Saturday, 21 March 2015

Blooming in our own good time

People have been asking me recently about how we unschool and how it works, and what to say to those who doubt that children will really learn in this way.

I've been a home educating parent for 13 years and over the course of that journey I have walked a long road of discovery, and my understanding and definition and experience of education has evolved a lot over that time. So I'll try to explain my own observations and philosophy as best as I can.

When we first started out on the path, we had just two kiddos and they were not yet school age. I had no idea at the time that one day I'd have five children and they'd all be not just home educated but in fact unschooled.

I really hate labels and in some ways I don't like defining ourselves as unschoolers, because people can get so tangled up in philosophy that it rules and defines their life. Which is what some people actively want. And that's fine, for them. For me, I find it's just the best description of what we are doing and how we are living for the greater part of most days and as a rule of thumb, I agree that leaving kids to their own devises is more conducive to meaningful learning than trying to force knowledge down their necks.

So how did we end up in this educational scenario where we don't have a timetable... or subjects... or terms... or 'year x' and being so relaxed about learning that we are not even remotely trying to replicate school?

In the beginning, I wrongly assumed like lots of people do, that unschoolers 'do nothing' or 'slack off' and that it was just a very lazy way of living. And viewed from one perspective, unschooling IS a very very relaxed way of living. Which makes some people really uncomfortable....

Travel during term time is no problem for unschoolers!
I realised pretty early on that when you sit a child down with workbooks, no matter how engaging you try and make it all, that knowledge can quite quickly forgotten, unless the child is actually interested and truly ready for that knowledge. It's like trying to force feed someone whether they are hungry or not. I was astonished to find in the early years of our home ed life that having spent hours trying to cover certain things, only a month or two later the children had entirely forgotten it. So I stopped using workbooks, and started relying instead on the other materials we had in the house.

Over time, we built up a very different kind of curriculum based on free play and discovery through experimentation. Instead of teaching spelling through books, we just bought books and books and more books and filled our house with them. We read stories to the children a lot. We invested in audiobooks so that the children could enjoy the pathos and drama and intonation and musicality of language and stories. We took them to the theatre to feel and see and hear stories in a way that was alive and vibrant and multi sensory. We played lots of board games, which have all kinds of writing and lettering and numbers on them. We bought apps on the iPad that were fun and actively sought out games that would involve maths or spelling or critical thinking without feeling remotely 'schooly'. Scribblenauts alone has sparked hundreds of "how do you spell x/y/z" questions! We bought science kits, craft kits, and invested heavily in construction toys of different kinds. We watched youtube videos of science experiments of different kinds and found a world of fun websites on all kinds of subjects. We let the children play and play and play and build on knowledge and make connections for themselves between all the different resources at their fingertips.

Without heavy instruction or a systematic approach using all the current tricks of ramming phonetics down their necks, the boys have all learnt to read, at different ages, and at different times and in their own very unique way. Currently our six year old is the latest to join the reading gang. I've seen first hand how pointless it is expending energy trying to teach them to read before they are really ready (frustrating for them and us) and by contrast, how easily they have learnt when it has been on their terms, at a time that was right for them, and when doing things that interest them.

Because we haven't pushed it on them, they find reading a really rewarding and fun activity. It seriously took some nerve to be so relaxed as to allow one of our sons to reach the age of almost 9 before he properly learnt to read, in the face of so much social expectation and myths about children's intelligence,  but now, just six or so months later, he has a voracious appetite for books, and has consumed more than 20 Pokemon paperbacks in just the last couple of months. He can pick up any book you like and read it, and one of his favourites are National Geographic Kids Magazine and The Magic Treehouse series. Because we trusted he would do it in his own good time he picks up books because they are interesting to him and because he feels excited by them. Anyone who meets him will tell you that he positively beams when he talks about how much he loves to read. What is really lovely is that he feels that he totally owned that process - it happened because it was sparked by an inner readiness, an inner drive that was curiosity, need and desire to do it. How many kids can say that? How many boys at the age of 9, actively love reading, and tell you so with shiny eyes?

We have made a really big effort to take the children to see and experience the world first hand by going travelling all over Europe in our motorhome, visiting all kinds of interesting places and meeting all kinds of interesting people. They have encountered folks with such wide-reaching passions and been taught informally about all manner of things.... Joining up the dots of how the world works, how people tick, gaining skills,  and all in a really relaxed way, on out own terms and without stress - it's just the most natural thing in the world to learn when you act like school doesn't exist!

Our social life has evolved very much too. We have all learnt so many lessons about ourselves and what situations we enjoy, who we feel comfortable with and who we don't and how to handle that. We no longer force the kids to join clubs they're not interested in just simply so they can make friends with random kids, but have relaxed about trusting in the kids to simply form friendships more naturally and in a less contrived way. Being a gang of five kids is pretty cool for even just those days in at home, as they are a close-knit and are good friends for the most part, but they also play very happily with any new kids we meet, and have a regular gang at home ed group that they knock about with and have done for some years.

The kids have started recently getting involved in online gaming playing with some friends in a server and using Skype to chat for hours in the evenings. I wish we lived nearer to friends and it can be a pain having to drive everywhere to meet up with our really close friends, but I'm glad that we have such a spread out tribe, and it makes for a more diverse social scene than perhaps the school playground where kids tend to gang up and stick in small cliques of children very similar to themselves in age and social class etc. I think our HE world represents a good spectrum of different types of folks with different philosophies and a high ratio of adult involvement which keeps things (for the most part) friendlier than the average playground might be. Sometimes situations arise within the community that everyone learns from and when people inevitably don't get along, we learn to deal with that, which is an important lesson for later life. I do feel it is a gentler and more nurturing environment in which to discover some of these realities of life, and processing the complexities of human behaviour is a difficult process enough so I am pleased the kids have a chance to do that within the safety of a fairly small community that has a high ratio of caring and watchful adults to keep things happy and safe.

I had no idea Finn could sew because he has always resisted being taught - then he goes and makes this... just because he wanted to!

It's hard to have faith but I am witnessing for myself that whilst we can create an illusion of being in control of a child's development, it's a process that will happen when it is believed in, and simply supported. We all know that using tweezers to try and open up the petals of a flower before it is ready, is unnatural, and that if we want a flower to bloom it's so much better to water the plants and feed them and try and create the right conditions for them to flourish. And then sit back and be patient. Nor would you expect all the blooms on a bush to open on the same day!

As William Wordsworth put is so beautifully

"How doth the meadow flower it's bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its very root, and in that freedom bold"


  1. Good to read about the lush meadow that is unschooling :)

    1. I have always preferred wild meadows and gardens to spanish greenhouses ;-)

  2. A great read! Love the beautiful picture that Finn did. Had the pleasure of meeting yourself briefly last month at Eureka, sadly with my job (doing school lunches) I'm unable to bring my girls to the meetings outside of the holidays. It's something I have to think about changing! I'm still trying to unschool myself and stop worrying so much over the girls learning! Look forward to your next post.
    Joanne x

  3. Look foward to seeing you Joanne and thanks so much for swinging by and reading my blog! x