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Another Look At Unschooling

In a recent post I mentioned how I first heard about unschooling while I was still pregnant. (Yes, I read books about homeschooling before B was even born. If you want to laugh at me about that, go ahead and get in line with my husband.) The idea made sense to me and excited me, and after discussing it at length with J, we agreed to raise B that way.

The beginning

At the time, based on everything I had read, an unschooling parent was one who let their child/ren do whatever they wanted, without any guidance. Children will learn what they need to know, when they need to know it by some magical osmosis. However, after I joined a local unschooling group I started to have doubts. The leader of the group told me she was planning to start sneaking math flashcards into her daughter’s day. Then I discovered that another mother had started her nine-year-old son on a reading program because he still hadn’t learned how to read.

Somewhere in there, I also read a book about unschooled teens, and at least half of those profiled in the book seemed, by their early twenties, to not have any direction in life at all, or any solid skill set from which to discover fulfilling lifelong work.

I decided unschooling was a farce.

The middle

I knew I did not want to purchase pre-fab curriculum. As a veteran schoolteacher, just the sight of curricula makes me want to lose my lunch. What to do? Well, I had time, since B was still less than five years old at the time.

I found a book in the library I will still recommend to any would-be homeschooler, Raymond Moore’s classic The Successful Family Homeschool Handbook. The principles laid out in that book sat well with me. It’s a relaxed approach to homeschooling that, while emphasizing the “3 R’s”, discourages direct teaching of them until a child is between the ages of eight and twelve, and encourages child-centered education beyond the basics.

I’m going to skip a lot of details of our situation here. Suffice to say that if I wanted to, I could have someone slap the label “ADHD” on our son. That means that he has a creative mind that is always going. While he is very bright and easily learns things that interest him, if it doesn’t interest him, forget it.

This has led to him not liking our “structured education” times during the day, even though the periods all add up to fewer than two hours per day. It has led to the two of us butting heads. It has led to stress for both of us.

The end

More than once, during A Certain Time Of The Month, I have told J in no uncertain terms that “If you want your son to get an education, then you are going to homeschool him! I’m done! You hear me?” Most other days it’s actually been pretty okay for me, but I could tell by B’s subtle attempts to resist and procrastinate “SE time” that he was doing a lot less okay.

Finally, I began to wonder: what if I ditched the reading program I was using and just read with him books on topics that interested him? And/or he dictated stories to me, which we would then read together?

What if instead of trying to force him to memorize math facts and do upper level math problems, we played math games together and I involved him in solving everyday life math problems? What if I let him play strategy and skill computer games for a set time every day?

What if I went back to unschooling?

But, unschooling is when the child does whatever he wants, right? I know mine, and he would end up playing with Legos and/or non-academic computer games all day.

The beginning…again

Nevertheless, the word “unschooling” impressed itself on my spirit, and the impression became stronger with each passing day. Finally, I decided that I would do it – if I could find someone online saying that they successfully unschooled a child with ADHD.

Enter Sue Elvis. I actually found her when I searched “ADHD and unschooling” at YouTube, and one of her videos came up. I don’t know why, since it has nothing to do with ADHD – likely because there are very few videos on the topic on YouTube.

I watched her video because the title intrigued me. Then, I decided to visit her blog. Maybe she had a child with ADHD?

No dice, but she did (does) have a podcast about unschooling. Even though I was sure I wouldn’t be taking that leap for several more years, I decided to start listening.

I’m glad I did. In one of her earliest podcasts, she talks about how different people define unschooling. Long story short, she said that she continually “strews” resources and ideas in front of her girls (her two boys are out of the nest). She’ll say something like, “I found this video. It’s so interesting! Do you want to watch it with me?”

She also says – get this; and find any other unschooler saying the same thing – younger children need more guidance in what they do throughout the day!

My revelation

My first thought was, “Duh! We can do this. And still see B become a fluent reader.” My second thought was, well, what is unschooling, anyway? An unschooled child is one who is not schooled.

