Freedom From School: Our Unschooling Story

Image Credit: Tina Floeursch via Unsplash

Image Credit: Tina Floeursch via Unsplash

A little over two years ago, my husband, Zach, and I were agonizing over what to do for our oldest son's schooling.

We were finishing up a two-year adventure in New Hampshire while Zach sought his MBA. Our oldest son, D, was in kindergarten at a sweet little Montessori school in the woods. But we knew our family would be moving back to California that summer, and we needed to find a school for D's first-grade year.

Neither of us was thrilled with the idea of public schools — especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the academic pressure seems to get more intense every year. Private school tuition was astronomical and not an option, even on Zach’s healthy salary. There were charter schools, but no guarantee of getting in via the lottery draws.

One day my husband turned to me and said, "What about homeschooling?"

I scoffed. But then, I wondered... I read, I talked to friends. I sought out everyone I could find who homeschooled and grilled them on their experiences. I pored over homeschooling styles and state regulations. I read surveys and studies on homeschooled kids who have grown up.

I found myself drawn to the idea of homeschooling — the freedom and flexibility to plan our days, to explore what we wanted and how. I’ve been home with my kids full-time since their births, and while I freely admit to the challenges and headaches of being with my kids 24/7, I also love the intimacy and depth of our relationship that comes from spending our days together. I love being there with them, day in and day out.

While consuming everything I could find on homeschooling, I discovered this thing called "unschooling," or "life learning." It spoke to me. 

I already believed children learned best when information was meaningful and discovered within its natural contexts, rather than arbitrarily separated by subjects. Unschooling reminded me of the iconic Montessori adage, "Follow the child."

Unschooling is an extension of that philosophy. It felt like the next step on the same path.

Part of my hesitation to homeschool stemmed from the pressure to be my children’s teacher. But unschooling doesn't rely on parent-imposed curriculum, or on forcing kids to learn specific things on a specific timetable. Unschooling is about acknowledging that we are all constantly learning, that humans have an innate thirst for knowledge, and that we will seek out what interests us or what becomes important to us (either from genuine interest, or as a means to a larger goal).

Whereas in more traditional "school-at-home" models of homeschooling the parent is the teacher, with unschooling the parent is a facilitator, a guide, a helper, and a friend. It's not my job to teach my kids.

Teaching and learning are not the same thing, and the latter does not automatically follow from the former.

I seek to present my children with as many interesting things as possible, allowing them to engage with those things and follow through with what interests them. I’m there to help, but true learning is a task only they can take on for themselves.

The more I learned about unschooling, the more it just made sense. It fit us. It felt natural.

It’s not me teaching them, as if I’m the expert imparting knowledge unto them. We talk and look things up and explore and wonder and experiment. We learn together. I love that.  

We went for it. We’ve been unschooling for two years now. My boys are 8 and 5 years old; if they were in school, D would be starting third grade this Fall and Q would be in kindergarten... but we don't follow school grade levels.

We just do our own thing. And "our own thing" is kind of all over the place.

Some days our unschooling looks like lazy days at home, playing video games or snuggling on the couch for a movie marathon over a bowl of popcorn, perhaps with breaks for a nerf battle or two.

Other days it looks like park days with our homeschool group. Moms sit on blankets and talk while our kids spend hours running around playing games, climbing trees, splashing in the creek.

We go on “field trips” to the zoo, children’s museums, the beach, hiking, camping. One awesome perk of homeschooling is going on adventures while everyone else is at school, skipping the usual weekend/school-holiday crowds. For our family, this has included mid-week trips to camp in Yosemite, a ski retreat in Tahoe, and our current six-month stay in Amsterdam through my husband’s job.

Instead of formal lessons, we have constant casual, impromptu conversations on everything from climate change to presidential elections, world wars, racism, sexism, slang and language, economics, numbers, and every other topic under the sun. These conversations often arise from a simple question, or something we saw or heard.

Last year, we watched all six seasons of The Clone Wars animated TV series, which sparked discussions on the ethics of cloning and the forced military servitude of the clone army.

These conversations are often short, but continue at random moments and build on each other over time (I try hard to avoid lecturing, instead asking questions to prompt them thinking about things). The loose structure of our days allows us the time to delve into a topic right when it comes up.

Learning feels more like a partnership this way. It’s not me teaching them, as if I’m the expert imparting knowledge unto them. We talk and look things up and explore and wonder and experiment. 

We learn together. I love that.  

We are “semi-radical” unschoolers, meaning we are somewhere between the families who apply unschooling principles only to academics, and those who apply them to every aspect of their lives. I have given up the illusion of control over what my kids learn and how, and I also seek to turn over to my boys as much control over their time and their bodies as I feel they can handle.

For example, I don't control their “screen time.” I guide them to help figure out what works for their bodies and minds — to notice for themselves when they seem bored or restless or hungry, and when it might be a good time for a break. Not viewing their “screen time” as inherently bad or constantly fighting over it gives me space to see how much they learn from the media and games they love.

Bedtimes, however, continue to be essential in our household, both for their benefit and for us (we need our kid-free evening time). My kids are natural early risers, so an early bedtime suits them, and for now we enforce that early bedtime until the time comes when they are able to do it for themselves.

When so many kids today are so highly controlled (by school, by parents, by peer pressure, etc.), I want my kids to have the freedom to explore their boundaries and know and trust themselves.

I want them to have the space to become their own people, without judgment, pressure, or shame. I respect their needs, preferences, and boundaries — and they in turn do the same for me.

I trust that they will learn what they need to when they need to, utilizing the incredible resources we have accessible to us today.

We are on the same team.

Of course, I have my moments of worry, stress, and fear that we’re doing it all wrong and I’m totally screwing my kids up. But, honestly, I think that’s just a side effect of being a parent. I felt that same fear and worry long before we began unschooling, and if we stop one day I’m sure the fears will follow in their new forms.

I look at my boys and see happy, confident, curious, considerate, and just generally fun and awesome little human beings. They may not be learning everything their peers are being taught in schools, but I also see them learning skills and ideas that aren’t covered in a curriculum package.  

I trust that they will learn what they need to when they need to, utilizing the incredible resources we have accessible to us today.

Homeschooling, let alone unschooling, is not for everyone. And I freely acknowledge the privilege allowing me not only to be at home with my boys, but also to choose such an unconventional approach for their education. I am grateful for these opportunities and for finding this path.

This freedom and flexibility, this ownership over our days and our lives, feels like a gift to not just them, but our entire family.

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