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How we became unschoolers

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Our journey to unschooling has taken a few years, and finally arrived at its inevitable destination some months ago. I look back now at all the time spent trying to fit the children and ourselves into a structure that never felt right to me, and into which none of us really seemed able to fit, and I'm deeply relieved to have found this place. It isn't always an easy place, but to me it is authentic and coherent. The difficult things that arise aren't about conforming to other people's sense of how things should be. They're not about fitting in, or doing better or trying to be things we are not made to be. They are about who we are, how we interact, our frustrations, desires and needs. And, it's a place of lifelong learning. Sometimes the learning fills the whole house with riotous enthusiasm, sometimes it's slippery and frustrating, and most of the time it's so quiet that you wouldn't know it's happening. But it's always there.

When they were four and three years old, our sons, D and E, went to an alternative preschool in Barcelona. They would stay there for four hours a day while I would zip to my office, work furiously, then zip back to pick them up and we'd all head home for the afternoon. This preschool was a loving, child-led environment and it has acquired a sort of mythical status in the collective family memory. I'm sure there were things that didn't work so well, but they've been cancelled out over time by its other qualities. The children in this little place had almost complete autonomy over their activities, and the educators were kind and thoughtful, accompanying every meltdown and argument with infinite patience. Even then, there were many mornings when their dad or I was at home, and the children would choose not to go, preferring instead our company and the quiet of the sitting room as the backdrop for their games.

When D hit six (the age that obligatory education starts in Spain), the stress of finding a school that would suit him began. By then we had understood that our son was not going to thrive in a mainstream school. He had no desire to follow group activities and found relationships with other children challenging. His way of being was embraced in that gentle preschool, but I knew we wouldn't find that same level of freedom and acceptance in a big primary school. At the same time, I was becoming less convinced by the idea that being in a classroom was a natural or beneficial way to spend the days.

And so, after a lot of deliberation and research, we moved out of the city to go to an alternative school that was opening a little way up the coast. We rented a house a couple of blocks from the school and gave it our all to make it work. The classes and workshops at the school weren't obligatory, and the children could move freely through spaces for crafts, music, science and Montessori materials, engaging in whatever took their fancy that day. There was also a huge garden to explore with lots of big trees that always had a child or two perching in their branches. We kept at it for four years, and I would say there was a lot of good stuff there. But it always felt like a compromise. By the second year, E was also going with his brother. Neither of them was interested in any of the classes on offer and rarely engaged with the 'learning' materials, even though outside of school they were interested in huge amounts of things. Some days they enjoyed playing with the other children in the big garden, and other days they found it exhausting and overly aggressive, and would come home angry and frustrated. Our daughter, C, meanwhile was trying out the nearby child-led preschool for a few hours each day and was pretty adamant that she would rather be at home. All of them liked to spend a lot of time at home, and so really became part-time schoolers, going to their respective places just two or three times a week.

Finally, two years ago, we accepted that this just wasn't going anywhere. No one seemed to be gaining much from the little time they were spending at school, and there was a sort of stress in this halfway house existence. We pulled all three out and, along with another family, we looked to set up our own project, with an educator at home, setting up activities etc. There was talk about learning activities, science, maths and so on, and how to pack it all in. I had never been worried about the academic side (I was more concerned about them being emotionally okay), but at the same time, I couldn't quite let go of it completely. While we were planning this project I had frequent moments of panic where I could sense that we were over planning and that this just wasn't what our kids needed. As it happened, the project never came to fruition. The other couple split up during that summer and went back to Poland, where they were from. I panicked some more as I thought about how solitary this experience was going to be. Then I enlisted the help of a tutor who would spend the mornings with the kids exploring their interests whilst I worked. That was a failure. The kids resented his presence and couldn't see why they needed him anyway.

From there, there were some months of confusion as I battled between what our children 'should' be doing and learning, and who our children actually were, how they learned and what they needed. I knew a couple of homeschooling families, but I couldn't quite relate to what they were doing either. We were still close to many parents from the school, and most of them had pretty alternative views on education, but even they weren't considering taking them out of the system completely.

Since none of our children had ever had any formal lessons, there was plenty of evidence to show me that they didn't really need them. D and E had both learned to read by themselves at around nine and eight years old. They went from being non-readers to reading fluently in the space of a few months. It was a magical thing to see and one of my most profound lessons regarding their innate learning capacity. Several years on, and in the absence of spelling tests, phonetics, reading comprehension etc., their spelling is excellent and reading is something they do happily when they need or want to.

