At this point in your unschooling journey, you’ve probably taken the leap into unschooling with your children. You’ve been at it for months, maybe years, and it’s working pretty well for your family. You see your kids learning and making connections everywhere and you’re no longer surprised—though you’re often amazed.
You’re probably noticing that the principles seem to be leaking into other areas of your life. For example, you may not have imagined that tidying up the play room before dinner can have an impact on learning. You’re probably experiencing a dawning realization that rules mostly seem to get in the way of real learning, rather than supporting it.
You are beginning to understand why unschooling is described as more of a lifestyle than a homeschooling method.
Wanna delve deeper?
The cool (and challenging!) thing about unschooling is that the questions don’t seem to end. Here is some more info on topics you may be pondering.
Yet another wonderful benefit of unschooling is that each person can take their own journey to reading. There’s no list of early readers you must progress through before being allowed to read something else. There’s no shame in not being interested in reading when you’re six, or seven, or even ten! The kids are free to enjoy books and look upon them as friends, not as an adversaries to be conquered.
Before they are reading on their own they can listen to stories read by a parent or older sibling or with an audio version of the book. They can enjoy the many pictures—not only in picture books, but in detailed illustrated guides as well. They can play with letters and sounds and words. And don’t forget that they can enjoy great stories through movies and video games. Reading need not be the only way to explore the world and learn. And even when they are reading on their own, it’s great fun to snuggle up together and share a favourite story!
I Can Read, You Know! is an article I wrote in January 2004 about my daughter’s road to reading.
Then there’s this episode of my Exploring Unschooling podcast: Learning to Read in Their Own Time with Anne Ohman. As a library director and an unschooling mom, Anne brings a unique and valuable perspective to the topic of learning to read. And for anyone concerned about later readers, this episode is wonderful! As Anne shares, “There are just so many ways for them to be in the world fully and still not have all of the pieces together in the reading puzzle.”
Want even more stories? Sandra Dodd has a collection of stories about unschoolers and reading here: Learning To Read Naturally.
Math is so much more than an unending sea of worksheets. And I bet your kids are encountering it daily, probably without even realizing it! If you think they aren’t, you might want to broaden your definition of math. For example, here’s a week with my youngest when he was six years old:
- Let’s see, one morning he glanced at the front page of the Best Buy flyer on the kitchen table and I heard him say “Whoa! That costs two thousand five hundred dollars!” I came by and glanced at the page. Not seeing anything around that price I asked “how’d you get that?” and he replied “If you buy these two things together”. They were a TV and a home theatre sound system placed beside each other and listed as $1999.99 and $499.99. I’ve seen him round up before, but rounding two things and adding them together was new. Cool!
- Another morning he was playing a video game and he came across some roman numerals. He said his older brother had told him they were numbers but he couldn’t remember what they were so I told him the values for I, V, and X as he came across them. I could tell he understood because he was figuring out the rest for himself (like VII and XI).
- Another day we went out with his sister to buy some scrap fabric. He decided to get some as well and sew pillows. When we got home some shape discussion ensued, and we brought out a ruler to help cut out a reasonable looking square. And there’s lots of patterning in the act of sewing itself.
- One evening he was playing a video game and had collected 41/50 of something (Boos in Luigi’s Mansion if you’re curious ). His Dad mentioned that that was 82% as he was passing out of the room. He replied that no, percent was out of one hundred so he had 91%. I could see how he got that and just let him think on it (I was mostly impressed with the “percent was out of one hundred” comment!) When he made it to 42/50 he said now he had 92%. I casually mentioned that since he was measuring out of 50 to get it to out of 100 he was doubling it, so he needs to double the 42 as well, so he has 84%. That’s it. I didn’t quiz him to see if he understood it, I just gave him some new information to chew on.
- Not to mention all the logical thinking that goes into playing his video and computer games which he does almost daily.
All that and we didn’t pull out one worksheet. It’s everywhere!
I think math is one area where the idea of unschooling (that you start day one by living in real life, seeing the big picture, and as you encounter the details they make quick, meaningful connections) really shines. So many school kids don’t get the “big picture” of math because they are caught up in the details, in the computation and notation, and are intimidated because there doesn’t seem much they can connect it to in real life to make it meaningful. It’s just a bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules that need to be memorized.
Word problems are probably a good example. Why do sheets and sheets of inane word problems (do I multiply? do I add? why do they want to break that cookie in half?) when they occur naturally in the real world where they are full of connections and real meaning: “I want to buy this game that costs $50 and I have already saved $20. I get $5 a week in allowance so if I save it all how many weeks until I can buy the game?”; “It takes 45 minutes to drive to Grammy’s house and we want to be there by 1pm for lunch. What time do we have to leave?”; “I want to buy this item for $5 and this item for $7. Do I have enough money?”; “We want to build a skateboard ramp. How much wood do we need to buy?” Don’t turn these questions into a “lesson”—that would be thoroughly annoying and would likely discourage the kids from ever asking out loud again (or listening to me if I talk through them aloud). These are just naturally occurring conversations in the course of daily life.
