Our journey into unschooling developed quite organically. It was never the intended destination and as we marched towards it, I didn’t even recognise where we were headed. Once we found ourselves here, there were times where fear set in. Will my children be ok? Is this enough? Am I letting them ‘fall behind’? Here I was, viewing my children as my greatest responsibility, and my heart was telling me to nurture them in a way that some view as irresponsible. Not sending them to school?! Not following a curriculum?! It was a contradiction I struggled with. What if I was wrong?
Letting go of this fear has been a process for me. And even though my concerns around natural learning are in the rear-view mirror, my children continue to show me not to be afraid.
I can remember thinking, what about the boring stuff? You know, the things that kids wouldn’t possibly want to learn on their own. The things that you hated learning as a kid but, as it so happens, are pretty useful to know. The broad brush stroke of ‘maths’, ‘punctuation’, spelling and things like contractions of words, learning to read or reading in general. Later on we think of things like ‘statistics’, ‘history’, ‘essays’, ‘chemistry’, ‘physics’. It is a bit of a name your poison scenario. It is also a vicious cycle. You hated learning x. You have formulated the opinion that in order to be successful in life you need to know x. Because it is ‘boring’ or ‘hard’ your child won’t want to learn x on their own. Therefore, you should ‘help’ them learn it by sitting them down and showing them the way.
It is why you often see statements like ‘I unschool but we do a bit of maths’ or ‘I unschool but we spend a bit of time learning to read each day because it is important.’
And maybe it is important. Maybe. And if you are right and it is, I have every confidence that your child will seek that knowledge at some point, with or without your help. I have this confidence because I see my children embrace it head on every day.
My eight year old, my eldest, was the first guinea pig in this whole process for our family. He is also a text book case of someone that unschoolers love to write about, which meant that I was still a little bit nervous for my other kids. What if he was an anomaly? He likes designing and engineering intricate things, coding, Miocene era evolution, the physics of space, ancient history, mythology and reading anything and everything. He is naturally drawn to things society has determined are ‘academic’. I guess part of me still wondered if he would bother with the boring stuff. This past week he said to me:
‘Mum, you know ‘there’ can be t-h-e-r-e and t-h-e-i-r and t-h-e-y-‘-r-e.’
‘I did know that.’
I quickly wrote them down to explain the different uses, excited for my big teacher moment. He stopped me.
‘Mum, I know. This is for, like, over ‘there’. This one is for people or something to do with someone, like that is ‘their’ thing. And this one is when ‘THEY ARE doing something.’
‘Ummm, yes. When did you learn that?’
‘I have read them lots of times. I was just thinking it is kind of weird that we spell them all differently and it would be a bit easier if they were all the same.’
‘That’s true. The English language is a bit tricky like that.’
Huh, reading things you are interested in inadvertently helps you learn the use of language. Now, that seems like a much more enjoyable thing to do than to fill in the blank space with the appropriate spelling of there/their/they’re or writing ten sentences using the words appropriately.
As I have watched my eight year old absorb everything like a sponge and quickly overtake my knowledge in so many different areas, there was still some unease. What if this was a fluke? Would it work like this for all of our kids?
My six year old is alive in the most vibrant way. He radiates fun. He loves gaming with his friends, wrestling, catching crayfish and frogs and throwing himself off very high things. He puts his body on the line to perform new tricks and is completely fearless. He would be about to enter grade two. Or maybe not? I have lost track.
To paint the differences between my two sons, yesterday we spent the day at a gorgeous little beach on a lake near us. The shoreline extending out into the water was fossil bearing shale. My eldest son spent the day snorkeling and diving down to explore the Ordovician period fossils, later googling to identify what he saw and what else happened during the period. My six year old on the other hand, spent time rock hopping along a rock wall and eventually spied an underwater tunnel from one side of the thick wall to the other that he was determined to swim through. And so he did. In the photo above, he is four years old, jumping off a high diving board into the ocean. He asks me questions like ‘how old do I have to be to ride a motorcycle?’ and ‘have you heard of base jumping?’ One son has my mind constantly stretched as I struggle to keep up with his millions of questions, one has my heart in my mouth.
So my six year old. His mind is also a sponge, but in less overt ways. Numbers make sense to him in a way they don’t for some. He is a walking calculator. Reading? Meh. Sure he can read, and he reads well. But it is rare to find him curled up with a book. He reads when he needs to achieve something. Writing? Similar. You are not going to find stories littered around the house, or many hand written notes. But sure, he can write. Still, he asks me the same kinds of questions.
‘Mum, there is n-o, k-n-o-w, and n-o-w. Is the last one now?’
‘then why is k-n-o-w not now?’
‘That word we pronounce like no’
‘why are they different?’
And then we had a chat about their different uses.
His motivation is the same. He wants to communicate effectively and it is useful to know. Why wouldn’t he learn it?
There are so many examples from this week just gone, the catalyst for writing. I could talk about when my eldest asked me about the difference between a colon and a semi-colon. How my six year old asks me to ‘test’ him on maths problems and make them HARDER. How my three year old asks me to practice finding her letters on my computer. How my eight year old wanted to understand the components of an atom and how water is split into hydrogen and oxygen in the photosynthesis process. How my six year old researched and taught himself roman numerals. Apparently, those things are not boring at all when they are on your terms.
Also, time. Can we talk about that for a second? Because sometimes it feels like there is not a lot going on. Except that there is. And learning about word contractions like cannot to can’t takes a moment of recognition not a week of allotted English time. And the basics of Chemistry seem to be the same. Actually, the same can be said of just about everything. When it is learnt at exactly the right moment, it sticks. Quickly. And when we stop asking kids to constantly demonstrate their knowledge or practise it, they keep being interested. We stop the boring part.
In my black and white mind, I have struggled to think of how some things could come up naturally. Remember learning about negative numbers at school? The idea seemed so abstract to me at the time, even though I could calculate the answers. We have been reading a lot about different things in history lately. Egyptians, engineering disasters and other bits and pieces. The concepts of BC and AD have been mentioned many times. As a result, they understand negative and positive numbers in calculations. If we are talking about something in 300BC and my six year old says, ‘wow, that happened 2318 years ago!’ what he has actually done is solve -300 + x = 2018. Except that it feels real. And makes sense. And doesn’t feel hard. And isn’t boring.
Given my husband and I have very academic backgrounds, it has been surprising to me that we give academics very little weight here. I am not telling you these stories so that you think oh wow, what genius children. Or, I wish my children were interested in spelling. Or anything else like that. It is because I was scared. I remember. I remember the process of letting go and wondering if it was going to be ok. Each day as my children throw questions at me, I am still kind of shocked, this many years later. I am writing this to let you know, that yes, they will learn EVERYTHING they NEED to.
And so this is something of a highlight reel of ‘boring’ concepts my kids sought out last week. Mixed in with everything else, they are just moments. But they are moments that have made me smile. Because they are moments I wish I could have shown myself years ago. I have long let go of a scripted academic agenda, but when I nervously wondered, ‘how will they ever learn that?’ I just had to wait and let them show me.