August 28, 2008

Advice For The New Unschooler

We're coming up on our first homeschooling anniversary. And three days after that will be our first unschooling anniversary. Yes, we lasted a full three days in school at home mode before both Jerry and I were in separate rooms crying and I tossed my hands in the air (onto the computer keyboard, actually) and googled "unschooling."

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I would say to myself if I could travel back in time and give my new unschooler self a few words of advice from my not-so-new unschooler self.

The very first thing I would say is that she should throw the whole one month for every year in school thing out the window. You've heard that right? "It takes one month for every year a kid spends in school to rediscover his love of learning." Here's the thing about that: first of all, as the parent that puts you in a bit of a holding pattern. You're waiting for something to happen. You're looking for "learning" all the time. You can't wait for x number of months (it was five for us) to be over so the real unschooling can begin. But here's the thing about that: It's already begun. The unschooling started the day your child walked out of the classroom for good. It's going to look different as time passes and in the beginning it'll throw you off because either you might not see the value in what they're doing or it won't look anything like learning. But relax. Someday it will.

In fact, that's something else I'd tell my new unschooler self: Drop the word "learning" from your vocabulary. It might be different for other kids but my son came out of school with very strong feelings about learning--none of them good. So even when I insisted he was learning by sitting around playing video games and watching TV all day (even though I didn't have much faith in that at the time), I was still putting emphasis on something he didn't value. Now, I know Jerry does value learning. But when he is learning about something he enjoys (using Microsoft Paint to create new Pokemon, for example--that's what he's been up to lately) he doesn't consider it learning. To Jerry, learning is being forced to remember or do something that isn't interesting to him or has no relation to his life. To me, it's gathering information and creating a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit. But since our definitions are so different why not just lose the word altogether?

So what should my new unschooler self be doing while she's not talking about learning or looking for it in her son? Follow her bliss! This is one of the things I like best about homeschooling (and unschooling in particular because it seems to allow more time for this kind of thing). Have you always wished you'd paid attention in physics class? Get yourself a book and start reading about it. And when you get excited about something share it with your child. Don't share it in an "I want you to know this" way. Share in a "look what I just discovered--isn't it awesome!" way. Excitement is contagious. And though your child may never become excited about electrons moving from one atom to another or the second law of thermodynamics, he'll see that you're excited about learning (even though you won't call it that!) and that right there is a very important lesson!

Now, on to the big bad television and video games: In the last few months I've realized what a huge mistake it was to express my distaste for video games so loudly. Children are already bombarded with images of kids who like to play video games as losers. Compare this to kids who are obsessed with sports. How do we view those kids? We support their interest. We sign them up for team sports and encourage them to improve. But with video games we're just hoping they'll lose interest. So what message are we sending? Are we saying gamers really are losers? I think we might be. So I would tell my new unschooler self, right from the very beginning, to stop separating video game/computer time from other play time. In other words, try not to think of it as something "other" or bad.

I know this is really hard. My son was in a Waldorf school before we started this journey so we had serious restrictions on video game and computer use. We didn't ban them completely but they were not an option during the school week and on weekends he was only allowed a few hours of "screen time." But since the unschooling philosophy requires a parent to take her child's interests seriously, once we started unschooling I couldn't continue to look at Jerry's interest in video games as something that was worthless. By virtue of the fact that my son was interested in spending his time in front of the screen, the screen had worth.

For months I struggled with this. I was extremely uncomfortable with the amount of time he was spending in front of the tv, at the computer, or playing video games. I'm still not comfortable with the idea of spending all day in front of a screen but I keep my mouth shut--it's been a year now and he does it less and less. He finds interest in other things, seeks out my company and asks to play board games or draw or do things that I couldn't get him interested in when we began.

So I would also ask my new unschooler self--no, wait, I would insist--that she carefully consider the message she is sending to her child when she places negative judgments on the things that are near and dear to his heart.