And here’s a bunch of other ways math just naturally appears in real life: board, card, & dice games (think Monopoly, Yahtzee, dominoes, Set, Labyrinth, puzzles etc.); allowances; trips to the store; computer games (like Zoombinis, tycoon series, Freddi Fish, Putt-Putt, Age of Mythology etc.); cooking; building stuff; beading; rearranging bedrooms; building toys (legos, K’Nex etc.); favourite TV shows; video games; sewing; crafting … math truly is everywhere!
But that’s just basic math, you say, what about the more complicated stuff? Well, my oldest son just turned 12 and with his interest in video games he has encountered: algebraic equations (complicated character & weapon evolution formulae); percentages (they are everywhere in video games); serious data management (huge tables of data to manage relationships between character class, levels, abilities etc.); and computer programming and logic (through cheat code effects and make-your-own games software).
Think about the school kids who are taught the rules for more advanced geometry or calculus questions. They may get the right answer on the test but forget it soon after because they don’t use it in real life. Did they really learn it? Was it worth the time, frustration, and use of brain cells? Maybe, if they got something useful out of it (like a surge of accomplishment in figuring it out in the first place) but it certainly wasn’t necessary.
And if they do come across higher-level math in real life? Great! They will be able to see the purpose of it immediately, understand its use, and will likely learn the calculation / notation details quickly because it makes sense to them. They will have something to connect it to. That’s what unschooling is all about. But it doesn’t matter if they are 10 or 20 years old or older when they encounter it.
And finally, what if you feel intimidated by even the word math? Well, then don’t use the word. It’s just a word, and usually a limiting one in most people’s mind. Just as I don’t label stuff we do as science, or geography, or English—those are arbitrary delineations required for school structure. And try not to pass your fear along to your kids. Just talk with them naturally as mathy things show up in real life—the big picture. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that math you learned in school starts making more sense to you as you see it naturally occurring every day and are seeing your kids soak it up.
You may also like …
Games and Math by Pam Sorooshian. She’s a college math professor who also unschooled her three, now adult, children. Math is one of her joys and she shares many ways to enjoy math with your kids.
The Delights of Exploring Math with Your Child by Lilian Jones explores math and history and learning and books and fun!
David Albert discusses learning math outside school in, Just Do the Math.
Learning through Video Games
There is so much learning that happens through playing video games! I’ve given it its own section because for years gaming was conventionally seen as “a waste of time,” though that message has finally started to lose its legs. If you’d like to learn more about how an interest in gaming is an invitation for learning, here you go!
When I was questioning my eldest son’s deep interest in video games, I dove in to learn more. Here’s what I discovered: Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Video Games
Sandra Dodd has a treasure trove of online gaming stories and articles: Video Games
Here’s a blog post I wrote refuting the mainstream mantra, “Video Games Are Making Children Violent”
Blog Posts Highlighting Learning with Unschooling
Here are some more blog posts you may find interesting:
What’s Behind a Typical Unschooling Day?
It’s kind of funny to think in terms of “typical” when talking about what unschooling days look like. I mean, one of the things I often emphasize is how different unschooling in action can look from family to family, even from child to child. Yet there is a basic motif that underscores our actions with our children, even when those actions vary widely: being available to talk, willing to help, and supportive of their goals.
Unschooling Days: Inside the Nest
Playing video games and watching TV. These activities are often part of the typical days of an unschooling family. Yet they are so maligned by conventional society that this week I want to talk about them directly. So let’s explore what these activities might look like in an unschooling family. There is so much fun and learning and connecting and life swirling through them. And it often looks very different than it does in the more conventional lives typically being studied.
Unschooling Days: Outside in the World
The difference in family dynamics between unschooling and conventional families can be quite stark. That’s because there are different priorities at work. Unschooling parents work with their children when they are out and about in the world. Let’s look at three less conventional ways we work together as a family.
“What Will I Do Today?”
What drives our children’s days? One of the refreshing things about living with unschooling children is their enthusiasm for life. From the youngest age, children are driven to explore the world around them and learn. Let’s look at what a child’s day might look like if their curiosity isn’t constantly stifled.
Exploring Outside Activities
Is your child interested in taking a class or joining an organized activity? Swimming lessons? Ballet? Hockey? Let’s talk about some of the things you can do to support their interest: considerations for choosing where to go, ways to help them get out the door, and why quitting might be the way to go.
