How Unschooling Has Changed Our Lives

How Unschooling Has Changed Our Lives

Back in October when we decided to make the shift from homeschooling to unschooling, I had no idea how drastically it would change our lives.  I hoped it would have a positive impact on our family, but there was no way I could comprehend the full implications of this change; no way of knowing how much it would change me.Switching from homeschooling to unschooling is a profound alteration to your lifestyle, your thought-processes, your values and ideals.  It does not happen all at once, and I admit I am still working to accept and trust my children.  It is scary sometimes, because this lifestyle is so very different from the mainstream, but it feels so right, it feels so good to actually live life–to be happy in your life right now.  Gone are the days of working toward a happy future that seemed somehow unattainable, I’m happy now, and given my own personal rocky start in life–it is truly a wonderful feeling.

Letting Go
Unschooling is not easy, though.  I find one of the hardest things to overcome has been learning to let go.  Letting go of the control of their education, of their activities, of them.  Now that I’m looking back at it, and I’m wondering why I would ever want to control them–my boys.  In letting go I’ve let them know that I accept each of them for who they are, and what a special gift that is to give your child.  When most of us, as adults, only want to be loved and accepted by our parents, and many of us–including me personally–oftentimes don’t ever get that kind of loving acceptance.

My oldest son, Winter, who has a number of sensory sensitivities, causing him a lot of anxiety at times, has really benefited from this sort of acceptance.  In letting go my control of his education, his activities, and allowing him free reign to make choices that best suit his needs at any given moment, I’ve shown him that even though he’s different–even though he’s sometimes moody and anxious–I love him for who he is.  And that’s given him a sense of security that I think he was missing before.

It’s hard to think of my pre-unschooling self as controlling, because I was never one of those mothers who felt the need to dominate my child so completely, but even with my minimal amount of structure and curriculum I had been doing just that.  I had been attempting to force my child to bend to my will, for my own personal needs and the perceived needs of society.  And it wasn’t working (I should have realized sooner, since I already knew I was a non-conformist!).

Before unschooling Winter and I fought constantly.  We fought about doing school lessons.  We fought about social activities like going to the library, the grocery store, and visiting family.  We fought about his computer use and about following “the routine”.

Now we are much happier.  Our relationship is a much more positive one, and stronger too.

Accepting Screen Time
Learning to accept screen-time use has been difficult as well.  The negative perception of TV and video games are so prevalent in our society that it has been hard for me to see the positive aspects of such activity.  It seems to me an obsession, running rampant through our household.  Yet I look at the activity analytically and I can see the value in it.  

We’ve always watched a lot of documentaries on TV related to science and nature.  Right now we’re all really excited about the new show “Monster Bug Wars”, and occasionally Summer will sit with Daddy to watch “Through the Wormhole”.  Winter seems to like shows like “How it’s Made”; and who doesn’t like “Mythbusters”?

Since I let go my control over the boys’ screen-time, they’ve both learned so much that it’s impossible to ignore the value in it.  Winter not only plays games online, but researches the games through the Wikipedia, YouTube, and various online resources.  He’s honed his reading and spelling skills this way, by doing his own Google searches, and reads so well now that I am hard-pressed to assign a grade level to his ability.  Sometimes he’s even playing games like Bookworm, which promote spelling and vocabulary; other times he’s making comics at, but mostly he loves role-playing games, which feed his vivid imagination.  Even his use of language has improved, and he’s much more willing to talk and express himself with those around him.

Computer-gaming has been a benefit to the boys’ relationship too.  I don’t know about other homeschool families, but in our house we have an incredible amount of sibling rivalry.  Part of that I attribute to Winter’s sensitivities for which he has a low-threshold of tolerance, and certainly Summer’s high-energy personality certainly plays a part as well (and the way he seems to know just how to push everyone’s buttons, especially his brother’s).  But part of it I simply attribute to the fact that they are both boys, and of Scottish descent.  Their father has a lot of testosterone, and struggled to learn to control his own temper when he was younger, but he did learn, and provides an exemplary role-model for our boys.

Ignore the clutter on my desk–and yes, that is half a bouncy ball Summer is wearing on his head.
It was punctured and deflated by my sister’s dog on Father’s Day, and has since become Summer’s favorite “rubber hat”.

Often Summer will ask Winter for help with a games, or with typing a particular game into the Google search engine.  Sometimes they watch each other play, sometimes they play a game together.  Sometimes this turns out badly, but I believe the continued practice at coping with conflict in their relationship is good for them.  I believe it strengthens their bond as brothers, as well as providing them ample opportunity at learning to deal with their anger.  If I wanted to label that for academic value, I could call it socialization–as learning to cope with conflict in relationships is a valuable skill that will benefit them throughout their lives, and something that even many adults fail miserably at.

