We live in Italy, where schools are closed due to the coronavirus. Children at my daughter's school are learning by an online platform called Seesaw. In reality, though, they're getting just a few hours a day of educational activities, rather than a full curriculum.
As we manage our days, I'm finding that my knowledge about unschooling is incredibly useful. If you haven't heard of unschooling, it's a method of homeschooling where parents don't formally try to "teach" children—they just facilitate their children's interests and let them follow what brings them joy.
If that sounds too easy to be true, I hear you. But I've seen it work, and I can tell you with confidence: Children do have the ability to naturally learn. Studying unschooling has taught me that learning can happen in many different ways. I know now that my daughter doesn't need school to learn, and in fact, a rest from those busy school days can have its benefits.
Emma Homerlein, the junior school principal of the International School of Florence in Italy, also sees advantages to our situation.
"It could potentially be a beautiful opportunity to see how valuable it might be to do things other than spend 6 hours in a classroom. Children can think about their self-management skills, learning to follow online learning instructions without support, organization, time management and self-motivation. The way learning happens in school isn't optimum for all kinds of learners. Maybe some would do a lot better having a little bit of outside time, a little bit of virtual learning, and a little bit of time in school."
Homerlein says she isn't worried about children falling behind with the break from formal school instruction.
"I don't think it will be hard for them to catch up. We need to remind parents that children are not going to miss out on university because of these four weeks. The entire globe is going to be in a similar situation. There's all different types of learning, and being at home is one of them. This can help us look at learning from a different perspective. It could very well be an opportunity for every educational institution to rethink learning."
So what can you do to help facilitate your child's learning at home? Here are a few tips for unschooling that I've learned from our experience on lockdown in Italy.
Focus on self-care and emotional health—your child's and your own
Emotional health is the foundation that all children need to learn. When they are upset or stressed, their brain function is not optimal, and they will struggle to process language, retain information and think in a rational, reasonable way. We are living in extremely stressful times, and our primary focus right now needs to be on taking care of ourselves and our families.
Many of us are dealing with extreme amounts of stress as we juggle work and parenting with no childcare. So consider what the most important things you can do to take care of your own emotional health so you can be there for your child. A regular yoga or meditation practice? Time to video chat with friends, or alone time? Your needs are a top priority, too.
Follow your child's interests
As a homeschooling parent, you don't actually have to set a curriculum, especially for a limited time period like this. Instead, follow and facilitate your child's interests and what brings them joy. This will not only help their mental health stay on track, but will also allow learning to naturally take place.
Have a routine, but be flexible
If a routine works for you then try dividing up the day into different phases such as exercise time, reading, games and independent time. This doesn't have to be a strict schedule, but more of a rhythm with rituals your children start to look forward to. For example, one mom I know starts her kids' day with a daily board game in bed, which combines playtime, strategic thinking and connection—which is as important for kids as caffeine is for us adults!
Establish regular learning habits
Homerlein says, "Habitual learning is important. a little bit of practice and routine.'' She recommends reading to your child each day, and doing activities like baking or playing cards, which are good for number work and memory. You don't need to constantly entertain your children—time to play independently is what really fosters their creativity and self-motivation skills.
Use technology for more than just screen time
The Internet is a fantastic resource and there is so much more to it than simply screen time. Whether it's virtual tours of the world's great museums, an online doodling session with bestselling children's book illustrator Mo Willems, or YouTube tutorials that guide you step-by-step through crafts or science projects, let your kids choose so they're guided by their own interests—they'll learn naturally by following their own instincts.
This is not an easy time for any of us, but one thing's for sure: You can take your child out of school, but nothing can take away your child's natural curiosity and their ability to learn in whatever environment they find themselves in.