Additional Writings on Unschooling
by Shana Ronayne Hickman, editor of Live Free Learn Free

Most of these shorter writings originate from discussion group postings and blog entries. Others come from letters and journal writings.


On Living a Full Life With Our Children
Discussion group post, 2005

Because it looks so different from traditional schooling and traditional homeschooling, it's difficult to see where education, so to speak, comes into play. If a child isn't interested in learning those subjects that grandparents and worried relatives/friends want to hear about (reading, math, chemistry, etc.), it's hard not to take a second look at what we're doing.

More than anything else, unschooling is about being involved in our chidren's lives, not only on an I-know-what-they're-up-to level, but on a learning-with-them level. Unschooling is a very hands-on method of home education. For instance, when my son was interested in dinosaurs at a young age, we researched them together online, played dinosaur games (make believe, borad games, card games, computer games), listened to dinosaur songs, watched dinosaur videos, put on dinosaur puppet show and plays, went to dinosaur museums and exhibits, played with dinosaur toys, read lots of dinosaur books, drew pictures of dinosaurs, and talked talked talked about dinosaurs almost constantly (we discussed paleontology, fossils, oil, carnivores vs. omnivores vs. herbivores vs. insectivores, habitats, adaptation, evolution, etc., etc.). All of this was because of *his* passion for dinosaurs.

That doesn't mean I sat back and waited for him to initiate every discussion or suggest every field trip or book or game. I understood his interests and found materials and events that I knew he'd enjoy. Usually, I was spot-on. Every once in a while, I'd bring home something that just didn't do it for him, and it would sit untouched. No biggie.

Right now, he's passionate about ancient history (mostly Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse - he's a mythology buff), and we're exploring that. He's also interested in Neopets, Yu-Gi-Oh, Horrible Histories and Horrible Science books, riding his bike around the neighborhood, playing computer games, superheros, dressing up, baking, playing with friends, singing (LOTS of singing at this house), watching movies, searching for snails, reading comics, exploring parks, playing tennis, etc., etc., etc. He's living a full life, and he's learning from every part of it. And instead of watching from the sidelines, I'm living it with him. While I write this, we've discussed the pros and cons of different Neopets, how many ten thousands make a million, how to spell several different words, and I'm sure a few other things I've already forgotten.


On Following Interests
Discussion board post, 2005

What works for some people who can't quite see how a child could learn what they need to know from what interests her/him is relating it to something they've learned on their own as an adult. My mother, for example, took up the button box accordion when she was in her forties. She saw a woman playing one at an Irish festival one year and was entranced. She watched her perform several times over the weekend, then went home listening to the cassettes. She found a beautiful diatonic accordion and started to teach herself how to play. Of course, she started out knowing absolutely nothing - just playing around with the box until she could make a few notes. It was slow going, but she persisted because she had fallen in love with the instrument. After years of practicing, talking and playing with other accordionists, attending workshops and conferences, and busking weekends in downtown Austin, she's well respected in the global button box community. She’s hosted accordionists from all over the world in her home, has performed and taught at many festivals and conferences, and corresponds with the most talented diatonic accordion players from all over the world. She never took lessons. And she never gave up. She didn't have to start at point A to get to point B. She didn't have to be "taught." No one had to plan out her experience. She just did it.

Most people have similar experiences. Whether it's learning HTML or knitting or gardening or playing an instrument. And then, there are those of us who become semi-experts at everything that interests us - we find a puppy, so we learn everything we can about the breed; we learn about the benefits of organic food and can't stop finding out more and more and more; we learn about an interesting great aunt and have to keep delving deeper, until we've eventually filled in a family tree six generations deep, complete with interesting anecdotes about many of the ancestors.

Also, I think some people get caught up in separating certain kinds of learning from "real life." Math, for instance, and reading. But, these things are completely connected to real life. They ARE real life. If a kiddo wants to learn to cook, for example, there's LOTS of reading involved, as well as math, obviously. Interested in YuGiOh? Got to know how to read the cards and add and subtract damage points.

Everything is connected, and young kids (and those who haven't been to school) haven't been programmed to categorize things and separate them. So, it's only natural that playing with Hotwheels turns into a discussion on speed limits and road safety, or friction (watching them slow down), or how far they could travel in a second, a minute, an hour. Or, maybe it turns into a few hours spent drawing favorite race cars or talking about how car engines work.

