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Why I decided to unschool my children

This unstructured time at home with your kids might change the way you think about learning and school forever.

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

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

Minimize smoke exposure.

Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

Do your best to filter the air.

According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

"Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

"COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

Most importantly, don't panic.

In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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