Written by The Mom
Some days we do nothing productive. Literally, nothing. Everyone might be feeling tired after a bad night. Or we just don’t feel motivated to do much. The baby naps a lot. The kids watch a lot of kids’ shows on Netflix. I’ll catch up on dishes and laundry.
Other days we spend outside the house. The kids might play in the yard, or we might have errands to run, we might have a playdate with friends, or we might go explore our local library for a good chunk of the day.
And some days, the kids ask questions. And talk. And ask more questions. And read. And learn. Some days it feels like they desperately want to learn EVERYthing, all in one day.
What does unschooling look like for our family?
What unschooling means can vary slightly from family to family. Some families are “radical unschoolers” or “whole-life unschoolers”, which means the children make the decisions for their own life in almost everything, as long as they are safe. They choose their own bed time, what they eat, when they eat, whether or not they go to public school or learn at home.
Most unschoolers have at least some parental-imposed rules for their family. We have decided for our family that our children at their current ages will have bedtimes, meal times, and other rules determined but my husband and I.
When it comes to learning, though, we take our leads from the kids.
Our family defines unschooling simply: child-led or child-directed learning. It means that when our kids are interested in a topic, we offer as many tools and opportunities for them to learn about it as we can. At a preschool age, so far we have not had any trouble introducing math, letters, geography, science, and frequently even more advanced topics in with whatever they are interested in.
For example, if you’ve been reading previous posts it’s pretty obvious that my two older kids (ages 4.5 and 3) have been obsessed with the solar system for awhile now. This has led to reading endless books on the topic, watching YouTube videos about the solar system, a trip to the observatory, and countless discussions. My daughter is learning how to read big numbers (“Mommy, Saturn has six-zero plus moons!”). They’ve talked about the seasons; not just what the seasons are but what causes different seasons: the tilt of the planet on its axis toward or away from the sun. We’ve talked about how it’s day time when our side of Earth is facing the sun, and night time when our side of the earth is facing away from the sun, and that one day for Mercury is over 58 days.
Whether or not they memorize or remember these things doesn’t matter to us. The more exposure they’ve had to a topic, the more familiar it will be when they come across it again. What matters is that they love learning, and that they want to keep learning because they love to.
For our family, unschooling looks like ALL of the days above: lazy days, busy days, and information-packed days.
We don’t know yet if unschooling is the route we will take for all ages. Babies and toddlers often learn through unschooling, in a way. We never sat our kids down and formally taught them how to walk or talk. The desire was in them so they practiced, they imitated, they repeated, until one day they could do it. My husband and I watched, verbally encouraged, and provided plenty of opportunity for them to explore and practice.
In this way, unschooling is just a natural progression for us. As the kids age, their interests broaden from simple things (learning about what food tastes like) to more complex things (learning about space or dinosaurs). And my husband and I continue to watch, encourage, and provide plenty of opportunity for them to explore these interests.
What did we do today?
Now that those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “unschooling” are caught up, you might wonder how all of this actually plays out in a typical day.
To be honest, most days are pretty boring. We get up, eat breakfast, play, watch shows, read books, and run errands like anyone else. The kids whine and argue and run around.
Although my kids ask questions and have lengthy discussions about random things (and often nothing) every day, once or twice a week they really delve into certain topics. Their brains seem to really focus on particular topics and their attention seems longer and sharper on these days. Our kids seem to learn best this way: in chunks. Maybe their brains retain the information when they learn a bunch and then ease off for awhile. Whatever the reason, these days are my favorite. The information their brains have been silently working on really comes out and shines, and I get a little window into what they’ve been mentally working on.
Here’s what we did today.
The kids woke up at their usual time (usually anywhere between 6 and 7:30). We always laze around in the morning for awhile before breakfast. Sometimes we talk or read, sometimes the kids watch shows while I take my time waking up or throw in a load of laundry.
During breakfast we read about Noah and the ark. When the animals came out of the ark, Miss C asked if they were going back to the zoo. This led to a discussion about wild animals, how and where they live, and what habitats are. I pulled out a book about wild Safari animals and we looked at pictures of them and talked more about habitats.
