Posts Tagged ‘Unschooling’

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on what I would define as “Principles of Happy Home Educating Families.”” Find the first blog here.

I remember the morning that I found that one of my daughters had taken a red pencil and scribbled all over the pages of my treasured set of scriptures. My children were ages 1 and 3 at the time, I’m still not sure which daughter was the culprit, but I highly suspect my oldest daughter. I was just about to come unglued and do some “disciplining” when I was stopped cold. As I was turning the pages to ascertain the extent of the damage, I noticed alongside her childish scrawls all of the carefully highlighted verses which I had marked. As my red highlighter fell from the pages…where I always kept it…I never read my scriptures without a highlighter close at hand, I had a thought…a realization…which totally changed me from red hot frustrated anger to…well, a sense of wonder and appreciation. She had only been doing what she had seen me do almost every day! How could I ever discipline her for that? Suddenly I realized that I had been setting an example and that she was doing just what I hoped she would do (albeit at an older age). Today those childish scribblings, rather than making me angry, have become something that I smile affectionately at each time that I see them. They also remind me of a very important principle of teaching.

From the day children are born, they are great imitators. We seem to be hard-wired as children to imitate what we see,  it seems to be the primary mode of learning. Watch a newborn child and his or her parents. Mother smiles, baby smiles. Daddy sticks out his tongue…baby follows by sticking out his tongue. Children are so adept at imitating their parents that you can often match up a child and his/her parent just by watching their mannerisms, their ways of speaking. 

It begs the question, if children learn so much by watching…and following us, then why do we so often try to teach using a “do as I say not as I do approach”? Think about it. What happens with most children about the time they turn 5 or 6 (and younger) in our culture. Most parents send them away at this point and when they get home, they tell them to go and do their homework. It’s not always much better in many homeschool settings. Following the public school paradigm, many parents purchase a curriculum and then tell their children to go and do their schoolwork. But wait…is this something that the child sees the parent doing? Most of the time, probably not.

I began the same way with my own children, but as I’ve watched over the years, I’ve learned that my children learn best that which they see me or their dad doing and being passionate about. I’ve posted about this phenomenon in the past. Beware the Watchers was about how my daughter learned to sew largely by watching me. Teaching by Accident also tells of how I saw my children develop a love of music…again, I think from watching my own passion for music. All of these outcomes, by the way, were totally unplanned on my part. I didn’t realize at the time that I was teaching…or that I was teaching in an extremely powerful way.

A couple more examples:

My daughter had her friend over for a play date. I had left my art supplies and drawing pad out on the counter, and my daughter (ever my best cheerleader) sat with her friend and showed her all of my drawings. I left the room for a moment and when I came back, there they were sprawled on the floor with my daughter’s art set, drawing and painting. Coincidence? I think not.

The most dramatic example of one of my children learning by watching and following a role model is with my oldest son. He was a very late bloomer when it came to reading. At age eleven, he was still struggling with the smallest and shortest of books. At the time he kind of liked the Time Warp Trio books but really struggled with them. These books are very slim children’s books of usually less than 70 pages.

I did everything that I knew how to encourage his reading. We went to the library every week. Our home is filled with bookcases full of books on every level. He had examples in me and in his two older sisters of voracious reading. We  read a lot, and we talked about what we read. We shared books and recommended books to each other. I read to the children regularly. We also had a daily scripture reading time where the children followed along in their scriptures as we listened to an audio being read. This son still struggled even to track the words and keep up with the reading.

I tried to be patient. I had done this before…this was not my first child who happened to be a late bloomer…but he was even later than his sister. I had also studied teaching reading as part of my college education. I knew better than to push. I knew that it was virtually impossible for a child to grow up in an environment as literate as our home and not be able to read…but I was beginning to get worried. I tried not to let it show.

And then something amazing happened. My husband heard about a book called Eragon by Christopher Paolini and became interested in it. This was a book that my daughter already owned and had read, so she loaned it to her dad. He read it. There were many exciting dinnertime conversations about this book over the course of the time that my husband read this book. When my husband was finished with the book, this son decided that he wanted to read that book. Now this book is probably about 4 grade levels above the books that he was already struggling with and about 500 pages long…I figuratively held my breath as he began. Over the next 3 weeks, my son carried that book everywhere he went until he had finished reading it. And then, he started right in on the second book of the series and finished it probably even more quickly than the first and couldn’t wait for the third book which was soon to be published. After that, he was hooked. He continued the habit he had developed reading Eragon and now took a book with him everywhere he went. He used to like to get the small paperback size books and carried them in the pockets of his cargo pants everywhere he went. Reading is now one of his favorite ways to spend his time. He is still never without a book.

