writer, listener

What does an unschool day look like?

People new to the concept of unschooling often ask what an unschooled day looks like. It comes up all the time in various homeschooling and unschooling groups I’m part of. These parents are equal parts curious, hopeful, and terrified. It definitely seems it’s the parents, not the kids, who have the hardest time undoing the unnatural link between schoolishness and genuine learning. It was no different for our family.

But, of course, there’s no such thing as a typical unschooling day. It depends on each child, each family. It also completely depends on trust and an absence of coercion. That’s hard to think about, let alone implement, since most of us were brought up in a system built almost entirely on coercion. Most of us were taught to believe that children are always trying to get away with something–that they really don’t want to learn and aren’t learning all the time–unless we coerce them with grades and comparison, threat of punishment, arbitrary limits, ominous warnings about their horribly bleak future if they don’t have schoolish accomplishments or generally comply with what we tell them to do/think, and scary stories about various dangers if they spend too much time doing something they really like (right now, the popular cautionary tale is one of “technology addiction”).

So while every day looks a little different for us, and a lot different among unschooling families, here’s a glimpse of what our recent unschool days (or “days” as we call them) look like:

A few days ago, my seven-year-old unschooler watched a political candidate segment on the Today Show from bed, shared some hilarious political insights, then got up and wanted to know what time it was in Africa. I have no doubt that his question was related to what time of day people from different places might be up and playing online on a server.

This led, eventually, to going to the globe and tracing our fingers across the ocean to Africa, which led to a discussion about how humans were kidnapped in Africa and were forced to make the trip across the ocean in terrible conditions. If they lived, they were sold into slavery. He wasn’t interested in looking up specific routes, so we didn’t because that would’ve been a conversation killer right then. But history tells me we’ll circle back around to the topic in the future and he’ll be ready to build on what he already knows and thinks.

This led back to time, then to the concept of time travel. He was intensely interested in travelling back so he could drown the evil kidnappers in the ocean to save the Africans.

This led to a discussion about conflict over differing ideas about right and wrong. It’s interesting to think and talk about whether or not killing is ever justified, and if so, how so. All the while, he circled the living room. He’s not big on sit-down conversations, which was problematic for his kindergarten teacher. Here, it’s a non-issue because it doesn’t bother anybody.

This led to us recalling a documentary that was on recently about the Northern Ireland Conflict. I hadn’t realized he was paying any attention to it, but he said that more than 3,000 people died. I didn’t remember hearing that so I looked it up. He was right. He really hopes it stays pretty calm over there. Why? Because Jacksepticeye, one of his favorite potty-mouthed gamer/YouTubers, is Irish.

This led to him getting on his computer (what we call “heading to the office”) to see which of his friends were online and ready to collaborate on the suppression of a robot uprising. That could easily have led to a discussion about artificial intelligence, and some days it might, but that day it didn’t. That day, he just wanted to get on with the business of playing. And he can, because he’s taught me that it’s an important and valuable part of his development.

Around lunch time he told his friends he was getting bored. I know this because I sit right next to him at the office, which helps me cope with my stranger danger fears and helps me keep a handle on what he’s interested in. He doesn’t have to sneak around online because he’s not shamed about it. Not even about Jacksepticeye, of whom I’m personally not a fan. Like, at all.

Next, he asked me to help him bundle up so he could go outside. He made miniature snowpeople and whacked sticks against trees until he found one that was strong enough to bear his brute strength. That stick came inside with him to be added to his Special Collection of Sticks That Are Special. While taking his snow gear off, he complained about his gloves. “These pretty much suck because they’re too permeable,” he said. My mom was in my head asking me to remind him that lots of people don’t like to hear the word “sucks” but instead we talked about permeable and impermeable things.

I offered him a late lunch but he wasn’t hungry because he’d been kind of grazing all day. He’s getting pretty good at listening to his body that way since meal times aren’t scheduled into his day. When/if they need to be, he’ll figure out how to adjust. We don’t have a set family meal time. We see each other pretty often and aren’t compelled to schedule a time for meaningful interaction over a meal. This makes it a little weird for him at houses with mealtime rules for interaction (no gadgets at the table, for example), but that’s life. It’s good to learn about all the different ways families do their thing.

When I got tired, I told him I was hitting the hay. He came along, like he usually does. Lately, he likes us to read together from a very scary book. He loves being freaked out. I don’t, but I love him more than I don’t love being freaked out. Before this, he took a many-months hiatus from nighttime reading because he was more into nighttime television like Naked and Afraid or Alaskan Bush People.

The next day, we played with friends for about 7 hours at a bowling alley and arcade and then at home.

Earlier this week he spent all day outside at a nature school he loves. On nature school mornings, I say, “Are you going to nature school today? If so, you need to start getting ready now if you don’t want to get there late.” I can’t remember him ever choosing not to go, but if he does, that’s okay–whatever repercussions it causes are his to experience.

From my perspective, it’s more important that he feels in control of his life and responsible for his choices than to worry about how his choices will embarrass his parents. He’s figured out that he doesn’t like being late to nature school because he misses things that are important to him–like play time before nature school business begins.

Today he spent the day YouTubing, gaming, and trying to find some fun animation software.

He loves technology and nature and is not in an either-or environment set to shame him into or out of one or the other. This month he said he wants to become a professional prankster on YouTube. Last month he said he’s planning to spend half his time on the moon creating structures and half his time as a nurturist. I thought he meant nurturer so we talked about the difference. He did. He will be a very good nurturer. He already is, when he’s not scaring the hell out of people with pranks.

While we were deschooling–the period between leaving school and feeling genuinely confident in the decision to unschool–I’d break down all of his activities into specific subjects and skills. It was silly but necessary for me because it taught me to trust that he really is learning all the time.

I enjoy these organic, unrushed opportunities to meet him where he is and help make connections between what he likes and what he seems inclined to dig deeper into. It’s hard for me to think about the time I wasted believing real learning occurs any other way. I so wish I’d given my older kids similar opportunities a lot earlier, although they do seem a lot freer to pursue what feels right for them (including schooling and classes that they have decided have value for them, which is also unschooling). But I’m grateful for the new perspective and for the circumstances that push me to continually reevaluate and remain open to exploring what seems right for this child and for this family. *

Last week when we were at the community sailing center (in warm Key West, not still-frozen Interlochen), our unschooler struck up a conversation with about ten adults who were there after a race. “You KNOW that kid pays attention at school,” one of them said. We just smiled.

I’m aware of the constraints of parenting after divorce, single-parent families/caregivers, and families in which both parents work outside of home and can’t or don’t want to work different shifts (as some unschooling families do).  I also know that Sudbury-style democratic and free schools are out of reach financially and/or geographically for most of us. That’s why I’m also intensely interested in meaningful change in our public school system, which I’ve written about. 


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