Making The Difficult Decision to Unschool

The beginning of September brings with it early fall weather and of course, back to school. It’s traditionally a time where parents and grand-parents share photos of their little one(s) heading to school, some for the first time and others for the last time. And this year, the decision to head back to school has never been more complicated. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families are faced with some of the most difficult choices ever when it comes to educating their kids.
We started homeschooling over 2 years ago out of trauma. When I see the videos in my Facebook memories from that time, I see how unwell my daughter was. She is much happier and suffers from a lot less anxiety and stress now that we unschool. This is a difficult decision for parents. Trust your gut. You know what's best for your kids. And let's treat each other's decisions with kindness and respect. We don't really know what's going on in someone else's home. There are so many factors to consider when making the decision that is best for your family, at least during this very specific moment in time. I'm sharing with you my perspective on two possible options, homeschooling vs unschooling.

 

One questions I often get asked is what is the difference between these two options? A few years ago (please note the date of the article) this Globe and Mail article helped to clarify the differences: Unschooled kids learn what they want – no curriculum, no homework, no tests. This article also featured different families that are choosing to unschool vs. homeschool.

When we first took our daughter out of school back in February of 2018, it was because she was no longer able to go to school due to debilitating separation anxiety and fear of being left at school. She was 7 at the time, and it got so bad at one point that I was worried she would choose to harm herself rather than be forced to go to school. That moment of crisis lead to emergency counselling and a swift decision to take her out of school permanently. We were told that if we didn't address her mental health immediately, she would suffer for the rest of her life.

At the beginning of this journey, we were doing our best to homeschool but it really wasn’t working. I was struggling to teach the curriculum and keep up with the material she 'had' to get through. And my daughter was still really suffering from mental illness. What she needed more than ever was to regain security and stability in her life, along with professional counselling and support.

Thankfully, there were parents in my community who were taking a more unschooling approach and I realized that this might be a better fit for our family.

What is the difference between Unschooling and Homeschooling?

Homeschooling is taking the provincial curriculum and basically doing similar work at home. This is what was suggested to me when we took our daughter out of school. She was transferred from the grade 2 column in the official registration to registered homeschool column. I was told to download and print the curriculum for grade 2 British Columbia (in French) and sent home with the workbooks she was using. I was completely overwhelmed and this approach did not work for us at all. It created a lot of stress and arguments between my daughter and I, as well as my husband and I. We didn’t know we had other options.

There are other types of homeschooling, including working with an independent school such as islanddiscovery.ca and www.selfdesign.org. I don't have any personal experience with these schools, however I have several friends who have found these options to be the right fit for their families.

Unschooling is an approach where instead of following the curriculum, you are working with your child(ren) to deep dive and learn based on their interests and curiosity. This approach assumes that our children are intelligent human beings that can think for themselves and when given opportunities for learning, they will follow their curiosity. One book that influenced our desire to unschool is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray.

If we ask our children what they want for curriculum, won’t they simply choose Minecraft all day?

This is a very good point and my own daughter, like many other kids her age, would likely choose to watch YouTubers who play Minecraft or play Minecraft herself all day long if I let her. However, as I get to know her as a person, I realize that she has so many different interests and things that she enjoys doing and learning about. Unschooling isn’t about letting our children run free in a Lord of the Flies kind of way. It’s about providing opportunities for learning without forcing it down their throats. Ever noticed that when a child is forced to learn something, they resist? Often if the same information or lesson is presented in a way that is more relatable, they learn without effort!

My daughter is passionate about lizards and knows more about snakes and leopard geckos than her parents. She's also an amazing sales person and has convinced us that this is what she'll be getting for her 10th birthday. She has also become an expert in creative play. I love watching her create worlds with her toys. Lately, she's been into horses and has created a barn and riding ride out of cardboard, glue, paint and kinetic sand.

My daughter shared what her unschooled life looks like in a podcast episode I recorded with her in March 2020: Episode 34: Unschooling and COVID-19.

What are some other reasons why we would choose to Unschool or Homeschool?

