Unschooling – unlimited screen-time, no bedtime, no limits – unpacking common assumptions

You might have heard that unschooling requires a completely unscheduled, unrestrained, rule-less approach to parenting and family living. Children, when given the choice, run amok and without constraint, pushing beyond reasonable limits of sleep, food, screens, hygiene and acceptable behavior generally. Parents, to be good unschoolers, need to accept this departure from life as we know it, and succumb to the outlandish whims of their untamed children. This extreme perception of unschooling is not an accurate representation, and is driven by fear rather than understanding.

crazy fun
Unschooling life

As an ‘early career’ unschooler, recently clocking over into our fourth year, I’d like to unpack some of these assumptions and share with you how these common concerns among parents actually plays out in an unschooling family.

The first rule – there are no rules

One thing that is kind of true is that unschoolers don’t usually operate from ‘rules’. Rules come from a place of ‘power over’ rather than mutual respect and are often arbitrary, meaning they have no rationale but come from the position of ‘this is just the way things are’. But if you think about adult friendships, putting in place rules between you and your friend isn’t usually seen as particularly conducive to a good and respectful relationship. Similarly, imposing rules on children establishes a hierarchy that devalues their position and elevates the parent. Rules separate rather than bring together. They enforce rather than encourage good decision-making. And they establish a rule-maker and a rule-breaker dichotomy.

Instead of rules, in our family, we think about habits, concepts and good decision-making. For instance, instead of a rule that says ‘no hitting’, we talk about building habits such as ‘kindness’ and ‘caring’ and reducing habits such as using aggression to solve a problem; we use concepts such as ‘non-violent communication’ and ‘peace’ to help our children resolve issues without aggression; and we discuss good decision making, such as ‘walking away’ and ‘counting to ten’, to highlight how we all have choices, in any given situation, and that some choices are better than others.

The habits and concepts we are currently focusing on are unique to our family, due to our specific set of relationships, the personalities of each family member, as well as our own values and worldviews. At times, the volume gets turned up on a particular habit to help our family find more peace, or we might find we are focusing more intently on the concept of mutual fulfilment to ensure each family member is getting satisfaction or joy. Some of the habits and concepts are universally useful to any family, unschooling or not, such as the concept of ‘peace’. While some of the habits and concepts that are of importance to us might have much less value to another family. Some of the habits and concepts are more for me and my approach to parenting, a lot of them are for the whole family. Here are our current favorites:

Habits: kindness, caring, love, generosity, abundant benevolence;

Concepts: peace, respect, compromise, bucket-filling, mutual fulfilment;

The shift from imposing rules to focusing on habits, concepts and good decision-making is the basis for how we approach other aspects of family life. Let’s now turn to the other common assumptions about unschooling, and I’ll show you how we work without rules.

Bedtime

From the beginning of parenthood, our approach to sleep has always been ‘whatever arrangement allows for the most sleep in quality and quantity, for all family members, but not at the cost of love and safety’. So for us, we found co-sleeping and bedsharing essential to meet these goals. Bedsharing allowed me to breastfeed comfortably and horizontally(!), and as I became really proficient, I could even doze through feeds, increasing my sleep and rest. Bedsharing met and continues to meet, our babies’ and children’s needs for feeling secure and safe, and having their needs met lovingly. We recognize that nighttime parenting is just as important as parenting at any other time of the day.

As our family grew, our sleeping arrangements shifted and changed but our goal of ‘whatever arrangement allows for the most sleep in quality and quantity, for all family members, but not at the cost of love and safety’ has remained constant. So at eight, four and two years old, our children continue to cosleep and/or bedshare with one of us parents.

A specific consideration for our family is our natural tendencies in sleep patterns and preferences. I am a night owl through and through and always have been. My most productive hours are often between 11pm and 2am. Our three children seem to have this tendency also, although we wonder whether this might change over time. But at the moment, all three have the ability to stay up late (which of course is a relative concept anyway). And because the children and I don’t often need to get up at any particular time in the morning, bedtime doesn’t need to be based around rising early for school. Nevertheless, sleep is an important need of all family members, and one of our family members rises early for work. Therefore we factor in the children’s (and my) natural tendencies and preferences to stay up until 11pm, alongside my partner’s need to be in bed before 11pm because he rises at 6am, alongside our children’s choice to continue sleeping with a parent and therefore requiring that parent to sleep and wake roughly with the children’s cycle.

So what do we do?

family bed
The family bedroom

We discuss needs, we empathise, we find a way to compromise, we try and ensure all our family members are getting a good quantity of quality sleep while feeling safe and loved.

In actuality, we do say ‘oh its close to bedtime, let’s go and clean our teeth…’ because the children go to bed when we are tired. We have given our eight-year-old the choice of sleeping in her own room if she would prefer to stay up later than us, but for now she chooses cosleeping. But we have never had an arbitrary bedtime for the children, just because ‘children should be asleep by now’. Going to bed and encouraging sleep has always been driven by the needs of family members within reasonable practicalities.