My little one was never really into Hotwheels, but Greek mythology intrigued him. I can't for the life of me remember how it started, but for the past two years, Greek heroes and villains, gods and goddesses, monsters and nymphs have filled our conversations. He haunts the Greek myths section at the library. It wasn't long before Greek history slipped in, and suddenly, we were surrounded with books on crumbling structures and statues, Greek trivia, the Greek alphabet, etc. Well, of course, that turned into a love of all things Roman, and we spent long days with Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire. And Cleopatra, of course. Leading us to - you guessed it - Egypt! Lots to work with here. Mummies and pharaohs, pyramid building and heiroglyphics, treasures and tomb robbers. Archaeology. The Nile. Daily life in Egypt. Well, back to Rome, which wasn't built in a day - so how WAS it built? Sewage systems, buildings, roads into Rome, etc. Roman numerals led to a discussion of different number systems through history. Stepping outside, we stared into the night sky searching for constellations and planets, many named for Greek/Roman mythological characters. We bought binoculars and a Stellarscope, as well as several books on the constellations and astronomy in general. Then, on to Greek and Roman coins! This led to an interest in coins and bills from around the world and through the ages. The history of money. Why it's worth what it is today. And on and on and on and....

He's 7.5 now and hasn't shown a decline in interest. He could talk your ear off! He certainly knows much more about Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt than I do! He's better at remembering which constellations are which. These were all just things that came up naturally because of his interest. We talk A LOT and one subject naturally flows into another subject.


On Learning to Read
Discussion group post, 2005

I know that learning to read is a primary concern for those with non-reading children. Their learning doesn't resemble school learning. As much as I love books, I know that most *real* learning takes place outside of books. Turning over a rock in a garden is much more memorable and educational than reading about insects in a field guide. Talking to an elderly neighbor about WWII is a much more direct way to gain information about being a soldier than reading a history book.

That said, children's passions can lead them to reading, and in the case of unschoolers, often do. Many children have learned to read because of gaming strategy guides or Pokemon books. Others were so interested in animals that they learned to read while browsing through the wildlife encyclopedia set or looking through zoo books. Some wanted to read books on dancing or dinosaurs or basketball or computers or or or.... But not all passions lead to reading. Some will and some won't. But when a child wants to learn as much as possible about a subject that she or he just can't get enough of, it's not surprising to watch them blossom into readers. Once the desire to read has found a home in their brains, some children will ask for help or happily accept help when it is offered, while other children will want to learn to read completely on their own and in their own time. It's what works best for them.

And almost all children enjoy being read to. Cuddling up with Mom on the comfy chair and listening to her read from books filled with beautifully illustrated pictures is a comforting experience and much different from reading on one's own. Being introduced to books this way and being allowed to explore books however feels most comfortable to them.... No wonder unschooled children often end up being much more comfortable with books and reading than many other children.


On Unschooling Math
Discussion board post, 2007

Kenzie and I don't really do anything special for math. He's nine and loves to play games of all sorts - board games, card games, dice games, video games, trading card games.... That's probably helped his computation skills more than anything. We have a few games that are more math-oriented, but if they're not fun, they don't get played.

Kenzie's gaining an understanding of math in a way I never did. He's not as quick with his "math facts," but he understands why 7 four times is 28, or why adding 85 and 45 gives you 130, or why subtracting 79 from 62 is -17. He's not sitting there adding columns or punching in numbers on a calculator (unless he's working with much larger numbers - then calculators are a life saver; he's been playing around with my RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) calculator, recently, and loving the quickness of it).

We were talking about some math "tricks" the other day, and he didn't simply file them away, as I did when I was younger. He wanted to know the reasons they worked. Like, why does 9*X (where X is 1 digit) = (X-1)(9-(X-1)) (where (X-1) is a digit and (9-(X-1)) is a digit)? In other words, for 9*7, you'd write down (7-1), or 6, then (9-6), or 3: 63.

Or why a number consisting of the digits XYZ multiplied by 11 can be written (from right to left) as (Z) (Z+Y) (Y+X) (X) (where the parentheses serve, again, only to separate out the digits. Oh, and you carry the one(s) over).

Can you tell I was a Number Sense competitor in school?

Anyway, I'd never bothered to figure out why those (or any other tricks) worked. I simply took it on faith that they did. He'll have none of that, though, so we went through and figured them out.

