Friday, May 22, 2009

Unschooling, sometimes

We have been babysitting a little toddler for the past few weeks. It has been fun, if exhausting. He's little, yet, and can't communicate well, but we can see the delight in his eyes when he pets our dog, or when he sees a bird outside. He wants to touch and see everything he can. Soon, he'll be talking and asking lots of questions and generally being a very curious kid.

All kids are curious when they are little, and some stay that way all their lives. Some don't, though. Some become passive consumers of entertainment. Some just don't find the world very interesting. It is a bit depressing to me to meet incurious kids; worse when I meet adults with no real curiosity or interests.

But what does this have to do with unschooling?

Curious kids are natural candidates for "unschooling." Unschooling is a philosophy of education that is widely misunderstood, probably because its proponents don't always use the same definition. In my experience, most people who don't know anything about homeschooling at all equate unschooling with neglect. They figure it means kids are left free to roam the neighborhood breaking into people's houses, or at least playing video games all day. I guess it could mean that to some people, but to most I've come across, it just means allowing children to learn the things they want or need to learn at their own pace and in their own way. One unschooling family I know has tons of books, dvds, cds, science kits, etc., around, and their kids are free to explore with them. The parents act as facilitators as the kids educate themselves. The kids are bright, articulate, well-educated, and very, very curious.

We aren't really unschoolers, except in a few areas where it works well for us.

My girl is always trying out new crafts, using library books and materials we provide for her. She does things I can't even dream of getting my clumsy fingers to do. She's never had a class, but she is learning a lot. It's the same with drawing. She may take classes at some time, but for now she's doing it on her own, with the help of the library and local craft shops.

She has also participated in some casual writing workshops and learned a lot about writing. She's written a small picture book and occasionally writes a journal as a young girl in early-20th century England. She reads a lot of historical fiction. I also toss some writing instructional materials her way now and then, but she works with them on her own. I look things over and offer help and ideas. But, she's really doing it.

My boy has always had an interest in planes. Before he could read he pored over picture books about planes and asked me to read bits to him. Once he could read there was no stopping him learning. He also, occasionally, watched dvds or tv shows about planes; once in a while we'd point him to an interesting website. We went to museums and stood around bored while he examined planes. (OK, just my girl and I got bored.) We've never held a "class" on planes.

A few years ago we went to a family reunion and he, among a few others (also homeschooled), sat and talked with an uncle who'd been a pilot in a semi-recent war. I wasn't close enough to hear them, but the conversation was obviously quite animated.

Later, after the kids went to bed and the adults were hanging out chatting, the uncle chuckled about his dinner conversation with those boys. "They sure knew a lot," he said. "Must have learned it in school."

I didn't have the opportunity to point out that they had not learned it in school. And while I don't know the other homeschooling family well enough to know for sure, I have a feeling they didn't have a "class" on planes either.

Of course the boys who did go to school may know just as much about planes, either from their own leisure-time reading or from classes at school. This isn't about the superiority of homeschooling. It's about learning and being curious enough to learn without being taught.

One of the goals we have for our kids is to retain their natural curiosity about life. They have different interests and we try to allow them time to pursue them.

Allowing my kids time to develop their own interests and learn on their own helps me too. It gives me more time in my day to learn the things I'm interested in. Because I haven't lost my curiosity about the world yet, either.

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