Unschooling Possibilities

Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

11 thoughts on “Unschooling Possibilities

  1. Hi. Selfishly, I was hoping you’d wax more poetic about how and why our playgroup is so awesome (I, too, adore it). : )
    I’m hoping that taking classes will give my kids that experience of learning in a group and working towards a common goal. I’d even like to see New Orleans (ideally, via us) form a homeschool co-op in which parents took turns teaching the kids their special interest (I could do poetry, you do gardening, etc.), at least for older kids. I hope I can help make that happen.
    One thing that feels really great about it is having the kids outside in natural areas, exploring, for hours. I’ve not encountered a school in this area that enables that, and I wish schools here were more open to and equipped for “experiential” learning. Unfortunately, because so many children here are either poor and academically behind or rich and pressured to be “competitive,” there’s not much room for focus on discovery, wonder, and exploration.
    But also I agree with you that there’s an aspect of schooling that homeschooled kids will never get, and that they’ll always be a bit different because of it. Right now, I’m banking on that being a good thing, but I’m trying to keep an open mind in case things don’t work out. Here’s an interesting article about that: http://www.homefires.com/articles/odd_children.asp

  2. Thank you for articulating this so eloquently. We are intending to homeschool/unschool our son, as long as that’s what seems best for him. My partner and I are pretty vehemently anti-school, but if what we’re doing isn’t serving his best interests, we’ll reconsider. (And, in the spirit of letting people do as they will, just because we don’t want to put our kid in school doesn’t mean I automatically think its wrong for you to put your child in school.) (My son is just twelve months, so a lot of my thinking is still theoretical.)

  3. My oldest and I just started homeschooling (unschooling) last week. I’ve always been intrigued with homeschooling but never thought I was capable of – or passionate enough for – doing it myself. I had no ambivalence about him being in daycare settings from the age of 14 months until school. But even so, public school felt really really jarring, a forced independence or disconnection between the grown-ups in my kid’s life. And even though he was doing fine, I can see the peer influence happening very surely. I think it’s inevitable when you have 20+ kids of the same age with one grown-up, no grown-up during snacktimes, and one grown-up for about 60+ kids of the same age during recesses. So we’ve taken him out of school for my last months of mat leave before I officially cut my job strings. Who knows how it will all turn out, but you may chance your mind when your child actually gets to school.

  4. I’m presently wrestling with ‘school at home’ home educating vs. unschooling and finding it hard. I have been home educating my son, aged 7, for 2 weeks now in Bahrain in the Middle East (homeschoolingmiddleeast.wordpress.com). I love the philosophy behind unschooling but would need for him to probably have a long break to get school out of his system and watch and see his natural joy of learning come back and I’m frankly scared to do this! I think he’ll forget everything he learned at school and that, in some ways, seems a shame. There is no support here, esp. for unschooling and I haven’t got the courage, yet! Great to hear your ideas but am envious you seem to have it all sorted out! Good luck to you all!

  5. I am really in awe of mums who can home school or unschool. I just can’t even imagine spending all that time with the 5 year old. And yep, that does sound awful out loud!
    We did montessori for two years and he just wasn’t cut out for it. I constantly picked up a bored, under-stimulated boy who just couldn’t get enough ‘different’ in his day. We changed over to a mainstream school this year, private though and pricey. Two teachers for about 25 kids, plus parent helpers two or three times a week. The bonus for him is they are continually active, have excursions, sport and incursions, and he struggles to find a day he doesn’t want to go, which suits me just fine as I see it as a sign he’s loving it. Oh, and no religious education, which definitely would have been the case if we’d gone Catholic (which was Never Gunna Happen!).

    1. A friend and I were just ranting yesterday about how undervalued pure rambunctious exercise is! Kids need to several hours a day. My friend was lamenting that although Waldorf took the emphasis off academics, they put too much on arts and other quiet focused activities and not enough on physical play.
      I know what you mean about so many hours with kids. I’m cool with the 4yo now, and i can finally see how homeschool could work out nicely, but i could sure use 2-4 less hours/day with the two year old….

  6. I NEVER thought I would homeschool, but as my oldest turns 4 this month, the thought of sending her to public school terrifies me. I didn’t grow up in a great school district and now my mom is an elementary teacher there. This is her first year teaching 3rd grade, and for years previously, she taught kindergarten. It was because of her stories from kindergarten (what kids were being required to do, new edicts from the principle that there should be less recess, less circle time, less crafting, and more “desk work”) that I started to dread the day I’d send my daughter into that atmosphere. Luckily for me, we’re moving to Japan with the Navy this summer and it gives me a GREAT excuse to homeschool for a year or two. I’m not sure if we’ll continue when we move back to the states, but I’m really excited that I will have an opportunity to cultivate a love of learning before my child gets thrust into the world of “teaching to the test” at such a young age.

    1. Could not agree more. When my friend’s child came home from KG one day with ‘listening ears’ that they’d crafted that day I thought, ‘This is not for the child’s benefit. This is to prepare her for next year; prepare her to listen better to the teacher.’ Yuck! Soooo happy that my 3 year old has never been to any kind of school and now my 7 year old is home and my only regret is that I didn’t pull him out of school earlier. He is SO happy to be learning at home. Good luck in Japan!

  7. CJ, Excited to hear you write on this topic… Well here in this little town the home school community has almost disappeared, because the families home schooling have either gotten older or moved out of town. There are a number of new young families like yourself and I that want a little more community in that area, but i alone cannot take on the monstrous task that the last mothers did, so when you get back know that we are out here wanting to do more, and also our school is great for mixing the home school and public school. You can be a home schooler and still send your child to whatever classes you want to, PE, music, swimming etc. It’s great if you want the busy schedule of running around, anyways, just some thoughts for you!

  8. My kids are about (exactly) 10 years older than yours and I had the same conflicts as you and came to the same conclusions. It has worked out great so far. The public school is only part of my kids education. The time that they are there gives me the time I need for my sanity and the other 6 hours of the day can be spent on enrichment as we see fit. A book you might appreciate is called “Hold on to your Kids”. I can’t remember who it’s by, but he talks about how parents can remain the most important influence on their kids.

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