For the first month or so of that new school year at home, they just got on with life. They watched endless Horrible Histories DVDs and an enduring love of history was born. E, who had previously been doing some studying of the family tree, could now spend hours a day on it. He got in touch with aunties, uncles and cousins, discovering ancestors and previously unknown relatives, spanning many generations and at least three continents. This is still one of his main interests and his dedication and patience are constant. D embraced his love of all things technical and gamer, and started to focus on game developing, as well as becoming a bit of a specialist on Ancient Rome. We watched every documentary and film out there on Ancient Rome and he can hold his own in any conversation about the moral qualities and battle strategies of different emperors. The gaming has also been a rich ground for him, and has taught me that our ingrained horror of 'screen time' is based on little real knowledge of what our children are actually experiencing. At some point, I'll delve deeper into that subject, but for now, and putting it into worthy adult terminology, I can safely say that it has brought immeasurable amounts of geography, history, economics, maths and reading, along with all sorts of strategic thinking and planning, goal setting, collaboration, and countless other things. C was four years old and just happy to have her big brothers home with her, no longer being cajoled into sitting at a table painting at a preschool. She still painted lots, but at home, where she felt most comfortable. And so the days rolled by. Sometimes all three would just play together for hours, making up complicated roleplays. They would head to D's bedroom and close the door. We would deliver sandwiches to them at lunchtime and that's all we'd see of them on those days. I'm going to guess that to the untrained eye it didn't look like a lot was happening in that little house, but it really was.

They were happy enough and I would like to say that this is where our unschooling really began, but not quite. I was jittery and had a lot of fear. My intuition was telling me one thing but it seemed to go against everything everyone else believed. After a month (and probably influenced by my worrying), E decided he would like to try the local primary school as his best friend had just started there and seemed to enjoy it. He was so excited to go, and the night before he told me it felt like Christmas Eve. I'm not quite sure what he had imagined but school didn't live up to those high hopes. His teacher was lovely and he found his classmates generally welcoming but, within a week, he was tired and cranky. He found lessons boring but stressful, and there seemed to him to be a number of pointless rules designed with the sole intention of frustrating the children. His stay at this little school ended after a couple of months, by which time he was thoroughly fed up and distressed that he had no room in life for his own interests. It was time to call it a day. We had one last foray into schooling as he decided to go back to his old place. He went for one day, then said no, he was much happier at home. He would rather learn in his own way and see friends after school and at weekends.

I still couldn't quite let go and we went to visit one last school. Beautifully designed in natural wood, with sunlight streaming in through huge windows, airy chill-out zones, cosy computer corners, 3D printers, a radio station and all kinds of creative workshops, this seemed to be the perfect school. The kids got to choose the projects they would work on and teaching took place in small groups. It was way beyond our budget and we would have had to move house, but for just a little while we entertained the thought that perhaps this would work. In fact, I forced upon myself the notion that finally here was the answer - we had found the perfect school! But, no, ultimately I had to acknowledge that it felt deeply uncomfortable and forced. No matter how great the school, this would require them to conform to a timetable and way of doing things that so far they had resisted all the way. More than anything, they would have less time for the things they did at home that were meaningful to them and through which they were learning more than I ever did in any lesson.

And so, here we are. The journey has really been mine and their dad's. After all those years searching for alternatives which would lessen the compromise, we are going with what feels (and has always felt) intuitively right.

Last June, we made several big changes to our lives. I had recently left the business that I had run for 20 years, and begun to work from home instead, so we moved from our little beach town, up to this lovely place on the hill, where there is space, fresh air, and a mind-expanding view out to sea. Here, each person is free to pass their time how they wish and be with their interests and passions. We don't judge what they choose to do and we don't try to sneak in any 'learning'. We have had to eat humble pie on that one. The learning is continual, fast and expansive and there is little required of us except to facilitate things when that's needed.

Most importantly, the learning is inevitable and, often, invisible. But it's happening all the time. I know this because I am amazed every day by the depth of their knowledge and the sophistication of the themes they want to talk about. Our conversations roam from starting a business, to politics and economics, historical events, laws of physics, nutrition, name it. They are relentless researchers and challengers of conventional wisdom. I'm often the target for E's geography quizzes, or a sounding board for D's ideas about an ideal political system or a complex game that he is planning to design. C challenges me with logical questions about the workings of the world, and to which we generally have to figure out the answers together. I check things on my phone all the time just to keep up with them. I can safely say that I have learned more in the last six months than at any point in my life.

I finally consider myself 'deschooled' although I do, of course, have the odd wobble. It isn't perfect and some days I find myself yearning for a community where this is the norm, or I worry that their lives aren't interesting enough and I beat myself up over all the things we should be doing with them. But nothing is perfect and the more we do this and simply relax into life, living it in the way that each of us finds worthwhile, the more I know that this is the path for us, imperfections and all.

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