This month I’ve been writing about unschooling days. I talked about some of the goals that guide unschooling parents as we choose our day-to-day interactions with our children: being available to talk, willing to help, and supportive of their goals. I also looked at ways some typical activities and conversations can look rather unconventional in an unschooling family, both at home and out and about (you can find them here).
This week, let’s switch up our perspective. What about our children? What drives their unschooling days?
One of the refreshing traits of unschooling children is their enthusiasm for life. From the youngest age, all children are driven to explore the world around them and learn how it works. Parents marvel at their single-minded determination: their obvious joy when they finally figure out how to communicate that they want something; the countless times they’ll try to pick up that Cheerio; the tenacity with which they practice standing up and taking those first couple of steps.
That insatiable curiosity does not fade with age unless the adults in the child’s life work pretty hard to temper it. But that they often do—apparently there’s a UCLA study that found the average toddler hears the word “no” over 400 times a day. Damn, the average toddler is determined!
Why do many parents want to discourage their child’s exploration? It’s time-consuming (even one typically adorned room can keep them busy for hours—needing supervision all the while). It’s boring (what’s in the cupboard, what’s behind the curtain, what does this toy taste like—the parent already knows the answer so they’d rather just tell the kid than wait for them). It’s dangerous (they don’t want to spend their time standing by the stairs spotting their toddler, or catching them at the bottom of the slide over and over and over, or watching closely to make sure they don’t find the chemicals stored on the bottom shelf of the closet). An emphatic “no” will suffice in all those cases.
Then, once a child reaches school age and enters the educational system, teachers attempt to channel that curiosity down the curriculum path. Good teachers try valiantly to catch their students attention and spark learning by relating it to their real lives, with character-driven worksheets (Spongebob math worksheets, anyone?) and field trips and mock activities (pretend money, pre-determined experiments, mock trials, model UN). But that fundamental separation of learning and life is a significant disadvantage that the educational system cannot overcome while children are isolated in buildings filled with classrooms.
The curriculum path also restricts teachers’ freedom to dive more deeply into topics their students are actually curious about: “you’ll cover that next year.” Or to stray very far beyond the course outline: “you can look that up at home.” Yet a students’ definition of learning quickly becomes inextricably linked with school hours: “you have to go to school to learn.” With this narrow and rigid definition of learning hammered home, many students become loathe to learning outside of school. Their curiosity has become a faded echo of their toddler years.
But what if a child’s curiosity isn’t constantly stifled?
Humans are driven to explore their environment and if adults aren’t constantly trying to dampen or redirect their enthusiasm, that curiosity can drive their learning over a lifetime. In an unschooling family it’s that curiosity that drives learning, instead of a curriculum. But what does life with inquisitive children look like?
It often looks busy, even on days when you don’t leave the house, or even the family room!
It can look like large cardboard boxes lined up, enough for everyone, with the child up front wearing a train conductor’s cap as they travel from imaginary place to imaginary place, you lifting the littlest one in and out, in and out. A tower of blocks stands in the corner as a destination, a pile of stuffed animals tag along as traveling companions, and the couch is an island to keep us dry each time it floods.
It can look like a huge Lego town, days or weeks spent building a contemporary community with stores and parks and homes and citizens, or a futuristic base with a control room and sleeping quarters and spaceships and aliens, or a medieval castle with an armory and a mill and dragons and townsfolk.
It can look like one child concentrating hard on playing a video game, while you read the guide for tips and tricks in between playing a board game with the others, everyone taking a moment to cheer when a boss is beat, or someone rolls a six or lands on the longest ladder.
It can look like a puppet show, put on from behind the couch, full of dialog and sound effects and giggles, with you recording it to watch immediately after; and as you end up watching the other videos on the memory card an impromptu dance party breaks out.
It can look like a weekday afternoon at the park, winding the tire swing up countless times, with its passengers laughing maniacally as you release it, eventually their boundless energy spurring them to explore the play structure and escape down the tunnel slide.
It can look like each child in their room, one reading and writing on an online forum, one setting up props for a photoshoot, one playing a computer game. Each wandering out once in a while to chat and grab a snack, you calling down the hallway to ask if anyone would like a cup of the tea you’re brewing.
In each of those little vignettes, can you envision what is happening beneath the surface? The learning is rampant in each. Because the child is following their own curiosity, they dive into their interests as deeply as they want—maybe the Lego town lasts a day, or a week, or a month; maybe they take 100 photos, or they play with perspective and take 200 more, or they rearrange the set and take another 300. Because their time is their own, they let their questions roam as far and wide as their inquisitiveness takes them—maybe the train becomes a bus, then becomes a plane, then becomes an ocean liner; maybe the forum thread leads to a video, which leads to a website, which leads to a new forum: another piece of the world to explore filled with people as keen to discuss their passions as they are.
The days themselves can look very different but the curiosity driving them is the same: What do they love? What questions do they ask? What would they like to try? Who do they want to become?
Unschooling is about helping them find answers to the questions that drive them, and helping them discover both the person they are and the one they strive to be, no matter their age—I have questions that drive me, experiences to process, and a vision of the person I want to be. Living and learning each and every day. For life.