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A Day in the Life of an Unschooler

So what does day to day living look like when you’re unschooling? Pretty much just like living life and having fun, and not worrying too much about the learning part, because learning takes place constantly, just through life experiences.

Our days are flexible so we are able to take advantage of different opportunities that come our way, but for the most part, we do our activities away from home in the mornings and early afternoons, when we have the most energy, and afternoons are generally spent at home for self-directed learning time. 

No two days are the same, as we have more opportunities than we seem to have time for, but here’s a general example to give you an idea. Our days usually start with the kids waking up when their bodies are ready to. They have a light snack and then they might play with Legos or Brainbox, do some artwork, make a stop-motion video with Legos and our digital camera, or some other quiet activity while we get up and around. The kids will then help me make pancakes or scones, or a similar breakfast. This is a great practical lesson in reading, math, science, and teamwork, as well as an opportunity to learn some very important life skills. After breakfast we do dishes and then, depending on the day, either go to karate or swimming lessons, have a playdate, go on an outing, or meet up with our homeschooling group. The above photo is from when our homeschooling group went on a pony-riding outing.

After lunch we are usually back home, and we usually have a quiet/create time, when the kids might read, write a story or in their journal, do online art lessons or artwork, do some activity/work books, do some beading or crocheting, make something out of origami,  or a similar quiet activity. (This started when at least one of my children still took an afternoon nap, and it was beneficial to all of us, so we continued it even once everyone had outgrown their naps.) Later, they might play Minecraft or other video game, or play an imaginary game together, often using costumes, Lego, Mobilo, and props made out of whatever they can find in the art closet (we collect paper towel rolls, egg cartons, cardboard, bubble wrap, bits of fabric, lace, etc. for such purposes) to accompany their play. We might play a game or go outside and play in the backyard or park across the street, or we might watch a documentary or other educational show. Sometimes we’ll make cookies and watch a movie. Usually we’ll have a tidy-up of the living areas before starting dinner, and the children help me with chores as needed as well throughout the day. Basically, we hang out and have fun.

My husband cooks the majority of dinners, and the kids like to help him, and occasionally make up their own “creations” for dinner as well, which allows them to have a strong involvement in the family meals. We always sit down and eat dinner together and talk about our day. After dinner we might watch a show or movie together, and we usually all read a bit before we go to sleep.

Throughout the day, the kids will often tell me something they’ve just learned. I remember when one of my sons was about six, he came out from playing Legos and told me that six times eight is 48, which he discovered by counting all of the bumps on a 6×8 Lego piece. Whenever they say something like that, I will take that as a cue to ask them further equations (finding another Lego piece and figuring out the number of bumps the same way, for example). I’ve found that the kids all want to share with me what they’re learning, as their exploration of life is fun and exciting.

While most learning happens organically and is in context with where the kids’ interests have taken them, we do also provide science experiment kits, as well as often finding ourselves in the middle of impromptu collective learning when one of the kids asks a question about something that the internet can offer a lesson for. We will Google their question and learn all about whatever it is they’re wondering about, and we might take a trip to the library down the road to get more books on the topic. Even though they have different interests, the kids often pay close attention to what we’re learning about when we’re Googling something that one of the other kids has found interesting. I have learned lots of new things right along with them! 

So as you can see, learning is something that happens all day, every day, effortlessly and organically. 

How Unschooled Children Learn About the Arts

It is important to us that our children are able to find ways to express themselves and be creative. My children thoroughly enjoy drawing, painting, and sculpting, as well as lots of different types of arts and crafts. They will often use paper, scissors, tape, markers, string and whatever else they might need to make all sorts of things – signs, airplanes, costumes, weapons, fishing poles, binoculars, etc. They love using modelling clay and we have a family annual membership to online art classes as well.    

My husband is a musician and was the guitar player and back up vocalist in his band when we lived in NZ. He collects and even builds his own guitars, so the children have been strumming guitars since they were infants. We have many friends who are musicians so the kids have access to other instruments as well, and we have recently been discussing the idea of starting music lessons so they can properly learn to play an instrument, although so far the kids have not been terribly interested, and that’s fine. All of our kids love to sing and tend to sing or hum throughout much of the day, and they have all enjoyed making up their own songs at one point or another. 