I share this story because I think that it illustrates three things about learning. First, sometimes we just have to wait until the time is right. No amount of pushing or bribing is going to make learning happen. Second, example is prime when it comes to good teaching. Third, the role model matters greatly. As his mother, I set the example for reading for my son; so did his older sisters…two of them. But we weren’t the role models that mattered in this instance. The role model that mattered was his dad. And when all the conditions were right, my son learned to read without any struggle at all…it was as easy as the blooming of a flower. It seemed to happen as naturally as breathing for him.

In church one Sunday some time ago, someone gave a talk which really illustrated this whole concept for me. He spoke of the difference between a shepherd (our Savior, Jesus Christ, in this instance) and a sheep-herder. You see, a sheep herder goes behind the sheep pushing and prodding. A sheep herder is just doing a job…just getting the sheep from one place to another. He doesn’t necessarily care for the sheep or have a relationship with them.

A shepherd, on the other hand, knows each of his sheep intimately…as we do our pets or family members. He calls each by name. …and the shepherd doesn’t push or prod the sheep, he leads them. He shows the way…by example…and then he invites the sheep to follow…and they do because they know of his love for them and because they know where to go…the shepherd has shown the way. Of course learning is just like this. The Master Teacher has shown the way.

So the next principle that I would choose to emphasize to any home educator is to Lead Out. In his 7 Keys of Great Teaching, Oliver DeMille calls this principle “You, not them”. (I would call it “You along with them”…or maybe “You first and then them.) Either way, it’s a very powerful principle. Set the example for your children in all things that you want them to learn. And if you can’t set the example…and they don’t have interest of their own, then perhaps you need to do some deep thinking about why that is and change something…either your behavior, or your expectations.

Are you being a shepherd or a sheep herder for your children? Think about teachers you’ve had in your own life. Which have been shepherds? Which have been sheep herders? What has been the difference in your learning from each of these approaches?

So next time it comes to your children’s “schooling”, perhaps instead of saying go and do this or that, perhaps it would be more effective if you said let’s go and do this or that…or even better, don’t say anything at all…just begin yourself and then simply share your excitement and passion. 


P.S. After my husband read this post, he sent me this link. If fits. Enjoy.

Oh yeah! They are watching us and learning from us all of the time…whether we think we are teaching or not…


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This is the second in a series of blogs on what I would define as “Principles of Happy Home Educating Families.” Find the first blog here

Once we’ve simplified our lives, we can then begin to look at balance. Most of us can look back and remember when we first learned to ride a bicycle. Remember how you wobbled from one side to the other, even falling down from time to time, until you learned to balance with perfect ease? The time quickly came when you no longer even thought about balance when you got on that bicycle. Homeschooling is much like that. We also tend to wobble from one side to another until we find that perfect balance which works for our family.

Balance is an interesting phenomenon. We seem to think that achieving our goals is all about power (ie: force) and momentum and yet without balance, all that force and momentum have no direction and may even end up as destructive forces which quickly careen out of control. Balance is critical to power. In fact, without balance you cannot have power at all…only force.

I learned a little about balance in my yoga practice. The balance poses all require focus. Focus is critical to balance. But more than that, there is an intangible something else which seems critical to staying balanced in a yoga pose. It is so interesting to me that those times when I feel rushed and out of balance in my life always seem to find reflection in my daily yoga practice…in the balance poses (or asanas).  If I’m feeling rushed, stressed, over-loaded, and out of balance in my life, I can’t seem to balance for beans in my yoga practice either. The balance that we feel inwardly is also reflected in our ability to manage our lives outwardly. There is a trick (no, not really a trick, principle would be a better word) to balancing. The principle which is critical to balance is focus. In a yoga pose, one must focus on one thing with the eyes in order to stay balanced. Focus is critical to balance. Balance is critical to effective use of power and momentum.

