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Is it fun or is it learning? Does it matter?

There are many things about living without school that continue to fascinate me. Although, when I see these things in action, what fascinates me even more is how I could have ever understood things differently. When you see life and learning flow together naturally and uncoerced, you have to wonder why we make it all so hard.

One of the things I love to observe is how different life feels when you stop compartmentalising time into 'learning/serious' and 'fun/enjoyment'. When I was growing up, classes at school were for learning. Between 9am and 4pm there were also some clearly demarcated 'fun' times, at lunch or break. Occasionally, there was enjoyment in the classes, but not often. Even when I did love a subject and had a great teacher, the joy was generally killed by the rigidity of the curriculum itself and the obligatory tests and essays. There was never any freedom to explore a subject in our own way. After school and at weekends, (once homework was out of the way) there was time again for fun. This all made sense at the time, but now I see that it is painfully limiting to think in those terms.

When you stop worrying about what your child should know, and let them manage their time in the way they see best, you realise that in fact this learning/fun distinction is not a natural or clear separation at all. And, when you don't categorise different activities as academic, useful, frivolous or fun, and you just let it all just muddle together (as it naturally does when we don't interfere), the limitations vanish, and our assumptions often turn out to be baseless.

One of these assumptions is what your child might do when they can choose to do anything at all. A lot of parents have told me that their children couldn't be self-directed because they wouldn't be motivated to do anything at all. They would just play video games, relax, have fun, do nothing much. I was thinking about that this week. I have a couple of big projects that I need to do and want to do, but, for some reason, I'm finding it hard to get to grips with them. I sit at my computer but get easily distracted and as soon as my work gets a bit tricky or I lose inspiration, I find myself putting the kettle on for another cup of tea, or suddenly I've clicked away and I'm either reading the news (again) or having a quick scroll through social media. At some point, I either get inspired, or I summon up enough self-discipline to crack on. I tend to go to the same things when I'm procrastinating. A quick check of the headlines or a cup of tea are always helpful for putting things off.

Mariano has also been busy with work. One day last week after an hour or so at his computer, he showed us a colourful collage he had put together and printed out of all the countries he had ever visited. It clearly wasn't remotely linked to what he was supposed to be doing but I was impressed by how creatively he had managed to avoid the task at hand.

That made me curious about what my children do when they are lacking in inspiration or motivation. They all have a lot of projects on the go and in their heads, and I know that they sometimes get frustrated at what they perceive as a lack of progress in these things. I think I had assumed that when they hit one of those moments they would do the same as me—either zone out on the internet or turn off from the serious stuff and do something I'd consider fun or relaxing for a while. So I asked each of them. I found their answers enlightening and had to revisit that fun/serious/learning paradigm again. It also turns out that they are all far more creative than me.

D told me that he watches videos on economics when he is frustrated with something or figuring out what to do next. He's showed me these before. They're are usually infographic videos from educational economics channels he follows on Youtube.

E was quite definite. He relaxes by watching comedy shows, and likes to create alternative maps of the world at the same time.

C had quite a list of things she does when she's not sure what to do, beginning with playing Roblox and watching her favourite YouTubers. So, I thought that perhaps she at least wouldn't put me to shame. But it turns out that she may equally watch a wildlife documentary or learn Spanish on Duolingo.

I would relax with the comedy show, perhaps the wildlife documentary and (at a stretch) maybe even half an hour of Roblox. But I don't think my brain would get much rest from watching economics videos, creating maps, or learning a language on Duolingo. Someone else's fun can clearly be my hard work and vice versa.

To make things more complicated, something that is usually fun can also sometimes be hard work. So, back to gaming, and what seems to be every parent's fear. D might be playing a strategy game on the computer, and to make progress in the game he may need to do something particularly challenging and/or frustrating. At this point, his game has become difficult, and staying with it will require him to be persistent and focused. Once he finally achieves his goal, he'll probably just want to relax for a while and is likely to be found curled up on the sofa watching an economics video.

What's fun and what's learning? It's impossible to pick it all apart. It depends on the person, the circumstances, the time of day, the mood. At home, in an unschooling environment, away from the constraints of curriculums and timetables it's easier to let it all flow and mingle. But even then, we might sometimes catch ourselves wanting to define and categorise things, or simply making assumptions. That's when it's good to just step back and just observe. It will always be surprising and it will always shift the limits.

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