Other opportunities for children to express themselves creatively may include dress up and imaginative play; going to the theatre to see shows; going to concerts; making up songs; singing songs; making music videos; putting on plays; playing freeze dance; taking photos; making stop-motion videos with Legos; taking on decorating and sewing projects; knitting and/or crocheting; making jewelry; and taking lessons for art, acting, singing, instruments, dance, and photography.

How Unschooled Children Learn About Health and Wellbeing

It is important to us that our children understand the importance of, and how to obtain, emotional and physical wellbeing. We talk a lot about how the foods we eat affect our bodies, both positively and negatively. We talk about how to keep our immune systems strong, and make sure that we support them with vitamins and minerals, and limit the toxins that suppress them, for both prevention and treatment of illness. We talk about the importance of physical activity, adequate sleep, proper hydration, limited screen time, massage therapy, etc.

We talk a lot about our feelings and help our kids work through big emotions. I want them to be able to identify their feelings, and to be able to work through emotions in a healthy manner. When another person is upset (in the case of a dispute between siblings for instance), we talk about how each person is feeling, and how our actions can affect other people, so the children can learn to be empathetic and respectful of others.  

Other opportunities for my kids to learn how to take care of their emotional and physical health may include reading nutrition information on food labels; shopping for and preparing food together; experiencing a variety of physical activities such as swimming, karate, gymnastics, sports, etc.; practicing peaceful conflict resolution; learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation; taking walks and going on bike rides; playing at parks on playground equipment as well as throwing Frisbees, kicking balls, and flying kites; and having discussions about our health, self-esteem, personal safety, listening to our intuition, elements of nutrition, etc. 

How Unschooled Children Learn About History and Geography

It is my hope for my children to have a solid understanding of the world. We want for them to understand the importance of knowing about things that have happened and that are happening to people throughout the world, and how those things affect their world and even their life now. We want them to understand that things that are happening now will affect people and the earth even after we are gone. We want them to understand that people throughout the world and throughout the ages are the same inside, no matter what they look like on the outside. We want them to understand the importance of learning from the past, especially the negative things, so we can hopefully prevent similar things from happening again.  

My children are dual citizens of New Zealand and the USA. Until last year, they lived in NZ their whole lives, but we visited the US a few times over the years, so they have been on airplanes between the two countries multiple times and have always had some understanding of different countries and how far apart the two countries are, to some degree.

They have also been to Fiji, where one of their aunts lives. Travel really is one of the best forms of education. It has always been my dream to “worldschool” – homeschooling while traveling the world. Even though international travel has been made more difficult since the beginning of 2020, we are taking advantage of as many opportunities as we can to see nearer locations. The photo above is of my children at The Pirate’s House in Savannah, Georgia, where we recently spent a few days. The Pirate’s House opened in 1753 and became an inn and meeting place for pirates and sailors of the Seven Seas. This is just one of the fun ways we learned about the rich history of Savannah.  Going on one of the tour trolleys there was a great way to learn quickly about many historical facts.

I want my children to be able to explore the different aspects of their own countries as well as other countries and cultures, such as languages, customs, cuisine, music, art, architecture, attire, religion, beliefs, history, holidays, etc. There are many fun ways for children to learn about these things, such as picking a country for a week or two and checking out books about it, looking up information and images on the internet, using Google Earth to explore from street views, listening to the language, cooking some food from that country, discussing its history and religion, etc. This is something that can be built upon as their understanding of more complex aspects (economy, political system, interactions and wars with other countries, etc.) increases.  

