When I think of “wildschool,” I immediately think about the many ways in which our unschooling lives have joyfully bounded outside the box of cultural conventions. A sense of gratitude washes over me. I feel lighter. Suzanne Carter’s words come to mind:
To me, unschooling is as positive as unchaining, unbinding, unleashing, unfolding, unfurling, unlimiting…
There’s the outer wildness of living outside the structure of compulsory school. In the world rather than in the classroom. Kids in the grocery store in the middle of the day. Running around the local park in the middle of the week. In most places, that’s decidedly outside the box.
And then there’s the inner wildness. Oh, the inner wildness! Learning on their own timetable. Following their curiosity and interests rather than a curriculum. Cultivating their creativity rather than encouraging conformity. The time to daydream. To ask themselves questions and contemplate possibilities. To choose what to do. To explore the edges of their comfort zones. To discover how they tick.
This way of living—of welcoming children into our lives with warmth and grace—flies counter to much of the current conventional wisdom around parent-child relationships which urges us to control their wildness so they fit neatly and quietly into our adult-centred culture. Into the box. Tamed. And many of us deeply absorbed those cultural messages growing up. They feel like truth.
So, when we lift the lid and peek out, the wild world of unschooling seems almost unfathomable. No curriculum? It’s hard to imagine that any learning will happen if we don’t structure it. Stepping away from power-based relationships with our children? All we can envision is chaos.
And the wildest, most subversive thing of all? Giving our children an abundance of free time.
What on earth will they do with it all?
To answer that, let’s dive into some of the beautiful ways that free time weaves through our unschooling lives and helps our children stay in touch with their wildness.
Time and Learning
Free time is essential for natural learning to thrive. Broad swathes of time to hear what their minds and bodies are telling them, for new possibilities to bubble up, and to contemplate what they’d like to do. To fully engage in the moment and get into the flow of their activity.
Looking at learning through the lens of flow is a beautiful representation of wildness—both outer and inner wildness—because we have no idea where things may go. It’s the opposite of keeping things under control. Of staying inside “the box.”
In his book, Finding Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as, “the joy of complete engagement.” I love that phrase because it clearly portrays what unschooling parents so often see with their children: joy and learning woven together so tightly as to be almost indistinguishable.
Flow happens most often when we play where the challenge of the activity and the skill of the person (child or adult!) is closely matched. It doesn’t happen if it’s too easy—we soon become bored; or if it’s too hard—we are more apt to get frustrated or anxious.
And the person’s interest is vital! It’s tough to get into the flow when you’re doing something you’re not interested in. That’s why, with unschooling, we’re all about helping our children follow their interests.
Being in the flow of an activity is an exhilarating (and effective) way to learn because, as Csikszentmihalyi describes it,
a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes.
Milva McDonald, a guest on my Exploring Unschooling podcast, shared her experience with time, flow, and learning:
I really do think that if you have to pick one thing about homeschooling that is the greatest, it’s the time. They have time to delve into their interests. The way my daughter was able to do the jazz, and I have another daughter who was obsessed with Shakespeare. The interests go on.
Everybody who homeschools knows that and has seen that their kids latch onto something and then they have the time to really deeply study it. And sometimes that’s in a way that people don’t think of as ‘study.’ When I say “deeply study,” I’m talking about my daughter going into her room with her Ella Fitzgerald CDs and listening to them so many times that they were embedded into her brain. And she learned about all the phrasing and all kinds of things just from doing that. I consider that deep study. It wasn’t that she went and sat down with books.
As Milva describes, learning in the wild—outside of the conventional school box—often looks very different. And that can trip us up for a while. At first, we’re expecting our children’s learning to look like the classroom learning we’re so familiar with: books and worksheets. But outside the time-constrained environment of a curriculum (yearly), timetables (daily), and ringing bells (often hourly), learning flows naturally, and at the unique pace of each individual child.
Still, what does that look like?
In her excellent essay, ‘On the Wildness of Children,’ Carol Black describes what many unschooling parents have discovered: that unschooling kids engage with the world differently than most conventionally schooled kids. Their minds are open and curious. They notice things. They remember things. If something catches their interest, they just dive in.
Learning is not something they do, it’s something that happens.
In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults—and they do. In these societies—which exist on every inhabited continent—even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. ‘Learning’ is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.
Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools, a state psychology researcher Suzanne Gaskins calls ‘open attention.’ Open attention is widely focused, relaxed, alert; Gaskins suggests it may have much in common with the Buddhist concept of ‘mindfulness.’ If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it. If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know.
It may seem counter-intuitive at first but lots of free time to engage in their activities of choice and follow the flow of their curiosity and joy is how unschooling—and learning—thrives.
Time and Creativity
When it comes to creativity, again unschooling asks us to step beyond cultural expectations and into the wild. In this case, it asks us to consider valuing downtime over busyness. Our culture places a lot of value on active social calendars and constantly producing measurable outputs. Yet time for daydreaming—for letting your mind wander, free to connect seemingly disparate things in a flash of insight—lies at the heart of creativity.
In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write:
Science has confirmed that time for solitary reflection truly feeds the creative mind. The capacity for solitude is a quality that unites successful creators, who are able to turn away from the distractions of daily life and social interactions to reconnect with themselves. But solitude isn’t just about avoiding distractions; it’s about giving the mind the space it needs to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning.