One of my good friends, Manon, shared with me that one of the reasons she chooses to unschool is that she wants to spend time with her son. Like me, she has one child. Connecting with Manon and her son made me realize that I also want to spend more time with my daughter. Choosing to unschool gives us time together that we could never have otherwise. I am extremely fortunate to be an entrepreneur who works from home and can make it work financially and time wise. 

Another reason why I choose to unschool vs. homeschool is that the curriculum is always behind where we are in the world. Even the most recent curriculum updates are a few years behind by the time they are implemented in the classroom. It is true that many amazing teachers are always adding to and improving the curriculum in their own classrooms, however what I’ve found is that it’s nearly impossible for our education system to keep up with how fast our world is changing. In less than 9 years my daughter will be 18 and we have zero idea of what the world will look like at that point and what kind of careers will be offered. Our world is changing dramatically due to the pandemic. What it will look like when we are able to get back to normal is a BIG unknown. And who says we really want to get back to normal anyhow?

What about when she’s a teenager and wants to learn something like physics?

The reality is that when you unschool your child, you’re not the teacher. I’m not pretending to replace a physics teacher or advanced math instructor. We have so many opportunities for learning online today that when and if these hurdles arise, there are seemingly endless resources online. Our kids can take highschool and college level courses online (now more than ever before). When and if my daughter wants to attend a post-secondary institution, we'll figure out what she needs to complete to be able to apply. I have learned that whether your child is homeschooled or unschooled, there are always ways to attend college or university.

My friend Jennifer Robinson shares her unschooling experience with her teenaged son in Episode 36: Why Now Might Be a Good Time to Unschool.

It turns out that being a homeschooled or unschooled student may be an advantage for entrance into a post-secondary program. Judy Arnell has published Unschooling to University for those who would like more guidance around this topic.

And what if it turns out that my daughter wants to be an entrepreneur like her parents? A post-secondary education might not be required after all.

The biggest question of all is how can a homeschool or unschooled child be properly socialized?

This question made me laugh a bit when I was asked about it on the radio interview. It’s a complete myth and misunderstanding of what school looks like when you’re not in a traditional school environment. First, in our particular situation, once you meet my daughter you’ll learn very quickly that she socializes well with children and adults of all ages. She loves to make new friends and is comfortable around adults. We have created this type of learning for her since she was very little, and much of her socialization comes from outside of school.

According to Peter Gray in the above mentioned book, Free to Learn, historically children have learned to socialize not only from their same age peers, but from children of all ages. In tribal cultures, children aren’t separated by age, they are forced to learn to play with and work with all of the children in the tribe. What Gray also shared is that when children play in mixed age groups, there are few incidents of bullying. When the pandemic began, my daughter and her friends in the neighborhood created a small bubble of five. She is the youngest at 9, and the oldest is closer to 13. There have been some instances of hurt feelings and misunderstandings, but for the most part, these girls have become the best of friends.

Unschooling doesn’t mean a lack of community

With more and more families choosing to keep their kids home, there are great opportunities to create a (small) community. We moved 10 months after our first move to BC and now that we've been living on Vancouver Island for almost two years, we've both made many wonderful friends.

I’ve also learned that we all do homeschooling or unschooling differently. Every family and every child has different needs and interests. We also have the opportunity to spend time with children of all different ages and abilities. Unlike traditional school, it takes more effort to become a part of a community when you choose alternative schooling. What I have found is a supportive group of parents, who, like me, are simply doing what is best for themselves and their families.

I really resonated with this opinion piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/10/opinion/coronavirus-school-closures.html

I'm Grateful for the Opportunity to be able to Unschool

Lastly, I have tremendous gratitude for creating the opportunity to take my daughter out of an unhealthy situation and choose to unschool. As a work-from-home entrepreneur for the past 14 years, I've been able to be here for my child. If I had been working at a traditional job, I’m not sure what we would have done. At the beginning, my business suffered and my revenue dropped. Two year later, my businesses are thriving and I've added several new revenue streams as well as starting a podcast and become a Twitch streamer! The person I have become throughout these experiences has served my businesses in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.

Every day, I’m grateful that she is home with me and that we are making memories together!

 

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