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Is this unschooling?

Is it still unschooling if ...


If my child chooses workbooks? Chooses an online course of study? Does nothing but play video games?


That's a natural question. One way to understand a new idea is to sort examples of what does and doesn't belong.


With unschooling that can lead to confusion. For unschooling why a child chooses something is more important than what she chooses. 


To one child a workbook can be a puzzle book. To another it can feel like learning because it feels like school. Or they sense Mom is happier when they choose something school-like.


To one child a video game may be a massively challenging puzzle. To another it may be downtime from the pressures of school. Or an opportunity to fill up on what had been limited.


Classes aren't unschooling. Neither are cartoons. Declaring a workbook or video game unschooling won't make it unschooling -- nor make the Mom an unschooling parent. What is unschooling is when kids make choices unencumbered by baggage. An unschooling choice isn't influenced by school indoctrination or a parent's fears. 


Better questions than, "Is it unschooling if ...?" are "Is my child worried about learning enough or the right things? Do I feel more comforted when learning resembles what might be done in school?"



I was thinking about taking a moderate amount of books/manipulatives/workbooks and putting them on a small shelf unit in the hallway, and rotating the selection so the kids can have access to different materials each week or so.


I think rotating anything is good. But I think your idea is coming from the thought that some objects are more useful learning tools so those should be treated in a special way so that children use them regularly.


The most useful "learning tool" is whatever interests a child. It might be a workbook, but it's much more likely to be a cartoon or video game or new set of markers or an opportunity to make muffins or a playground or a bucket of rocks or ...


My concern is this - since they can't read, they don't necessarily know what each book is, or what they would want to do. Should I sit down and tell them about each item, and just let them know it's there for us to explore if they would like to?


Would you buy toys and put them on a shelf for the kids to discover on their own?


Think in terms of having two sets (that overlap) of stuff in the house: stuff you enjoy doing and stuff they enjoy doing. Would you have the same concerns over their toys or over the things you enjoy doing with them? The reason you're having problems with this set of stuff is that it fits neither the you-enjoy or they-enjoy set. It's "stuff that's good for them" and you're trying to figure out how to manipulate your kids into believing it's no different than stuff they enjoy.


You're dividing the world into learning and playing, stuff that's good for them and stuff they play with. Everything is potentially learningful. Anything they're interested in has the most learning potential.


The point of unschooling isn't to trick them into playing with things that are filled with learning. It's to see how they are learning by living and doing what they enjoy. And then help them do more of that. And also steer opportunities to expand their interests through their lives.


My son, for example, LOVES workbooks (sporadically, at least - he goes in phases) - should I put two or three out, tell him what they're about, and just let him do them, rather than my sitting down with him and asking if he wants to do some workbook pages?


If your son loved coloring books, would you be asking for advice on what to do with them?


Ask him where he'd like to keep them. :-) And then give them no more thought than you would to whether or not he's completing his coloring books.



I want to have a house full of resources and activities available for him to choose from when he wants to. Things he can choose and do independently, like games, educational toys, trade books about stuff he is interested in, etc. I want to create, in my home, an environment that is fun, creative full of things to learn from.


What it sounds like you want to create is a learning environment that a independent self-directed child would love to have.


What if he isn't that child? If your house is full of things and he's wandering about not engaging much -- as you said "Left on his own my son does very little, except wandering around wondering what to do," -- it's likely that he's someone who enjoys working on projects with companions. If that's what he needs, you could spend $1000s creating a rich environment and not give him what his behavior you've describe suggests that he's asking for.


If you think he does need more stuff then probably the best person to ask is the expert: him! How about handing him a bunch of educational and toy catalogs, fliers from the Sunday paper and just see what types of things he circles to see where his interests lie. Obviously you won't be able to buy him everything but it will be a good start to getting to know what he feels his needs are.


Unschooling is about providing the unique environment each child needs rather than some great learning environment for "every child". Getting ideas from other unschoolers is a great way to find out what other people have enjoyed, but ultimately it's all about your son and what he needs, not what others enjoy and find useful.


It's helpful to keep in mind that what you'd love to give him because it suits the situation you're in may not be what he needs. My daughter has lots and lots of stuff she's chosen that doesn't much get used except when friends are over because she needs companions for the stuff to mean what she needs it to mean. On her own she draws, writes, watches TV, uses the computer. She will do other things if she has someone to do them with.


