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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 application I had to send to the NZ Ministry of Education required an explanation of what my then-five-year-old son Michael’s learning topics would be and how I expected that he would learn in these areas, which I have included here. All of these are examples of learning that happen organically as Michael 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.

This was written for a five-year-old, but the concept is the same no matter what the age (even adulthood). When people 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. I hope that this provides some clarity on how children learn just through living.

LITERACY  

Books have always been, and hopefully always will be, a big part of Michael’s life. We have been reading to him on a daily basis since before he was born, and he is excited about learning to read so he can read books by himself. He is well on his way now, able to read Level 1 and some Level 2 Early Reader books. Often, he’ll point to a word and tell me what it says, and he can successfully sound out many words, often only mispronouncing the vowel sound, which is normal and will happen less the more he reads. He is also able to spell words by sounding them out, again usually only having trouble figuring out which vowel is the correct one. He is familiar with some punctuation symbols and we talk about when to use capital letters, such as at the beginning of a sentence and proper nouns. 

Michael loves to write signs to accompany his imaginary play. If he’s making us a BBQ meal on his toy Weber, he will write (usually with some spelling assistance) and post a sign that says, “Michael’s Restaurant” for example. Michael also enjoys rhyming and alliteration. We sing the “Name Game” song and make a game of coming up with sentences that include the different types of sound repetition.  

Other opportunities for Michael to become competent in literacy may include, but are not limited to, 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 his Reading Eggs subscription; using English workbooks; playing Wacky Mad Libs to familiarize him with parts of speech and grammar skills; making wish lists and shopping lists; reading nutrition labels on food products; using the internet to find information; writing in his own journal; writing captions and signs on his drawings; making up, writing and acting out stories; picking out books from the library and book stores and reading them with us, to us, and on his own.  

MATHEMATICS  

Michael has a very good understanding of numbers and patterns. He can count into the hundreds, and he knows 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 knows how to skip count by 2s (odd and even numbers), 5s, 10s, 20s, 100s and 1000s. He is starting to understand how to tell time on both digital and analogue clocks, and he has a wall calendar that allows him to change the day, month, year, day of the week, and season. He knows his shapes and enjoys using small shapes to build a large shape, as he does with Legos and tangrams and sometimes when he draws.  

He knows basic addition and subtraction, and he has a multiplication chart that he enjoys getting out, along with his Legos, and together we sit down and make groupings so he can see that 5 groups of 5 Legos, for example, equals 25 Legos. 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. He likes to figure out how many pieces of pineapple we each get if we cut it into equal parts, and he understands 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 he is able to figure out how much of everything we need if we are multiplying by two or three.   

Michael receives pocket money every week, and he puts part of it in a jar for spending, part for savings, and part 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 tree at Kmart, for a less-privileged child. Michael gets 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 he wants to buy something, he gets to count his money and see if he has enough for it, or figure out how much more he needs, if not.  

We play lots of games. Currently he enjoys Sorry, Monopoly and Chess the most, but he has recently become interested in watching his brother, Gabriel, and me play Yahtzee, Rumikub, and Canasta. These games allow him to further his understanding of numbers, probability, counting, pattern/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 Michael to become competent in mathematics may include, but are not limited to, playing with Cuisenaire Rods, dice, dominoes, and tangrams; doing puzzles, mazes, and number games such as Sudoku; using scales, calculators, and tape measures; reading math books (such as Apple Fractions, 100 Hungry Ants, a book about division and fractions, and Sir Cumference books); using math workbooks; building things with Legos, through using the manuals, his imagination, and/or replicating structures that he can see but does not have the instructions for; and using a Mathletics subscription.  

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY  

Michael loves learning about the world around him, and how things work. We talk about science every day, it’s in everything that we do and everywhere we go.  

We talk about paleontology and geology when we learn about dinosaurs and fossils, and volcanoes and earthquakes. We discuss chemistry when we bake, and Michael can see how the chemical reactions of combining certain ingredients and heat changes the consistency of batter into a delicious muffin, cookie, cake, scone, etc. Michael learns about biology, anatomy and physiology when we talk about the human body (and animals’ bodies, for that matter). Having a mother who is a massage therapist, Michael has grown up receiving massages and is familiar with the muscular system and functions. He is interested in the many organs and systems of the body, and all of their functions, and one of his favorite books is the aptly titled children’s book, “The Human Body”, which shows pictures of each of these in great detail. I have a book that has photos of embryos and fetuses in utero at every stage, and when I was pregnant last year, my boys and I would look at it every week so we could see what Evy 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. Michael 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. Michael learns about botany when we garden. We grow some of our own vegetables and herbs, and he can see firsthand the process from seed to vegetable that we can harvest and eat. We go 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 Michael to learn more about zoology as well.  

Michael loves figuring out how things work. He loves seeing if he can make an idea he has come to life. He is very interested in construction machinery and he loves to build machines with his Legos that use levers, fulcrums, and pulleys. He 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, Michael also had to figure out how to effectively brace it so it wouldn’t collapse. As 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. 