I think that's it for now. I'm sure I'll come up with other ideas. In fact, if anyone else wants to put a similar post up at their own blog, I'd be happy to put a link to it here. I figure the new unschoolers need all the help and encouragement they can get. It's a rough few months when you're first starting out, questioning everything you ever believed about learning and parenting and trying to wrap your head around a style of learning that looks suspiciously like doing nothing. But once you make that paradigm shift "doing nothing" suddenly becomes "living joyfully" and things start to fall into place.


Miss Jenny said...

You are the first unschooling blogger I have found that is saying exactly what I need to hear right now! I took my two boys(10 &13)out of school almost 4 months ago to homeschool, and have been struggling with my decision. Not because I think the choice was wrong, but because I don't know how to do it. I have comparisons in my head. I have stipulations. I have expectations. I don't have a support group. I need to get out of my head. Just want to say thank you thank you thank you for being so honest. You write exactly what I've been needing to hear.

Colleen said...

Thanks Jenny! I felt the same way when I started. That's why I started this blog, actually. So there would be something people could read about how its hard and rewarding at the same time. Too bad my comments were recently erased because there was always a lot of good advice in the comments sections, too! You might like the book "Deschooling Gently" by Tammy Takahashi. It's really great when you're first starting out and she's not a hardcore unschooler so it's a good way to ease yourself in... :)
Good luck!

Craig & Annette said...

Thank you for posting this -- we are brand new to unschooling; in fact, we haven't even "officially" started yet. I appreciate you sharing your experiences and outlook!

:) Annette

Misa said...

I, too, need to thank you for this post and your experience. We started homeschooling 7 months ago and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine unschooling would become our way of living. We did the traditional school at home at first and like you, it led to tears and frustration. Ours lasted 3 months, not 3 days though!! Four months later I know we are still deschooling. The same fears of TV and gaming still grip me, but I notice one by one I am starting to let these fears go and trust my children more and more. I scour the blogs and unschooling sites for posts like yours that encourage, support and provide inspiration.
Thanks so much.

Colleen said...

Thanks for commenting Misa. And you're welcome! :) I just found this article through Sandra Dodd's site: I think you'll like it.

JJ Ross said...

And Pam Sorooshian just put up a new post explaining how her three girls grew up unschooling with lots of tv and computer time and turned out great. ;-)

Television, really? Won't that ruin kids' brains??

Tamara said...

I have a daughter who will be 4 in june and a son about to turn 2 so neither one has ever been to school. Im interested in unschooling them but I'm not sure when or how early I should start. I've seen you say that it takes time to actually unschool them once they've actually started going to school and I know children are always learning. when my husband and I try to teach her the alphabet or numbers it doesn't seem like she's actually comprehending what were saying but then she'll be watching dora the explorer or some other educational cartoon and she starts counting the numbers or saying the letters as she sees them. What should I do?

Tamara said...

I was also wanting to know if there were any forms paperwork or anything else that you have to fill out in order to unschool your children. I know when you take them to school you have to fill out registration forms and all thought was curious if there was anything like that I would need to do

Colleen said...

I recommend you don't worry about teaching your kids anything. Just have fun. If they want to know something give them answers, but all you really need to do is expose them to the world and they'll learn. My friend Becky started unschooling when her kids were young after she took her oldest out of kindergarten. She said she just continued doing everything they had done before kindergarten. Just explore and have fun and you'll be unschooling!

As far as paperwork goes, Tamara, it depends on what state you live in. If you're in California, the easiest thing to do is to file a Private School Affidavit in October. The website has lots of helpful advice for California homeschoolers on that front. If you're in another state just check that state's homeschool organizations for information.
And you might want to join a homeschooling or unschooling group in your area. Your kids are never too young for that -- it's nice to have friends who are doing the same thing as you. :)

TamaraHoward said...

Thank you. We live in Oklahoma and I've read the statues of Oklahoma and as far as I can tell and understand there isn't but I'm not 100% sure. And how can I find unschooling homeschooling groups?

Colleen said...

Try this:

Tamara said...

Thank you I've found a lot of things I was curious about from that website or links off that website.

Colleen said...

Good! I love that site. :)