Also, he's often measuring things - the length of our desks (with measuring tape), the number of days until Christmas (with the calendar), how many steps he takes each day (with a pedometer), how long it takes him to run around the block (with a stopwatch), how much milk to add to a recipe (with measuring cups and spoons), how long until dinner (with a clock), the squareness of his comic panels (with a ruler and a protractor), how much money he needs to save for a new game or toy, and on and on.

His understanding of math relates directly to his life and his curiosity about the world, and he can't fathom why other kids hate using math or are afraid of it. To him, it's just part of life. It's a tool - one he enjoys using.


On Keeping Track
Discussion Board Post, 2006

In the beginning, I kept a journal of things my son did that day and wrote little subjects beside them - history, math, etc. It just made me feel better, I think, and I was worried that someone might come knocking on my door. Eventually, I would only write every few days, then every week or two. Finally, I packed the journal away.

I blog, quite often, about his days, but that's about as close as I come to keeping track. The subject delineations don't even enter into my mind, anymore. The other day, someone asked what grade he'd be in if he went to school, and I had to think for a moment ("Let's see, kindergarten is five and six, first grade is six and seven, second grade is...").

I've looked at lots of the standards (including school district lists, standardized tests, the What Your X-Grader Needs to Know series, etc.), but whether or not a nine-year-old knows cursive or ten-year-old does long division isn't important in the scheme of things, imo. Those standards were created because the educational system needs to be sure kids are testable - easily compared to one another and to a list of requirements - and doesn't expect kids to learn much beyond what they're taught in school. This really doesn't apply to unschoolers' lives. As long as a child is engaged and interested in the world, s/he's going to be right on track - at least according to the child's own timetable.

I think that journaling, scrapbooking, etc. is essential for many parents who are new to unschooling. Turning activities into schoolish lingo can be comforting, especially in the beginning, and can help a parent see how unschooling works. But, comparing a child to a list of standards is usually more detrimental than helpful....


On Unschooling being Easy
Discussion group post, 2005

Both unschooling and breastfeeding are not well accepted or well understood in traditional society, but they are something many parents feel/know in their hearts to be right.

Like with breastfeeding, it many be difficult to know if a child is getting "enough." The only way to be sure is to be patient, trust ourselves and our children, and watch them grow.

And, like breastfeeding, it's EASIER than relying on the prepackaged stuff. I used to feel almost guilty watching mothers prepare and heat up bottles of formula, knowing I could nurse anywhere, anytime with no preparation other than eating a nutritious diet. Unlike homeschoolers who use a curriculum, unschoolers don't have to plan out their days, set up lessons, put together units, keep up with paperwork, grade, review, test, etc. They simply have to live a nutritious life, so to speak – a full life surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. They allow their children time to explore, wonder, create, and dream. A child's natural curiosity is an amazing thing – almost enough to make me feel guilty watching non-unschoolers.


On How to Know if a Child is Learning
Discussion group post, 2005

Since there are no workbook pages to count up, or test scores, etc., look at whether or not they're engaged with life. Are they passionate about their interests? Are they actively exploring and questioning the world around them? Are they content? There will be lulls, certainly, where they aren't overly passionate about anything in particular, and there will be days where they prefer to laze around the house, but try to look at the overall picture.

If you're having trouble seeing the big picture, jot down notes about what the kids do, what they're interested in, what questions they ask, etc., and at the end of a month or two, read over what you've written. If you're living a full, rich life, there will be quite a bit there. Don't skip over the little things. A question here, a discussion there - these are the ways unschooling parents are able to tune into their children's learning.


On "Fluff" Reading
Discussion board post, 2007

If the goal is to nurture a child's love of reading, I just can't see limiting her available reading material. If a child is interested in Goosebumps, she may or may not be interested in Poe. If she is, isn't it okay to enjoy both? If she isn't, why not allow her to follow her interest in Goosebumps? What's the harm?

When I was in high school, I hated that they wanted me to put down the books I was reading and pick up "classics." So, I purposefully decided to skip every assigned book they threw my way. It was easy enough to ace the tests and even craft a great essay, as long as I listened when they discussed the books in class.

Years later, I picked up several of those books I'd passed over and fell in love with them. I read through all the Fitzgerald I could find, pored over my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, decided Hemingway just wasn't my thing, found 1984 to be eerily spot-on....

