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.