So what does this have to do with homeschooling? How do we achieve balance with the education process in our homes? Like everything else with home education, I believe that this will always be an individual thing. There will be no recipe. Each family must find balance in its own way, but I believe that there are principles and guidelines; things that we might think deeply about as we seek to find this delicate balance in our own homes and with our own children. So often in life, we seem to think that if we just use all of our strength and barrel through the tasks we’ve set for ourselves…(That, by the way is a critical element. We must stop and remember that these things are totally within our hands. We set the tasks for ourselves…we choose…and we can un-choose as the need arises.) But where was I?…oh yes…we seem to think that if we just barrel though using all of our strength, then we can accomplish that big long list of tasks. And so we find ourselves careening wildly through each day all force and momentum (both very valuable elements) but little or no balance…no focus. But life…and home education…are about so much more than simply accomplishing tasks.

Work and Play

What in your life needs balancing? May I suggest a few things to think about?Work must be balanced with play. Each is critical to the success of the other. Work is best accomplished when the mind and body have had periods of rest. Conversely, play and rest are enjoyed best when the mind and body have had periods of work. This too is something which I noticed in my yoga practice. Somehow those relaxation poses were so much more…well relaxing after the more strenuous poses which focused on building strength. And conversely, I am always more successful with the strength poses with a little rest between or before them. Do you allow for this balance in your children’s lives? In your own? Is your homeschool all work and very little play? Too much play? Do you go easily back and forth between the two? Or is it all “nose to the grindstone” and then an overdose of play? I think we must all learn to sense when it’s time for a little rest and diversion (it’s seldom the other way around). Often, it doesn’t have to be big. Just consider the schedule you set for yourself and your children. Do you alternate periods of work with periods of pure play? Can you tell when your children have reached their max? Learn to have a break just before that breaking point. Hint: I think that when children are left to themselves in a environment which is rich in learning opportunities, they tend to find this balance almost instinctively with little guidance from us. This ability in children can, however, be quickly crushed by parent or school expectations, or undermined by too much TV and electronic media.

Flexible Structure

Structure must also be balanced with latitude. Living with a very rigid schedule for very long becomes tiresome…but so does too much latitude. It is usually the flexible structure that is strongest. So consider how you choose to structure your day. Have structure, but build in times when there is less restraint, a little more freedom. Build margin into your schedule. Just as the pages of a book have most meaning when there is margin–when things are divided into paragraphs–our days will go most smoothly, be more meaningful, and more productive if we have some space…some margin…in our lives.

Avoid Over-Scheduling

I remember so clearly my first days (and years) of homeschooling my children. One of my strengths is organization, and it can have some pretty bad side effects if I am not careful. I used to organize every minute of our days. Each day was scheduled so tightly! Unfortunately, my early schedules were perfect recipes for quick burn out (on my part and on my children’s). These schedules that I would make would probably last for about as long as the time I spent putting the schedule together in the first place. Very quickly, I would find that we would be “off schedule” and stressed out about it. (Or I would be stressed out about it and communicate that stress to my children.) We didn’t have the freedom (because of my dictatorial schedules) to spend a longer period of time at one subject if we got interested in it. We didn’t have the freedom to take a break…lest we get off schedule. Another thing about these schedules is that they were heavily weighted with table activities and the more academic subjects…a recipe for burn out if ever there was one! For my more right brained children, this was especially painful.

Don’t try to “cover everything”.

One more thing that I started out doing…and have to continually guard against…is the suggestion that we must “cover” a certain amount of “material” or a certain number of, or particular subjects. We live in a day and age where there is a monumental amount of “information” which could be studied. Information can be useful, but it doesn’t usually translate to knowledge or the wisdom needed to live by–or recognize–principles which lead to happiness. Ours is the task of weeding out the significant from the insignificant. Choosing what to teach…the focus…comes before choosing how to teach. Remember what happens with force and momentum with no focus and balance? We must be thoughtful and careful as we choose what to teach. We must consider exactly what it is that we hope to give to our children. We must also consider what it is that each individual child needs. In order to do that, we must first know our children very well. (A great book to help one begin to know and  individualize for the child is The Student Whispererbut more on that in another post.) Do you truly listen to your child, observe them, watch what they do, consider what is important to them and why, spend time with them? These are the beginnings of knowing a person.


