I didn’t really choose unschooling – it chose me.
It arose out of a desire for freedom. I wanted my children to have freedom in their learning and their daily life and I wanted freedom from the role of education-controller.
When we started unschooling 15 years ago it felt like I was walking blindfolded through a forest. I was scared I’d get hurt or fail, or somehow “ruin” my children’s lives.
I didn’t know it then, but unschooling gave my children the freedom to learn in their own way and in their own time; to explore, create and play according to their own curiosity, interest and inspiration. They were free to choose who they wanted to play with and to stay close to me for as long as they liked. Rather than conform to the school curriculum or even any agenda of mine, they were able to follow their own inner compass.
I didn’t know anything about unschooling when my children were very young. In fact, home education wasn’t on my radar. I’d never met a homeschooling family and I was unaware of the Australian home education community. I was led into unschooling by my eldest son and by the whispers of my heart.
When my eldest son Jeremy was 4 years old I had a new baby and I was on maternity leave from my job as a lecturer in the law faculty of the University of Wollongong. Jeremy was attending a local “mainstream” preschool two days a week. He had resisted going to preschool since he started at the age of three, but I had persevered because I wanted to keep working. Some days he went to preschool happily and other days there was lots of crying when it was time for us to part. He had a few friends there and he was happy when he was playing with them in the preschool yard, but he didn’t like the more structured time indoors where he was told what to do more often. He often had a big meltdown when he got home from preschool, as if he was releasing a whole lot of stress that had built up during the day.
When Jeremy was 4 ½ our family went to live in Dunedin, New Zealand for six months. I thought it was a good opportunity to try out a new learning environment so I enrolled Jeremy in a Montessori preschool that promised to give him as much freedom as they could.
I loved the Montessori preschool that Jeremy attended. It seemed like a great environment for a child to learn in and I hoped that he would settle in and enjoy it, but he didn’t. After the first two weeks he started to complain that he didn’t want to go. It wasn’t clear what the reason was. I spoke to the teachers and they said they would try and make it more interesting for him by letting him follow his own interests more, but it wasn’t enough. By the third week he was crying in the morning on preschool days, being calm while he was there and then having more meltdowns when he got home. Then he refused to get out of the car when we got to preschool. He would physically brace himself in the back seat of the car so I couldn’t get him out without using force. I asked him why he wouldn’t go to preschool and all he could say was that he just wanted to stay home with me and his baby brother.
It became clear that to continue down the path of preschool and school would require me to use coercion. I would have to find a way to force him to attend and then assert more control to get him to do what was expected when he got there. The thought kept coming to me “He’s not going to fit into this preschool or into school.” I knew in my heart that to keep pushing towards school would be a major struggle and I just didn’t want that. The only “alternative” school back in Wollongong was a Montessori school, and it seemed that Jeremy had rejected that option.
I didn’t have a reason to force my son to go to preschool or school that wasn’t based on my own fears about the future.
I had a fear of the unknown. What were we going to do when Jeremy reached compulsory school age? Home education was a completely unknown path. How would I get my son to do things he didn’t want to do? Would it be a struggle every day? How would he ever learn all those things that are considered essential? What would my parents say about such an unconventional path?
I was also scared about my own future. How would I cope with being a “stay at home mum” after 15 years in a professional career? A lot of my identity was tied up in my job and academic achievements and I feared giving up that aspect of my ego. How would our family deal with the loss of one income? And what about “me time”? I didn’t know how I would cope without time away from my sons to pursue my own interests.
A gift from the universe
Around the time that Jeremy refused to go to preschool we received a lovely gift from the universe. We were out exploring a new playground in Dunedin and I had my eye out for other parents with young children as I didn’t know anybody in the city. It was a weekday morning but there was a family at the park with a few children, at least one of whom looked old enough for school. I said Hi to this other mum and we ended up in conversation. It turns out they were a homeschooling family. I was so curious about their lives that I asked heaps of questions. This woman was open and generous and she invited us to come and check out the weekly homeschool playgroup that they attended. I jumped at the chance.