But at the time, you couldn't have paid me to pick up these books - because someone else was trying to decide what I should spend my time reading. That just royally ticked me off. I wanted to read Sherlock Holmes and Richard Adams and Tolkien and Richard Bach. I wanted to read magazines and slam poetry (I think before it was even called "slam"). I wanted to read Heinlein and doomsday sci-fi, like The Sheep Look Up. But, my school didn't value my reading choices. So, I shunned their idea of quality literature for almost a decade.

My son, almost nine, reads anything and everything. Lots of non-fiction about subjects that interest him (especially world history, mythology and sciences), tons of fantasy, Goosebumps, classics, picture books he's had for years, joke books, general fiction, poems, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh books, comics, magazines of all sorts, reference books - you name it. With no one limiting his choices, he's happily branched out and is open to reading just about anything - regardless of level or literary quality. He reads both for information and for entertainment, and he reads a lot.

Looking at my son, I find myself wishing my reading choices had been valued while I was growing up. If they had, I might have become fascinated with Fitzgerald much sooner. I might have fallen in love with Scout Finch's observations when I was 16, rather than 29. I might have learned the fun of reading Shakespeare the way my son has. Well, at least I can make up for lost time....


On Pointing Out Grammatical Errors
Discussion board post, 2006

As a kid, I loved to write stories - mostly about talking animals. In the beginning, I brought these stories to my mother to read, and while she enjoyed them (and told me so), she also pointed out the mistakes I'd made in punctuation, spelling, etc. Eventually, I stopped showing her. I didn't like my mistakes in the spotlight.

Now, when my son brings his stories to me, I'll read them and we'll talk about the characters, the cool dialogue, the frightening scenes, and he's happy. Sometimes, he'll ask me, "Did I spell everything right?" That's when I'll point out mispellings. When he's going to give it to one of his great grandmothers or to a friend, he'll usually ask, "Does anything need to be fixed?" Meaning, "Can they tell what I'm saying?" That's when I might point out the need for a comma here or a period there. That's when we talk about capitalization or not breaking a word between two lines.

For the most part, he's picked up everything on his own simply from reading and writing. He's learned spelling, spacing, punctuation, grammar (he even uses the word "whom" correctly), etc. all from living his life. The thought of interupting his delight and pride to correct something as trivial as a spelling mistake really bothers me. I don't need to interfere. If he has a question about something, he asks - simple as that.


On Initiating and "Strewing"
Discussion board post, 2007

I can't imagine not initiating. And, in fact, I don't know any unschoolers who don't initiate - at least to some degree. Unschooling and initiating are not mutually exclusive.

For me, it would be completely artificial not to initiate. If I see a cool festival in the newspaper, I'm going to tell Kenzie about it. Or, if I notice that Lowes and Home Depot are offering free kids workshops, I'm going to let him know. Also, if I find a cd I think he'll like or a book that I think he'd fall in love with, I'll ask him if he wants to give them a try. I do that for everyone in my family.

I often pick things up for him when I'm out alone, too - just like I do for my mother, my husband, my friends....

But, I'm not a strewer. It seems a little artificial to me. Why not just say, "Hey, I found this really cool thing I think you'll like." Or, "Wanna put a puzzle together with me later?" Or, "I was reading through this book on mummies and it was so cool - feel like checking it out with me?" Strewing works well for some families, but it has the tendency to be used dishonestly, in my opinion.

When is strewing dishonest? When a parent chooses what to place here and there based on their own desires/fears about the child's learning, rather than on the child's interests. The concept of strewing (though I don't think it started out like this) has been a godsend to many parents who aren't actually comfortable with the idea of letting their children choose how to direct their own educations. If Junior isn't interested in geography, but Mom thinks he should be, a map will appear on the wall next to his seat at the table. If Junior doesn't give a flip about the times table, his placemat one day has magically transformed into one of those placemats that has the times table all filled out. If Junior's only interested in reading Goosebumps and Captain Underpants, his dad makes sure to place "real" literature beside the toilet, on the kitchen table, next to his favorite chair....

That's when it gets sneaky. I've met more than a few unschoolers who think of strewing as their backup plan for when the kids' interests don't match up to what the parents think they should be. But, if your idea of strewing involves bringing cool things in from the thrift store that you know your children will love and then spreading them throughout the house so the kids will have fun discovering them, then strew away! And then come strew some cool stuff all over my house, too!

