How old do children have to be before they can
begin unschooling? The answer to this question is simple: Now. As soon
as you are fortunate enough to discover this alternative way of life, it
is the right time.
Part of what may motivate someone to ask this question is the word
“schooling” contained within the word “unschooling.” This is why I
prefer the term that was coined as the name of this magazine: “life
learning.” If we replace the term “unschooling” with “life learning” the
question is no longer logical. The question “How old do children have to
be before they can begin life learning?” automatically elicits the
response of “they always have been” or at least “now.”
I believe life learning is a way of life, a philosophy of existence. In
its simplest terms, it is a learner-centered, democratic approach to
life. To clarify, I am using the terms “learner centered” and
“democratic” in a way that Jerry Mintz of the Alternative Education
Resource Organization (AERO) did in an interview on Radio Free School in
2004. Jerry defined learner centered education as “an approach that is
based on the interest of the student rather than curriculum driven,
where someone else has the idea of what you ought to be learning,” and
he defined democratic education as “education where students are
actually empowered to make decisions about their own education and, if
they are in a school, about their own school.”
“Life learning” is a wholistic term that respects an individual’s body,
mind, and spirit. To this end, life learning is not a recipe that one has
to follow, but it is a process that differs from situation to situation.
In what follows I am going to share what life learning means to me in
connection to what I have learned from my daughters.
First, I need to say that I feel that I have made
mistakes as a parent, but I believe that this is okay. Part of life
learning is that we are always unfinished and therefore grow and learn
throughout life. I believe there is a danger in believing that we are
not continuing to learn and grow. Admitting and recognizing our mistakes
and sharing them with others is an important part of life learning.
My wife and I share a lot of life learning
assumptions and struggle with trying to better understand those that we
do not share. Again, this is a part of life learning. One big area is
whether to school our daughters. I am totally against schooling and my
wife is reservedly for it; fortunately, ultimately we both agree that
the decision needs to be our daughters.’ Again, this is life learning.
I believe that children are capable of
making sophisticated decisions and need the respect and belief that
their decisions matter. They need to feel empowered and respected for
the human beings that they are. Are they going to make mistakes? Of
course; as I said, making mistakes is an important part of life
learning. We adults can share our thoughts, but children need to be
listened to also.
On a number of occasions, my daughter has taught
me that I was wrong and she was right. She has helped me understand that
she knows her potential better than I do, that she knows her
capabilities better than I do and, perhaps most importantly, that she is
more capable than I of gauging what she can do and what she cannot do.
Doing it on Her Own
Allow me to share several examples. When my
daughter was younger and we would go to our local park, I would bring
her to the smaller slide. She quickly mastered climbing and sliding down
on her own. One day she told me that she wanted to tackle the larger
slide on her own. I immediately shouted, “No! It is too high up and you
will fall and hurt yourself.” Fortunately, I shouted this to myself and
not out loud to her. What I said to her was, “Do you think you can do it
on your own?” She responded, “Yes.” I nervously watched her skillfully
climb down the slide without incident. After she did this a few times I
realized that there was nothing for me to worry about and my reaction
Recently, the park has been redesigned and a
similar thing happened. This time she asked to go up a difficult ladder
that has a rope to assist the children climb. It is clearly intended for
older children. You would think that after all this time I would react
in a more trusting way, but again I inwardly reacted in a fearful way
while outwardly asking her the same supportive question: “Do you think
you can do it?” Again she said she could. Off she went. After about
several steps she realized that it was harder than she had thought, so
she simply called me to come and help her. I did, and after a few weeks
she was capable of doing it on her own.
From this, I learned that children are capable of
determining what they are capable of doing and if they find that they
cannot they will ask for help. Secondly, I feel that it is my duty to
help when she asks for it and not before. When I forget, my daughter is
very firm about reminding me that she can do it on her own. On a number
of occasions she has verbally and rather violently insisted that I stop
doing what I am doing and immediately leave the task to her. For
example, I recall when she was younger and wanted to fill her sippy cup
with water. I lovingly took it from her and proceeded to unscrew the lid
so that I could fill it for her. She quickly had an outburst that I at
first thought was an overreaction on her part. However, the more I
thought about it, the more I concluded that her reaction was
appropriate. She needs to do it for herself. She needs to learn how to
do it. And my interference limits her learning and growth.
My daughter has reacted the same way when, upon
seeing her struggle with getting dressed, I have tried to help her put
her clothes or boots on. Again, by doing this I am thinking that I am
being helpful, but what I am really doing is interfering in her learning
and growth. I am convinced that she would not be as skilled and
confident at doing what she does if I had not understood the importance
of not helping unless she asks for help. And even when she does ask for
help, I have learned that I need to help as minimally as possible and do only what she
asks and no more. Again, the more I do the less she does.