Providing Activities
I’d never really used any boxed curricula before we unschooled, preferring to pick and choose what suited us, even creating the Earth-Studies Units for our history & science studies.  But now that we’re unschooling and not using curricula at all, I find myself stressing sometimes about providing educational activities for the boys.  Shouldn’t I be offering guided activities more often?

To satisfy that anxiety, I’ve tried to look at these last eight or nine months as a de-schooling period.  Since we left the curriculum behind Winter has blossomed.  He’s less anxious, which allows him the freedom to explore on his own terms.  He’s become more open to his family, to new things and new situations, and he’s discovering his own sense of self.  He’s learning to love learning–perhaps for the first time.

When he was a toddler and the “professionals” suspected he might be autistic, we were pushed into evaluations and therapies, and everyone seemed to have an opinion of what was wrong with him, and how they could “cure him” so that he would be just like everybody else.  I was always pushing him, like the professionals (and family members too) were pushing me.  He was so resistant, and I didn’t understand why.  We walked away from those people and their insistence that we conform, but I had continued to push Winter, and his resistance became such an ingrained habit that we were always fighting, battling for control.

Now I realize that he really just wanted to be himself–though he does have some difficulty sharing control of certain situations–usually related to his sensory sensitivities, but he’s learning to cope.

So even though I’m not offering a lot of guided activities, I know that they’re learning, we all are, and they’re profound lessons too.  Life lessons.

While we’re still adjusting to this unschooling lifestyle, I also look at self-directed activities as proof that our family is learning outside the box.  Winter does an incredible amount of reading for an 8 year old boy.  He still prefers his comics and graphic novels, like Tintin, Loud Boy, and The Amulet series, but I purchased a subscription to Your Big Backyard, and despite some initial resistance, he’s excited about each new publication we receive, and I catch him reading and re-reading them sometimes on his own in a quiet part of the house.  

Since his interest is piqued, I’ve pulled out some old issues of Ranger Rick and Highlights an aunt had given us, which I had wisely saved.  Winter’s confiscated all of them. 

Other times Winter ventures out to the back yard to swing, it’s calming for him.

Summer, being much more active, likes to do puzzles, and games (how many 4 year old like to play Checkers? or Go-Fish?), play dress-up with our collection of old Halloween costumes, and has some fabulous dramatic play with a set of army men.  He’s also interested in coloring, and likes practicing his writing on pre-school worksheets, learning his alphabets and their sounds.

So those are some of the difficulties we’ve faced in transitioning to unschooling, and how I’ve learned to face those issues.  Even in the midst of those things that are hardest to accept about unschooling, you can see the benefits and the learning that takes place.  But there are many aspects of this lifestyle that are easier to accept.

Time for Personal Interests

Personally, I have much more free time available to me, which suits me, with my numerous and varied interests and passions.  Since we let go of the curriculum I’ve been freed up to establish the Somerset Beekeepers’ group, a local chapter of the Maine State Beekeeper’s Association–and elected President of the group.  This spring I participated in the University of Maine’s Master Gardener class through our local extension office, which has created a nice bridge between my organic garden pursuits and my beekeeping obsession, via my creation of a program I’ve deemed “Gardening for Pollinators”.  I’ve spoken to senior citizens at a nearby memorial home, hosted a booth at our local farmer’s market with the display I put together, and I will be introducing beekeeping to our county’s 4-H groups on the 1st of July.

My husband has been honing his wood-working skills, and is able to spend more time with the boys, since they are less tied up with school-work, chores, and regimented routines.  

I feel that by demonstrating our passions for life and learning we are providing a model for the boys, and I hope they will follow our lead.

Some things from our old life persist however, despite the changes in our lifestyle.  My messy house–for example.  Not necessarily classifiable as dirty; but definitely cluttery, with books, magazines, toys, and such strewn about our small house.  

The perpetual pile of dishes which never seem to be completely caught up.  

The yard that is forever in need of mowing.

Though I no longer need to extensively plan homeschool lessons or perform and enforce them, I feel just as frenzied, just as busy, with my new group and my volunteer-work in the community.  My garden is just as desperately in need of weeding, just as it was last year.  This year, instead of just one beehive to tend, I have two.  And did I mention we’re working on buying our first home (but that’s a whole different can of worms!) ? 

Despite all of this, our relationships are less strained now that I am less stressed over homeschooling, and our entire household has an improved atmosphere–a happier, less anxious atmosphere.  I would have to say that unschooling has made all the difference.


  1. Christina Pilkington

    I'm a first time reader. It is amazing when you unschool how startling it can be at first to realize how much kids WANT to learn on their own, and what they will learn on their own. My kids are still young, just five, but I do offer them lots of activities and places to go during the day. Most the times they are excited by what I've brought out, but they are always free to say no. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Cindy

    I think it's wonderful when people see the value in computer and video games … my 5year old taught himself fractions through role playing games. We are in our second year of homeschooling and I am still struggling to find my feet – sometimes doing conventional school work, but mostly playing it by ear! I love reading about how other families approach homeschooling 🙂

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