Food

My approach to food in our home rests on three key assumptions:

  1. ‘Health’ and ‘healthy’ are subjective terms – there are so many diverse viewpoints on what foods or diet regimes are considered healthy, and likewise, diverse viewpoints on what foods are considered unhealthy.
  2. Food restriction and control can lead to fairly dysfunctional relationships with food and your body including eating disorders.
  3. Just like any other aspect of life, I try and approach food/meals/eating with the view that it’s an opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their bodies, their emotions, how they feel etc, and to learn all this, they need to learn by doing. This means supporting children to access and experience foods without shame, guilt or coercion.
Cake
Cake made, decorated and served by 8 year old

Using these three assumptions as a basis, in practice this often looks like:

  • Buying and preparing foods that my children desire, where practically/financially possible.
  • Buying and preparing a range of foods to bring new tastes and smells into our home.
  • Talking about how different foods make us feel, physically and emotionally.
  • Enjoying food without guilt or shame (we’ve become a lot better at this but it’s still a work in progress as my partner and I continue to unpack our own baggage around food restrictions).
  • Making a range of meals to suit a everyone’s needs, where possible.

Screentime

We have two laptops, a TV, two iPads and two iPhones. Our children use and access these devices every day, without restriction. Using these devices, our children: watch movies and tv shows, play online games individually and with friends, use a range of other game-based and educational apps, google information, email, FaceTime friends, watch online tutorials, watch online videos, take and edit photographs, phone and message people.

screentime 2
Playing Roblox online while FaceTiming with a friend who is also playing the same game online

Given the large variety of functions, purposes and pleasures that ‘screens’ afford, I find it unhelpful to talk about ‘screentime’ as all the same thing. My children learn continuously while using screen-based technologies, I wouldn’t want to restrict their learning by imposing arbitrary limits on their use.

What I do suggest however, is for them to listen to their bodies and listen to cues that they need to take a break, stretch, move their bodies, go to the toilet etc. In the early days we talked about this fairly often. These days, the girls are quite proficient at making good choices for themselves.

I try as much as possible to be engaged with what they are doing when using screen-based technologies. For instance, I have my own Roblox account and often play online with them. I watch their shows and movies, I look up information with them. I don’t view screen-based technologies as an invitation to me to disengage from parenting (although practically I can’t always sit beside each of them).

screentime
Using an online art tutorial

Some days they will access screen-based technologies for a large proportion of the day while other days they are busy doing other things. As the years have passed, I’ve become less and less concerned about screen-based technologies, especially when I am truly in alignment with my family and children. It’s easy to get freaked out when you read the doomsday articles about the perils of screens. Instead, read articles that keep the peace and the calm like this one. My advice is, listen to your children and engage with them. See what they are doing and appreciate all the learning and enjoyment taking place.

 

 

Our inaugural home education children’s markets

We recently held our inaugural Home Education Children’s Market for our local community and it was a great success! The children planned and set up a diverse range of stalls and sold to each other over the course of a few hours. We held our market in a local park that had toilets, shelters with tables and a playground. This gave us options for all-weather as well as providing the children a place to play once the markets concluded. The children used small tables that they brought from home, or a rug spread on the ground, to set up their stall.

Lemonade stand

If you’re thinking of organizing an event for your local home ed community, here are some tips that worked for us:

  • Pick a venue that has enough space for your group and is an all-weather option (eg. shade for hot weather and shelter for rain);
  • Pick a date that works for the core organisers so you can be sure there will be a least a handful of stalls! Also consider earlier in the week so that the weekend can be used for preparation;
  • Decide the maximum price limit per item (we decided on a maximum of $1 per item sold; some children priced their products lower than $1);
  • Create a flyer with the details and some examples of the types of stalls so people new to the idea have a starting point, including the instructions on what to;
  • Use email, messenger or your local social media platform to circulate the info;
  • An optional idea is to have a list of stalls (a growing list, as each child decides what they will do) so that there aren’t too many replicas;
  • As the organizer, be there on time to guide the setting up and help with any queries.

artworks stall.jpg

On our flyer, we included the following information for parents:

  • Bring your own table or rug to set up your stall;
  • Parents encouraged to help where needed and run their child’s stall if their child wants to go ‘shop’;
  • Take home all rubbish and clean the area before going home.

Flyer

The children all enjoyed the autonomy of running their own stall, as well as the responsibility of pricing products, taking money and providing change when needed. With the small price tag, children were also able to shop each other’s stalls independently.