Michael has access to the family computer which he has different educational programs on, the television, dvd player, and stereo, and, when we are there to provide constant supervision, the stove, my sewing machine, and some of his dad’s carpentry tools.   

Additional opportunities for Michael to learn about science and technology may include watching educational 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, playing and exploring with magnets, discussing the various machines in our day to day life (cars, dishwasher, washing machine, etc.) and how they work, attending Science Alive workshops when they come to our home educating groups or other settings in the community, working on carpentry projects with his father and sewing projects with me.  

HEALTH AND WELLBEING  

It is important to us that Michael understands 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, limited screen time, massage therapy, etc.

We talk a lot about our feelings and help Michael work through big emotions. We want him to be able to identify his 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 Michael and his brother, for instance), we talk about how that person is feeling as well, and how our actions can affect other people, so Michael can learn to be empathetic and respectful of others.  

Other opportunities for Michael to learn how to take care of his 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.  

HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY  

It is our hope for Michael to have a solid understanding of the world. We want for him 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 his world and even his life now. We want him to understand that things that are happening now will affect people and the earth even after we are gone. We want him 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 him to understand the importance of learning from the past, especially the negative things, so we can hopefully prevent similar things from happening again.  

Michael is a dual citizen of New Zealand and the USA, and he has already spent time in two different states in the US. He has been on airplanes between the two countries multiple times, so he already has an understanding of different countries and understands to some degree how far apart the two countries are.   

We want him to be able to explore the different aspects of his 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 him 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 Michael’s understanding of more complex aspects (economy, political system, interactions and wars with other countries, etc.) increases.  

Other opportunities for Michael to gain an understanding of History and Geography may include looking at world, country, state and city maps; looking at globes; visiting various museums; playing games such as Trivial Pursuit; watching documentaries; watching shows on The Travel Channel, the Discovery channel, The History Channel, and the National Geographic channel; 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 (for example the earthquakes, which will always be a part of his history and is something he can see affecting his city every time we go to the city center – we take photos of the changes so in years to come we can have a visual record of the transformation our city has gone through).  

THE ARTS  

It is important to us that Michael is able to find ways to express himself and be creative. He thoroughly enjoys drawing, painting, and sculpting, as well as lots of different types of arts and crafts. He is very creative and will often use paper, scissors, tape, markers, string and whatever else he might need to make all sorts of things – signs, airplanes, costumes, weapons, fishing poles, binoculars, etc. He loves using modelling clay and he has a year membership to online art classes as well.    

Michael’s father is a musician and is the guitar player and back up vocalist in his band. 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 Michael has access to other instruments as well, and we have recently been discussing the idea of starting music lessons so he can properly learn to play an instrument. He does love to sing and sings or hums throughout much of the day, often making up his own songs. Michael also has his own playlist on the family iPod. We have over 4500 songs from a wide variety of genres. He selects songs he likes as he hears them to add to his playlist.   

Other opportunities for Michael to express himself creatively may include dress up and imaginative play; going to the theatre to see shows; going to concerts; making up songs; singing songs; making his own music videos; putting on plays; playing freeze dance; doing Zumba with me; taking photos with our camera of things that inspire him; making stop-motion videos with his Legos and our digital camera; taking on decorating and sewing projects; knitting and/or crocheting; making jewelry with my beading supplies; playing with his toy marching band set; taking lessons for art, acting, singing, instruments, dance, photography. 

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. 

Ultimately my decision to unschool was a journey on its own. 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, peer pressure, dictatorship from teachers, and more. I ended up going back to public school for high school, and I loved it. 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 passion 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 also think 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 it. I know that was my experience anyway! I believe 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. 

So public school was out, and a lot of my mama friends from the Le Leche League community were planning on sending their kids to schools that focused more on natural learning such as the Waldorf/Steiner school and other similar schools. However, those schools had waiting lists so long that people put their unborn babies on them as soon as they found out they were pregnant. Having missed the boat on that one because I was happily gestating in a different country, and was so busy researching car seats, cloth diapers, breastfeeding, and natural birthing techniques and naively thinking that we’d have time to figure out our child’s schooling once he was on the outside, it never crossed my utterly exhausted mind to add researching elementary schools to my ridiculously long list of things to try to figure out before this tiny, helpless creature was in my arms, expecting me to have learned in nine months five million things I had never known so I could keep him healthy, happy, and thriving.

So imagine my surprise when, after researching a few different schools and deciding to contact one local natural learning school when my son was eight months old, telling the lady on the other end of the phone, “This might be a little premature on my part, but I’m researching schools for my baby and I’d love to learn about yours so I have plenty of time to decide before he starts,” and the lady on the other end sort of chuckled and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, he will have to go on a waiting list as you did not contact us soon enough. There are babies who are -5 months old already booked in.” Huh. So my husband and I attended their informational event one evening and onto the list my son went.