After breakfast I found a Magic Schoolbus episode about habitats, which the kids watched. While they watched, the baby napped and I showered and got dressed for the day. They wanted to watch more but we turned it off and I asked if they wanted to color pictures of habitats. They eagerly agreed, and we got out the markers and some paper.
Miss C colored “a frog habitat with leaves, trees, a pond, and a sky” while Little F colored “a triangle habitat”.
Then Miss C colored a lion habitat, and Little F colored a “thunder habitat”.
After we colored habitats, we sat down and read a chapter out of Charlotte’s Web. This was a favorite book of mine when I was little and the kids seem to be enjoying it. I’m not sure how much they understand at this age but they are always eager to read a chapter and we are about 3/4 of the way through the book now.
We went out for lunch and the kids talked and asked questions until I was about ready to pull my hair out. I try to have patience for their endless questions, as asking questions are a fantastic way to learn, but as any mother does, I often get tired of them. Still, I try to rein in my impatience and answer as best I can.
After lunch I was going to let the kids watch some shows of their choosing (they watch from Netflix kids, PBS kids online, or pre-approved kids’ videos on YouTube). Before they started watching UPS arrived with a delivery: Usborne books that we had ordered almost a month ago! So instead of watching shows they spent most of the rest of the afternoon looking at their new books. Meanwhile, I did dishes, nursed the baby, folded laundry, and answered yet more questions.
Yep, still in PJs.
One of the books we got is about the human body. When we came across a picture of a pancreas, I explained to the kids about their Daddy’s type 1 diabetes, how his pancreas broke when he was little, and that’s why he takes insulin. The kids thought this was fascinating and we talked about it for quite awhile.
After reading and talking together for awhile, Miss C invented a new game.She asked me to repeat what she was saying, then she chose words (one at a time, sometimes two) and I had to repeat them just as she had said them. We took turns being the one who said the words. When it was my turn, I chose words with lots of L’s and R’s since Miss C gets lazy pronouncing them correctly. (She CAN pronounce them but often gets talking so quickly that she skips over them or substitutes other letters in their place, like Y or W.)
Our game went a bit like this:
Me: “Roller coaster!”
C: “Roller coaster!”
And so on. Little F joined in, too.
After this, Miss C went off to play with a sticker book by herself while Little F picked up one of his new books again and asked me questions about muscles, the names of different muscles, and what they do. I had him knock on my elbow and my wrists to see how hard bones are, and flexed my arm to show him how muscles help us move. We found blue veins in our arms and wrists and talked about blood and veins. We talked about nerves and how they send messages to our brain to help us feel cold, hot, tickles, and owies.
Daddy came home while we were looking at our book, and the kids did a puzzle with him. They chose one of my 1,000 piece puzzles. They love puzzles and will normally chose anywhere from a 35 piece to a 100 piece when working alone or together, but with an adult they like to do adult puzzles.
Playing is learning
Recently, an acquaintance said to me, “My daughter isn’t ready for school yet; she doesn’t want to learn, she just wants to play all day.”
And that is what we do. We don’t push. We don’t pressure. We play. We have fun. We cultivate a love of learning.
You don’t have to light the fire for kids, it’s already there. Kids are born with a desire to learn. It’s necessary for their survival when they are babies (learning to eat, learning to talk, learning to walk, learning who their parents are); but they don’t know that, they are mostly just having fun. As parents, all we have to do is stay out of the way and feed the fire. Pressure to learn can kill the desire. Once learning is a chore, it’s hard to go back. But once their love for learning is well-established, kids will have the motivation to find the tools to learn what they want and need to throughout their entire lives.
Yes, some days (most days) my brain is exhausted, but the reward of seeing my children learn and grow, and how eagerly and naturally it happens when they are excited and interested, continues to awe and amaze me, and I am humbled and grateful that I have the opportunity to be home with them to witness it first hand.