Children’s markets enable holistic learning that touches on a wide range of topics and learning areas, as well as requiring the use of a variety of skills. To just name a few of the possibilities for learning:

  • Planning, estimating, calculating, sourcing the product to be sold
  • Making the product (this could obviously lend itself to requiring a huge range of different skills and knowledges)
  • Determining pricing in a marketplace
  • Comparing and contrasting products and prices
  • Understanding currency and value
  • Interpersonal skills and relationships
  • Basic maths – addition, subtraction, division in relation to number of products, counting change, working out profit
  • Design and aesthetics of stalls
  • Wide ranging communication skills – written and verbal
  • Literacy – communicating ideas, reading signs, writing receipts

Playdough stand

Even though children running their own markets affords endless possibilities for learning, the main focus should be on the importance of children enjoying themselves and participating in a community. Our next market is coming up in December and as an added element, we have invited children’s significant relative or friend to attend and shop the markets.

What is unschooling?

Recently I read a post in a parenting forum where someone was asking about the practice of unschooling – what is it and how is it done? Many of the posts from people who identified as unschoolers were not quite in line with how I would describe unschooling, particularly radical unschooling… And it got me thinking then, about how I would respond to someone curious about unschooling. So here it is, my version of (radical) unschooling as it stands in our third official year as unschoolers with a 7.5-year-old, 3.75-year-old and a 21-month-old.

Unschooling is…

…a practice of life

Unschooling rests on the belief that children are capable of learning through life, without the need to be ‘taught’. So follows that unschoolers just continue on with ‘life’ once their children are of school age. The children continue to be involved in the functioning of a household and remain active members of their community. They continue to learn driven by their own intrinsic motivation to learn.

…seeing the world as a matrix of endless possibilities for learning

Knowledge and learning are not limited to a curriculum set out by a handful of policy makers. Unschooling is the realization that there are no limits on what, when and how you learn, who you learn it with and where you learn it. Unschooling learning is more matrix-like. Learning is not linear (even though school curriculums try to make it look like it is) but rather it forms a rhizomatic structure – twists and turns, connections and parallels, off-shoots and lines of flight (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). Children can follow a series of inter-connected ideas endlessly. They can do this intensely or at a slower pace, for however long they like. No one tells children that some forms of knowledge are more or less valuable by the amount of time one is allowed to spend time learning it.

…an active, hands-on, dedicated partnership with your children

It requires lots of time paying attention to your child/ren; meeting their needs (comfort, nourishment, emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual); listening to them in the many ways that children can/do communicate with us; partnering with them as a team to support them in life; providing opportunities for joy and learning; and being reliable, trustworthy and respectful of the child/ren in your team. [For further clarity, unschooling is not lazy/laisse faire parenting. It does not mean that if your child spends hours a day using an iPad or a laptop for example, that the parent then has time off, rather this is an opportunity to learn with/alongside your child while they engage with digital technologies].

…finding ways to live life joyfully and peacefully

Unschooling families are seekers of peace and joy as daily, weekly and year-long goals. Learning to live peacefully and joyfully takes practice and dedication. It requires parents to let go of conventional parenting ideas and to rethink relationships with their children. One way that parents achieve this is trying to avoid thinking or speaking words or phrases that move them away from peace and joy, e.g. ‘bedtime battle’ or ‘struggle to feed’. It is also recognizing that many of those conventional parenting practices are based on methods of controlling children through manipulation, force and arbitrary limits. Those parenting practices will not get anyone closer to joy and peace. Partnership will. Understanding will. Respect will.

…different in each family

Unschooling works with some key principles as outlined above however, how each family practices unschooling based on those principles will be different. Social media brings amazing opportunities to share ideas and insights into peoples’ lives as they unschool, however it also carries the risk of only showing the beautiful, likable images of unschooling life. Some/many aspects of unschooling are not Instagram worthy, or cannot be captured in a picture at all, and I’d be willing to tip that it’s these undocumented moments that are the most valuable in an unschooling life. Sure, there are some great ideas for things to do with children, experiences to offer, resources to provide, ways to set up your home, but what will make unschooling work is not the pretty stuff but the principles you live by. A day in your sloppy house clothes and your children in third-time hand-me-downs with baked on stains and birds nest hair, spending time playing together, connecting together, thinking, dreaming, eating some yummy stuff that nourishes in one way or another, being your child’s trusted partner, is far closer to unschooling than a photo posted to Instagram of a child playing with the latest Montessori inspired resources.

…looking inward, as parents, at ourselves and at our ‘baggage’

Deschooling is often a big part of unschooling, particularly for the parents. Deschooling does require parents to examine themselves, to think on their own deeply held beliefs about parenting and learning. Deschooling can be hard, and it can be painful, to uncover our wounds and bring them into the light. Questioning why we think the way we do and then examining our deeply held beliefs with an unschooling lens is part of an ongoing process of moving closer and closer to unschooling. Leaving behind parenting practices that aim to control children can be confronting and they often stem from our own fears as we once experienced being controlled ourselves. Realizing that we can’t ever control another person is a big aspect of deschooling and while it sounds simple, it can be ever so elusive as our society has us conditioned so well into believing that children need to be, and can be, controlled. This one is definitely a work in progress, for me and many other unschoolers.

