Life Learning 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
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,
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,
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.
Ellen Rowland is an American living abroad. With her husband
and two young children, she built an off-the-grid earth house in Africa.
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. Follow her family’s adventures at