It’s one thing to get comfortable with unschooling in your own home, but it can be a whole ’nother kettle of fish to bring that learning mindset with you out into the world.
For example, is your child interested in taking a class or joining an organized activity? Swimming lessons? Ballet? Hockey? If you’re newer to unschooling, you may want to consider avoiding structured activities for now, as they can interfere with your deschooling (you can read more about that here: Do classes hinder deschooling?), but if your child is interested, let’s talk about some of the ways you can support their learning and enjoyment.
The first question is, is your child interested in pursuing their interest through an organized activity? For example, there’s a difference between being interested in hockey and wanting to play hockey. As a child I enjoyed watching hockey (live and on TV), I enjoyed playing street hockey, and one season I enjoyed keeping my own stats for my favourite NHL team—but I was never interested in playing organized hockey (and my dad coached a girl’s hockey team for a few years so it was definitely on my radar). Just because your child expresses an interest in something, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to formally participate in it, so it can help to take a moment to consider the many possible ways to pursue an interest in something.
Finding a good match …
The typical response when a child asks to join an activity, assuming the parents agree, is for a parent to find the closest location and sign them up. End of story. From there, the child is expected to do the work to fit into the environment so they can participate/learn.
For unschooling parents, our foremost focus is on supporting our children’s learning so, instead of expecting our children to adapt, we are willing to do the work to search out an environment that meshes well with how our children like to learn. Understanding that the atmosphere surrounding many activities is dictated by the individual adults who run them, we look for a good fit between the group’s atmosphere and the child’s personality and goals.
Let’s take ballet as an example: some schools are focused on their students participating in dance competitions; some on putting together a big year-end recital; some on progressing students through formal dance examinations; some on the recreational enjoyment of dance etc. Or how about karate: some dojos focus on attendance and progress their students through the belts based time invested; some focus on skill development and progress their students based on proficiency displayed; some dojos insist their students compete in certain tournaments; some avoid them altogether etc. What are your child’s goals?
And on top of the approach to the activity itself, there’s also the teaching methods and personalities of the teachers/coaches. Do they demand obedience and cultivate a strict, hierarchical environment? Do they encourage questions and cultivate a supportive atmosphere? Are they somewhere in between? The knowledge and skills of the instructors being relatively equal, there is still a wide range of possible learning environments—some your child may fit into like a glove while others may turn them off the activity for years to come. If your goal is to help them explore their interest, your best bet is to help them find the studio/dojo/group/league that is a good match for their personality.
What has that looked like over the years for us? With my daughter, when we moved, I continued to drive her to her girl guide group meetings in our old community because she had a great connection with the leader (an hour each way). The next year the leader changed and she tried out meetings with a couple groups in our new community before finding one that suited her. When my youngest wanted to try karate, I called some of the different dojos around that we could try. And I talked about it with him in those terms: this dojo seems like a good fit so let’s try it out, see if you like it, and if you don’t there are others you can check out.
Instead of choosing a location by geography and expecting your child to conform, take the time to explore the options and try to find one that is a great fit for your child.
Getting ready to go …
Participating in an activity likely means a fixed time for lessons or practice or games. This can be challenging, especially for younger children who may have a harder time transitioning to leave if they get caught up in something at home. On top of that, it can also be challenging for newer unschooling parents because they may feel like they are coercing their child to leave. What do they do if their child says they don’t want to go this week?
If going to an activity is becoming a struggle, take a moment to look at how you’re setting it up. If you find yourself saying something like “It’s Wednesday, your karate class is today, are you going to go this week?” take a moment to rethink that. By asking your child each week whether they want to go to class, you’re basically asking them to revisit their decision each time. That’s a lot of work, especially for younger children.
In my experience, it’s easier to assume your child wants to go (they wanted to sign up in the first place) and do your best to help them get there: make it as painless as possible for them. “Your karate class is today! I have your gi clean and I put your bo by the front door. We’ll get changed and leave right after dinner.” By bringing it up during the day you have time for conversations without the added pressure of trying to get out the door. And by making sure all the supporting things are in place so that your child can just go to the activity (clean outfits/uniforms, working and available equipment, transportation and timing etc), then they can focus on the activity itself. Are they enjoying it? That is the real question.
Choosing to quit …
When our children express an interest in an activity it can be easy for us parents to get caught up in the idea that “maybe they’ll grow up to do this for a living!” We want to encourage them to continue. We’re afraid that if they quit they’ll “get behind” and the opportunity to develop their interest into a career will be lost. At age eight.
There are a couple of things to consider here. First, if it’s not catching their interest so much that they are excitedly dedicating many hours to it on their own, then the chances of a professional career are slim. Certainly the chances of enjoying a professional career are slim. Second, quitting is not a forever decision. My daughter took a couple years of dance lessons when she was young, quit, and went back for a year when she was sixteen. She really enjoyed it! When you’re doing things for enjoyment, there is no “behind”, there is just where you are. At the dojo there are white belts of all ages. There are adult beginner ballet classes, there are adult recreational hockey leagues, and there are public swimming times where people of all ages and abilities can enjoy the water.
Or maybe we’re worried that our children wanting to quit means they will always give up when things get challenging. First off, challenges that aren’t motivating and inspiring for your child are probably not the right kinds of challenges. Great to know! But also, the choices they make today don’t define all the choices they will make in the future. The choices they make today are helping them gain experience with making choices.
Over the years they will gain lots of experience with wanting to try something, with choosing ways to try it out, and with seeing how well those paths met their goals. They will discover things they enjoy and things they don’t, and get a better feel for the clues that help them decide when to step up their game and when to quit something.
And even after they choose to quit something (for now, at least) they’re still learning. How does that choice feel? Do they miss the activity? How much? What do they miss about it? What are they doing with the time that quitting freed up? Are they enjoying that more than the activity? Less? So much learning!
Or maybe we’re upset about the money we invested in the lessons that we may not be able to get back. Think about it this way: the more you insist your child continue in the activity after they’ve decided they don’t like it, the stronger their resistance to the activity will likely grow.
If you’ve paid $100 for a series of rec ballet lessons and they’re only half finished, might you consider that last $50 as an investment in preserving their enjoyment of dance? If they don’t enjoy the lesson environment, try the myriad other ways there are to enjoy and explore dance: put on some classical music and dance around the room; try a different style of music and see what happens; borrow ballet books and DVDs of dance performances from the library; help them try out what they see; buy some costumes or a tutu so they can dress up; record their performances at home so they can see themselves; go see a ballet in a fancy theatre (The Nutcracker is beautiful and fun for kids, and often performed around Christmas); in the spring, check your local dance schools for their student recitals (tickets are usually inexpensive). Remember, formal lessons aren’t the only way to enjoy many activities.
Supporting your children’s exploration of activities outside the home by doing your best to set them up for success goes a long way to helping them discover their unique interests and passions.
And that’s a great path to living joyfully. 🙂