Unschooling Across the Neurotypes

-Guest Blog Post by Alexandra Wingrove-

Welcome to the LivePlayLearn guest blog post series. This series aims to share with you a diverse selection of families who are traversing the paths of life and learning with an unschooling mindset. The aim is to showcase how unschooling principles can be effectively implemented across the broad spectrum of lifestyles and yield a life of peace, joy, and learning. As well as this, participants will be sharing with you the stumbling blocks that have been overcome along they way, and the glorious variety of interests and activities that children access when they are living a life without school. I hope that it brings peace and encouragement to you.

This month we are joined by Alexandra Wingrove, – Mum to Ava (age 8) and Billy (age 6), Wife to Ray (age 50), Diagnostic Radiographer and Unschool Bore!

For me school was…fine. After a slightly tumultuous start, I soon settled in, accepted the rules, did the work, and bided my time until I turned 18, when my real life would begin.

When my daughter came of school age, I packed her off with a big smile; like me, she quickly assimilated into the system.  I saw the difficulties and frustrations which I had also experienced: the injustices of being reprimanded erroneously, having to undertake seemingly futile exercises, but I reassured her that this was just part and parcel of school life.

Where It All Began

It all changed 2 years later when my son started preschool. He’d always been a free spirit, but with a positive parenting style at home and a nursery which was child-centred and nurturing, he thrived. Within 2 days at preschool, he was a different child: the meltdowns were like nothing we’d seen before. Within 6 weeks, he was expelled, school couldn’t cope with him, and he couldn’t cope with school. Stumped as to what had happened to our happy little boy, and left with no childcare options, my husband and I began to explore what was going on.  9 months later, after a host of appointments and assessments, he received a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and the Paediatrician hinted at something called Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). 

Armed with this new knowledge, we made arrangements for my son to start in Reception class at the same school the following year. I applied for an Education Health Care Plan and liaised extensively with his teacher and the school SENCo to help them understand him. But it was all just lip service on school’s part, they didn’t have the time or resources to really offer the bespoke education that met my son’s needs.

The Need To Explore Our Options

I began to explore other options. Special schools wouldn’t take him because he was “too able”, and autistic specific provisions in our Local Authority were massively oversubscribed.  I remembered someone I met in the summer whose son attended the same sensory integration therapy as mine, she had home educated her boys from the start. Could this be an option for us?? I had lived through the home-schooling disaster of the first Covid lockdown with my daughter in 2020, and that was not a successful or pleasant experience for any of us!

Nonetheless I began to read up on home education, joining online groups and speaking with local families. I read Call of the Wild & Free by Ainsley Arment – how idyllic this sounded, then The Brave Learner by Julie Bogart – I loved her open, honest, light-hearted account of their home-schooling journey. Then I read Free to Learn by Peter Gray – this really appealed to my academic brain. Here were hard facts and figures which supported the theory that children don’t need to be (in fact do better without being) coerced to learn.

Committing To Unschooling

I was sold, and surprisingly, my husband didn’t take much convincing. Having had a terrible experience of school himself, he could see so much wrong with the system which I had not previously acknowledged with my rose-tinted spectacles. The more I researched, the more I realised that traditional schooling was not the best option for my daughter either. Although she seemed “fine in school”, I saw the pressure she put on herself, her loss of enthusiasm and drive to learn, and her flaring temper attributed to the phenomenon of “after-school restraint release”.

I also researched more about my son’s PDA.  There are many brilliant resources* online which can explain PDA much more comprehensively than I can, but ultimately it is an ASD condition causing “an anxiety driven need to be in control”. Key to why school didn’t work for my son is that he needs to feel in control of his own self and environment, and he does not acknowledge hierarchy. So, a teacher telling him he must do a task “because they’re the teacher and they said so” will be met by a feeling of anxiety and a response to avoid that demand by any means necessary, hang the consequences.

As I investigated the various home ed pedagogies, it was “unschooling” which really resonated with me.  It just makes so much sense. This was why school-at-home hadn’t worked for my daughter during lockdown: she accepted at school she did what teachers told her, but outside of that environment she needed freedom to explore her own interests.  Unschooling would also allow my son to maintain control of his environment, and learn through his own interests without external demands.  My two children are so very different in their needs and neurotypes, but unschooling is a perfect fit for both of them.

We have now been home educating for about 6 months, and whilst we are still very much finding our feet, our days are generally so chilled and fun! My son has a huge interest in Pokemon, from which he is developing his numeracy and literacy skills, whilst my daughter is currently devouring the Harry Potter series. We go with the flow of each day, meeting up with local Home Ed families, exploring nature, visiting the library, interacting with the world around us.  I have a page-per-day diary in which I record a brief note of what we have done each day so that I can put together a report when the LA call.

The thing I love the most about unschooling is that there is no pressure; if we don’t want to, we don’t. I’ve found that anything that I put a huge amount of effort into usually falls flat, but what amazing things we can learn when we least expect it! After a throw away question from my daughter the other day about why washing up liquid bubbles, we spent the afternoon discussing and learning about molecular structure, the polarised nature of water molecules, states of matter, melting and boiling points.

I do not see myself as a teacher or a leader, I am a learner alongside them.  I may have more knowledge about certain topics, but we use this to facilitate the children making their own discoveries. If you will indulge my hyperbole: why feed them an out-of-season, imported strawberry wrapped in plastic from the supermarket refrigerator, if you can lead them to the strawberry bed where they can pick their own sun-warmed fruit straight from the plant? There might be imperfections in the fruit, worm holes or wasps, but this is all part of the experience that makes the fruit so much more delicious!

Now we approach the end of our “deschooling” period, I feel as if I have been driving down a single-track twisty country lane, concentrating hard, stopping to give way, or even reversing back to a passing point, often doubting the direction. But now we are turning onto the main road. There may still be hazards or diversions, but I feel comfortable and confident that this is the right way, the sign posts are clear, and there are many other families travelling the same way as us.

*Further information on Pathological Demand Avoidance can be found at the following links:

I am really grateful to those who freely share their stories and contribute to providing a fuller picture of unschooling in action.

If you feel able, or willing, to share your journey, as a way of encouraging and cheering others along theirs, please complete and submit your own guest blog post here

Published by heiditsteel

Teacher turned Unschooler: passionate about autonomous education and supporting our children's natural inclination towards learning through play.

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