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.