‘Unschooling’…what a word, right? But what is it exactly? According to Wikipedia it is “a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum.” And it can be a real blessing for families homeschooling special needs children.
When I began this homeschool journey with Emily six months ago, I had decided to utilize ‘unschooling’ techniques for everything except the three R’s as they used to be called…reading, writing and arithmetic. I was honestly uncomfortable with the idea of allowing these ‘essential’ subjects to just happen. But over the course of that first month, I found myself constantly fighting my child to sit still and focus in a traditional way. Then like a light bulb going off, I realized…why did I expect the same techniques that were failing her in school to work at home?
So I pushed our desk to the corner (where it now collects junk). I threw out the handwriting worksheets that she dreaded and sometimes even tore up after completing half of them. I shelved our nice new copies of the Oxford readers (for now anyway). And we moved on. But what did we move on to? How do you teach your child utilizing this unconventional approach?
First of all, you set your beliefs about the ‘essential’ subjects, age appropriate and education itself on the book shelf of your mind…and you open yourself to learning your child. Instead of worrying about your child not being able to recognize all of her letters at six, you realize that she is interested in cooking. So you take her into the kitchen with you and within the limits of her abilities (knives are still sharp and stoves are still hot), you use this real life experience that interests her to teach math skills such as recognizing numbers, weighing and measuring things. Eventually you can even encourage some sight word recognition as you work from recipes.
The rest of your day may be spent helping her to care for the garden or her pets or just walking and looking at the glories of spring…this is all life science of course. Because these are things that your child likes, she may not even realize that she is learning. She then learns to associate learning not with the need to sit still and focus on things that she may not like, understand or see as tedious, but with having fun.
This makes sense to me as a life-long-learner. I enjoyed school (once I learned to read…at ten) except for the other children. Even in college, I liked the experience of having my mind challenged. BUT it was a pain in the backside to have to sit for long periods of time, produce homework that was nothing but repetition (when I got the whole thing the first time), and stick to someone else’s schedule that might not agree with my body clock. Now I take online courses to improve my romance writing…and I LOVE it. Why? Because the online format allows me to work to my own schedule. The course work is there whenever I have the time and attention to do it. I can spend more time on the lessons that I like or feel I need to focus on. And I can virtually ignore the ones that seem irrelevant to me.
Unschooling allows your child a similar learning experience. And it allows you to work not as a teacher but a guide, mentor and facilitator. You no longer have the stress of trying to force your child into a certain mold…sit still, be quiet and learn. You can use all that boundless energy that comes with ADHD, sensory seeking or whatever the ‘experts’ like to call it this week to help your child learn. Instead of being a challenge, it becomes a tool. Instead of feeling like he is failing, your child becomes excited about the new things he is discovering. And all those fights that you used to have over lessons just disappear.
But like I said this method takes some faith from you as a parent/teacher. Faith that in the long term your child will expand their horizons and instead of focusing solely on cooking may one day WANT to be able to read that recipe for herself. Faith that by focusing on her strengths instead of her weaknesses you are opening doors to a future that is brighter. And faith to say…my child does not have to be like everyone else…she does not need to read at six or ride a bike without stabilizer or any of another thousand things that we are pressured into forcing our children to do at a certain age. And this is not always an easy road to take.
But it can be a more liberating one for you…and your child. And isn’t that why we choose to homeschool our children to begin with…to give them the chance to be all that he or she can be. In the end…don’t discount the value of happiness…theirs and yours.
On Tuesday, join me for a review of The Edison Gene by Thom Hartman. This alternative view of ADHD as an evolutionary adaptation may liberate you and help you see your child in a new light. Then next Friday I get a bit political with my version of the Three R’s of the Homeschool Parent: Resources, Rights and Responsibilities.