When I started this homeschool journey, I tried to recreate school. I was a former public school teacher, and I loved to teach, so why wouldn't I? Slowly, but surely, every single reason why we left the school system came rushing back to my mind. I was teaching what I thought they needed to know, forcing it when they weren't ready, and demanding they comply. It wasn't working. We tried a few different methods, and some of those stuck in some ways. Ultimately, we found a style that we loved! So, we're unschooling former public kids!
What is "unschooling?"
Unschooling is simple: “an informal learning that advocates for learner-chosen activities and topics as the primary means for learning.” Essentially, the child gets to choose everything!
Seems a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it? How in the world is your child supposed to know what to learn if they haven’t learned it yet? Well, unschooling students learn mainly through their own topics of interest, natural life experiences, play, work experiences, family members, etc. The parent is a facilitator in learning, rather than the teacher; they provide opportunities to further the child’s interest rather than giving them a set topic or skill to learn. Didn't your child learn to walk, talk, and think this way?
It describes the exact way I learn, so why shouldn’t I give my kids a chance to learn that way, too? While I loved the concept of unschooling, I knew there were things I still wanted to pursue with my children. Reading, writing, art, and the love of travel are all priorities in our family, so I knew I had to incorporate them into our days. True unschoolers also don’t believe in a set schedule structure, which is great! I believe that it’s important for a child to learn WHEN they are receptive to learning. I saw how my students’ energies would rise and fall throughout the public school day, so I recognized that need for less fixed schedules. Overall, I knew I had to make a few changes to model to really work for us.
Our Unschooling Model
Every morning, my kids follow their natural rhythms, and I follow mine. My son wakes up at the crack of dawn (no, really - we tracked it), so he plays quietly in the living room until other wake up. My wife starts her day by walking the dog and grabbing my coffee at a crisp 7:45 AM. I keep an eye on the baby monitor we use for my daughter and wake up slowly. I sip on my coffee, play on my phone, read my Kindle, and just enjoy the quiet. Once my daughter wakes up, we have breakfast, brush teeth, and get dressed for the day.
Before we decided to unschool, we had a loose schedule of working from 11 - 1, and again from 3 to 5. Once we started unschooling, our schedule went out the window, but they thrived on a some structure. So, every day, I write down a list of topics or subjects to complete, as well as an item or two that isn't negotiable. They have all day to work on as little or as much as they want. Sometimes, they'll span a project over several days, and other times, they'll be done in twenty minutes. They have the choice as to how long it takes, but our rule is: once you start, you have to finish. This is just a personal value we work on in our daily lives, so we practice through their education.
Math - free choice (I supply websites or worksheets of their choice skill)
Reading - 30 minutes free choice and read aloud time
Writing - copywork or write a story (I may provide a prompt if needed)
Social Studies - choose a book and research (I guide when needed)
Science - choose a book and research (I guide when needed)
Art - free choice (full access to supplies)
If they choose to skip math one day, that's fine! But I do require some sort of practice at least twice a week. Both of my kids excel in math, so they tend to complete it voluntarily. They'll choose something they're familiar with and practice with white boards, beans, or counters. My son gets adventurous and wants to practice harder math, so I find resources for him to learn if he can't.
Reading daily is non-negotiable. Normally, I read aloud at least once throughout the day. They are still required to read for thirty minutes - but it can be ANYTHING! Graphic novel, comics, fan fiction, articles on the web, etc. all count towards their reading! But I don't count the reading from other subjects towards this requirement. I want them to enjoy reading (and they do despite my requirement), so part of our unschooling is free range of reading material for enjoyment or interest.
Writing is optional until a certain age in our house. They need to learn how to communicate their thoughts. However, writing doesn't have to be done with a pencil and paper. My son doesn't enjoy writing, but he'll type all day. My daughter is infatuated with writing, though she doesn't know how to form her own sentences just yet.
Social Studies is non-negotiable. This comes from our love of traveling and the need for diversity in our life. We have a big map on our wall, so most days, they pick a random country and get to researching! We'll find fairy tales, legends, history, maps of cities, etc. My daughter prefers the literature, while my son prefers making maps and learning cities.
Science comes naturally to my kids, so I don't force it. They naturally gravitate towards my library full of science resource books. They'll spend hours looking over the pictures, my son reading aloud, and teach me all about it.
Art is technically non-negotiable, but again, I don't even have to force it. My daughter wakes up wanting watercolors, scissors, and glue in her hands. They'll paint for hours, or they'll build cardboard contraptions. My son will build sculptures out of Legos or building pipes, and I do count those. If they find an interesting painting, we'll talk about the history of the artist, but it doesn't come up often. If the day comes, I'll be there to guide them.
"But how do you know that they're retaining anything?" Ah, the age old question! Informally, you can hear it in their speech. My daughter is currently on a redwood forest kick after learning about them. She'll draw pictures about them, tell us she loves us bigger than all the redwood trees stacked, and tell us all about them. Do they retain everything? Probably not! But it's a start.
Formally, we ask that they "show what they know" through their own choices! They currently like creating their own "textbooks." Basically, they take notes and draw pictures in a little book format they create. They'll paint, cut, and paste these together in beautiful fashion. Sometimes, it's a project they'll build together or solo. My son created the Eiffel Tower out of Legos and taught us what he learned. After dinner, they put on a little show with their creations! We get to practice reflective listening, public speaking, and proving our evidence through these nightly demonstrations. It's better than any test my son ever took at school.
Let's face it - there are days where I don't feel like completing a single thing. And there are days my kids just aren't into it. There are weeks they aren't into it. We follow our natural rhythm. I don't force them into anything, because I know they won't actually learn a thing. Even during those "down days/weeks," they find themselves naturally unschooling themselves. My son will recreate a language inside a book he loves, leaving us clues all over the house to decipher. My daughter started teaching herself to read without my help at all (cue happy and sad tears here). We take the time we need to rest our brains, play, and explore as we authentically can.
My kids play all day long! This is often how their work gets done. They'll start reading a book, then be inspired to act it out with scarves or peg dolls. Maybe they found a picture they just thought was beautiful and wanted to recreate it. And sometimes? They just straight up play. They make fart noises and laugh until they pee their pants!
They take breaks as they find themselves needing to throughout their projects. My son will straight up be working knee deep on a project, get up, and run off to play. No rhyme, reason, or explanation other than "I just wanted to go play." Fine with me! They're just kids anyway!
Should I be Unschooling Former Public School Kids?
Maybe. Maybe not! It works for my kids. My former public school kiddos are no longer chained to a desk, feeling the demands of unnecessary tasks on their backs. I'm a firm believer that not every child needs every skill. My kids know what they need, because they find themselves in situations where they realize they don't know it! My daughter was desperate to read, because she truly loves to read. My son wanted to know how to count money and multiply in order to play restaurant more accurately. He found himself loving maps, because he has a photographic memory and wanted a way to track our routes. If you find yourself wanting a guide on what your kids should be learning in alignment to public schools, I've got it for you! We use it as inspiration when we leave out books and worksheets for the kids to "discover."
If you're considering unschooling your former public school kids, what's your biggest fear?