I’ve learned over time to relax…a lot. I learned to let my children help decide what they wanted to learn…and when. I’ve learned that it is best to set small, obtainable goals. I’ve learned that Rome cannot be built in a day, and I’ve learned to recognize that perhaps it isn’t Rome that I’m really seeking to build. We come to home education with a lot of ineffective and faulty paradigms from the public school systems which most of us were raised in. We must remember why we chose home education, and we must be careful that we do not duplicate the public school system in our homes. Just like riding a bicycle, we tend to wobble a bit as we begin homeschooling. It’s a new paradigm for most of us. But just like riding a bicycle, when you find that perfect balance, you will know it, you will feel it…and you and your children will feel the freedom and exhilaration of moving forward with focus toward all the right goals in your lives. When you find that place…trust it. And that brings me to my next “Habit of Highly Effective Homeschoolers”…Trust. Next blog.


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Note: Because of its length, this blog has been published in two parts. I like the second part best! Don’t miss it.

Okay, it’s been almost one full week since public schools released the children to their families in our part of the world. I’m starting to hear it almost everywhere I go…”I can’t wait for school to start again.”…no, not from children…from their parents, usually mothers. I must say that I sympathize. There are some summer days when I too cannot wait for school to start again…for different reasons. Not so that I can rid my home of all these pesky children who live with me, but so that the neighbor kids will go back to school and I can have my children to myself again. I’ve had to make rules and set limits on how much time is open for the neighbor kids to hang around. I’ve had to set limits to what time they may come knocking at our door each morning. I know….I’m sounding like the summertime grinch and you are wondering whatever happened to the Kool-Aid mom. Well, don’t look for her here, she doesn’t live here. No, this mom likes lots of time with her children. Oh, I don’t mind play dates here and there…on my time frame, it’s just having the neighbors over all day, every day, and at all hours that I object to. Okay…in honesty this isn’t so much a problem anymore. After many summers, the neighborhood kids have learned the rules and also understand what kind of behavior is expected in our home, so summers glide by pretty smoothly.

But for mothers who are already at their wits end with having their own children home for the summer, perhaps I can offer some tidbits to consider. Oh, I know, this “advice” is coming from a strange quarter. After all, what public schooling mom wants to read what a home schooling mom has to say about their summertime woes? But bear with me sisters, I appreciate your woes, and truly, maybe I have something to say that may be of use to you. After all, I am used to having my children home all day, and every day.


While you are feeling more pressure at having your children home all day, what your children are likely feeling is disequilibrium resulting from a phenomenon called decompression. In the home schooling community, many call it detox, and some home school “authorities” believe that the process of decompressing from the heavily structured public school environment takes one full month for each year that a child has spent in school. But if your child is beyond 2nd grade and you only have three months of Summer vacation ahead of you, don’t despair. I personally believe that children are very resilient and that they can rather quickly make progress in learning to self-direct their activities in constructive ways.

Consider what is happening for your child; all of the pressure is suddenly off for your children and perhaps they don’t know quite what to do with so much freedom…or maybe they know just what they want to do with their days but you don’t like their choices.

Your children are used to having every moment of every day structured for them. They are used to the rush to get up in the morning, grabbing a bite to eat and running out the door. A bell rings at certain intervals of the day directing them as to when it is time to move to the next class. Evenings are filled with homework, youth activities, soccer practice, music lessons, etc. And now, with the advent of summer, they are plunged into a world of seeming emptiness. Long hours stretch before them each day which they are at a loss as to how to fill. Their days are no longer structured by someone else and they haven’t yet learned how to do this for themselves. Not only that, but they’ve been looking forward to Summer vacation for months and now they don’t know what to do with it. Without someone telling them what to do, they are “bored”.  Normal behavior in this kind of situation is fighting and bickering with siblings, whom they are not used to spending whole days and weeks at a time with; and long hours in front of screens such as TV and computer, alternated with sighs and declarations of boredom.

So what’s a mom to do? Here are some tidbits to consider from a mom who has her children home pretty much 24/7 year round.

Don’t try to entertain them all summer.

Oh sure, schedule some carefree days at the beach, a picnic for lunch, or maybe even a day at the zoo but definitely don’t feel like it is your job to entertain your children all summer long with trips that are extremely structured and which take a lot of planning. Don’t line up their summers with camps and swimming lessons, and more of the same pressure and heavy structure that they get all year. Let your children have the summer as a time to relax, decompress, and enjoy unstructured playtime. Give them time to learn to self-direct their activities…summertime is the perfect opportunity for that.

Do organize and share responsibilities for chores in your home.