Life learning also means ignoring the practice of fragmenting subjects
made popular by schooling, and instead having children learn life as
they live life. My favorite insight into what is learning comes from one
of my favorite educational thinkers: John Holt. In his book Learning
all the Time (Da Capo Press, 1989) he wrote, “Living is learning.
It is impossible to be alive and conscious (and some would say
unconscious) without constantly learning things. If we are alive we are
constantly receiving various sorts of messages from our environment all
Here are some more examples from my
daughter’s life of what this means for my understanding of life
The Rotting Board
The first example took place last summer.
One board on our deck was rotted out. I decided it was time to change it
and my daughter decided she wanted to help. So we both went out, used a
crow bar to remove the old piece of board, got a measuring tape to see
what size the replacement board had to be, went to the lumber store to
buy the replacement, and discovered that we did not know what type of
wood we needed. We went home, researched it, discovered it was cedar, and
went back to purchase the replacement, had them cut it to size, came
home, and nailed it in place.
My daughter has a real hammer that is a
smaller version of my hammer and she banged away as best she could.
Remember, she was just over two years old at the time. I will not
disrespect the situation by fragmenting the learning that happened in
terms of a schooling curriculum because I truly believe that does not
matter. What matters is that we were life living and therefore life
learning. If what we learned fits into what schools arbitrarily value,
that is immaterial.
I do, however, want to add that I believe
the learning that resulted from this life experience was so deep because
she embodied it and because it was genuine. She learned about measuring
tapes, hammers, nails, the importance of numbers, the value and need for
money, and so on.
After the board was in place, it was time
to prepare and paint the deck. She was very helpful when it came time to
clean the deck. As I scrubbed, she hosed it down. Nothing, and I mean
nothing, would have kept her away from helping with the painting. So,
she dressed in her smock and away we went.
Some have commented on allowing our
daughter to use real nails, a real hammer and allowing her to paint the
deck. The truth is that she was never in danger and you cannot tell the
part that I painted and the part that she painted. Incidentally, this
may say as much about my painting skills as it does hers.
Admittedly, the whole process took a lot longer than it would have if
I had done it by myself; however, it
would not have been as enjoyable and rewarding. As well, my daughter’s
presence forced me to be more mindful. I was much more careful and aware
of the present dangers. For example, as we removed the old board I did
not simply throw it aside; we made sure that we removed all of the nails
so that there was no chance of us getting hurt. I also covered the hole
where I removed the board so that we would not accidentally fall in.
In saying that it would have been
faster, I am not implying that my daughter was not a genuine help,
because she was. On one occasion, I asked if she wouldn’t mind going
inside and getting the broom and dust pan. She came back with my broom
and dustpan as well as hers. She helped me sweep and keep our work area
On another occasion she warned me that there was a nail that we should
discard. On yet another, she turned off the hose while I was busy doing
other things. In short, the next time I have to change a board, I hope
she will agree to help.
The next example happened a few months ago when my wife went out the
door and to her surprise ended up with a cracked storm door handle in
her hand. Again, my daughter helped us throughout the whole process. She
skillfully worked the screwdriver until she got the screws out and so on
until the handle was replaced.
Similarly, when our faucet needed to be replaced she was a ready and
willing helper. I will not go into the details because I believe that
the point has been made. Whether it is cooking, cleaning, repairing,
gardening, bathing, and on and on, my daughters are ready and willing to
help in any way that they can.
Taking the Time To Hug the Trees
Another important part of life learning is mindfulness or being in the
moment. I am often reminded of this by both of my daughters. When we go
out for our walks, speed is not how I would characterize the walks, nor
would I have it any other way. My daughters remind me that the faster
you go the more you miss. When we go for our walks we need to greet the
trees, watch the ants and explore whatever catches our attention. I had
forgotten how great it feels to hug a tree. Having young children around
is great because on the few occasions when my neighbors witness my tree
hugging they do not question it because they connect my behavior with
appeasing the children. I often wonder why I would not hug a tree
without my children around. What other wonderful things do we miss out
on, just because we are now adults?
This is not a complete description of what life learning means to me,
nor is it intended to be. Part of what I wanted to do was to share my
commitment and resolve about the value in life learning for all age
groups. Like many who have shared their experiences and successes with
life learning, I want to stand side by side with these pioneering heroes
who live life learning.
Whether it is in making mistakes, doing daily
activities, or simply being mindful, the power and value in life learning
needs to be respected.
Carlo teaches in the faculty of education’s graduate
program at Nipissing University. He incorporates the spirit of
unschooling, democratic and learner centered principles in all
of his classes. Everything of value that he has learned, he has
learned outside of formal schooling; he has never taken a course
in school connected to what he now teaches and writes about. He
has experience in teaching almost every grade in elementary and
high school and has also taught in undergraduate, teacher
education, and graduate programs. His personal schooling experience as a student and later as a teacher has inspired him to revolt against institutional schooling. He continues to heal from the wounds inflicted on him by formal schooling.