If you could get a list of everything that unschooled kids have enjoyed, and then chopped off the things you don't want your son to have, would you have the environment that your son craves, or would you have a house full of dust collectors? It could be what will spark his interest most is in the list of stuff you don't want him to have. It could be in the list of stuff that no other unschooling kids have enjoyed. The best way to find out what your son needs is by seeing what he enjoys in life and giving him more of that and expanding on that. Our passions in life will come from what we're passionate about, not what others think is good for us. (Unless by chance they happen to overlap!)


I try to give him the opportunity to be with other kids -- book clubs, history club, 4-H, gym programs


As do I. But that isn't the same as free time to play with kids as my daughter has pointed out to me. Giving a child classes when she wants free play is similar to an adult needing adult conversation and someone signing them up for a lecture. There are other adults in the lecture, they could say a few words to other adults during or before the lecture, but it's a pale imitation of an evening of free flowing conversation.


If your son needs free play time with kids, then signing him up for clubs and programs will make you feel like you're doing something but they won't be what he needs.


You could suggest he trade phone numbers with the kids he "clicks" with and then arrange play dates.


Example, today we stopped at a gas station to buy a bottle of water and driving away I asked the kids since the bottle was $1.39 how much change did I get back. I had paid with two dollar bills. Well, I got my answer and I had my 8 yr. old count out the change to see if he and his brother were right. Nagging me though was the feeling that this was not unschooling but a "teacher-like" conceived coercion tactic to get them to LEARN. Maybe it would be better in the future to let them handle the money and pay for things themselves or not do anything with the whole money thing at all?


Pam Sorooshian mentioned (in her conference talk I think) that her daughter wanted to buy a Slushie and Pam handed her daughter a $20 bill and suggested that she estimate how much change she'd get. Her daughter did that on the way over and the woman in fact did give her incorrect change. Her daughter was able to recognize that and speak up about it.


Figuring out the answer was useful in that situation.


If you've learned your kids like to do arithmetic, then you're offering something they like. It's not unlike a book of puzzles where the answers are in the back. The puzzle designer knows the answers. The fun part is figuring it out yourself.


But not all kids enjoy arithmetic. Not all kids enjoy puzzle books.


You could ask for real :-) You could hand them the change and ask if you got the right amount.


If your kids are puzzle/quiz oriented then, "Hey, let's see if you guys can figure out how much change I got," might sound like a fun game. Or it may sound great to one and paralyze the other with fear (or tediousness ;-)). Encouraging a joint answer is probably better than each answering individually. A joint answer would involve discussion and verbalizing number manipulation.


But what's most important to realize is that asking questions like that aren't necessary for kids to learn arithmetic. Do it if they enjoy it. Because it's fun for them. Avoid it if they don't.


Is stopping to "teach" in daily life against the grain of unschooling?? Or instead is that our duty as unschooling parents?? I think that perhaps as an parent of a unschooled child your role may be more of a facilitator of learning as opposed to a teacher.


It is a tricky area to try to explain since everyone's concept of "helping" is different. Some people may feel it's helping to stop and have mini lectures on something that pops. Some people may feel it's helping to let kids figure things out without interference no matter how badly they're floundering.


The question to ask is what does your child need from you to do what they want to do? Drop your own agenda for them. Your role in daily life can be to point out things that you sincerely believe might interest your child. Just as you would do with a friend. You probably wouldn't quiz a friend to see if she could guess how much change you got. ;-) (But, as I said above, it depends on your kids.) If you can get into a mode of sharing what you find enjoyable rather than feeling it's important for them to possess whatever knowledge you're seeing, then unschooling will flow more smoothly for you.



I understand the concepts of unschooling. I do a lot of it just naturally, i.e., reading fun books and such.


I suspect what you mean is that you read fun books to make learning fun.


I read fun books because I don't like reading unfun ones ;-)


The main thrust of unschooling isn't to make school learning fun. It's to provide a safe, rich space for children to freely explore in. Part of that freedom is the freedom to not have to read unfun books :-)


Then why would a child who chooses to go to school just to be with his friends NOT be unschooling?


If a child goes to school just for social stuff, band, sports, and sees the teachers, tests and textbooks as just a hoop to jump through to get that, then there's a good case for calling it unschooling.


BUT it can be confusing to newbies reading here to say so. It puts an unschooling label on what a child has chosen rather than on what's going on inside the child and the atmosphere inside the home.


It's the motivations, the why, not the actions that define unschooling. If a child is certain they need a teacher to learn then there's fear beneath the choice. 


I think it's just confusing to even try to stretch the definition of unschooling to encompass a child who goes to school. The action can't be labeled unschooling without a dozen footnotes and caveats ;-)


Poster 1: How about we call it an unschooler "using" school.