Rules vs Principles
Why is it that you may now find that the typical family rules seem to be getting in the way? There may be a couple of reasons. One is that you’re noticing that they really are learning all the time and you hate to interrupt them … they certainly don’t like it much either. You question which is really more important – what they are doing / learning at the time or eating dinner at 6pm? Another reason may be that as you start to question how learning really happens you realize that they learn better through real life experience, not by being told what to do. Well, I guess they do learn to do what they’re told but that’s not too high on my list compared to learning how to analyze a situation and think for themselves. And you question what learning is valuable for living and you realize that learning about themselves and how they “tick” is really important. You may decide that eating when they’re hungry and sleeping when they’re tired, instead of watching the clock to tell them when to do these things, are good habits to get into!
So, you decide that hard and fast rules no longer fit in with your unschooling lifestyle, but now what? What else can we use to guide our actions? This is regularly discussed on the email lists I participate on and the idea of replacing rules with principles really makes sense. Principles allow us to analyze any given situation to get the best outcome, instead of potentially resorting to “breaking the rules”. Through this process you model for your kids how to make good decisions. Take some time to think about your family’s guiding principles. Use these when talking with your kids as situations arise instead of falling back on a fixed set of “rules” which may or may not apply well to the situation on any given day.
One tip for the transition though, don’t just announce to the kids that all rules are off. Removing all the structure they have known in their lives is like breaking a couple legs on that scaffolding they are standing on! It can really throw the kids for a loop. Instead, try to just stop announcing the rules themselves. If you let them know dinner’s ready and they say they want to finish up what they’re doing first, happily say “okay”. If it’s bedtime and they want to finish up what they’re doing first, smile and say “okay”.
Even better, don’t point out the time on the clock at all, just ask them if they are getting tired and want to go read a story in bed (or whatever your evening routine). If you want to tidy up the family room ask if they have a few minutes to help but respect their “no” and don’t try to coerce them. If you have concerns just discuss them! Model the thought processes you go through to make a good decision. But don’t keep at them until they change their mind to your mind, that’s just head games. Let them know your concerns and leave it at that. If it works out the way you foresaw, don’t berate them with “I told you so”; they will have learned something all on their own so let them own it; it will mean a lot more.
Here’s something I wrote on an email discussion list on the topic of rules vs principles back in November 2003:
Here’s one that happened last night / this morning:
My son Joseph (he’s 11) has been staying up late for a couple months. We have asked him to please turn off the lights before he goes to sleep. But it’s not a “rule”. If the rule was to be allowed to stay up late, you must turn off all the lights before you go to sleep, we’d be having regular conflicts about it. But having the principle of not wasting money, allows us to work towards it together, not against each other. Since I first mentioned it to him he’s been pretty good about it .. I’d say 70% of the time I get up in the morning the lights are off. When they are left on, I understand that he probably got really tired, or was distracted by something he was doing and forgot. I know he’s not leaving them on just to piss me off. I’ll usually mention sometime the next day that I noticed a lot of lights on when I got up and could please try and remember to turn them off. That’s it – no hassle, no shame. Last night around 1:30am when I woke up and wandered back to my bed from my daughter’s room I noticed that many lights were on (we have an open staircase) and I quietly called to him. He was in the family room and came immediately. I asked if he could please do the rounds and turn off the lights in the rooms he wasn’t in, and he did right away without a word or a huff and went back to what he was doing. Just living together in peace. It made me smile while I went back to sleep.
I still think regularly about a conversation I had with my mom a few months ago … I think it was her first real glimpse that we were doing something different. I was telling her how we discuss and explain things with the kids (principles), and she said that there must be something they have to do just because I say so (rules). I said no, if there was something I would like the kids to do, I ask them and explain why … there is always a reason for something, so just tell them. If they choose not to do it, I know they have considered what I said and they usually let me know their reasons (and they are usually quite understandable from their point-of-view). She tried a couple of examples, and I explained what I’d say to the kids, then in a bit of frustration she gave up and said she couldn’t think of anything right then. And she hasn’t brought it up since.
Just for completeness (I don’t think we got this far in our conversation), if there’s no real choice for the kids (like having to get someone somewhere), I explain that too and let them know I understand that they really don’t want to go, but that I appreciate them doing it anyway. And I try to show it by doing something extra of their choice, either while we’re out or later when we get home. This almost always works out without great anger or tantrums, because they trust me and know that I have always tried my best to minimize the times they would have to do something they don’t like just because there is no other choice. That’s the principle I have of trying to live life without having a negative impact on the people around me, not the rule of if I say you have do something, you do it.
The concept of rules vs. principles has really helped me shift my thinking. It’s given me a good place to start when thinking situations through. Whenever I think that there is something I want my kids (or my husband for that matter) to do, I ask myself why? And when I get to the root of why, I can either explain it well to them, or come to the realization that it really has nothing to do with them, just some holdover of schoolish expectations, and I can let it go.
