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Staying Afloat: Unschooling Support in an Isolated Situation

Staying Afloat:
Creating Unschooling Support in an Isolated Situation

Written by
Ellen Rowland

Ellen Rowland

Ellen is an American living in Senegal, West Africa in an off-the-grid earth house she helped build with her husband and two young children. She writes about culture, family, things that are good for the planet and life without school. A lover of all things edible, she can usually be found in the kitchen when she’s not writing or creatively encouraging her children’s interests. Since moving to Africa at the end of 2008, she has learned to live without TV, pluck a chicken, make a mud brick, and roast her own coffee beans. Follow her family’s adventures at www.amuddylife.com.

Unschooling is not a predictable continuum. Some refer to it as a roller coaster, with its proverbial ups and downs. To me, it looks and feels a lot like a series of ocean waves, some of which take us smoothly to and from the shore, others which tow us under and toss us around with the tides, and still others which calmly allow us to float until the next wave rolls around. With all of this joyful surfing, tentative wading, uncertain treading, and playful splashing, it’s nice to know that if we need to come up for air or we feel like we’re being pulled under, there are others nearby to help.

But what do we do when we feel we are out there alone in the water? How do we find support when we decide to escape from the box and dive into something unconventional while everyone else stands on the shore with lifeguard whistles and white flags signaling that we have ventured outside of the safety zone? We begin to believe we are drowning.

Seven years ago, my husband and I moved from the United States to Senegal, West Africa, to build an earth house and live a more sustainable life. During the hands-on process of constructing our home, our children, then just three and four, participated in meaningful ways. Within weeks of our arrival, they were helping to carry water and to make and install mud bricks, had found ways to communicate with the local children, and were at ease in their new environment. I didn’t know it at the time, but the building of our house was the beginning of a pivotal turning point for the four of us, as a family and individually, towards unschooling.

Although I was initially reluctant about taking our children out of school, I kept coming back to the leaps and bounds of learning that took place as my children dug their hands in the dirt, how my son naturally gravitated towards experimenting and orchestrating things and my daughter towards creating.

"We were literally alone in a schooling community."

Making the decision to unschool our two children, even in the best of circumstances, would have been challenging for me. Due to my own formal education, I faced serious self-doubts, doubts about my children’s future, and fear of criticism and rejection. The fact that we were the only family whose children didn’t attend school in our new environment made us unique. We straddled a mostly French ex-pat community which strongly valued formal education and the Senegalese who considered attending school a privilege. We were literally alone in a schooling community.

I envied those unschooling families back in the United States who were able to participate in neighborhood homeschool organizations, shared learning, conferences, unschooling Nature camps and play groups. I would have given anything just to have a cup of coffee with another mother who understood and validated my choices. My husband didn’t suffer from this lack of support because he was largely self-taught and confident that our children would learn what they needed to know when they needed to know it. You could say he was my beacon. But I still needed to find my own way. Because I was determined to explore my own curiosity about interest-led learning and the origins of my self-doubt, I needed to find a support system.

Read, Read, Read!

I began by reading everything I could about unschooling, starting with the archives of this magazine. I spent hours soaking up the generously shared stories and thought provoking testimonies of other life learning parents, unschooled teens, educators, psychologists, pioneers, and challengers.

I searched and found personal and family blogs about unschooling, world-schooling, free-range, life-loving, children-respecting tales. Again and again, I found the common thread of children learning with motivation, determination, and passion without coercion, timetables, or tests to measure and chart. I found parents (yes, just like me!) who had doubts, setbacks, barriers, fears, even tears, as well as revelations, exceptional triumphs, and ordinary days. Cooking, gardening, coloring, playing, exploring, experimenting, observing, creating, living.

The Gift of Modern Technology

Thanks to the Internet, we have access to online resources such as open source classes, TEDx and TED-Ed talks, learning symposiums, links to educational sites, and films. My children can explore geography, science, jewelry making, art, or anything else they’re interested in and share their experiences virtually with other children. My children and I have met and talked to other unschooling families on skype, through Facebook groups and other forms of social media. The online groups I belong to help answer questions, provide resources, and foster a sense of shared community.

Reaching Out to Those Around You

A big part of the way our children learn has been through informal apprenticeship. We’ve learned that if you are willing to ask someone to help, they will usually say yes. Apart from participating in organized activities with other children like surfing, judo, horse-back riding, and dance, we often ask adults to talk to our children about their art, talent, career, or experiences as they relate to our children’s interests. As a result, they have often been invited to discuss, observe, and participate in things like painting, sewing, wood-working, piloting an airplane, sailing, and cooking.

Although not everyone in our community agrees with our life choices, and prejudice still persists, we’ve found creative ways to include other children and adults in our journey by asking them to share their experiences and talents and sharing our own in return.

Let Your Children Speak

No one is better equipped to talk about unschooling than those who are actually doing it. My children are now ten and eleven, so when other kids or adults ask questions about interest-led learning, my children are often the ones to answer and they usually do so confidently and articulately. I’ve learned not to assume that people are coming from a critical place. Unschooling may be an entirely foreign concept that goes against their own social, cultural, and family upbringing. There may be ideas that resonate with them but they are either unable or unwilling to make the leap. When my children talk about how they learn, whether people agree or not, they usually listen. That’s all we can ask.

Write it and Share it

My children are not alone in their unschooling. I’m right there in the water with them, struggling less and less against the waves. Writing about our journey – my journey – has been an invaluable process, a way for me to reflect, document, reinforce, and share our unique path with others. It’s a way for me to give back the support I so desperately needed. So share your stories with others! With all those voices out there coming together from all over the world, telling of the ups and downs, the ebb and flow, no one is alone. No one is an island.

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