Fast forward a few months, when we were having dinner with some friends who were newly pregnant with their first child, and were asking us all the usual questions that new parents ask. I told them they should get that embryo put on a list quicksmart if they wanted it to go to any type of an alternative school. At that point, my husband told them about our informational event at the school, and suddenly he turned to me and said, “What if he doesn’t get in?” I hesitantly told him something I had never mentioned before, because I had already forced him to think way outside the mainstream parenting box by wanting to have a home birth, breastfeed until the kid self-weaned at who knows what age, co-sleep, the list goes on, and I figured this bombshell could wait until he had gotten used to the more immediate “wacky” parenting ideas. “If that happens, I’d like to homeschool.” I said. His reaction couldn’t have been more shocking to me. “Well I’d much rather do that. Let’s just do that.” Wait, what? That was the one I had least expected him to agree to. “Um, ok. That was actually my first choice too.” I told him. So from that moment on, homeschooling it was.

I didn’t realize how many homeschooling methods there are, and it was pretty overwhelming when I started trying to figure out what I wanted our homeschooling experience to look like. Thankfully, my sister was already on her unschooling journey, and when she told me about how much she loved how it was child-led, interest-based, organic learning, it made me realize how similar what she was describing 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).  

Te Whariki’s definition of “curriculum” deeply resonated with us. 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.

All of these things collided and the decision to unschool was made. The following is an excerpt of the “philosophy” section of my son’s homeschooling application that I sent to the NZ Ministry of Education when he was five, which pretty much sums it all up.

“Our desire is for our children to have a rich, stimulating, emotionally healthy, fun and interesting learning environment with lots of variety. We want 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. We believe that learning this way makes it easier to learn, and retain, information. We want our children to be able to learn about life and the “real world” as they are IN it, exploring new things and places constantly.   

“Our hope is for our children to always love learning as much as they do now and to be able to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to have positive interactions with people, no peer pressure or bullying, at least until they have a solid foundation of a strong sense of self-worth and can be more resilient if they do encounter that in the future. Right now their social interactions are with people of all ages, which is what happens in the “real world” and has a lot of benefits. We are part of a local home education group that currently includes children aged 6 months to 10 years, and it’s lovely to see the older ones take the younger ones on board and teach them things.    

“Our children’s learning is based on their interests, and we as parents 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.”

Thankfully our application was quickly approved, and we were officially unschoolers. I appreciated the opportunity that application process gave me to understand and explain our reasons for unschooling, and what it looks like in day-to-day life, which I will go over in the next blog post.

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 play with Legos, Brainbox, draw, or 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, unless it’s a home day. If It’s a home day, the mornings are usually spent reading together; playing games; doing an art project; playing at the park across the street or in the backyard; or playing Freeze Dance, practicing their karate sequence, or other indoor physical activity if the weather prevents us from going outside.  

After lunch we are usually back home, and we usually have a quiet/create time, when the boys might do Reading Eggs, art lessons, activity/workbooks, do some beading or crocheting, origami, a collage, or a similar quiet activity. They might play Legos for a little while, building cranes, police We also have a Lego Ideas books for inspiration on what kinds of things to build. The kids might 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. If it’s been a full-on day with lots of physical activity, we might watch a documentary or other educational show. Usually we go back outside for a little while before having a clean-up of the boys’ room and living areas before starting dinner, which builds teamwork, encourages responsibility, and again, teaches important life lessons on self-care. 

My husband Matt cooks the majority of dinners, and the boys 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. During dinner, we discuss as a family the highs and lows of our days, and something that we appreciate that another family member did that day. (I originally started that in response to some sibling rivalry issues the boys were having, and it has been great for every member of our family.) The boys will tell Matt about what they did that day and some things they learned, and he will usually offer additional information that we hadn’t discussed, to help further their understanding. After dinner, we all write and/or draw in our individual gratitude journals and talk about the things we are grateful for. Evenings are spent reading books together or individually (both boys have recently started reading Evy her bedtime stories), and then lights out.

Throughout the day, the boys will often tell me that “five plus eighty-five is ninety” or “three times four is twelve” or some other math equation that they have figured out. I will take that as a cue to ask them further equations. When the boys were learning how to spell, they would tell me that “S T O P spells stop” for example, or that they could read most of the words on the front of the milk bottle, which they would then read to me.   

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 boys 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. Michael, who is two years younger than Gabriel, also pays close attention to Gabriel’s organic learning experiences. 

One such time, Gabriel wanted to know exactly how many stickers were in his sticker book that boasted, “More than 1,000 stickers inside!” So Michael watched as Gabriel and I 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, Gabriel 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 Gabriel added them all up, coming up with 1,056. This was a little advanced for Michael, but he watched with interest and we explained each step to him, and why we were doing what we were doing. He understood why we multiplied the columns by the rows, because he’ll 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. 

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