Time and space. Again.
When you notice your child seemingly doing “nothing,” what leaps to mind? Lazy? Unproductive? Do you hear a voice in your head, nudging you to say to them, “If you’re not going to do anything, I’ll give you something to do.”
Instead, can you take a moment to rewrite that out-dated script? To remember the value of daydreaming and reflection? And with this new level of understanding, maybe next time you can go a step further and actively support them by taking care not to interrupt their reverie.
In an essay on creativity, Isaac Asimov wrote,
My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.
This idea is also reflected in Csikszentmihalyi’s work, as he observed,
The family seems to act as a protective environment where a child can experiment in relative security, without having to be self-conscious, and worry about being defensive or competitive.
Unschooling parents are focused on cultivating that emotionally safe environment—supportive and without judgement—for their children to explore and learn creatively. We genuinely learn a lot from playing around with those hundreds of ideas that don’t work in the end! They help us eventually hone in on the ideas and insights that do work.
One of the most surprising things for me about our unschooling years was how much downtime my children chose. Listening to music outside on the swing. Taking long walks in the forest. Re-watching favourite shows. So much daydreaming, reflection and processing was happening, even when, as Asimov remarked, they aren’t conscious of it. I’m happy I didn’t poke them to “do something.”
But that can take some trust in the process of unschooling.
Rachel Rainbolt, another podcast guest, spoke of that trust and the immense value of free time in their unschooling lives:
When 100% of the trust finally clicked, all the way even to the back corners of my mind, that’s when everything really started to soar and feel amazing and be wonderful. I had to let go of those last societal expectations and pressures and be fully into trust with my kids—that’s when things really started to blossom.
If you are filling in all that space for them, then there is no room for them to fill it in for themselves. If you are occupying all of their time and telling them what things they are to focus on, then there is no room for them to grow into that space! You both can’t occupy it simultaneously. Once you have fully surrendered to trust, there’s all of this space for them to blossom and to fill in and to grow into and take hold of, and there’s just so much magic that comes from that.
It’s amazing the magic that grows in the fertile soil of the time and space our children have to explore, reflect, and be themselves.
I want to add a quick note here. When we’re talking about downtime and giving kids time and space, it’s easy to misconstrue that as “leave them alone.” That’s not what we’re talking about. Rachel took care to mention that it’s not about distancing ourselves from our children but about holding space for them. “You’re right there with them, but you are holding the space for them to grow and fill in.”
Time and Self-Awareness
And finally, self-awareness is yet another shining example of what happens when unschooling children embrace their inner wildness. And free time is again an essential component of that process.
So far, we’ve talked about giving our children the time and space they seek to actively pursue their interests (i.e. play and learn) and to chill out (i.e. daydream and ponder). And we understand the role they both play in how our children explore and learn about the world through unschooling.
Then, the next flash of insight hits us: both are also crucial to our children’s exploration of their inner world.
Through making choices, seeing what happens, and taking time to reflect on it all, over and over, children develop a deep understanding of themselves. They discover the things they like and don’t like. The kinds of things they find challenging and those that come more easily. What frustrates them. What helps them re-centre. How much sleep feels good. How they like to learn new things. How much downtime they prefer. What their goals and aspirations are. And how all these things change over time.
Copious amounts of time, space, and conversation help them process their experiences and get to know and understand themselves intimately—and discover the value in that knowledge. Not only is this level of self-awareness invaluable when they are making choices around how they want to engage with the world, but it also helps them better understand and engage with other people. Relationships between family members blossom when everyone is more aware of their needs and can express them. And as they get older, they take those skills out into the world with them, to their relationships with friends, and eventually with co-workers.
In a recent podcast episode, I asked Adrian Peace-Williams what she appreciates most about having grown up unschooling. She replied,
I think it’s time and space that was really important for me—and freedom. Not being constantly judged and evaluated on my decisions and choices. The freedom to get to know myself. The space to have time to listen to myself, and learn how to listen to myself. And learn how I work. To learn what brings me joy; what doesn’t. The time was so amazing. The time to just be, and learn how to be.
It’s an eloquent testament to the value of cultivating our children’s inner wildness: the time and space to learn how to be themselves.
When our unschooling children are following their curiosity and interests and choosing what they want to do with their time, they are in control of their lives. And, as their parents, we are living our lives right alongside them, having conversations, bouncing possibilities around, and sharing our experiences. The beautiful thing is, once they make a choice—whether or not things go as they expect—that moment is theirs forever. They own it. They remember it. And they use what they learned from the experience next time.
Unschooling is nothing short of redefining childhood.
We spend our days in the wildness, far beyond the conventional box.
And it’s an incredible way to live.
Asimov, I. (2014). Isaac Asimov asks, “How do people get new ideas?” MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from www.technologyreview.com/s/531911/isaac-asimov-asks-how-do-people-get-new-ideas/
Black, Carol (2015). On the Wildness of Children. Retrieved from carolblack.org/on-the-wildness-of-children/
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, New York, New York: BasicBooks, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Kaufman, Barry Scott and Gregoire, Carolyn (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, New York, New York: Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
This essay was first published in Rosemary Magazine, Winter 2019 issue, theme: “wildschool.”