That first home education group I attended in Dunedin was a revelation to me. It was held in a Playcentre which are family-friendly early childhood centres cooperatively run by parents. For a day a week the homeschool group had the run of this amazing space full of indoor and outdoor play and learning opportunities. I got to see all ages of children playing together with their parents nearby and organising themselves to create sculpture, learn woodwork, paint, play instruments and enjoy outdoor games. These children had a freedom I hadn’t come across before and they were happy – so happy and relaxed. The atmosphere was fun and inviting and my son fitted in just fine. He loved it.
Once Jeremy and I had seen that homeschool group we both knew there was another option to preschool and school that we could be OK with. I withdrew him from the preschool and we started a 5 month “trial period” of home education while we were staying in New Zealand.
There’s a thing called unschooling.
I met a couple of unschoolers in the group we attended and I discovered they were supporting their children to learn through their own interests. I got to ask some of the questions that were filling my head – like “What about maths?”- “How do your children learn maths?” Someone had the patience to explain to me how much maths was involved in cooking, shopping and even playing with Lego. I gradually started to see the possibilities for all sorts of learning in our day-to-day activities at home. It was simply an extension of the learning that had been going on quite naturally since my children were born.
Like most parents, I had always supported my son’s natural curiosity and desire to explore and learn new skills. I started reading books about unschooling that explained how this natural learning process can keep going right throughout childhood and provide a self-directed education. I intuitively knew that this style of learning would suit my strong-willed, self-motivated and highly curious sons. Little did I know what a wild and adventurous journey it was going to be.
Now that I’d “taken the leap”, at least on a trial basis, it was time to start facing some of my fears. This was the beginning of a long process of getting scared, working out what my fear was and then investigating it. At that time I didn’t have any particular process for dealing with my fears. That would come later, and I’ll write about it in another article. In these early days I just asked a lot of questions and read what I could find about unschooling.
Through the friendship of the home educating parents that I met in Dunedin I saw that unschooling might be the kind of work I could handle. While having my children at home would require a commitment of time and energy on my part it was going to be a lot less stressful than trying to fit my children into the mainstream school system. There would be lots of fun outdoors, friends to talk to and time to sit quietly doing my own thing while my children played.
I would have to give up my academic job, but I wouldn’t have to give up my love of learning or teaching – I’d just have to make major adjustments. My eldest son had lots and lots of questions about science, the natural world, technology, TV, movies and SO much more, but he didn’t want to be “taught” anything. He wanted his questions answered directly and concisely without a long-winded lecture. He wanted help to learn about the things that he was interested in: to find resources, do experiments, make things and have new experiences but he wasn’t going to sit down with a workbook and be instructed at all. It was clear that there was no room for any agenda or learning plan of mine.
By the time we left Dunedin I was determined to try unschooling as an alternative to sending Jeremy to school. I knew that coming back to Australia would mean facing more of my fears: giving up my job, staying at home and making new friends. I feared “taking responsibility for my children’s education” even though it was just a big scary concept in my head. My biggest fear was telling my own parents what I had in mind as I believed they would hate the idea. It took me 6 months to pluck up the courage to tell them of my plan to home educate (no mention of unschooling) and it didn’t go well. They echoed all of the fears that had already come into my mind about how home education might “fail”. On top of that I had to face my fears of their disapproval and rejection.
The choice to unschool has fundamentally been a personal journey within myself; do I listen to my fears and take actions which would soothe those fears and play it safe, or do I listen to my intuition and my children and follow their lead? I knew that I wanted freedom from those fears but it wasn’t a simple, one-off choice. It is a journey that is still going 15 years later as more fear-based thoughts and limitations continue to get revealed in the amazing relationships I have with my sons. I’ve learned a whole new way of living that involves staying aware of what I’m thinking and questioning every belief that brings fear or stress into my life. I’ve also learned not to focus on outcomes or expectations but to live in the present moment and enjoy the precious connection with my children right now. So, I’m not going to tell you how it’s all “worked out” or to boast about my son’s success. But I will tell you that I have peace of mind, freedom from fear and a lot of genuine happiness and I heartily recommend unschooling to anyone who wants these too.