Here’s a blog post I wrote about how open and clear communication supports living with principles, rather than the punitive discipline that seems inextricably linked to living with rules: Communication Instead of Discipline.
As you see your children learning with joy and gusto after removing the handcuffs of curriculum, you may start to wonder whether they’d learn life skills as beautifully if you moved away from rules around the house.
Often people equate “no rules” with chaos, but it’s not about dropping rules and leaving a vacuum—it’s about replacing those rules with active engagement.
On the blog I ponder the question of whether me taking responsibility for the bulk of the upkeep in our home would “spoil” my kids: Chores and an Unschooling Childhood.
In Unschooling With Strong Beliefs, I examine ways to respect your own principles while still supporting your child’s drive to explore and learn.
And in “Who Am I and What Makes Me Tick?”, I dig into why self-awareness and understanding is so important and what that has to do with unschooling.
Freedom of Choice
Sometimes we get caught up in all the things we “have to” do and begin to feel stuck. We start feeling or acting like a martyr; like we’re sacrificing ourselves for others and we begin to expect those people in our lives to express appreciation for our “sacrifice”. We start complaining to anyone who will listen about all the things we have to do, how ungrateful the people in our lives are, and just plain have a negative outlook on life.
But take some time to really think about it. Nobody can truly force you to do anything. Just as you can truly not force a child to do something—you can coerce and threaten and belittle—but you cannot make someone do something. There truly is no “have to”. Taken to the extreme, you may think you “have to” follow the laws of your country, but if that were literally true there would be no need for jails! And there would be no civil disobedience to try to get unjust laws changed.
Now think about something else: why. If these things you “have to” do are so annoying, why do you do them? I would imagine that when you think about it you will find quite a few good reasons for the things you do day in and day out. When you bring the real reasons you are doing things to the forefront of your thoughts, they just don’t seem so bad any more.
So, for example, even though you drove your son to soccer all summer and he didn’t say thank you once, you are happy to do it each time because you realize why you do it: he enjoys it and his happiness is infectious, he’s getting some exercise, he’s spending time with people who share his love of soccer, he’s learning the benefits of teamwork, his coordination is improving, and so on. Wow! Look at all those great things, you think. Of course I’ll drive you! Instead of grumbling about how it always interferes with dinner and how you feel like you’re constantly washing his uniform and you don’t like the coach and just plain making the whole experience negative, you focus on all the great reasons for supporting this activity and do your part joyfully (which is a really soulful version of happily!)
And you may find there are things you are doing “just because”—just because you thought they were expected of you. If there are no real reasons why you are doing something, and/or no obvious benefits, consider not doing it any more. For example, maybe “everyone” in your neighbourhood is involved in soccer so you signed your son up. He is always busy doing something else when it’s time to leave for practices and games and you always have to convince (coerce) him to go. He participates but doesn’t really enjoy it, he grumbles about it while you’re in the car and he races to return to his previous activity when he gets home. Maybe this is an activity you guys really don’t “have to” participate in, even though the rest of the neighbourhood lives and breathes it.
It’s about realizing that you truly do have choices in all the things you do and remembering why you do what you choose to do. I have found that just this seemingly simple change in focus about the things I do every day really gives me a whole different attitude and outlook towards life!
And here’s a blog post about Why Choice is Key in Learning Life Skills.
Blog Posts Highlighting Living with Unschooling
Here are some more blog posts you may find interesting:
Unschooling and the Power Paradigm
What if we don’t assume power struggles between parents and kids are inevitable? What if we drop the “us versus them” attitude and think of our family as a team with the power of everyone behind it? To feel powerful is to feel strong and capable of action, but what we can drop is the overtone of power *over* others.
The Unschooling Family: Considering Everyone’s Needs
Dropping the “us and them” paradigm not only better supports unschooling and long-term family relationships, it also makes parenting a less contentious and more rewarding endeavour. But at the same time, it’s important that parents express their needs too. It’s important that everyone’s needs are considered.
How Do You Measure “Fair”?
The idea behind fairness is an important one: to be fair is to be free from bias. In families that means not showing favour for one child over another. It has come to symbolize love. And parents don’t want any of their children to feel they are less loved than their sibling(s). But how do you measure “fair”?
How Do Unschooling Children Learn How to Act in Society?
A reader’s question: “I recently interacted with a family who are following unschooling principles. The biggest concern I see is the lack of discipline; and that children are not taught manners necessary to act in socially-acceptable ways in others’ homes. How do unschooled children learn manners so they know how to act in society?”
Learning is Learning No Matter Your Age
Often one parent takes on the bulk of responsibility for the minutiae of day-to-day parenting and unschooling, which can eventually leave the other parent wondering what’s going on. How can you help your spouse/partner learn about unschooling?