Unschooling Q & A

Answering a few questions about Unschooling sent in by a reader.


Unschooling book recommendations?

John Holt is regarded as the founder of the unschooling movement so he would be excellent to read.
Also John Taylor Gatto.
There is a book I have called ‘The Unschooling Handbook’ by Mary Griffith that I just googled and is on book depository.
Dayna Martin is an American unschooling mama who has unschooled all 4 of her kids and written a book, although just googling her and watching her you-tube clips could be enough. I’ve heard her speak at a conference and her confidence in this lifestyle is really encouraging.
I haven’t yet read but I have heard very good things about ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray, ‘Home Grown’ by Ben Hewitt and ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv.
Also, not technically a unschooling/free learning type of book but definitely one that can help shift those western society mindsets we are all conditioned with and one of my personal favourites – ‘The Continuum Concept’ by Jean Liedloff.

What resources to buy or not to buy? How often do you buy them and do you have a budget?
I am an avid op-shopper from pre-kids, so I have continued that habit and we’ve picked up some cool stuff along the way. Especially books; almost all our books are second-hand. Very early on I chose to buy more open-ended toys, and spent money on quality items at Christmas and Birthdays. As the children have grown, family members have even contributed to a few bigger items like our Spielgaben set or a trampoline for Christmas gifts. However, with resources I never went too far beyond the general, where the use of the toys could be used in several different ways. I knew I couldn’t predict what my children would or wouldn’t love, so I decided I would wait and see for certain things. Plus, they really don’t need much. Nature is probably our favourite ‘resource’ and that is free! Some of the things I’m glad I spent money on; are a good quality wooden block set, wooden chair and table set, lego, lots of books, micador waterpaints and schleich plastic animals. We don’t have a budget necessarily, but I do think ahead to things like birthdays etc as I mentioned above and I am frugal I guess. A telescope is probably going to be our next larger purchase because we all love astronomy.

Do you set up many, if any, numeracy and literacy activities such as letter and sound recognition, spelling, number recognition sorting, patterning etc?
No, I don’t specifically set up any educational types of activities. This is where that cornerstone of unschooling comes in – trust. Trust, and a deep understanding of the curiosity that drives young minds. Numeracy and Literacy are everywhere. They surround us in daily life. The names of shops, and labels on food, and prices on menus, and letterbox numbers, and, and, and… the examples can continue forever. What actually happens is that children notice that we (their parents/carers) can read and that we can write and that we can use numbers as tools in everyday life, and they seek to emulate us.

They ask questions – many, many questions – and us parents are here to wonder with them. Sometimes a simple answer is what they’re asking for, and other times they need deep discussions that meander into many unrelated topics. Sometimes their questions are met with an ‘I wonder…’ and they have time to think of creative reasons for their pondering. And sometimes, if they feel comfortable and connected with the involved adult in their life, they will hypothesise,and notice things, and want to share their discoveries with their parents, and that is how we know they are learning some of the skills our society deems important.

Patterns and sorting are a huge part of nature, and children notice these very naturally in my experience. They see the patterns in nature even when we don’t. One important part of unschooling is that because we are with the child all the time, we don’t need to see the child ‘prove’ their learning the way that schools do. A child who draws a picture of a butterfly with symmetrical patterning on each wing, is demonstrating an understanding of patterns. She doesn’t need to repeat this action over and over again to prove her understanding. She knows it’s there, and through displaying her art, the parent now does too.

With things such as days of the week, weather, months etc, do you have a daily chart or are these concepts just discussed as opposed to being displayed?
Again, we don’t. Not that I think it would be bad to have them displayed, but that in my experience, the understanding for these concepts just happens along the way. Again, through everyday conversations and experiences. An interesting example I have from my own experience, is that Hannah learned to read time on a clock at age 4, but we’ve never really had a regular clock in our house! She observed that we spent time talking about time and therefore she wanted to know more about it.

Plus, I think there is something to be said for waiting until the child is ready to learn a concept, and then working through it in a way that suits the child individually. As a broad example, if your child was a visual learner a chart or picture of the months of the year may be very helpful and appealing, but a child who learns best through one on one conversation is going to get little from the same chart. Simply, we follow the child themselves and allow them to guide the direction of learning in every circumstance.

How much time should I be guiding or facilitating versus just letting the children be?
I am available to the children every day, mostly all day, to be there as a sounding board, talk through thoughts and ideas, read stories, help find items, organise outings, discuss interesting concepts, cuddle with, ask questions of, joke with, clean and garden with, and generally just live. I’m here. And because we have the freedom of quality time, there is no hurry. If a concept or question doesn’t get answered or explored in they way I would have preferred because of a cranky baby who needs a nap or dinner that needs concentration, then I know we have the time to come back to it. Knowledge builds on itself. I know we can talk about bees this week, and next year there will be an opportunity to go meet a beekeeper, and the month after we might see some native bees nesting in a log and 2 years later make candles out of beeswax. It doesn’t all need to fit within a ‘unit of work’ because we’re not a school serving information to many children who may or may not be interested in the information. We’re very connected and able to flow with the time and circumstances life gives us.

My focus currently with children who are small (all under 8 years old) is on lots of free play and time to just be. I never have a ‘plan’ of the day or what I will explain or tell them about that week. But if I see something I think they would like, I tell them about it. Just like I would with my husband or a friend. We have a relationship, my children and I, and that is the basis for everything else. I am not a teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. No one does. And critical thinking, is I believe, an important skill to develop so we start early. The children have time to create their own theories of how many planets are in the solar system and why the grass is green. And that’s the best part.

Concepts I should or should not be introducing?
This ties into above. Follow the child. Lean into trust. There is no set time to learn ANYthing. That’s a socially constructed lie. Our brains are able to evolve and expand with knowledge at any age, not just in the first 5 years. Through unschooling, we don’t focus on ‘learning stuff’; that just happens. We focus on living together; connecting; getting to know each other; trusting each other; being kind, thoughtful and considerate; exploring themes of gratitude, and service and justice; connecting with nature and having adventures; and accepting ourselves and our divine individuality. Learning of an academic nature honestly just happens in a very organic way. If your child is asking questions about a certain topic or concept then they are ready to learn about it. However, we have to be careful not to take things too far and go overboard. As I mentioned above, there doesn’t need to be a unit study created on bees by you at 2am just because your 4 year old asked something about beehives at dinner. Try as much as you can to move out of the headspace of ‘are they missing something’ and instead see everything they are doing. Sharpening your skill of observation is incredibly helpful. A type of documentation may help as well. This doesn’t need to be rigid, I have an instagram account. Others use a diary. Some don’t do anything at all. And it’s all good. This post that I’ve written about the parents role in unschooling may help as well. You are important, but your child is the person learning and their experience should be personal. You’re just there to support and assist when needed and build the connection. Remember that it’s a relationship.