Other opportunities for children to gain an understanding of History and Geography include looking at world, country, state and city maps; looking at globes; visiting various museums; playing games such as Trivial Pursuit; watching travel, geographic, and historical documentaries, shows, and movies; reading biographies and historical fiction and nonfiction; reading encyclopedias and atlases; talking to people from other countries about those countries; sending and receiving postcards to and from people in other countries through the Postcrossing website; talking about things that happened in the past but in recent memory, and discussing what has happened since then, because of it. (One example of this for our family is the Christchurch earthquakes, which will always be a part of my children’s history and is something they have been able to see affecting that city every time we used to go to the city centre, and will be able to see the differences when we return. We have always taken photos of the changes so in years to come we can have a visual record of the transformation our city has gone through.)

How Unschooled Children Learn About Science and Technology

Children love to learn about the world around them, and how things work. Science is in everything that we do and everywhere we go.  

Children learn about paleontology and geology when they learn about dinosaurs and fossils, and volcanoes and earthquakes. They learn about chemistry when they bake, and can see how the chemical reactions of combining certain ingredients and heat changes the consistency of batter into a delicious muffin, cookie, cake, etc. They learn about biology, anatomy and physiology when they learn about the human body (and animals’ bodies, for that matter). 

Having a mother who is a massage therapist, my children have grown up receiving massages and they are familiar with the muscular system and functions. We have a children’s book that is the aptly titled, “The Human Body”, which shows pictures of the many organs and systems of the body, and all of their functions.

I also have a book that has photos of embryos and fetuses in utero at every stage, and when I was pregnant with my daughter, my boys and I would look at it every week so we could see what she looked like and how she was changing and growing.

I had a home birth and the boys came in and out of the room as I labored, and they were able to meet their sister when she was only one or two minutes old. My youngest son had always wondered about the umbilical clamp he has seen in his baby pictures, so he was able to see how it worked when he saw his sister’s umbilical cord clamped and cut. He was fascinated by the placenta and umbilical cord, and my midwife was great at showing it all to him and answering his questions.  

We also talk about microbiology and pathology when we get sick. The children learn about botany when we garden. We grow some of our own vegetables and herbs, and they can see firsthand the process from seed to vegetable that we can harvest and eat.

We have always gone on regular outings to the beach, forest, and wetlands for different types of nature play. We often go to the local wildlife park and zoo, which allows the kids to learn more about zoology as well.  

Children also love to figure out how things work. My kids love to see if they can make an idea they have come to life. I remember once when my younger son, who is very interested in construction machinery and he loves to build machines with his Legos that use levers, fulcrums, and pulleys, recently built a large tower crane that required him to figure out counter-balanced weights to keep the crane stable while lifting a heavy load. He quickly realized that too much counterweight resulted in the crane toppling backwards, and not enough counterweight would cause the crane to topple forward when it picked up a load. As the model was quite tall and needing to rotate, he also had to figure out how to effectively brace it so it wouldn’t collapse. Because his father is a builder, he was able to have the assistance of an expert as he figured out what he needed to do, step by step. This led to a conversation about gravity, physics, and mechanical engineering.

Additional opportunities for children to learn about science and technology may include watching wildlife and other science-related documentaries (e.g. David Attenborough, Blue Planet, National Geographic), being involved in recycling and composting, discussing environmental issues, discussing weather phenomena and their causes, conducting science experiments, visiting science fairs and workshops, playing and exploring with magnets, discussing the various machines in our day to day life (cars, dishwasher, washing machine, etc.) and how they work, and doing carpentry and sewing projects.

How Unschooled Children Learn Mathematics

 

Like literacy, children are able to learn basic math just by living.

Mathematics is everywhere we turn. Not just numbers, but shapes and colors too. Patterns. Measurements. Music.

Children learn to count, and even divide, organically. If there are two preschoolers playing together and two toys between them, they understand that it makes sense to each have one toy. When my kids help me with snacks, they automatically divide apple slices evenly between everybody.  We also talk about how many strawberries, for instance, we would need if each person in our family had 4. This has led to a better understanding not only of multiplication, but of division and fractions as well. 

We figure out how many pieces of pineapple we each get if we cut it into equal parts, and they understand that the smaller the pieces are, the more there are of them. We do a lot of baking and often I double or even triple the recipe if we bring baking to groups or play dates, and they are able to figure out how much of everything we need if we are multiplying by two or three.  

