Holly is a former teacher turned life learner with two children aged six and eight. Her family loves hiking, camping, cooking, foraging, swimming, and all things Nature. You can read more about her adventures and ideas on her blog.
We live in an amazing time. Thanks to pioneering people and constantly evolving social constructs, many of us can not only legally educate our children in our own homes, but we can do it in most any way we see fit. Increasingly families are turning to the concept of unschooling (free-range or life learning) as the method most aligned with their family values, structures, and schedules.
Our family has been life learning for two years now. Well, to be honest, we’ve been evolving in that direction for the past two years. Because one thing I’ve learned is that unschooling done well is a constantly changing landscape full of big responsibilities and small victories. In deciding to unschool, I am committing to trust that we are all capable of learning what we need to learn when we need to learn it, despite unending societal messages to the contrary. Unschooling my children means a commitment to letting everyone direct their own learning, while also providing a constant influx of enriching opportunities to keep us all motivated and engaged. It means not allowing complacency or boredom to rob us of vital opportunities for authentic learning. For our family, a daily commitment to five open-ended experiences has provided a much needed framework, which allows us to fully relax into the blank canvas of the unschooling life.
1. Get your game on.
Not only will you get increased family connections by making a daily commitment to play a game, you will have the opportunity to teach and model so many other concepts in real time: math, reading, logic, problem solving, and of course the ability to lose graciously. Engagement is the key to authentic and powerful learning, and connections equal engagement. Setting aside a small block of time to play a game with your kids – giving them your full and undivided attention – is time well spent, and the payoff far exceeds the investment. Board games, card games, games that need no equipment – the opportunities for learning are limitless and easily found. For our family, setting this time aside in our daily routine is what works best. We do it after dinner, before we each go off and spend an hour or so in our own personal free time before bed. In the summer, we try to take our games outdoors and use big body movements; in the winter, we enjoy the huge array of amazing board games available these days. There are so many more board games than Monopoly and Life, although both are still great games. Since we’ve added this to our routine, our conversations have grown more engaging and educational and our strategies more refined.
Making a commitment to create every day has greatly enriched our unschooling experience, while allowing us to follow our own passions. My son really enjoys creating food and through a daily commitment to create something edible for our family, he has built essential physical skills, practiced reading and math, and tinkered with chemistry. My daughter leans more toward art. We keep a big basket next to her desk and we all deposit the random flotsam and jetsam that life generates into her basket – bottle caps, spare buttons, toilet paper rolls, interestingly-shaped cardboard, errant game pieces, you name it. Her daily commitment to creation not only allows her to work on a multitude of small and fine motor skills, but also allows her to share tangible evidence of her feelings and emotions – something that can be difficult for some kids (and adults!). An extra bonus is that my kids’ dedication to their own creative pursuits frees up quiet time for me to work on my writing, something that gives me great solace. The sky is the limit when it comes to creation. LEGO, Minecraft, paper dolls from magazines. Visit a retirement home and create some joy. Break out the tools and create a birdhouse. If you can dream it, you can create it. And if you can create it, you can learn from it.
3. Be still and silent.
Interestingly enough, this might be the hardest one of all. Our family has decided to begin working on a meditation practice. We’ve started very small, but are already seeing results. We began with two minutes of silence and we are working our way up. One easy way to get started is to take one silent car ride per day: no music, no talking, just looking out at the changing scenery and letting your thoughts come and go, noticing them but not acting on them. It was challenging at first, but a commitment to silence, even for a short while, not only gives each of us a chance to hear our own inner wisdom, it also gives us a powerful tool that we can come back to in times of overwhelm and upset.
As a means of self-reflection and exploration, writing is hard to beat. Even something as mundane as just recording the events of the day not only can get your juices flowing, but also provide a treasured memory later on. In true unschooling fashion, we don’t put any constraints on our writing time. Depending on our moods, energy levels, and interests, we’ve used the time for journaling (my personal favorite), letter writing (who doesn’t love to get letters?), field guide making (my son is in the middle of an epic Guide To Dragons that includes drawings, descriptions, and fabricated skin samples…ew!). My daughter really loves to write out our daily menu for some reason. We set aside a twenty-minute block each day (at different times to accommodate our flexible schedule) to write what our hearts dictate. It’s a meditative time, quiet and still. It’s not a time for perfection or overthinking. If someone has a question about how to spell a word, I’m happy to help them figure it out from various sources, but the emphasis is on putting thoughts and feelings to paper in order to preserve moments and generate ideas.
5. Go outside.
If you only take one piece of my advice, this is the one I’d suggest. Yes, even when it’s raining. Yes, even when it’s cold. Our family has chosen to invest in rain pants in addition to rain coats, and as long as there isn’t lightning, one of our favorite things to do is walk in the rain. Everything smells great and the worms are out. On days when all you want to do is sit, tell yourself that you will step outside for five minutes only. On some days, five minutes may be enough, but on others you may find yourself wanting more. The fresh air clears our minds and Mother Nature soothes our spirits when we forget the simple things. Exercise gets our blood pumping and exploration inspires our souls. Honoring outdoor time is a critical component to our health, happiness, and learning.
So there you have it. A possible roadmap for unschoolers that honors both the slow and easy pace of a self-directed life, while still providing daily opportunities for growth and inspiration. Maybe these five practices don’t resonate with your family, and that’s fine. But perhaps taking the time to define three or four or five core values and making a commitment to including them in your daily life will help your family flesh out a routine that soothes the spirit and excites the mind. Happy journey!