What does it mean to be schooled? Let me count the ways:

  1. Children have to exist in a relatively small room with twenty (or more) other children their age for seven hours a day.
  2. They do not have the freedom to eat, drink, or even pee when they want.
  3. Those who need to poop must often engage in a power struggle with a teacher to get a hall pass to go take care of business.
  4. They have to walk in straight lines, quietly, from place to place.
  5. They have to do whatever the teacher tells them to, when the teacher tells them to do it.
  6. Everyone must be exposed to the same information at the same time, regardless of whether they are interested in it or are academically ready for it.
  7. This exposure usually involves the use of an I’d-rather-peel-my-fingernails-off boring texbook.
  8. Even the learning centers consist of activities that usually revolve around the school curriculum.
  9. Children who “talk too much” or “move too much” get into trouble.
  10. Right-brained children often end up on drugs (ADHD) or in special education classes (ADHD, dyslexia, autism) because they cannot conform to the left-brained methods of school, and/or the constrained societal rules they are required to live by.

In other words, unschooling does NOT mean leaving a child to fend for him or herself. It means not treating your child like a robot or curriculum slave. It means loving your child enough to guide them to learn what they need to live successful adult lives (i. e., “the basics”), but doing so by offering them interesting and relevant – even fun – ways to learn. And yes, the child will still have most of the day to pursue their own interests.

In fact, I finally figured out that during these past couple of years when I have been formally teaching B “the basics”, most hours of each day have looked a whole lot like unschooling.

The decision

We are returning to full-blown unschooling. B will improve his reading skills not using a boring phonics-based book, but by doing fun activities that get his eyes on the printed page. B will learn math via games and videos.

I will have wasted about $60 in workbooks. Oh, well. Some non-unschooling homeschooler browsing through our local Goodwill will be excited to find them.

You can bet your bottom dollar that I will keep you apprised of our journey. I’ll tell you this right now: a few days into this, and we are all already happier.

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  • Sue Elvis December 19, 2016, 2:38 pm

    Hi Emily,

    I’m so glad you are finding my podcasts and videos helpful and you have decided to unschool! Thank you for the link to my blog.

    Yes, the world is a big place and sometimes kids do need a bit of guidance in order to find things they’re interested in. I love strewing things in front of my children. Sometimes they like what I find. Sometimes they’re not interested. That’s quite okay.

    You said that it’s okay to offer a child interesting and even fun ways to learn the basics, leaving them most of the day to pursue their own interests. Maybe kids can learn the basics while following their interests. They don’t really need to do one before being allowed to do the other. I guess the key to successful unschooling is to open up the world for our kids, tempt them with lots of experiences, let them choose what interests them, and then trust they will learn what they need to know when they need to know it.

    My children are supposed to learn certain topics to fulfil homeschool registration requirements so I do try and find resources that present such topics in an interesting way. Perhaps there’s an angle into the topic that will grab my children’s attention. But ultimately, I’m not in control. My kids can accept or reject what I offer. That can be hard sometimes especially when I’ve put a lot of work into finding things of interest, but I’ve learnt to let go. It always works out. Following interests is definitely the best way to learn.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your unschooling adventure!

    • Emily December 20, 2016, 5:11 pm

      Thanks, Sue, for a wonderful addendum to the post! 🙂

      • Sue Elvis December 20, 2016, 9:51 pm


        My comment didn’t disappear after all! An addendum? Oh yes, I can’t help myself. Your post got me thinking and I found myself continuing the conversation. I love discussing unschooling. Thanks for being patient with my long comment!

        • Emily December 21, 2016, 12:15 pm

          Sorry, Sue, I had it set to where I had to manually approve all comments…and for some reason WP didn’t send me an e-mail on that one. So it took me a day or two to remember to look for it and approve it. I changed my settings so that formerly approved commenters will now see their comments publish immediately.

          I enjoy long comments, as long as they are constructive. 🙂