught in a school from classroom to the home. Unschooling on the other hand (also a sub category of home education) involves taking a child’s lead in their current interests and providing them with the resources and opportunities to discover more about that theme/topic for themselves. This capitalises on the fact that children, and in fact all ages learn best and most efficiently when they are engaged fully with interest in what they are discovering. Like the public school system, home schooling can often employ rigid, scheduled and ‘age appropriate learning targets,’ whereas unschooling treats a child as having unlimited potential and possibilities and gives them a flexible and unstructured way to learn within their capabilities and without pressure.
Unschooling acknowledges that life is a school with learning opportunities everywhere you go and in everything you do. In a limitless learning environment a child may learn…
- Maths as they go shopping.
- Geography as they travel.
- Literacy as they read books from a library and language as they communicate with friends or loved ones in a letter or electronically.
- Science as they explore nature and animals. Rock pooling, farm visits, cooking, wild food foraging and camping are all great opportunities.
- History as they visit museums and explore sites of interest such as castles and roman ruins.
- Music from going to festivals or observing a talented relative or friend play their instrument.
- Religious education as they mix with people from different faiths in groups.
- Design and technology through free play with different materials and access to computers.
- Physical education through regular activities such as swimming, tennis, yoga and football in the community.
Furthermore with the advent of the world wide web as a self-directed, educational resource, no question will remain unanswered.
So now back to those common concerns and questions often asked of the unschooling family.
Socialising: A child is far more likely to connect to people and learn social skills in a setting where they feel at ease and where they enjoy spending their time. Whether it be at the park, in a group with a shared interest or simply visiting other young family members or friends, there is a big world outside your front door that is difficult not to interact with. It interesting to note that children of the same age rarely socialise well together (as found in the usual classroom setup), they actually learn far more social skills and indeed other skills from older children in mixed age settings who are able to demonstrate their next stage of development. Also having the opportunity for older kids to interact with younger children helps them develop their nurturing qualities and important virtues such as patience.
Reading, writing and arithmetic: Words and numbers are found everywhere you go, not just in a classroom. Many children, especially boys are not mentally ready for formal or structured learning and trying to teach them this way can, and often does, set their comprehension back rather than if they were allowed to pick these skills up naturally at their own pace. Some examples of how a child is exposed to numeracy and language in daily life include: road signs, posters in a shop, watching films, reading menus in a cafe and working out transport timetables.
Gaining qualifications: Exams and structured schooling are not one and the same thing. At any time your child can, having never attended a school, choose to enrol for any number of exams they feel they wish to gain in order to further their future career path.
Keeping busy: The problem with keeping balance for our children in the modern world is not so much under-stimulation as it is over-stimulation. Too often parents and children do not spend any quality time and get to really know each other due to hectic, over scheduled timetables and time pressures. When you dedicate time to the unschooling lifestyle, life takes a natural rhythm and balance. Too often in trying to make kids achieve everything to survive in the corporate and consumerist world, we forget to teach them the basic skills of self-sufficiency. Such skills can be gained through simply helping with household chores, learning to cook, looking after pets, growing your own food and taking part in everyday life. Another valuable life skill not taught in schools, meditation, also develops a spiritual awareness so they can learn to balance themselves during times of stress. All too often schools neglect these vital areas of education.
The main focus in unschooling is unstructured learning although, structured learning can also play a part should a child wish to master a certain skill. For example, a music class or gymnastics club. To keep learning opportunities ever present sometimes it requires thinking outside the box such as engaging in volunteering opportunities. You can also set up a kid-share scheme with other fellow home educators to help parents gain some extra ‘me’ time. As long as you you look hard enough you will always find a way.
Mentors and general knowledge: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to teach magnetism and how plants grow. Most parents can read, write and count and therefore have the ability to be a learning facilitator for their own child. When the time comes that your child expresses an interest in a topic you have little knowledge of then it may be time to draw upon other people as mentors for your child; friends, relatives and professionals in that area can all engage with your child to help them learn more. For older children the internet provides such a vast array of learning resources much like a virtual classroom. It has been said that ‘it is better to be a jack of all trades than a master of none’ if however, you look at earning potential in society is it not the ‘master of one trade’ who achieves the most success? Perhaps we should concentrate less on children obtaining a good general knowledge but rather help them find what they excel and are passionate in and follow this to it’s greatest potential.
Money matters: Choosing to be a full time parent and learning facilitator for your children is a choice, not a luxury. In a society that requires both parents to work full time to keep up with the Jones’s, sacrifices have to be made and it’s not easy. To bypass relying on paid activities, we get creative. A typical week for us involves dog walking, a home educators (informal forest group) meet-up in the woods, watching YouTube documentaries, trips to the park, visiting friends, gardening, growing and cooking food, trips to the beach, library, free museums and local festivals. A garden is an absolute necessity for us and we sacrifice the size of our property and number of bedrooms to ensure we have access to outdoor space at all times. With money to spare unschooling can be made a little easier for example, taking advantage of off-peak tickets to nearby tourist attractions whilst other children are attending school. At the end of the day though children need nothing more than human interaction and exploration in nature to learn, which doesn’t cost a penny.
Some may argue that I’m taking away the privilege of education from my son at an age when he does not have the choice. I know my son better than anyone else and I observe that he does not thrive in large groups and overly controlled environments, two main aspects of the schooling environment. For these reasons I have decided to let him make the decision as he grows older whether he wishes to try school or not. Like the Spartans and other ancient cultures, I believe that a young child below the age of seven needs to be close to their primary care givers and allowed the freedom to just play, discover and explore, letting their imaginations run wild and free.