I have let my kids run wild all over our farm, doing whatever they want, even in the almost-dark of early autumn evenings.
We have a lot of land. They have a lot of choices.
I have de-emphasized school to the point that when someone says to the kids, accusingly, “How do you learn math?” I answer, “We don’t. Kids don’t need to learn math if they are not interested in it.” I answer with such firm-footed security that people are taken aback, and this has given my kids the confidence to answer in the same way.
So of course tons of people sent me the article in Outside magazine about the family that unschools by sending the kids outside. And people sent me the followup interview on NPR where the dad says that his kids can go to college without having any curriculum.
I was that dad. But instead of Outside magazine and NPR I was doing gaming magazines and BBC. I was telling everyone the same thing: We do self-directed, adult-supported learning.
But what happens when the kids decide for themselves that they want to be an expert in something that is not available in that particular unschooling environment? Is the dad in Outside magazine going to support his kid learning some sort of specialty? In my world, cello lessons are expensive. His kids might not pick something so expensive, but the kids could pick something that requires more resources (money, or earning power) than that family has in their “self-directed learning as a family” environment.
Unschooling can look a lot like curriculum-based schooling if your kids make choices that lean that way. And public school looks a lot like unschooling if your kids, say, play on three varsity teams and do after-school workouts instead of homework.
Maybe the truth is that the quality of one’s education is about how many choices one has, to ensure that kids are picking something that’s right for who they are, instead of merely right for the environment they are in.
I am in the position of being the hard-core unschooling parent who has one kid following the STEM curriculum closely and one kid following the Suzuki music curriculum closely. And I am in the position of starting to doubt parents who say letting their kids run free all day is schooling. (Which I have also said.) I have a feeling the kids who wander through life just have not been exposed to anything they feel passionate about. So they participate in their parents’ passions.
I think unschooling is the process of learning to find a passion. It’s one of the hardest things in life to learn, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.
I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to find a passion in a school environment where kids are spoon-fed information to prepare for standardized testing. But I’m also pretty sure that when you mix unschooling with passion, you get a sort of learning that feels a little curriculum-based: focused, sequential, and structured, within an otherwise free-for-all childhood.