Poster 2: How about we call it "choice-schooling" ??


How about not calling it anything?


Labeling it makes it sound like a child choosing school is some official branch of unschooling. But, again, it isn't the actions that are or aren't unschooling. It's the internal state of the child that counts and we can't really know that internal state. So we end up labeling the action and that's just confusing to anyone trying to understand what unschooling is.


I think discussing whether someone can unschool at school can be illuminating. Exploring the borders of an idea can help us better understand its core. It gives us the opportunity to look at things from a very different point of view.


But labeling something at the fringe is just confusing because the action isn't unschooling. Labeling that action as unschooling doesn't clarify the definition of unschooling for anyone. It just muddies it.


I don't want to lose my unschooling membership card if and when my dd chooses to go to school. <g> (she is planning on it next fall) IMO if it's her choice, it's still interest-led, child-led, AKA unschooling.


Though I know you're teasing, I suspect there's some truth to wanting to still be able to identify yourself as an unschooler because you believe in the philosophy. I certainly understand that! My daughter went to 2nd grade for 2 months and it felt weird posting in the Unschooling folder at that time. I guess I would have called myself a mom waiting for her daughter to come home ;-) Though I still embraced the philosophy of unschooling, I wouldn't have called my daughter an unschooler nor myself an unschooling parent at the time.



I've heard unschoolers say that "catching a baseball is physics". This puzzles me because when I hear the word "physics" I think of "school physics." If catching a baseball is physics, then having sex or even eating lunch would be "biology", right? I'm not sure why this is bothering me, but it is.


Could it be because saying something is physics makes it sound like that's all that's needed? It sounds like nothing more needs done. Like someone opening a physics text at random, reading a paragraph and then returning the book to the shelf with a satisfied "Done with physics!" feeling.


Calling catching a baseball physics feels sort of like the advice people give to get around state requirements. Sort of a "tee hee" feeling that you've managed to meet the letter of the law rather than the (meaningless to you) intent.


Someone coming from a curriculum mindset whose kids have been tortured with daily language arts assignments undoubtedly gets that feeling when unschoolers say that talking about an episode of Gilligan's Island is language arts as though it were equivalent to a language arts lesson in school. ;-) But, to the curriculum minded, Gilligan's Island can't be equivalent or all the torture of the dull school stuff is done for nothing. So in their minds the torture has to be superior.



Is direction a part of unschooling at all? Are any suggestions of how to spend time taboo?


Would you want your husband to do to you what you'd like to do for your kids? Would that help you learn what you're interested in exploring?


Would you want your husband to see you reading a trashy novel and have him tell you there were better ways to spend your time? Would you want the feeling that if he saw you reading a trashy novel that he'd make "helpful" suggestions on "fun" things you could be doing instead?


Suggest things because the kids might like them not because you feel it's better than what they're doing. (Again, this isn't meant to suggest anyone can just turn off the feelings and do unschooling "right".)


Do most of you simply rise in the morning and your kids live their parallel lives around you? When my kids were younger, so much of what we did we did together and there was a natural confluence between what they were interested in and how I could facilitate that. As they've gotten older, that has changed.


For us it has changed back and forth. There for a while my daughter (11yo) was getting up to watch TV all day. It must have lasted for 2 or 3 months. (Or it felt that way!) Now she wants to do things with me. Or she works on projects on her own. I only have one child so the dynamics are a lot different.


But it should feel like a family living together, not separate people sharing the same roof. The parents aren't there just to provide access to the world. We're all part of a family.


I guess I'm talking about connections and staying connected and being responsive to their needs. And getting in there and mixing things up, perhaps, if things are feeling routine. Or letting things be if it feels comfortably homey.


I think that's something that comes out better inadvertently when people describe how their lives work.


In our home, we've always had a read a loud time (for literature or historical fiction) and do some regularly scheduled activities that do appear schoolish. (From another unschooling list I was on, this was considered table time for the basics). We've done math consistently and language arts based on the Charlotte Mason approach. But they do have lots of time to pursue their interests.


And unschoolers here suggest doing nothing but interests and things that might interest them.


I suppose I find myself judging their interests. I look ahead and think that they ought to be making the most of these teen years for more than social life or X Box!


Some of it's jealousy! I mean what adult wouldn't want to be able to spend all day doing whatever they want and not having to make decisions and stop to tend to the needs of others? :-)


Part is natural worry. Reading about unschooling and unschoolers' lives helps. Being aware of the connections you're helping them make with the world helps.