Help your children to understand that it is not Mom’s job to do all the cleaning and cooking. At our home the mantra is “Do you live here? Then you must help with whatever chores need doing. It’s as natural as waking up in this home.” If my children complain about chores…and yes, even my perfect little cherubs often complain, all I generally need to say is “Do you live here?” I usually get a wry smile with a “Yes, Mom” and off they go to complete their family responsibilities.

Children need to understand that they have their own personal chores first. They are responsible for their personal belongings and space. And then they are also responsible to help with shared space and belongings. The way that chores are divided differs substantially from one family to the next, so I cannot make any definite recommendations which would be right for all families; but what I can say is that all families need a system. It might be as simple as having the family all work together for an hour in the mornings or afternoons to accomplish what is needed. It might be more structured with certain family members being given responsibility for certain chores on a regular or on a rotating basis, or a combination of things like this. Our family uses both of these systems at different times.

So sit down and define what needs to be done and then think about what would be the best way for your family  to accomplish those things. Include the children. Not only will they have some great ideas, but they will also feel some ownership for their part and some sense of community with the family to do what is needed so that things run smoothly. How much nicer for them…and for you…than having Mom or Dad dictate what they will do and then nag about it later.

And while you are at it, don’t forget to spend time actually teaching your children what it is exactly that you expect. What does a good job really look like? How do you go about it? What hints can you give to expedite the job or to make it a little more fun?

And finally, work alongside them. I grew up with a father who did this well. Saturday mornings were cleaning time at our house. Dad put on the music nice and loud, and we all worked together until it was done. It was fun working alongside of Dad…somehow it didn’t seem so much like a chore then.

Do make a list of suggested activities if they are bored.

Your children are used to having each moment directed. It’s natural for them to look to an adult to tell them what to do and how to structure their days. Help them to see that it is now their opportunity and privilege to self-direct their activities. Make a list of suggestions and post it on the refrigerator. Let them help make the list. Come up with as many things that they might choose to do as you can think of. This list might include some questions for them to think about or some observations for them to make…not just things to do. Here’s a beginning:

  • Read a book.
  • Draw or paint a picture of something you see outdoors.
  • Build a tower with the blocks.
  • Play a board game with a sibling.
  • Make a snack for the family.
  • How many different birds can you see or hear in the backyard?
  • How many colors can you see in nature?
  • How many living things can you count in the backyard?
  • Water the garden or the grass.
  • Put together a puzzle.
  • Straighten the silverware drawer.
  • Write a story about…
  • Start a nature journal.

These are just a few things that come to my own mind in about the  two minutes it took to write it. You and your children will be able to brainstorm quite a long list.

Don’t make chores a punishment for being bored.

This is a huge temptation for parents. “Oh, you are bored? Here I have a list of chores you can choose from.” Really, I suspect that what we really want as parents is a sense of community about chores and a feeling that everyone simply must do their part. Oh sure, you can include some of the chores that need to be done in the home on your list of suggested activities if they are bored, but don’t make it a punishment. Instead, let them choose to clean out that cupboard if they want to and then help them feel that wonderful sense of accomplishment at a job well done. “Wow! That cupboard looks so good! Doesn’t it make you almost want to leave it open and just look at it? How much nicer this will be for our family.” For those of you who are saying “Yeah right…my child would never choose to clean out the cupboard”, may I suggest that you stop making chores a punishment or a negative for a while and just see what happens? My children are a little older now…ages 10-20, but they quite regularly will clean out a cupboard or do an extra chore willingly…and with no extrinsic reward. I have one son who is OCD about my silverware drawer. It really bugs him when it is a mess and he is always straightening it out. (Now if I could just find a way for him to be OCD about his bedroom…but that is another blog.)

Find part two of this blog here.

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My husband came home the other day and mentioned a program he had heard on the radio which featured an unschooling family and we had a conversation about it. The concept of “unschooling” was new to him, and he wasn’t really comfortable with the idea. I remember the first time that I was introduced to this concept. I remember how an acquaintance, the mother of an older homeschooling son, mentioned that her family was an “unschooling” family. She didn’t structure her son’s learning at all. She didn’t tell him what to study or when. I listened with mixed horror and intrigue as she explained that when the need arises for him to learn something,  he will willingly put forth the effort and time needed to learn that thing and that it is not her job to dictate to him what to learn or when. As I said, there was a part of me which was very intrigued with the idea of so much freedom in education…but then another part of my brain recoiled in horror at such a thought. This was really early in my homeschooling experience (and yes, I would call it home “schooling” at that time). The concept of so much lack of structure primarily left me feeling quite uncomfortable, and so I continued with my very…not just structured, but rigid way of home “schooling” at that time.

