Monday, April 15, 2013

Unschooling Ideas: Strewing

The first time I heard the term unschooling, I pictured something akin to Lord of the Flies. Where children ran wild, uncombed and unwashed, spending days in the woods with no parental supervision - I wondered how that sort of upbringing could possibly offer educational opportunities, let alone prepare a child for the responsibilities of adulthood.

Three years later I know better, and I’m glad to call myself a full-fledged member of the unschooling club. 

But if the view you have in your head is similar, then let me offer some reassurance: There are as many ways to unschool as there are flavors of ice cream. 

More importantly, the approach doesn’t have to be radical.

When you strip away the labels and subsets, the philosophy of unschooling is simple: Let the child lead.

Forget the conventional approach - unschoolers learn through everyday life experiences, from the banal (such as dentist appointments) to the inspired (such as museum visits).

There is no formal syllabus, no curriculum. No start time or have-tos. Parents suggest. Play games. Offer ideas and answer questions. 

Basically, we operate under the belief that children want to learn, and we’re there to help them do just that.

“How?” you ask. Any way we can.

But let’s talk details, specifically one of my latest unschooling discoveries: Strewing.

Have you ever left a box of popsicle sticks on a table beside a tube of glue? Set out a book opened to a full-page photograph of the Sistine Chapel? Stuck a detailed diagram of a double helix beside a bin of Lego pieces? All of these are methods of strewing, which simply means to place objects in the path of kids without any expectation, coercion, or force of use.

The objects I’ve had the most success with are books (especially science), simple craft supplies, word puzzles, and dead bugs. 

Along the same vein, every night I print out a few pages for my son’s “Interesting Things” notebook – Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, articles on dinosaur discoveries, infographics on space. I also create a two-sided card, listing both a vocabulary word and a word I’ve seen him misspell.

The notebook and card sit alongside his breakfast bowl, and while there is no requirement he so much as glance at them, something about taking away that requirement makes them magically appealing.

Maybe because he doesn’t consider them to be “school”, but rather just likes the chance to see something different.

And when a new passion is sparked, we continue exploring any way we can: Trips to the library, documentary films, board games, experiments, photography projects, and especially one-on-one discussions.

Over time I’ve gotten better at guessing what might grab his interest, but that doesn’t stop me from trying something totally crazy once in a while. As an example, four weeks ago on a total whim I asked him if he’d heard of Leonardo da Vinci. When he said no, I got out my laptop and showed him some sketches, specifically da Vinci’s machines. The interest was instant and led my son to a deep fascination with the world of architecture that is still going strong.

It sounds idyllic, and it can be. But there is also quite a bit of work involved - much more than I expected. Because of that and other factors, I wouldn’t recommend it for every family.

Some children thrive in a structured setting. They adore worksheets, crave contact with an organized teacher, and enjoy a systematic approach. If that sounds like your child, unschooling probably isn’t the solution.

But if you have a child who is resistant to the traditional model, naturally curious, and enjoys discovering and exploring on his/her own, then it might be time to try handing over the reigns, even for a subject or two.

That’s the wonderful thing about unschooling – you don’t have to go "all-in" to get the benefits. Start with a light subject your child already has a keen interest in (such as art), and see what happens.

It might be enough to stick with that one subject, or you may decide the results are impressive enough to try unschooling completely. That’s what happened to us. We are accidental unschoolers.

The one thing I wish I’d known at the start was that there will be days when the learning process is obvious, even exciting. There will be other days, however, where you question ever considering this idea in the first place. But homeschooling isn’t a race, and it doesn’t matter who reaches the finish line first. What matters is the journey. 

We’re all trying to help our children retain their natural curiosity and love of learning. Unschooling is just one way out of many to accomplish that.

If it still seems intimidating, don’t worry. Over the next few weeks I’ll be offering concrete suggestions for unschooling all kinds of subjects, including math. In the meantime, please send any questions you have to info@mindfulhomeschooler.com. 

A freelance writer for over nine years, Angela Wade's articles, interviews, poems, and reviews have appeared in various publications, including Calyx Journal and Inkwell Magazine. Besides homeschooling, she also has a passion for writing, reading, fossil hunting, and soccer. She lives and works in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Check her out at Angela Wade. 

2 comments:

  1. We are accidental unschoolers too.
    I do do some lessons, occasionally, but I find that they do fine on their own with some "strewing" or with my introducing things to them that I am finding interesting or reading about at the moment.
    I am a reader and one of my favorite things to read is "National Geographic" magazine and website. My son frequently asks me "What are you reading in National Geographic, Mom?" and we're off?

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  2. You and I sound like kindred spirits :) Reading Naational Geographic over dinner is a guaranteed way to spark SOME kind of conversation and interest! It's always amazing to me how curious homeschool kids seem to be on the whole, and unschooling seems to fit well for us because of that.

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