What is unschooling? Unschooling starts from birth and, for me, it is simply trusting our kid’s ability to learn. Therefore, to some extent, for a little while all of us do an incy wincy little bit of it….
Here are some things that most children learn to do themselves. Yep, there are some parents that think they had something to do with it, as if the child wouldn’t have mastered “cat” without a grown up repeating it back to them, correcting the errant “K” at the end with the “T” sound, every time they attempted it. But here’s the thing, they would have! Otherwise the grown up world would be full of confused arguments about whether “Cat” ends in a K sound or a T. We don’t have that argument! Because eventually our mouths become able, and our minds become willing, to pronounce things the way everyone else does. Anyway, that list:
Things babies teach themselves- for better or worse:
How to put things in things
How to throw things
How to put things in their mouth
I guess, on some level, we know we didn’t teach them these things, hey? That they learnt them by following their gut instincts, by observing, by copying, practicing, by repeating. That our pleas to “put one foot in front of the other, honey” had very little to do with whether they learnt to walk – apart from all the love we put into that encouragement. Because love does make a child’s world pretty fertile, when it comes to learning.
Some babies teach themselves to do hard out stuff, like breakdancing. My own child, Juno, when she was 15 months old, taught herself how to click her fingers. True thing. if she wanted something, she’d point and click. A sharp, unavoidable sound. Like a wealthy fine diner at a waiter.
So your kid gets to 3 or 4, and so far so good. They have learnt EVERYTHING they need to survive and thrive. Very little passes them by. Most children can move and communicate, some can click their fingers and some have had room in their brain to learn the entire script of Cars.
There’s been a fair amount of trust. And perhaps the odd wobble – is my child reaching all those developmental milestones?! And googling of “should a child be speaking in sentences by 2.5”
But mostly we’ve just been feeding and loving them, and they have been growing and learning.
Then they turn 5 and everything changes.
Suddenly we absolutely doubt their ability to learn what they need to learn. It’s more than doubt. We are convinced that it is impossible for a child to learn everything she needs to learn without the input of an adult.
We begin lessons. Lessons in reading, writing, maths, music, dancing, swimming, bike riding, sports.
The answer to that is HUGE, to do with the military industrial complex (please read Natural Born Learners for more on this, it is THE greatest education book, in my Umble opinion!)
But let me just leave that hanging there for a while and go on to describe some things that children learn all by themselves between the ages of 4 and 5, if you leave them to it.
Things Ramona has learnt this year – even though we are unschooling so have had no classes of any kind:
Swim (literally at the point at which I was googling “How to teach your children to swim” we went to a campsite with a big beautiful pool and Ramona sat and watched the big kids swimming for a few hours, then told me to get in the deep end and stand a few metres away from the ladder, then she jumped in and swam to me.)
Bike Ride (between the hours of 6pm and 8pm one evening)
Make jokes (she has just got the humour thing, beyond replacing all words with “poo”- now her Knock Knock jokes are still sublimely weird but with the core of humour within them)
Rhyme (absolutely no conscious effort on my part, apart from me mumbling “Tidy Schmidy” or “Clean Dishes Schmishes” when I feel something is overrated)
Count to a hundred (just for fun)
Recognise numbers and the letters that count (R)
What is unschooling? Whole Body Learning!
Now Ramona is five, almost every conversation with a stranger goes like this “How old are you?” “Five” “Do you like school?” “I don’t go to school” “Oh.”
She will often follow up with a unique explanation of what we do. Never “My parents believe that children are naturally inclined to learn, and given a nurturing and curious environment will learn everything they need to thrive” but something like:
“I learn my own self”
“I learn in my body”
“I teach my own self things.”
“I taught myself to ride my bike.”
I smiled particularly at the “learn in my body” answer… I wondered what she meant, how she had come to decide that her mind and body were inescapably tied in her learning journey. And then I read this brilliant article, about reading readiness being a bodily matter
“(Reading) readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness… It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.”
What is unschooling? Owning the joy of learning!
When Ramona learnt to ride her bike I was so freaking happy. It was a well of pride and joy bubbling up! Her own face was a picture of achievement. I was like “WOW! How do you FEEL?!” and she said “I feel so happy, like my heart is saying Go Ramona Go!!”
Here’s the thing. Something real important. When we step in and teach we can take away that sheer joy of discovery and the power of our children understanding their potential. If a child believes they have to be taught stuff, this will underpin their whole life. Alternatively, imagine a child absolutely owning her learning and knowing she can learn ANY THING SHE WANTS and this motoring her along for the rest of her days.
It is too easy for us to snatch a little bit of the honour of learning, by believing that our child’s legendaryness is due to our skill at teaching.
I loved this story, about learning to read, from Peter Gray’s unschooling style column on Psychology Today.
“She had consistently told people that she didn’t know how to read until she made brownies this past November [at age 7]. She asked her father and myself to make her favorite brownies for her, but neither of us was willing to make them. A little while later she ran into the room and asked me if I would turn on the oven for her and find her a 9×11 pan (she said, “9 ex 11” instead of “9 by 11″). I got her a pan and turned on the oven. Later she ran in and asked me to put the brownies in the oven. Then she said, ‘Ma, I think I can read now.’ She brought me a few books that she then read out loud to me until she jumped up and said, ‘those brownies smell done. Will you take them out now?’ … Now she tells people that she knows how to read and that she taught herself how.”
What is unschooling? Here from a whole bunch of different people in this video 😀
What is unschooling? Learning together
There is so much to learn, so many resources, so many people, and I have so much to give my child! But I will share when invited, and share learning resources in a spirit of friendship, of equality. I would never withhold knowledge or sources of knowledge (here’s one of those weird nuance things “Do this! But also a bit of this! And bear this in mind! And this way you will be the best parent!”) and I will partner with my daughters as they learn more and more and more – but I will aim to make the joy of learning all their own.
I guess people who are home educating might be reading this going “ooh yes, true! I can simply let my child learn joyfully through play!” but perhaps people with children in school might be feeling a bit bummed out. I don’t know though. I like to think this idea, about trusting our children, can be applied in every home, and, if you have the energy, be taken further, perhaps influencing your pre-school, or classroom. (I don’t imagine you would turn up at the school board saying “I read a blog by a hippy in a yurt and I think we should let the children learn how, what and when they wanna learn!!” but you might raise this study from the University of Cambridge about the importance of play and formal learning beginning far, far later than it currently does.
So wherever you are at, I reckon we can all do a bit to recognise our child’s natural ability to learn cool stuff, we can all attempt to trust that a bit more, and see our children own the full joy of discovery.