My children receive pocket money every week, and they each have a jar for spending, one for savings, and one for charity, which so far has been used at the end of each year to purchase a gift to put under the Salvation Army Christmas, for a less-privileged child. The kids get to decide how much goes into each jar, and this allows him to learn about percentages, as well as learning how to manage money. When they want to buy something, they can count their money and see if they have enough for it, or figure out how much more they need, if not.

When my younger son was almost six, I wrote in his homeschooling application that he currently had a very good understanding of numbers and patterns. He could count into the hundreds, and he knew that 1,000 is the same as ten hundred, so if he had the patience to count all the way to there, he could. He knew how to count by 2s (odd and even numbers), 5s, 10s, 20s, 100s and 1000s. 

Not long afterwards, he was able to tell time on both digital and analogue clocks. My children have a wall calendar that allows them to change the day, month, year, day of the week, and season, which helps them with numbers and patterns. My four-year-old knows her shapes and enjoys using small shapes to build a large shape, which she does with Legos and tangrams and sometimes when she draws.  

When my oldest son was five or six, he had a multiplication chart that I figured was a bit advanced for him but I put it up anyway along with the wall calendar and other educational charts and maps. One day he told me he pointed to it and said he wanted to “do that” so we sat down with his Lego pieces and made groupings so he could see that five groups of five Legos, for example, equals 25 Legos. We went through the chart, starting with 1×1 so he could see that one group of one Lego equals one Lego, then went on to one group of two Legos, and we didn’t stop until he wanted to, which was at 7×11. By that time, he understood how multiplication related to groups of items, rather than single items, so he could understand why four TIIMES four equals sixteen, when four PLUS four only equals eight.  He could also see that three groups of four Legos is the same as four groups of three Legos, so the order does not matter.

Another time, he wanted to know exactly how many stickers were in his sticker book that boasted, “More than 1,000 stickers inside!” So, we either counted the stickers on each page (sometimes as few as 12 stickers), or, on pages that had over 100, because they were lined up nicely in rows, my son counted how many were across and multiplied that number by how many rows there were. We wrote down the number of stickers on each page, and then he added them all up, coming up with 1,056. My younger son, who was about six at the time, was curious too, and he watched with interest as we did the equations and explained each step to him, and why we were doing what we were doing. Some of it was a little advanced for him, but he understood why we multiplied the columns by the rows, because he would often count the bumps on a large Lego rectangle and then count only the top row by the side column, and then tell me that six times eight is 48. The addition of stacked numbers was a new concept that we introduced to him, but he was able to become familiar with it in context to what we were trying to accomplish, even if he wasn’t quite ready to start doing it himself. This is one thing I love about having my children of all ages learning at home – all of the kids have the opportunity to be exposed to the things that their siblings are interested in and are learning about. 

We also play a lot of games. Sorry, Monopoly, Chess, Yahtzee, Rumikub, Canasta, and Farkle Party are some of our favorites. These games allow my kids to further their understanding of numbers, probability, counting, patterns, color-matching, money management, strategy and tactics, risk versus reward, etc. Games are a fantastic teaching resource, and a great way to have lots of fun while learning. I am always on the lookout for fun and educational games to add to our collection.  

Other opportunities for children to become competent in mathematics include playing with Cuisenaire Rods, dice, dominoes, and tangrams; doing puzzles, mazes, and number games such as Sudoku; using scales, calculators, and tape measures; playing an instrument and learning how to read music; doing carpentry projects; using a pattern to sew, knit, or crochet; reading math books (such as Apple Fractions, 100 Hungry Ants, a book about division and fractions; Sir Cumference books; and, as they get older, the Math Murder Mystery books); using math workbooks; building things with Legos, through using the manuals, their imagination, and/or replicating structures that they can see but do not have the instructions for; and using a subscription for Mathletics or similar program.

