Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"But what do you do?"

A lot of discussions about unschooling focus on the philosophy; why we believe children learn better this way, why we say yes more often, why we choose trust and respect over fear and control. But new unschoolers, or those thinking about unschooling, don't want to know WHY, they generally already have at least a rudementary understanding of why. What they really want to know is HOW. Unschooling message boards and email loops are full of parents asking the question, "What do I do?" All too often they are given vague replies such as, "Just live your life." This leaves some people with the misunderstanding that unschooling is passive and parents aren't supposed to do anything to help their children learn. On the contrary unschooling has led me to be more actively involved in my children's lives, not less.

Before I attempt to answer this question I want to say up front that I don't think unschoolers are the only families that choose to do the things I'm about to describe. I have seen lots of people who's children are schooled, either at home or somewhere else, who have these types of interactions with their child. The difference between unschoolers and others is that we believe this is enough; the kids are learning everything they need to from simply living life in a purposeful, present, respectful environment. Furthermore, I don't think all unschoolers are doing exactly these things and I'm sure there are some valuable things other unschoolers are doing that we don't. These are simply the things that works for us.

Pay attention to children's interests and help them facilitate their growth.

Facilitation can take on many forms. If I notice an area of interest I try to send them links to websites, record TV shows, check out books from the library, rent movies, tell them about classes/workshops and suggest outings. How and what they utilize from these is entirely up to them but most of the time they like the things I share with them because I know them well enough to know the things they like.

In addition to sharing information I also provide support in the form of taking them to classes, buying the supplies they need, watching them practice, attending recitals and trying to authentically share in their enthusiasm (this is generally in the form of asking questions and letting them share their excitement even when I may not have previously been interested in the topic at hand).

Learn to walk the fine line between pushing and encouraging.

There is no guilt or sense of responsibility to follow through with my suggestions and if they lose interest after a lot of time and/or money has been invested that's okay. Kya loves dance today and I do all I can to encourage her and see the present value in what she's learning, not only about dance but how to carry herself and the intrinsic value of following your passions. However, no matter how much talent or passion I see I won't push her take more classes than she's ready for and if sometime in the future she decides dance isn't for her, that's okay too. It's important to all of us that the kids remain in the driver seat when it comes to their interests and that support doesn't become expectation.

Meet your child on his/her learning field.

I try to pay attention to the things that spark inquisition in my kids. Jace asks lots of questions when he watches TV or reads online. Kya is more inquisitive when she reads books or we go on outings. This doesn't mean that Jace never learns from books or Kya never from TV just that I notice what they are each drawn to most often. As a result of knowing this I'm better able to meet their needs and I don't waste a lot of time wishing Jace would read more or that Kya was more technologically savvy. I see value in both of their learning styles and am happy to help them work within their nature instead of against it.

Take children's questions seriously, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

I can't tell you how many times one of my kids has asked a question in the middle of a TV show or while I was trying to read. I also couldn't begin to count how many in depth questions have cropped up after 9 PM. It would be so easy at times like these to give short answers and basically blow off the child asking the question. But I don't. When the show is over, the chapter ends or tomorrow when I'm less tired the question won't be relevant any more and an opportunity for learning will have been lost. So when one of my kids asks, "What's a spleen," instead of saying, "An organ," and leaving it at that I might also ask if they'd like to google it to see where the spleen is and what it does. (This really happened and Kya and I ended up with a full size map of the body at 11 PM.) I am willing to take their questions as far as they want to go but am also always careful to follow my child's lead. When they stop responding to my suggestions its time to stop making them.

Some questions may not be inconvenient so much as uncomfortable. Jace heard the word erection on TV the other day and wanted to know what it meant. A few days before that he had a question about why I was buying feminine hygiene products again. These types of questions used to make me stammer but now they are just par for the course. I love that he can ask me anything and have seen it make him more confident in questioning other adults. Recently on a visit to the doctor he was able to speak directly to the doctor, ask questions and contemplate his responsibilities in getting well. At 11 years old he has taken more charge of his health than many adults and I'm confident that it's because we've created a safe environment for asking questions.

Seek opportunities for meaningful discussions.