Over the years, and after numerous paradigm shifts, I have come to look upon “unschooling” with a whole new set of eyes and I mentioned to my husband in our conversation that there were even at least periods of time when I would have to define what we do in our home as “unschooling”. I know…shocker, huh! In fact, the title of my blog is decidedly an attempt on my part to get away from the word “schooling”, but perhaps I will get to that later.

“I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’ve thought about this idea of “unschooling” though. It is not easily defined and most of us who are new to the term have no real idea of what it really means. (I’m thinking of a line in the movie ‘Princess Bride” where Inigo says “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

What most outsiders to unschooling,  and even some homeschoolers, picture when they hear the term “unschooling” is a family where students are not learning anything. They are perhaps just sitting in front of a TV all day….or (horror) just playing all day. And maybe for some families who unschool, this would be true…it may also be true of some families who public school their children, by the way. But for the vast majority of people who take this term upon themselves, I suspect that this is not the case at all…or at least it is not the whole picture. In fact, unschooling, like homeschooling, doesn’t fit into a single box. It’s more of a continuum, with less or absolutely no structure on one end and increasing structure as you move along the continuum. But notice that I used the word “structure” and not the word “learning”. I’ll bet a lot of you pictured something that looked more like the word “learning” when I said “structure” just now, didn’t you. Yeah. I used to do that too.

Let me explain. How much one learns is not a direct corollary of how structured things are…in fact, at times these two things may even be inversely related. A child who sits in a highly structured classroom may be learning a lot…or that child may be learning almost nothing except the invisible lesson of how to hate “learning”. And, conversely, a child who lives in a very unstructured home education environment (the one who is just watching TV and “playing”) may be learning almost nothing…or that child may be learning and thinking a vast number of things which are not immediately apparent to the outside observer.

Right Brain/Left Brain

Lately, I’ve been studying and thinking about right brain learning. I have at least two children who are very strong right brain learners. I believe that my husband is also strongly a right brain learner. I’ve learned that the left brain (or least that part of our thinking that we call left brain) likes a lot of structure and is most comfortable in very structured environments. Conversely, the right brain portion of us thrives in a much less structured environment. The right brain needs space, time, freedom, and might I add play. The left brain is the information center; it stores, analyzes, compares and values information. On the other hand, the right brain has become known as the creative part of ourselves. I think that in great measure, it is also the processing part of our minds. Fortunately, most of us were born with both sides of our brains and not surprisingly, most of us use both sides, but some of us seem to favor one side or the other. And some of us nurture one side to the exclusion of the other or grow up in systems which do this, when in fact, both sides work together and both sides need nurturing.

What does it look like?

As I’ve observed my own learning, I’ve found that there are times when it is “information in”. Times when I am reading and studying a lot…I’m acquiring, storing, and analyzing the information I’m taking in. And then there are times when I am just sort of “incubating”. I’m thinking about, playing with, and mulling over the information I’ve taken in. And do you know what it looks like from the outside when I am in my “right mind”? Yep, it looks a whole lot like I’m just sitting in my hammock chair gazing at the trees in my backyard. It looks like I am “doing nothing”…a very socially unacceptable thing to be “doing”…especially if you are supposed to be home “schooling”.

I grew up in the public school system. I did very well, but I don’t think I learned…or retained…very much. On the other hand, my more right-brained husband did a lot more poorly in school and yet I am so amazed at his vast store of knowledge of so many different things. As I’ve pondered on why this is, I think that it is in great measure because our public school system focuses pretty exclusively on left brain sorts of activities and learning. While I was able to “make the grade” but learned or retained little, my husband did more poorly in school, but has a brain like a sponge which soaks up all kinds of relevant information in all kinds of situations which may or may not be classified as “learning environments.” The interesting thing is that the education we received served neither one of us very well.  It’s pretty obvious that a highly structured left-brain focused school system would not be best for a primarily right brain learner, but it was also less than ideal for the primarily left-brain learner. Both sides of the brain must work together.

My education was pretty much exclusively “information in” and no real processing of the information occurred for me, so less of it has been useful to me. Using Charlotte Mason’s terms, I never really made a “relation” to the things that I was supposedly learning. Information which does not connect, or relate, to anything in your life or experience is usually not very well retained.