How Unschooled Children Learn Literacy

Children instinctively want to fit in with society. They want to learn how to read. They can’t avoid seeing words, and they want to know what they mean. There is an intrinsic motivation to learn how to read, so all we need to do, as the adults in their lives, is provide the opportunities, answer their questions, guide them, and support their learning. I have been reading to my children since before they were even born. Books have always been a big part of their lives, and they have seen that books are a big part of their parents’ lives as well, as both my husband and I love to read.
 
I’ve always sung the alphabet song to my children too. When they were toddlers, we had alphabet puzzles that they loved to put together, and I would sing the alphabet song and point to each letter as I sang it. Just by doing these basic, instinctive things, my kids learned the alphabet, and the sounds each letter makes. Inevitably they would reach the point organically where they wanted to know what a word was in one of their books, or they’d want to know how to spell a word if they were wanting to write a sign to accompany their play or something. I’d always sound the word out while pointing to each letter if they asked me what a word was, and if they asked me how to spell, I’d ask them to think about what letter it started with based on the sound it made, and I would guide them to sound the word out. Obviously, vowels and Ys tend to be more difficult than most consonants, but as they got older and started reading more and became familiar with how words looked, eventually that part came along too. 

I also sang songs or played games with them that included rhyming and alliteration. We’d sing the “Name Game” song and make a game of coming up with sentences that include the different types of sound repetition. These were just built in to our everyday life, such as when they were helping me make lunch or in the car – no need for a formal lesson at the table. Just living and having fun, and allowing learning to happen.

I’m sure most parents instinctively do these things. I think the issue is that many parents do not think this is enough. My experience is that it IS enough, and just continuing with this approach of following their lead and supporting (not directing) their learning is enough as they advance as well. As they became more advanced, my kids and I would discuss things like punctuation and when to use capital letters, which, once again, happens organically, just like learning how to run organically follows learning to walk. Once they started reading, they became familiar with sentence structure and what looks and sounds right. If it came up that I needed to explain contractions, or when to use commas versus periods, or the different ways to spell there, their and they’re, for example, we would discuss that. Honestly, though, my twelve and ten-year-olds are amazing writers who are wonderful spellers, use proper punctuation, and are very entertaining, which I think is mostly due to their love of reading, and finding very well-written books like the Harry Potter series. 

I have never pushed my children to read before they were ready, and I never made them do spelling quizzes or anything like that, which I feel are very good ways to stress them out and turn OFF that innate desire to learn, and all of my children are above average for their grade/age with reading and writing. I have always just taken advantage of opportunities to learn, and to strengthen that learning. Those opportunities include writing letters to family members in other cities and countries (both written by hand and typed on the computer); playing games (especially word games such as Scrabble or Last Letter); doing word search and crossword puzzles; using our Reading Eggs subscription; using Language Arts workbooks; playing Wacky Mad Libs to familiarize the kids with parts of speech and grammar skills; making Christmas lists and shopping lists; reading nutrition labels on food products; using the internet to find information; writing in their journals; writing captions and signs on their drawings; coming up with different types of poems together, such as Limericks or Haikus; making up, writing and acting out stories; and picking out books from the library and book stores, and reading them with us, to us, and on their own. 

How Unschooled Children Learn

People often ask me how unschooled kids learn, if they are not actively being taught. This is a foreign concept to many people who have gone through the traditional education system. If you are a parent who has gone through traditional schooling, but you are interested in the concept of unschooling, learning more about deschooling (not to be confused with unschooling) is really important. Deschooling is basically unlearning the myths you have learned about how learning happens. 

The best way I can explain in a nutshell what unschooling looks like in my family is that my children’s learning is based on their interests, and my husband and I provide the resources they need to further their knowledge and understanding. We also introduce subsequent and similar topics as well to broaden and further their understanding. They are free to take or leave these suggestions, nothing is pushed onto them, they are simply an invitation to learn. Unschooling recognizes and values the importance of interest-based learning, learning about things in context to our lives, and learning when ready. When people of all ages learn through living, in ways that are interesting and relevant to their lives, learning happens organically and that information is retained in a way that memorization and regurgitation of information is not. 

