How Unschooling Works: Finding Balance and Learning in Place

When I received a message yesterday from a prospective homeschooling/unschooling parent, I thought that I would respond in the form of a whole blog post. She brings up a couple of concerns I hear expressed a lot, so I wanted to take the time to address them in-depth!

Learning in Place

How do I as her mother give her opportunities to discover things that interest her? S. writes, concerned that as an expat, Many of the opportunities that I would have given her in the US (parks, swimming pools, zoos, museums, and so many other things) are infinitely more difficult [here]. However, there are opportunities [here] that would be impossible in the US. I worry that she may be interested in things that we won't be able to explore as we could in the US.

Our learning will always be shaped by our geographic location, by our family, and by the communities we're a part of, as well as by our personal interests and goals. The world is full of an infinite amount of things that can be learned, experienced, and explored, and each of us will only ever know a fraction of those things. So I think it's kind of exciting to just work on embracing the experiences, the culture, and the community you find yourself in, no matter where in the world that might be. The unschooling community online looks pretty US-centric (even as a Canadian I sometimes feel kind of frustrated at how US-centric it is), so the examples we see can look similar in a lot of ways. I don't think that says much about what an "ideal" unschooling life should look like, though, and instead just says something about the relative popularity of unschooling in the US! There are travelling families, such as Lainie and Miro, who took their learning on the road and never looked back. There are also families like the Hewitt's who, while living in the US, very strongly value the intense on-the-land learning that's afforded by their subsistence farming lifestyle in rural Vermont. Successful unschooling doesn't depend on being able to have a specific body of experiences and resources: instead, it's shaped by our surroundings, whatever they may be.

It seems that parents often feel a lot of pressure to expose their kids to everything, or at least as much of everything as they can possibly fit in. However, I think exposure is more about quality than quantity, and can simply be having an internet connection, access to both fiction and nonfiction books, some games of various types, some crafting materials... The specific interests expressed by the child can guide any further things you introduce, and beyond that, just exploring what's available near you is enough, I believe. We'll all have different experiences and different educations, but that's largely true whether or not you’re unschooled. School curriculums vary by country and by region, what's taught in a more or less exciting way varies by teacher, and what you actually remember is dependent on what seems interesting and relevant to you personally.

All we're doing with unschooling is embracing the uniqueness of each person's education, encouraging individuals to approach learning with curiosity and joy, and working to value all different types of learning, not just the learning deemed properly "educational" by schools. While lack of access to time and resources can be a major impediment to unschooling, if you have those things, you have enough.

Finding Balance

How do parents balance providing guidance and a certain level of boundaries (based on their greater experience and responsibility to protect) with giving the freedom to learn for yourself? S. asks. I am truly interested in knowing how to find the balance for my family between child led learning and parental involvement in teaching.

I think Pam Sorooshian said it well when she expressed that, instead of unschooling being "child-led learning," it was "more like a dance between partners who are so perfectly in sync with each other that it is hard to tell who is leading. The partners are sensitive to each others’ little indications, little movements, slight shifts and they respond. Sometimes one leads and sometimes the other."
My mother and sister, circa 2010.

It's a very school-based way of thinking that sees one person as a teacher and one as a student, one a leader and one a follower. In reality, unschooling quickly starts to look more organic, more flexible, and more collaborative than any ideas of people having to embody just one role (that of a learner, or one who imparts learning). Sometimes a parent excitedly learns about something alongside their kid, who finds the subject at hand fascinating, and thus initiates the exploration. Sometimes a parent will introduce a subject or activity, and be the main force behind bringing it into family life.

Can it be difficult for parents to find that balance? I have no doubt it can be, and I'm sure unschooling parents would be in a much better position to talk about that difficulty with you! I know that from the perspective of an unschooler, I was pretty good at letting my mother know when I felt she was being pushy about something I had no interest in learning, and I think that's true for most kids. They're pretty good at letting you know when they're not interested!

Experience is Better Than Theory

Ultimately, while I hope the words of unschoolers can be helpful to you, I think actually practicing and experiencing life learning is the only real way to feel out how it works. It's a matter of deliberately and consciously working to let go of schoolish ideas about what an education should look like, and instead focusing on the actual learning and growth happening for your child, and yourself, moment by moment and day by day. It's a difficult process--even for someone like me who spent very little time in school, yet still managed to internalize a lot of bad ideas about successful education--but an infinitely rewarding one.

Wishing you all the best with whatever form life learning takes in your own family!

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