Right brain learning so often looks like “doing nothing”, and in our scientific measure-everything world, the sorts of activities that nourish the right brain are just not considered valid. The results cannot be seen, or touched, or measured. And yet, it is precisely those types of activities which are so important for any real learning to take place. It’s also critical for any real problem solving or creativity to occur. In fact, I think it is only in a culture which has learned to nurture the right brain part of ourselves that we have art…in the truest sense of the word. It’s also only in these environments that we have the innovation which is sorely needed in our world today.


I’ve heard many homeschoolers use the term “detox” to describe the necessary period of time when a student is transitioning from the very structured public school environment to the ideally less structured home education environment. The recommended activities are usually to let the child simple explore whatever interests them, make sure that they have time for play, and give them the time and materials to be creative. Don’t structure heavily. Usually, what needs to happen is for the child to regain their innate curiosity, their questioning mind, and their zest for learning new things. It’s usually a really difficult concept for parents to grasp and it’s even harder for them to let go and stay out of the way. I know…I’ve been that parent.

I’ve experienced this need to detox after a very structured learning environment myself. I’ve always loved to read. In fact, I think that this is in great measure how I got through the mind numbing public education which I was given. Not much was expected of me, and so I took a book with me to each class. At every moment when there was nothing left for me to do, I read. In college, though, I was very busy reading a great number of books for information. After three somewhat intensive years of this, I was finished and again had the freedom to read whatever I wanted. But I found I had become unable to really enjoy reading. I had to re-learn how to sit back and just read for the pleasure of reading without trying to extract every bit of information that I could find and catalog it in my brain so that I could regurgitate it for the test. I had lost touch with my right brain part of myself.

The thing that I’ve found so wonderful about home education is that it is so much easier to nurture and value both sides of the brain. My own experience with learning is much more natural as I move back and forth between the two modes of thought on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. I’m still making the paradigm shift from my total left brain upbringing. I still get nervous when I see my son wandering through the trees in the backyard during “school hours”, but I’m learning to value those un-schooling “doing nothing” moments more and more as time goes on.

Unschooling Summer and Holidays

A few years ago, I attended an annual used curriculum sale at the end of the “school” year. At this sale, home educating families bring in their used curriculum and materials to sell and at the same time purchase materials from other families. In this way, these materials get “recycled” and families can spend less on some wonderful items for their upcoming year. This particular year, I came home with a few boxes of things for the upcoming year. My children were so excited and wanted to delve right in and start discovering what was in the boxes right away. My first instinct was “No, this is for next year, if I let you have it all now, what will we do in the fall”, but I quickly recovered my sanity and plopped the boxes in the middle of the living room floor and let them at it. They were each soon busy with something that I had brought home in those boxes. After they were finished going through it and claiming what they wanted, I left the remaining items in a box in the living room all summer long. And as I watched them I discovered something wonderful…when the pressure is off and you’ve supplied a rich environment of things to interest your children, learning happens whether you intend it to or not. To me, this is what unschooling is. The parent provides a rich environment and then gets out of the way.

I’ve noticed this same wonderful phenomenon in our home on the holidays. I have a secret recipe for my children’s gifts at Christmastime. In retrospect, I think it goes along with and probably originated with Charlotte Mason’s admonition to each day be sure that your children have something or someone to love, something to do, and something to think about. So for Christmas at our house, each child must receive a book (or two) that they will really enjoy, and also something to “do”…something they can build or put together, or a craft, art materials, a musical instrument or music books…you get the idea. I also try to choose one or two things which can help our family to connect with each other; I always try to make sure there is at least one new family game (that’s getting harder each year as the game cupboard fills up) and a puzzle or two. And guess what! I notice the same wonderful thing! For hours each child is busy with something new and “learning” is happening right under our noses, without any real effort or parental structure on our part at all, and on the holidays of all things. As I’ve watched over the years, I’m convinced that some of the very best learning happens in the summer and on the holidays after I’ve provided a rich environment and then backed off.

If you are unsure…as I was…about giving so much educational freedom to your children, then you might just give it a try over the Summer…when you have nothing to lose…and so much to gain. You don’t have to call it “unschooling” if you don’t want to, because no one will know the difference!


For more reading on Right Brain learning, check out these links.






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