Playing video games and watching TV.
Did you just tense up a bit? 😉
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. Ask a friend or acquaintance why they don’t like TV and you’ll probably hear answers along the lines of too much violence, obesity fears, or their kids and/or their spouse just seems to zone out in front of the TV (or YouTube etc.) like they’re doing nothing at all. “They should be more active, more alive!” And interestingly, it often looks true in their lives: their kids, their spouse, and maybe themselves, plop down on the couch and take on that zombie look, decompressing after a long day or week.
But what if you don’t live a life of conventional work and school that you feel the overwhelming need to escape or recover from?
That’s right up our alley! 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.
Let’s look at TV first
The enjoyment of learning about topics you find interesting through beautiful documentaries and information-packed shows is pretty easy to imagine, yes? Maybe you and your child love the ocean and are captivated by underwater life, but the idea of getting scuba certified and transporting yourselves to the Great Barrier Reef is incredibly daunting. Watching a documentary produced by people also passionate about life on the reef overcomes that quite nicely—certainly in the short-term.
Alongside the value of gathering knowledge is the value of sharing stories. Over the years, TV shows have inspired umpteen discussions in our lives, ranging from how to treat friends and being true to yourself to ethics and religion and sex; from storytelling cliches to how to create a suspenseful atmosphere. We’ve let out shouts of shock, jumped for joy, paused the show for conversations that couldn’t wait, waited for conversations until the show was over so we didn’t break the mood, and dashed to the computer to research facts more deeply (or lately have an iPad within reach). To me, that’s one of the major differences between typical viewers and unschooling viewers: active participation. We take it in, we roll it around in our minds, we weigh it against what we already know, and we make choices about what connects and what we let drift away. We fully experience it. We enjoy it.
And yes, sometimes we watch reruns of our favourite shows and/or movies to decompress and re-energize. It’s a fun tool for that too! Maybe you’ve had a busy day or a week where you’ve been more out than in and you want to relax and rejuvenate. Maybe it’s the tool of choice for your introverted child to recover after a group activity—even if they thoroughly enjoyed it, they need some down time to recoup their energy. In those times, take a moment to mention that connection between activity and recovery so they notice it too. They’re learning. Understanding themselves and their personal needs will help them be mindful about scheduling in down time so they are less likely to become so overwhelmed that it affects them negatively.
With unschooling, the important thing to support both their learning and your relationship, is having the choice.
If you’ve told them flat out “No, you’re not allowed to watch that show,” you’ve likely just made them very curious! “Why not??” they wonder. And curiosity is an incredibly strong motivator. So now they either have to either suppress their budding curiosity, or sneak around you to satisfy it. And if they do manage to find some time when you are otherwise occupied, or they are visiting friends with access (which will happen more and more as they get older), they’ll be watching it without being able to chat with you about what they discover: less learning. They’ll also be more likely to continue watching even if at some point their inclination is to stop: their curiosity about the source of your denial, or just plain rebelliousness to flex their power against your rules, pushes them beyond their own boundaries. That’s where more harm than good can happen.
Imagine your child is watching a scary movie you’ve banned at a friend’s house. If she starts to get scared halfway through the movie there’s a good chance she’ll stick it out to prove you wrong, or to avoid admitting her fear to her friend. Then maybe she has nightmares for a couple nights. Result? You’re now even more determined to make sure she doesn’t watch scary movies because you believe she’s just proved she can’t make good movie choices on her own. But really, you took the choice out of her hands up front—all her actions from that point were mired in reactions to your denial, not her own motivations.
With choice, and having a parent willing to watch with them, to support them by reacting to their needs in the moment—maybe pausing the show to discuss what’s happening, or lowering the volume during scary or emotional scenes, or warning them when they might want to cover their eyes, or changing the channel when asked—they are free to follow their curiosity until it has been sated, exploring the world and themselves, in a safe environment. Lots of learning. Alongside, it’s also a great opportunity for you to learn more about them. What sparked their interest? How was it satisfied? Do they seem to want more?
Does all that sound like mindless zombie TV watching?
Now let’s look at video game playing
What might gaming look like in an unschooling home? With available, willing, and supportive parents, gaming with younger children can often include reading the game text for them as they play: more stories shared, more conversations initiated, more strategies batted about. Thinking out loud can be a really fun way to sort through ideas, and a great way for parents to see their child’s beautiful mind at work—while they’re at play!
Parents may find themselves reading game guides aloud to their child or silently to themselves, to help their child figure out how to beat that boss, or find all the gold skulltulas. When my kids were younger we had a computer in the same room where they usually played so we could look things up quickly. Sometimes we printed out a section of the guide to have handy on the couch. I have wonderful memories of working together with Michael to reach his goal of beating Luigi’s Mansion. And of watching Joseph play for hours, deeply fascinated by the artistic style of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Shadow of the Colossus. He’ll still call me to come see beautiful scenes and characters.
One thing that can be challenging is when our children become frustrated while playing. Our first reaction may be to shy away from it, insist they stop playing for a while. And sometimes a break can be a great strategy—if they’re willing to try it. Helping them explore ways to work through frustration while they’re figuring out new things is a great life skill. Beyond video games, there will be many situations where things are new and challenging and understanding how they best move through that is invaluable.
Another way parents can support their kids while they play is to bring food and drinks to keep their minds alert and reaction time at its peak while they’re deep in their work. More learning, not only about the game strategies themselves, but again, about the physical ways their brains and bodies are supported. Be with them. Be available. Anticipate their needs, not only to support them in the moment, but to help them learn what their needs are.
Thinking back now, I remember when we first started unschooling. Joseph was almost ten years old and he dove deeply into playing video games. At first I was uncomfortable, unsure he was learning much of anything. But when I realized my only other choice was to implement time restrictions and be stuck with the resulting power struggle, I decided to dive in with him and see what all the fun was about! One of the best choices I’ve ever made. A couple years later, in 2004, I wrote a conference talk and article about what I discovered. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to click on over: Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Video Games. And here’s an illustration I drew up at one point—a snapshot of the learning connections I’d seen related to his passion for video games.
Does playing video games and watching TV look a bit different to you now? Can you see all the learning that is woven into the fabric of these activities? All the loving support that is made concrete by celebrating the joy found in them? Exploring them together with my children has not only put my mind at ease, but strengthened and solidified our relationships. And those will last a lifetime. 🙂