An Element of Unschooling

If given complete freedom, will children naturally chose to school themselves? Is unschooling an effective education style, or an excuse created by lazy parents?

The basic idea of unschooling is that children are naturally curious, so if a child is given the freedom to do whatever they want, they will want to learn and school themselves. I’ve always scoffed at the idea of unschooling. If given the freedom to do whatever they want, there is no way either of my kids would chose math homework. There are some things adults need to know, that most kids don’t want to learn. I am therefore, a very firm believer in the idea of some required formal education for all children.

2020 has not been a normal year. Embracing the abnormality of the time, I decided to give unschooling a try for the month of July. My kids were on summer break, and we weren’t going anywhere. So I gave them complete freedom. They could eat whenever they were hungry, sleep whenever they were tired, and spend their time doing whatever they wanted. The only rule was don’t leave the house, and that was because of a global pandemic. The results surprised me.

My oldest son is 13. He has always loved to read, and spent on average somewhere between 8-12 hours per day reading during this period of complete freedom. Not only was he constantly reading, he also regularly came to me to discuss the books he was reading. On a few occasions, he even gave me reading assignments so I could properly uphold my side of our conversations.

My younger son is 11. He has always loved video games. Instead of reading like his older brother, he spent the vast majority of his waking hours playing video games. Normally, this would drive me bananas. But, in a time when seeing friends in person isn’t really an option, he spent a lot of time talking to his friends online while they played video games together. Also, the games he gravitates towards tend to be games that involve building and strategy. The kid is insanely good at Minecraft. It’s not constant reading, but it does still require a lot of critical thinking, as well as social interaction. Not the worst way to entertain yourself during a pandemic.

We officially began our school year in the middle of August, and in the past month and a half my children have been given less freedom than they had in July. They are now required to do math assignments, conduct science experiments, write essays, study history, and read books they wouldn’t normally pick for themselves. This formal schooling usually takes between three and four hours per day. It also gives me enormous piece of mind. I know that I’m teaching my kids at least some of the important things they will need to know as adults.

Still our household is very relaxed. My kids have some basic rules, but whenever possible I try to let them make decisions for themselves. When my kids finish their required schooling for the day they are free to go back to doing whatever they want. They read and game respectively almost as much now as they did back in July, with just a short pause for math every once in a while.

When I see them wanting to learn, I adapt their required school work to more closely match the curiosities they are naturally pursuing. When my son expressed fascination in ancient Mesoamerica, we stretched what was supposed to be a week long intro to his US History curriculum into a month long unit study.

Children do need parents, and extreme unschooling can look a lot like neglect. But a little bit of freedom, or even a lot of freedom isn’t always a bad thing. Especially younger kids who don’t have the attention span to sit on zoom calls all day, might be better educated when given the freedom to teach themselves. Your kids might surprise you as much as mine surprised me.

If given the freedom to do whatever they want, what will your children do? What are they curious about? And how can you encourage that natural curiosity and enable your children to thrive?

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