It’s the dream, isn’t it? To be living and learning seamlessly without the niggles, the wobbles, and the questions that pester our minds. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could switch lifestyles instantly, and be successfully and completely unschooling without the work of shifting your mindset and your habits?
Unfortunately, that is not the reality of such a life overhaul! I have had two conversations this week with long term unschooling parents (10 – 15 years into the process) who both expressed how the inevitable changes brought on by ages and stages in growing children, brings up new challenges and raises new questions for us. That is to say, that those of us who have been unschooling for a long while still have moments when we question what we are doing, or how to respond to new situations within our families.
The thing that does change is that these questions arise less frequently as time goes on, AND we are better equipped to address them.
If I could give you one thing that would dramatically improve your unschooling life, from day one through to 15 years down the line, it would be this one word: Connection.
Connection is key.
- Connection: with our children.
- Connection: our understanding of how natural learning is the growing connection of ideas.
- Connection: growing our community and support network through connection with unschooling families.
Connection with our children
Whilst the world is focused on what you should be teaching your children. Unschooling is primarily about connecting with your children and strengthening your relationships. It can seem a difficult concept when you first come to it because the world wants you to focus on directing your children’s behaviour or academics.
You can find books and resources that are focused on what you should be teaching your child, from birth. By the time children are school aged it is all about what they should be learning and when. We have lost the art of being with our children, of enjoying each other’s company, of building relationships.
This unexpected thing happens though when you make the shift and prioritise relationships over behaviour or academics. As you become increasingly in tune with your child, growing in trust and respect for one another, you actually have more influence in their lives, and increasing opportunity to share your thoughts and perspective with them. This isn’t to say that this is the aim, and once you understand the influence that you have, you also wouldn’t use it in a coercive way. But the irony is that, living in strong relationships with each other brings about this natural consequence.
Living in connection with our children practically means:
- listening to them and respecting their choices,
- tuning in to and responding to their wants and needs,
- choosing peace and joy in any given situation,
- trusting them and being trustworthy.
It is part and parcel of the package of creating an environment in which learning can flourish. When our children feel unconditionally loved, heard, emotionally safe, and secure with those closet to them, then learning can and will flourish.
Connection: understanding natural learning as the connection of ideas
Most of us have spent at least 12 years in school. There is only one way to learn in school, someone tells you what you are going to learn, when you are going to learn it, and how to learn it. As my teaching career progressed the delivery of curriculum became narrower and the room for individual engagement with subject matter decreased. There may be mainstream schools that provide creative ways for children to engage with what is being taught but the driving force remains: the curriculum dictates the content, the teacher is the expert, your questions and curiosities don’t matter. After 12 years of being told, ‘this is what learning looks like,’ it can be difficult or unnerving to imagine a different way.
For learning to happen, your child needs to connect one idea to another. You can read more about how the brain does this here. A curriculum attempts to do this by taking the end goal (for example, a GCSE) and then breaking it down into what knowledge is needed to achieve that goal, and then it is broken down further, and further, until you end up with a curriculum for four-year-olds. You can picture this like a ladder. You need to have got a good grasp of the first rung before you can progress to the second rung. When you have acquired the knowledge and skills that you need for the second rung, then you can progress to the third rung. And onwards and upwards you climb, until you reach the top and achieve your aim.
Natural learning relies on the connection of ideas too. However, living in the real world, life is not divided up into subject categories, and not everyone learns the same information at the same time. Your child will be making their own connections. These will sometimes appear logical, we will recognise some of the learning patterns that we are familiar with, in our child’s learning. For example, when they recognise that one historical event happened before another, or when they notice that a film omitted part of the story that was told in the book, or when they work out that the sounds from each letter when put together can make a word C-A-T. Mostly, the connections that they make will not appear as recognisable as this. We can be talking about our friend Freya, which leads us to talk about Norse Gods, which leads us to Thor, which leads us to MCU, and next we’re discussing lighting and special effects in film making. It appears less ordered but the connections are all there. You can picture this as a web. New information is attached to existing information, a connection is made, and learning has occurred.
As natural learners, a curriculum does not dictate what we learn and when. Our children are driven by their own interest and curiosities about the world around them. No-one is telling them that their questions don’t matter, and if you can lean into what your child is doing and how they are interacting with the world around them, then you will see their desire to find things out, enquire, discover, explore, and learn. It is as natural as breathing.
Connection with your unschooling community
Unschooling questions have unschooling answers. That is the basis of my mentoring service. Primarily, though, it should be the reason that you seek and find a real life unschooling community. It’s important that the conversations that you have with fellow families are ones that reflect your values. It’s important that you find friendship groups and peers that nurture and priortise relationships and connections with each other in the same way that you do. It’s important because these are the people who will hold you steadfast when you wobble, who will have older children so that you can see ahead, and younger children so that you, in turn, can support others. It’s important because the information that they give you will be grounded in experience and through an unschooling lens.
I remember in our early days talking about something that had happened during our week, it must have been a sticky moment that I was recalling, and my (non unschooling) friend said, “maybe they would be better off in school.” It was the most unhelpful comment and made me extremely reluctant to share anything with them of that nature again. Life without school looks extremely different to life with school. People who have never lived that way could not possible fully understand the implications of being with our children all the time. Add on to that the educational philosophy that we live by, the way we seek peace and joy, above academics or behaviour training, and we are living a very different lifestyle to most folk that we come across on a day to day basis.
A real life community will provide you and your children with friendships; a real life community will be the ones who organise group outings, playdates, and be that extra pair of eyes and ears when you are out and about; a real life community will be the ones who bring over tea sets or art packs for your children when you are unwell, because they will know what your children enjoy; a real life community will be the ones who help you navigate LA enquiries.
Of course, having many friends, from many different backgrounds, and building relationships with family, neighbours, and through interest groups, is part of life, but be sure to remember that connecting with an unschooling community will support your unschooling journey.
Connection, connection, connection
It’s difficult to pin point one thing that will change your unschooling life. Difficult to choose one thing over another. We all start somewhere though, and if you are looking for a place to start, something that is easy to remember and will serve you well when you are making decisions about how you respond to your child; how you view learning; and where to look for support: Connection is Key.
You can find a set of cards with simple reminders on, all related to the idea of connection, available in my Ko-fi shop.
36 cards of single mantras that maintain your focus on connecting with your children, and facilitating natural learning.