If I'm reading, watching TV or hear about something that I think the kids should know about I share it with them. Just a simple, "Did you know..." or something along those lines. I don't really see these as 'teachable moments' so much as a desire to share information, much like I would with a friend. Discussing philosophy and current events is a natural part of my life and I share it with my kids with no hidden agenda. If they seem interested we'll discuss further, if not we don't. When I shared the news about the BP oil leak with them they wanted to know more and both impressed me with their questions, comments, and desire to help. When I shared news about the primary elections they couldn't have cared less- but you never know what will strike their interest if you don't talk with them about what's happening in the world.

Invite your child on outings as often as possible.

A trip to the ballet solidified Kya's budding desire to take dance more seriously and she was able to perform a small part with a real ballet company just a few months later. Outings are an important part of our unschooling experience and I invite the kids on as many excursions as we can manage. But, I use the word invite because they may not want to go.

Kya loves to get out of the house and is up for just about anything but I realized a while back that Jace prefers to be at home. When I stopped worrying about it and let him be himself it made life so much easier. I still try to find places I think he'll enjoy and sometimes he chooses to go, while other times he chooses to stay home. I have found that he's not interested in parks or libraries so I've stopped pushing him to go to these (although I do still invite him because you never know). But, I know that if I really want to get him out of the house I need to look for things on his learning field, not mine- when I do this he's happy to join us. Recently he's been to City Museum (an interactive children's museum where kids can climb on EVERYTHING), the swimming pool and a Mixed Martial Arts fight. The MMA fight wouldn't have been my first choice but he LOVED it and had a great evening with his dad. I want him to experience the world but I recognize that it's more valuable if it's on his terms.

I touched on this a bit when I wrote about noticing their interests. Strewing is the act of putting things out you think they may like. Checking out a library book and leaving it on their bed, forwarding a link to a great website, telling them about a new movie. I included it separately because in addition to doing this with things I know they are already interested in I also strew things I think they MIGHT be interested in if they were exposed. It's a big world out there and I certainly don't expect my kids to automatically know all it has to offer. I see it as my responsibility to expose them to great works of literature, history, other cultures, etc. Unschooling doesn't mean sitting on your hands and waiting for them to discover Mark Twain on their own. However it does mean that I have no vested interest in their response to things I strew. If a book goes unread, a link is ignored or movie unwatched I'm okay with that. It was just a suggestion and they're free to take it or leave it.

Create opportunities for fun and learning will often be a pleasant side effect.

We have a lot of fun. We laugh, we play, we learn. Fun and building relationships is often our goal and learning usually flows from that. I've found that trying to construct fun around learning is much more difficult and less authentic than just focusing on the fun and letting the learning happen naturally. Board games, for example, are something we all love, Kya especially. They do learn a lot from them but a while back I stopped trying to make the games about learning and focused on the fun. The funny thing is that when I did this the fun AND the learning increased.

Many times looking for fun in daily activities also leads to unexpected learning. Recently when I was cleaning a vase I used baking soda and vinegar and I knew the kids would want to see the reaction. Kya was busy but I showed Jace and he proceeded to take the materials outside to try some experiments on his own. Later he wanted to look up what causes the bubbles which was great but it also would have been okay if it had gone no further and he'd just had a fun afternoon watching bubbles explode. The learning was a natural byproduct of the fun, not the other way around

So, that's it. Pretty simple but also pretty difficult at times. Unschooling isn't the easy way out by any means and it can be frustrating to be available to your kids so much of the time. But knowing I've helped them create an environment where they are comfortable asking questions, experimenting, having fun and learning is worth it.

Note: This was originally the '100 Little Things' post but I soon realized that a list stating that we discussed vocabulary while watching TV eight times or forwarded 4 links to their email accounts was pretty boring and not necessarily relevant to a larger audience. Instead I tried to combine and condense the information I gathered to make it more useful for the average unschooler.


Emily said...

This is the best description of unschooling I've ever read. I've long contemplated it, but never really "got" how it worked in day-to-day life. I'm still not sure that it's right for our family, but I do live the idea of unschooling.

anna kiss said...

This is a very accessible, articulate post. Thanks. Well done.

Hope said...

Thanks to you both for reading! I enjoyed sharing this more than anything else I've written for this blog.

Karen Orozco said...

Brilliant! Great job Hope, you explained it so well and so thoughtfully. I think you should post this all over the unschooling boards! LOL

Vanessa said...

Another great post! Thanks. You explain it soooo well. Yet again I feel affirmation that I'm on the right track with our school...or should I say "un" school! My son is loving it too. No more pressure, just freedom to learn. The possibilities are endless!!!!

Hope said...

Thank you Karen and Vanessa!