Well, there's my bias. But does no one else feel it? I've been reading this list for two weeks and I guess I'm wondering if no one goes through dissatisfactions or worries about how their kids spend their time. Would anyone be willing to discuss this?


Yes lots of people feel that. It doesn't appear that they do because they'll answer questions in areas they're confident, not where they're still wobbly.


It's not so much a matter of not feeling that way. It's more pushing past the feelings. Some people are really sold on the benefits of unschooling. They know that what they're moving toward is better than what the feelings pull them back towards. As confidence grows, the feelings do fade. Of course some people come here and talk about the parts that scare them. :-)



I guess my question is, can bits and pieces of mainstream educational methods be used, if at the leading of the child or the suggestion of the parent, and this still come under the definition of unschooling?


What do you mean by "use"? Do kids "use" cartoons or video games? Do they use dancing? Do you want to use these methods so your child wil learn in the right way with the right materials?


If that's the queston, then no. I would call that relaxed homeschooling or eclectic homeschooling. If the parent retains some control over what is learned or how it's learned, then, no, it's not unschooling.


A good test is can the child say no thanks?  Another might be to ask if you're treating your children's use of "mainstream educational methods" the same as you would their "use" of a comic book. How much of yourself do you have invested in them using them in the "right" way? Do the children get subconscious messages that they're doing learning right when they choose workbooks? (Those messages can be as subtle as reacting with "Great!" when they tell you they're going to do a workbook page and flat, "Oh, okay," when they tell you they're going to watch their favorite cartoon.


Another good test is whether you would feel the same way or do the same things if you were supporting your husband's learning. Would it be okay if he used a textbook? It sounds kind of ridiculous when said that way! ;-) Would it be okay if you used mainstream educational methods on him? Again it seems ridiculous. Is that what he'd want you to do to help him?


And a big question is do the children see the textbooks and workbooks as more important or better learning? Are they choosing mainstream activities because they have been lead to believe schooling is the best way to learn?


Does "unschooling" have a standard definition, or is it conditional on what works for any given family?


Yes, it has a standard definition. John Holt coined the word. So to make discussion easier, it helps to define unschooling based on his discoveries about how children learn.


The philosophy is the same for every family. But how the philosophy is put into practice will look different for each family. Which makes it hard to describe! Obviously people want real examples not just philosophy. But we can't lift examples from one family and drop them into another family and expect them to work. So discussing the why is as important as the what.


What if a child is temporarily unmotivated and wants (and enjoys) some but not all of his learning to be parent directed? Does this come under the definition of "unschooling", and can it be discussed on this forum?


But what do you mean by unmotivated? Do you mean he doesn't get out of bed in the morning? Do you mean he watches TV mindlessly all day not caring whether there are soaps or talk shows or news on? Or do you mean he isn't doing anything that resembles learning in school?


Any child can grow unmotivated to learn what someone else feels is important. Sometimes unschooled kids get bored or run out of ideas. Some kids like parents to offer more ideas than others. That is, they want parents to give the day some structure, setting up trips to the park or science center or the movies. The aren't waiting for a parent to suggest learning about Columbus.


Unlike the standard approaches to learning (and parenting) the what is not nearly as important as the why. Which is because quite often the what has more to do the parent's needs for their children than with the children's needs for themselves.



I have set up a room here in our house, which has lots of math manipulatives, language materials, geography stuff - all kinds of things - set out on shelves for her.


Would you feel that her education would not be as good if you didn't have this stuff that's designed for learning? Do you feel that if you didn't have product X that learning skill/knowledge Y would be really hard or impossible for her to acquire through life?


If you had to choose between the educational stuff and her toys which would you choose and how comfortable educationwise would you be with that decision?


It sounds like you don't trust that learning happens from exploring interests and living life. You feel your child needs tools specifically designed for learning.


A room full of educational stuff can feel oh so very comforting for a parent. But the "educational stuff" can actually get in the way of discovery. The destination is already laid out and the paths to it limited.


There is a definite influence there, though, and again, I wonder if that "disqualifies" me as an unschooler.


Teachers -- maybe especially Montessori teachers? -- will have an even tougher time breaking out of the habit of thinking certain activities lead to a specific result and that a specific result requires certain activities.


Breaking out of the mode of thinking is hard enough for those who haven't been trained to think like that! ;-) Society does a good job of brainwashing us on how children need to learn!



As more and more people are convinced of unschooling's benefits, are they trying to change unschooling to fit their lives rather than change their lives to be unschooling?


