When your family decides to move away from school-based learning there is usually a period of transition, commonly referred to as deschooling. It’s a time when the kids, having spent however many months or years in school, are de-stressing and rediscovering their interests, while the parents are learning insatiably about unschooling and trying to grasp the wide-reaching ramifications of this new lifestyle. And in fact, because parents typically have a full school career behind them, they often need the longest time to transition out of the school-based mindset, even when it was their idea in the first place!
For my family, that transition officially began during March Break of 2002. In Canada, March Break basically means the kids have a week off school. Many families in our neck of the woods trek down to Florida to enjoy warmer weather and long lines at the amusement parks. As for us, we were enjoying being home together. I had been researching homeschooling for a few weeks, having recently discovered it, and had been talking about it with my husband. During that fun and relaxed week, having found no discernible downside, we realized that we could just give it a shot and see how it went. We could find no compelling reason to wait until the end of the school year—three months seemed so close and so very far away at the same time. When Friday night came we asked the kids if they’d prefer to not return to school on Monday, and all three jumped at the chance. So they just didn’t go back. I made the required phones call to inform their schools, sent my letter to the school board, and we continued on at home like our March Break vacation just didn’t end.
My kids were not remotely interested in anything that looked like school so there were no extra-curricular activities, no community recreational classes. They had so much lost time with their interests to make up for! And when they were interested in something, their preference was to dig into it themselves with our support.
Swimming classes? No thanks.
Workshops at the local Science Centre? Nope.
Summer library program? Nah.
Hmm. I was a bit flummoxed. What should I do now? The answer was (which I know now because hindsight is 20/20 and all that): deschool some more. Sure, those activities may be fun for many kids, but my kids were happily busy with their own stuff.
On the bright side? I didn’t push, I just offered and observed. And eventually I came to realize what I was doing: reaching for learning situations that, although they weren’t in school, looked a lot like school, because that was all I really knew. D’oh!
My kids deschooled much faster than I did, so it was really helpful to my process to watch them in action. I joined them in their activities, played games with them, read to them, watched TV and movies with them, went to local parks with them; in short, had fun with them. That was how I began to see that there were so many ways to learn things beyond the teacher-student paradigm. It was, and is, beautiful!
If they had taken me up on my offers of classes, or I had insisted, we all would have taken much longer to discover the learning that surrounds us every day and our natural capability to pursue it. Classes would have continued to be valued as a way of learning above other options. In other words, deschooling would have taken even longer.
I think that’s a crucial, and challenging, step in the deschooling process. Classes are so highly valued in our society that it can be an easy way for us, especially at first, to justify the success of our homeschooling adventure to others, as well as to ourselves: “Oh, Johnny is going to weekly swimming classes, and just finished a robot-building workshop, and is going to the overnight program at the zoo next week, and is signed up for hockey this winter!” That rollicking list might calm down Aunt Sally for the time being, but really, it clutters your vision and makes the real learning that happens through every day living harder to see.
How might you figure out if your child’s slate of activities is hurting deschooling more than it is helping? What really matters is the motivation behind them. Are we as parents encouraging Johnny because we feel these activities are a “better” use of his time than hanging around at home playing games? Is Johnny really excited to be there? Or do you get the impression he’s going to assuage his own fears that maybe he’s not learning much on his own?
Motivations that stem from external judgements rather than internal interest are clues that some more deschooling is in order. Maybe Johnny’s having a terrific time each week, yet you begin to realize that you’re latching onto it and giving it power beyond “he’s having a terrific time.” That’s a sign for you to take the time to work through why that is, without spoiling his fun. If Johnny’s not having a terrific time, remind him that he doesn’t have to go and take a moment from time to time to unobtrusively point out the learning he’s doing outside the class.
The big question is, are you, like me in the beginning, offering up classes or lessons as your first response when your child says they are interested in something? That’s a major clue. Stop doing that. For now, challenge yourself to think of other ways to meet and expand their interests; and there *are* other ways, you might just have to work harder to find them right now. Deschooling. It’s worth it. It helps you see the bigger picture; it helps you discover the world of learning that is waiting outside the classroom.
Do they like the water? Take them public swimming regularly. Visit a nearby lake to play in the water. Rent a paddleboat. Float with life jackets. Blow bubbles in the water. Take a snorkel and mask in the bathtub. Set up the sprinkler to run through or a small wading pool. In short, help them enjoy the water. Over time, you’ll see them learning. From blowing bubbles, to putting their face in, to dunking their heads, to jumping off the side of the pool or dock—it’s beautiful to watch, and not a swimming lesson in sight. Maybe there will be eventually; maybe they’ll want to learn more formal swim strokes or water rescue techniques. But the point is, you’ll discover that there doesn’t *have to* be.
Eventually both you and your kids will realize that classes and lessons and textbooks are just a few of the options on the huge learning platter of life and they will have no intrinsic value over and above any other offering. Their choices will be based on what they’re interested in and how they personally like to learn things. Not on anyone else’s expectations about their learning. And neither will yours! Because we’re all learning, all the time.
Another step on the deschooling journey.