Mention the word “unschooling” to someone in your homeschool group, and you’re likely to get one of two extreme reactions- elation or disdain. When it comes to this controversial homeschool approach, it can be very difficult, indeed, to find a middle-of-the-roader.
From the very beginning of my homeschooling days, I was mesmerized by the thought of learning with no curriculum. No books? No seatwork? No daily mother/child struggles? It sounded too good to be true. Nonetheless, after several years of homeschooling with varying methods and finding none that I felt was the perfect fit, I decided to venture into the world of unschooling.
I transitioned slowly into this new way of life. I still had read-aloud routines everyday, and we still used a math curriculum, but other than that, my children were free to spend their time as they chose. It was difficult for me at first. I’ve always been a planner and a bit of a- ahem!- control freak, so allowing my kids to take the lead on their education was difficult for me.
After several months, I relaxed a bit and began to see education in an entirely different way. I was able to see the value in little things like making paper dolls, playing with Legos, and even watching construction crews working on the street. My aversion to video games grew less and less, and I was able to identify the many skill-building tasks involved in each one. I nearly jumped for joy when one of my daughters took apart a light-up toy and afterwards was able to explain to me how an electrical circuit works.
Each of my children was busy finding out what they truly loved by being granted the time to do so. My oldest daughter immersed herself in Japanese anime and online manga and went on to learn not only the Japanese language but both sets of writing characters. She also began drawing her own anime-type illustrations and attended classes in drawing and painting, narrative illustration, and flash animation. Additionally, she began designing and sewing her own cosplay costumes for anime conventions.
Another daughter grew interested in theatrical makeup and made herself busy by painting her siblings’ faces every single day. She also made her own makeup products.
And yet another daughter grew so fascinated with crane and candy machines that she actually figured out how to make her own working candy machine out of Legos.
I could go on and on with stories like this, but I think you get the picture. These- these– are the positive moments most associated with unschooling.
Not every day was like this. In fact, the vast majority of days were not. There were days of complaints about boredom, bickering- lots of it, and fighting over the TV. And then there were the desperate cries of, “Mom, when are we going to start doing school again?”
But instead of picking up our old homeschool routine where we left off, I headed to unschooling message boards, where people would imply that I must somehow be doing something wrong because no child would ever prefer to do school work.
After hours and weeks of reading radical unschooling blogs and books, I eventually decided that that must be the problem. I needed to institute whole-life unschooling, meaning not only giving the children the reins on their education, but on their lives, in general. Thankfully, as a Christian, I was never able to go quite as far as some of these parents do, but what I did begin to allow had a very damaging effect on our family.
Since radical unschoolers have the philosophy of not making a child do anything he or she doesn’t want to, that meant that I was stuck doing all of the housework myself. (Not easy when you’re cleaning up after twelve people!) My kids spent tons of time watching TV and playing video games, which I do believe have value within limits, and absolutely no time reading.
So, the blissful home life that I set out for became a household of chaos, complete with a very crabby mommy.
Finally, I announced to my children that we were going to start completing some structured school work again, and chores would be re-instituted. Was there a mutiny? Nope. They looked relieved.
So what did I take away from this experience? There are several things:
- Unschooling can be a beautiful way to learn, but every child- yes, every child– needs direction and, dare I say, instruction on how the world works.
- Contrary to what many radical unschoolers believe, children are not miniature adults. They are children, who need guidance in making decisions and, most importantly, need to be “trained up in the way they should go.” They do not have the same life experience that adults do and should not be expected to.
- Children who are allowed to do absolutely whatever they want to become children that no one wants to play with. I have heard more than a few stories of how people at homeschool conventions could always pick out the children who were unschoolers because they were the ones that all of the other children stayed away from.
- As much as I believe that children need to be given the gift of learning at their own pace, if you reach the point that your 12-yr.-old does not yet know how to write or your 15-yr.-old still writes his numbers backwards, it is time to intervene. (And it probably should have happened long ago.)
- Unschooling your child does not mean that textbooks are forbidden, although there are some unschoolers who would say otherwise. If your child asks for a workbook to learn how to read, get her one. You are not doing anything wrong. In fact, you are probably doing something right because your child is interested in the first place.
- Don’t become a slave to labels. Just because you identify as an unschooler does not mean that you have to do everything a certain way. Only you know your child. Use that to your advantage. That’s one of the beauties of homeschooling- having the freedom of choosing how to educate your children.
Before I invoke the wrath of unschoolers everywhere, this is not an attack on the homeschooling method itself but on the dogmatic approach many people employ. Natural learning is an amazing thing, but, like I say about curriculum, take advantage of the unschooling lifestyle. Don’t let it take advantage of you.