Yes, I think many are trying to change the definition of unschooling. I think they're trying to get some of the benefits of unschooling while keeping the (supposed) benefits of more schoolish approaches that provide security and comfort. I think what most people are seeking are ways to minimize the negatives of the school approach. They want college prep without sacrificing love of learning and without the power struggle over doing what the kids need to learn to achieve that goal.


But the goals of unschooling are very different: joyfulness, empowerment, self-knowledge, self-confidence. (We'll each have our own list.) While important, those seem like things that will just happen from living life in a home with proper parenting. They also don't seem to be goals to shoot for.


Security is a goal to conventionally shoot for. And finding a well-paying job that you enjoy seems a much surer path to security than finding a way to have people pay you for what you enjoy.


But, if people try to adopt some unschooling with their schooling and let the kids learn from choosing their own stuff (which doesn't necessarily mean anything they choose like watching TV or playing video games or rollerblading) they need a word to call the time kids are learning freely so the kids aren't "just playing". They can say they're learning. The word unschooling fits their needs.



I tried being inspiring by doing projects myself but the 10 year old especially just did his own thing of reading and going out after 3 to be with his buddies.


I think you're seeing unschooling as a path that will lead them where you want them to go. That will be frustrating for all of you!


Maybe look at unschooling as finding a special tree in the forest and creating the environment it needs to grow. You don't need to do anything to the tree itself. It already knows how to be and grow into a tree. All it needs is the environment to do what it knows how to do.


So unschooling is akin to making sure the tree has access to what that particular tree needs in order to be that particular tree.


Alas one year of unschooling was frustrating for me because my children did very little but listen to tapes, read so so books.


First point is that deschooling often looks like deliberately avoiding learning. Deschooling is what we as kids tried to do weekends and summer vacation. We tried to avoid anything that resembled anything we might learn or do in school or anything that might be good for us.


Second point is what other options did they have? Were the other options available reminiscent of school? Were they things that were"good for them'?


So the answer is get out and do things. Don't worry about educational. Do things you think you'd all enjoy. Have a picnic. Explore a place you've never been to. Eat at an ethnic restaurant. Go to a tractor pull.


(But let them do home things too! Watch TV. Play video games. Bake cookies. And listen to tapes and read so so books. But don't see them as so so. See them as books they enjoy.)


If you aren't learning for pure enjoyment, is it reasonable to expect that they will? If your purpose of doing a project is to inspire them to do the project, you're going to be disappointed. If your husband built a bird house would you be inspired to build bird houses too? Do things you want to do without the agenda. Go places you want to that you think they might enjoy too. Fo places connected to their own interests. 


When you come across something that connects with an interest they have or that you think is cool and fun to play with bring it home and leave it laying around.


Foster in yourself a need to explore, to notice the coolness in things, to be curious. Do this for yourself not as a method to get the kids to be more the way you'd like them to be. (If you aren't honestly and sincerely curious about life and exploring for yourself, then it isn't fair to expect them to be.)


I am considering using loosely oak meadow for the third grader.


I would considering paying more attention to get to know your son's interests. Ask him if there's something he's been wanting to know more about. Get some books and videos. Take him places. Pay attention to his interest level because he may not want to go much into depth. Be flexible. I'd also finds some great books on tape that might appeal to both of them and listen to them in the car. (Ask here. And check Chinaberry Books). Share your favorite old movies with them. Talk about your childhood in relation to the movies. Look at albums of your childhood and theirs. (It's history to them!)


His asking for what he was used to may not be because he loves curriculum but because he's felt at loose ends and needs a fellow explorer to accompany him on his journey :-)



Well those are my thoughts late tonight on the meaning I have gleaned from this unschooling list.


You are very close! :-)


Unschooling is like you describe but less ... academic.


Unschooling isn't a free-form path through what school teaches but it does often get described that way because school is the only point of reference for learning most of us have.


Unschooling is a free form path through life. :-) And the interests connect to stuff in the real world, not just to stuff in textbooks. A factoid from an interest that connects to a TV show is just as important as a factoid that connects to a textbook. (In fact the references to TV shows will be more valuable to someone who works for TV Guide than the reference into a chemistry text ;-)


Unschooling is opening the door to learning by facilitating your child's learning by turning their interests into learning opportunities.


Perhaps it's closer to say "Unschooling is opening the door to learning by supporting your child exploring his interests." The interests don't need turned into learning opportunities because that implies that the child's interests are of lesser importance than what their interests could lead to.


So it's more helpful in terms of learning how to help children be who they are to appreciate how everything connects to everything rather than how interests can connect to academics.



Joyfully Rejoycing
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