Reference

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

How do unschooled children learn?

Two French philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari, wrote about how in modernist, western capitalist thought, knowledge is seen to be linear and predictable. They use the metaphor of the tree to represent linear thinking, where knowledge is traced through the branching out, in straight lines, from the roots to the trunk to the tips of the branches. In schools, knowledge is represented in this way as curriculum in prepared in age-related stages, and curriculum areas are boxed and separate. These key learning areas are progressively built on, through each stage. The student is assessed as to whether she meets outcomes. Learning is viewed as a progression along recognizable paths where the student builds a logical tree of knowledge from which to grow and develop.

Deleuze and Guattari offer an alternative concept to understand knowledge – the rhizome. The rhizome is another botanical reference however it’s movement is different to the tree. In botany, a rhizome is a plant that does not have a branching root ball, but rather, it is more like a bowl of spaghetti. Rhizomes don’t have a main root, all of the roots of a rhizome are equally connected. Rhizomes are easily propagated because the root ball can be pulled apart to grow new separate plants. Rhizomes send off shoots to grow a new plant. They adapt very easily. So the metaphor of the rhizome is quite different to that of the tree. In learning terms, the rhizome is synonymous with Unschooling because the way that learning unfolds is so distinctly different to how children are expected to be taught and to learn in schools.

Because unschoolers are not limited by a curriculum or by having to meet particular learning outcomes, then suddenly the universe becomes the curriculum and living life is the pedagogy. There are no limitations on who, what, when and how learning can take place. There are also no boundaries. For instance in school, the curriculum contains information into manageable chunks. Once the topic has been taught to the satisfaction and determination of the teacher (influenced also by the time allocation), the teacher moves on to the next lesson plan, even though there would be multitude other details and connections and ideas possible to include in the topic but that couldn’t be included purely due to practicality. These limitations are much less present in Unschooling. An unschooler is able to follow leads and links, switching and moving through and across multiple Key Learning Areas (KLAs) (and beyond recognized KLAs) as they learn. Deleuze and Guattari use the conceptual term ‘line of flight’ to refer to the way a rhizome sends off shoots. In Unschooling, a line of flight is easily followed as there are no restrictions on what can be learnt. For example, our 7yo was playing a game of elastics singing the song “England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales…” which then led to looking in an atlas containing odd facts and seeing that in Wales, there is a bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin. This then led to looking up Charlie Chaplin movies on YouTube and a discussion about old movies and how they were made. Learning that the film clips we were looking at were about 100 years old, our 7yo realised that it was around the time her great-grandmother was born. After watching the Charlie Chaplin movies, we then switched to Mr Bean shows which proved to be hilariously entertaining for the 7yo in question.

These lines of flight, as the child follows leads and links, is how Unschooling is practiced most of the time. The table below gives some examples of differences between understandings of the linear model of learning and the rhizomatic model of learning.

Tree_rhizome table

References

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Leaning in

Thanks for joining me!

I’m Kathryn, first time blogger but longtime writer. I have a Doctor of Philosophy, studying policy in early childhood education in Australia. My career progression and projection looked assuredly towards academia. But funnily enough, it’s not really where I’m headed at all right now. I’m an academic mutineer.

Instead, my life centres around the practice of unschooling, with my partner and three young children.

Unschooling is considered quite unconventional. And I guess it’s no surprise then, that I was intrigued with the idea because I’m no stranger to unconventional decisions. Choices that have nevertheless been life changing.

One of those life changing decisions occurred when I was pregnant with my first baby. My partner and I looked into lots of stuff to prepare for parenting. As it turned out, homebirth was the thing for me, because I could see that modern medical practices had taken birth away from women. So I opted out and stayed at home.

And quite simply, our baby was born, in our small apartment bedroom, into the warm water of the birth pool and into my arms. We slept together, in the same bed, right from the start. We breastfed to term, meaning for my first-born, nursing finished up at around five years old. We listened to and respected our child.

Then we had more babies at home. More sleeping together, in lots of beds, in different configurations.

And as time drew on, our eldest became school age. And those whispers in my head became louder and we were faced with the next decision. Again, it was life changing. We decided to Unschool.

So here I am. Academic mutineer. Mother. Partner. Practicing Unschooler. Thinker. Writer. Beginning blogger.

Think of yourself as not merely faced with decisions to which you must react, but as being proactively at choice. And when a decision is difficult, consider what you are agreeing to with each choice, and what it says about the world you wish to inhabit.    – Ben Hewitt, Home Grown