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Why I decided to unschool my children

"How are you holding up?" These days, it's the start of every conversation, email or text. In what feels like the blink of an eye, our whole lives have changed. Our routines uprooted. Work is unpredictable, or worse, non-existent. And just as we're wrapping our minds around phrases like "global pandemic" and "social distancing," the kids are home. Some of them, this year for good. How are you holding up?

Adding homeschooling to an already overflowing plate is stressful. And in times of uncertainty or stress, most of us do what we know, what's familiar. We break out the color-coded schedules, download the latest list of resources, and print out the worksheets. So many worksheets. And don't forget to panic every half hour or so trying to figure out how this is going to work.

About three years ago, I found myself in a similar position. Not a global pandemic, of course, but faced with uncertainty about this new journey our family had embarked on. In February, my then8-year-old son had come home from school and asked for what felt like the hundredth time that year, could I please just be homeschooled? I finally agreed.


The day I filed the paperwork officially withdrawing him from school, I was like so many people at the start of the pandemic I created the schedules, printed out the worksheets, bought the curriculum and set off to recreate the classroom in my dining room. Committed to adding "teacher" to my work-at-home job title, I tried to control and plan every second of my son's day. It was every bit as stressful and overwhelming as you'd imagine—or at this point, as you know.

Months before making this transition, I came across unschooling (which, to be clear, is not the same as homeschooling). I breezed over it, in search of a curriculum I could get behind. But in those early anxiety-induced months, I revisited that strange unschooling concept that suggested maybe kids, young people, can think and choose for themselves. What a radical idea.

Unschooling can mean many different things depending on who you ask, and the openness and lack of structure can feel really uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But setting labels aside, for us, unschooling simply means following our children's lead. We provide support, assistance and, when needed, instruction.

When we found our youngest son literally jumping off the walls, we signed him up for Parkour classes.

When our middle son announced he might want to be a chef, we helped pick out cookbooks and accompanied him to buy ingredients for recipes he wanted to try.

And when our eldest decided he wanted to attend a specialized public high school to focus on digital media, we supported that as well.

If what I'm saying—this idea to follow your children's lead instead of a predetermined path that may or may not be relevant to them and their interests—sounds extreme, I understand. But there are two things I've learned over our journey that I think might offer some perspective.

First, learning doesn't only happen at school. For better or worse, one can absolutely exist without the other. Learning, as it turns out, happens everywhere, all the time. In the recipe making (we have to double the recipe to make six brownies so instead of ⅓ cup, we need...?), in the dance routines, in the art, in the conversations, in the play.

Second, I realized that in replicating the traditional school model, we were creating an environment that is designed to be efficient for classrooms full of students. At home, you have the unique opportunity to focus on your individual child—you can follow their interests and if you can make that mindset adjustment, the possibilities are endless.

I'm not saying it's easy. We've been unschooling for three years, and what I miss most right now are the two days a week my children used to spend at Natural Creativity, a self-directed learning center where facilitators take on the task of supporting, guiding and assisting so I can have precious time to work (Natural Creativity will actually be featured in the insightful upcoming documentary film, Unschooled).

But I am saying, this unstructured time at home with your kids might change the way you think about learning and school forever. With all of our children home every day, it's been an adjustment, especially with limited opportunities to get outside and explore, but our seasoned unschoolers are taking it in stride.

Our youngest has discovered hip hop fitness thanks to a well-placed YouTube ad on his second 30-minute routine of the day.

That 8-year-old who started it all is now an 11-year-old flipping through his newest cookbook to see what recipe to make this week.

But it's our high schooler who's most fascinating to see. He logs into Google Classroom but eventually closes it for equity reasons, the schools in our district aren't able to enforce grading just yet. Unsure of what to do, I offer him some relief. "If you didn't HAVE to learn Spanish (the only language offered at his school) what language would you learn?" A huge grin spreads across his face and referencing his love for anime, he responds, "Japanese?" And he's off! Week two of Duolingo and learning Japanese in hopes of finally watching anime sans subtitles.

That's the power of unschooling.

We're all living and navigating this new reality together. For many of us, life will never quite be the same. But, maybe there's something different, something better we can discover.

You'd be surprised where the learning happens once they're in the driver's seat.

Are you unschooling your kids? Here are some of our favorite at-home learning products that are fun for everyone.

Big Life journal

Big Life Journal

Making mistakes is an integral part of learning. This engaging guided journal invites kids to explore their own challenges, failures and successes and develop a growth mindset in the process. Painstakingly developed by a team of educators, therapists, scientists and kids, it's a treasure in the making.

$25

Farm Steady food making kits

Farm Steady food kit

The food making kits from Farm Steady are a fun and easy way to turn the kitchen into a classroom. From bagels and pretzels to cheeses and fermented foods there are many delicious "lessons" to choose from!

$30

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