A lot of the people in my homeschool support group are unschoolers. In general, this means they don't buy much curriculum, they don't do assignments, write exams, or set goals for each "semester." They don't have school-time during the day.
Unschooling seems to be a philosophy of life, and not just an educational approach. It’s very holistic, child-centered, and respectful. It seems to involve simply living as rich and full and happy a life as possible, and allowing learning to take place naturally, in the context of whatever activities your family chooses to pursue. Things like reading, writing, and arithmetic are such an integral part of everyday life for most people that children could hardly avoid learning the basics. Because unschooled children have the free time to explore their interests, they can often experience them in great depth and breadth.
I love knowing these unschoolers in my life. I love to see how totally free life can be, and how there is truly room in this world for all kinds of people. These are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. So, if unschooling is so great, how come I’m not doing it? Why do we have curriculum, “school time” and “free time” and why do I set the agenda most days? Good questions. I have talked about it at length with my husband, and I’ve come up with a handful of reasons why “pure” or “radical” unschooling just isn’t the right fit for our family.
1. There are a whole bunch of tasks that I make my kids do regularly: dress themselves, tidy their rooms, feed the dog, brush their teeth, sort laundry, sweep the floor, put stuff away, etc. I didn’t wait until they showed an interest in doing them. These are essential life skills, and they have to do them. Period. There are even more skills that I consider essential, that they will HAVE to learn to do in at least a basic, survival sort of way, like cooking, balancing a budget, riding a bicycle, and learning how to swim.
I see a lot of schooly stuff in the exact same category. Learning to read, write, and calculate are useful everyday tasks, and I don’t want to have to do it FOR them until they are 12 years old. Obviously, not all kids are ready to take on a new skill at the same time, but if my kids are capable of learning a new skill, then I’m going to do everything possible to help push them along.
2. I truly believe that there is value in discipline, in doing some things because you have to, in practicing every day until you see improvement, in struggling to achieve. Obviously, it’s best if the drive comes from inside yourself, but a lot of us don’t even realize what we are capable of until someone pushes us a little. I’m not a drill sergeant, but I encourage my kids to work hard, to put in an honest effort, to try things with a good attitude, to give that little bit extra to finish the page or complete the project. I think about some of the people who I respect and admire, like my children’s pediatrician, or my friend who is an engineer, or another friend who flies helicopters. Every single one of them has had to push themselves to learn things or do things that were hard, or that they didn’t really want to do.
3. My kids seem to do better with some structure. For example, sometimes I get busy and caught up in my own projects or problems, and I sort of ignore the kids for a while and let them do whatever they want. They always start out great, with all kinds of creative games, and lots of fun. At some point, after a week or two, or even three, they start to get whiney and irritable and lazy and totally get on my nerves. Maybe if I ignored them a little longer, it would pass, but what usually happens is that I SNAP and make them work their butts off for 2-3 days (a bit of yelling and a few tears often occur, unfortunately). It is like they are magically restored to their sweet, charming, happy selves.
4. I have noticed that time and time again, whenever I introduce a new topic, my daughter ends up incorporating the information into her games. We read a book once on pioneer life that became a year-long passion for her. I find that if I take the time to introduce new ideas, it feeds their minds and takes them in new directions.
Having said all that, I still love the idea of unschooling, and these are the ways that I temper my authoritarian tendencies:
1. Sometimes, we take a break from schooly stuff. Last April, I planned to take a break for about two weeks so that I could put in my garden. The break lasted for four months. During that time, the kids played outside, worked in the garden, visited the farm, went on vacation, went swimming, and read about a million books. My daughter’s spelling and handwriting improved almost by magic, and they both seemed to grow and develop physically and emotionally. Even though we did almost no academic work, I felt like it was time well spent.
2. I am not a slave to curriculum. I purchase materials that look interesting or useful for my kids, but I completely ignore the schedule that usually comes along with it. We just start reading or working through the material. If we really like a topic, I’ll get a bunch of extra materials out of the library to supplement it. If there is a really boring section, we just skip right over it and move on to something more engaging. After all, my kids are 6 and 8 years old. How much do you remember of the social studies topics you studied in grades 1, 2, and 3? Anything? In the case of math, I try to be slightly more methodical. However, if a concept is really too difficult for my child, or the book doesn’t explain it very well, I just don’t use that section of the book. We’ll learn the topic at the white board or on scraps of paper, or using manipulatives, or I’ll just wait a few months and them come back to it.
3. I try to make sure the kids have enough free time in the week to just play, dream, think, or generally pursue their own interests. It’s one of the main reasons why I homeschool in the first place. When my daughter went to school, her day was so long and so full that there was hardly time for her to do the things that she wanted to do. If I tried to add in swimming lessons or piano lessons, she was overwhelmed. At least with homeschooling, the structured part of the day is over by about , and they have the next 8-10 hours to take swimming or gymnastics, go to the library, play with friends, read books, go outside, or whatever.