I'm all for having tons of resources available, but I believe kids deserve the same respect we'd show adults. I wouldn't buy a book for my husband and leave it in his bathroom hoping he'd pick it up - unless it was something I knew he didn't really want to read in the first place. And then, why would I buy it for him? Well, I'd only do that if I just knew he needed to read it, whether he liked it or not. It would be because I was sure I knew what was best for him and believed he didn't.

Nah. Too convoluted for me. I'd rather just tell him that I think he'd really enjoy this book, even though he thinks he wouldn't. Or that this book is about X and that I'd really appreciate if he read through it so we could talk about it. It seems a lot more respectful that way.

I'm the same way with Kenzie. Sometimes, he falls head over heals for the things I introduce (such as the Wrinkle in Time series recently), and other times he passes them by like pea salad at a buffet. No biggie. I'll keep things around, and if he shows interest or if it seems like he reaches a point where he'd enjoy whatever it is more than when I introduced it, I'll bring it out again and ask.


On the Recent Explosion of Unschooling Articles in Mainstream Media
Discussion board post, 2006

I think that unschooling is so radically different from brick and mortar schooling, and from many people's assumptions about homeschooling in general, that a few paragraphs on the subject isn't going to be enough to help them see the beauty of the concept. I cringe inwardly when I see another national article about unschooling, because I know it's most likely been written by someone who has no first-hand knowledge of the subject. I cringe because I know that so many "news" stories are simply meant to shock readers - and what's more shocking than children being in charge of their own lives? I cringe because there's almost always some "expert" who seems never to have heard of unschooling before the interview, but who is vehemently certain it is simply one more wacky way for crazy/overprotective/hippie/paranoid parents to screw up their kids. And, I cringe because they so very rarely show older kids/teens/grown unschoolers.... As if all the unschooled kids in the world are under age ten because... why? We can't handle unschooling with them after that point?


I've been getting interview requests for the last few years, but up until recently, I'd been turning them down. I just didn't want to have anything to do with all those articles that make me want to bang my head repeatedly against a wall. But, I finally decided that, since they're going to do the articles anyway, it might be helpful to have an interviewee who is extremely conscious of how words can get twisted around and who knows the value of a good quote/"sound bite." So, I'm starting to say, okay.

But, my heart still sinks when I see a link to a new article. It's just not the way I'd like for unschooling to be introduced to the masses. And, when they tack a poll or message board to the piece.... I mean, reading a two-minute story about unschooling does not an expert make.

But, I know firsthand that the stories have sparked enough interest in quite a few people - people who end up researching the idea further to see if it would be a good fit in their families. The media coverage has definitely brought a new group of families to unschooling, and I have to keep reminding myself that, as bad as some of these pieces are, each one has most likely influenced at least one reader enough to change her/his family's life in wonderful ways - even if it doesn't involve full-fledged unschooling.

And, of course, the more stories that are out there, the more it will be accepted as a normal way of learning. It will take a while, but if the media continues to report on it, eventually it will become old news - the way homeschooling did several years back.


On Attachment Parenting and Unschooling
Discussion board post, 2006

I think of both attachment parenting and unschooling as a gradual unfolding into the world. Especially with AP-ing (though, really with all parenting), you are your children's universe for several years. You are their comfort, their security, their homebase. Unschooling allows children to learn about the world at their own pace and from a safe starting point. The world's not so scary when you know that you have that safe place to return to, and when you know that your family is there to support you and help you along your journey.

Rather than tossing children in school and hoping for the best (a caring teacher or two; respectful, kind classmates; a pace that, for the most part, works for the child...), unschooling parents are there to help children find their way in a complex world, allowing them to explore, discover and come to understand their planet, their cultures, their communities and, ultimately, themselves.

Part of AP-ing, for me, is trusting my child. Unschooling is just another way to do that. I trust him to know what he's ready for and when he's ready for it. I trust him to direct his own learning (with me right there with him). I trust him to know himself best.

My son's learning - his life - is couched in love and respect. He's excited about so many things, and he feels good about who he is, about his abilities, and about his place in the world.

For me, the whole of AP-ing is much greater than the sum of its parts - much more than responding to children's needs, feeding them healthy foods, comforting them at night, etc. It's respecting them as individuals. It's recognizing the strength of the bonds between family members. It's putting the focus back where it belongs - on family, kindness, nurturing, caring, respect and, of course, on love.

Homeschooling is a natural extension - or rather, for us, a natural part - of AP-ing.


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