The application I had to send to the NZ Ministry of Education required an explanation of what my son’s learning areas would be and how I expected that he would learn in these areas. For each learning area, I included examples of learning that happen organically as he wants to do these things: nothing is pushed and there are no timeframes he has to adhere to. I answer his questions and provide resources for him to further his understanding, but it is always something that he initiates, not something I make him do. 

Please click on each learning area for some examples on how each of these can be learned organically just through living life. 

LITERACY  

MATHEMATICS  

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY  

HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY  

HEALTH AND WELLBEING 

THE ARTS

Why We Decided to Unschool

When people find out that we unschool, they are often curious as to what that means, why we chose that method of education, and what an unschooling life looks like. 

I have been familiar with homeschooling since adolescence, because my sister and I were both homeschooled at various times; she homeschooled through high school and I homeschooled through part of middle school. Both of us hated school so much at different periods that we were pretty desperate to get away from it. Thankfully, our parents understood this, trusted our feelings about it, and accommodated us. We were both very good at the grades part, but hated the bullying, the peer pressure, the feeling of oppression (I think we both innately had the understanding even as teenagers that we were in a toxic indoctrination system), and more. I ended up going back to public school for high school, and I loved it, simply because of the social aspect, which was not part of my homeschooling experience since there were not many homeschoolers in my area. So already the seed was planted that there were options, and that things could evolve as we went along. No choice was forever. Or, it could be. We were free to pick and choose whatever worked for us at the time.  

When my first child was a baby, my husband and I discussed our options. I knew I didn’t want my kids going to public school. I realized that I disagreed with the philosophy of the education system as we know it today, and felt that there was a better way. Children are born with an innate desire to learn, and the fastest way to turn off that desire is to associate some kind of stress, or negative, with it. For example, bad grades, stressful tests, being taught something before they’re ready to learn it, which happens far too often in traditional education systems, etc. I wanted my kids to always love learning and to be able to take responsibility for their own learning. I wanted them to have positive interactions with people, no peer pressure or bullying, at least until they had a solid foundation of a strong sense of self-worth and could be more resilient if that were to occur at some point in the future.

My sister was already homeschooling her six-year-old daughter, and she had discovered and decided on unschooling, rather than using a curriculum. The more she explained to me what that was – a child-led, interest-based, learning-through-living lifestyle, where parents follow their child’s lead and provide the resources needed to further their child’s understanding of whatever they were interested in at the time – the more it made me realize how similar it was to the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s play-based Te Whariki Early Childhood Curriculum. We had become familiar with Te Whariki because every Playcentre and Early Childhood Education center in NZ follows it. (Playcentre is this amazing parent co-operative organization with centers throughout NZ, where kids come to play and the parents get to stay. All the fun of preschool without the separation trauma. The parents work cooperatively to manage the center, along with an ECE teacher who is employed by Playcentre to implement the Te Whariki curriculum.)  

In the Te Whariki curriculum document, it states that the term “curriculum” is used to “describe the sum total of the experiences, activities, and events, whether direct or indirect, which occur within an environment designed to foster children’s learning and development.” In a stimulating environment conducive to learning, children will learn. Pretty simple.

Once I had the idea of child-led, interest-based learning on my radar, I started to realize that a lot of what is “learned” in school is merely regurgitation of information, memorizing facts just long enough to take the test and then promptly forgetting them. I realized how frequently that would happen to me when I was in school. I started to realize that *true* knowledge comes from exploring things that we are interested in, when we are READY to learn it, and are able to learn it in context so that it is relevant to our lives. 

I knew that I wanted my children to have a rich, stimulating, emotionally healthy, fun and interesting learning environment with lots of variety. I wanted them to really enjoy learning, and to be able to learn about things as they become interested in them, so they are able to learn about things in context and when they are ready to learn them. I wanted my children to be able to learn about life and the “real world” as they are IN it, exploring new things and places constantly. Thus, the decision to unschool was made. 

I explain in more detail what our unschooled life looks like in this post.