Unschooling Update

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Dried flowers I brought inside to help us keep nature close.

We’ve been “unschooling” for a couple of months now, and I’m embarrassed to admit that my boys are still obsessed with their video games.  I even hesitate to share this news with you, but in the fairness of full disclosure I want other parents to know that the road to unschooling success has it’s own curves and bumps.

Daily Routine

One of the biggest concerns parents of children on the autism spectrum have regarding unschooling is the lack of structure and routine, after all isn’t that what all of the professionals tribute to success with autistic children?  Yet we’ve been homeschooling without curriculum for two months now and our routine remains in-tact.

The basic elements of our days have changed very little since Winter was a toddler, he gets up whenever he wakes up, I help him dress for the day, he chooses something for breakfast, then he brushes his teeth.  At lunchtime the kids eat at the table, then go to their respective bedrooms for a period of quiet-time (this was once nap-time, but neither of my boys nap anymore).  During quiet-time they can read or play quietly with toys.  Most nights we have dinner at the table as a family, and at eight o’clock (or sooner if they desire) the boys head upstairs for the night and the bedtime routine ensues–this consists of preparing their beds, dressing in pajamas, reading together, returning downstairs for bedtime teeth-brushing, toileting, etc.

These things have not changed despite the fact that we no longer conduct a period of formal school-lessons at the table every week-day morning.

Learning to Accept Video-Games

Most mornings lately have been filled with video-games, though occasionally one or both of the boys will finish after only a brief session, typically Winter will play for a good two hours at a time.  The same goes for the afternoon where once we would have conducted a “productive-activity time” we now have–yes, you guessed it–more video games.

Can you tell that I’m still struggling to accept this excess of gaming??

It’s hard for me, not being much of a gamer.  My husband accepts it in stride–he’s a bona-fide vidiot since his youth, and still plays when his schedule permits; he enjoys spending time playing one game or another with the boys.  It’s beautiful bonding time, and once in a great while I’ve followed his lead and played a round or two with the kids–depending on the game.  I prefer games like “Worms-Armageddon” and “Tetris”, when we were teenagers I used to play “Jet-Motto” with my husband to-be.  I never seem to win much when I play, and often kill my character in spectacular fashion, but I have fun and the time connecting with my family is of high-value to me.

I remind myself often that there is learning that happens in gaming.  Summer likes to play Spiderman on the Playstation3, as well as Lego Batman, but he has also been eagerly using the preschool games at NickJr.com, where I often catch him playing alphabet games, games that teach shapes and colors, and counting games–and that is reassuring to me.  Winter is still rebelling against anything even remotely related to educational, he plays games like “Adventure Quest” and “Wizard101”.  He has a vivid imagination and a passion for mythology, and these games sport numerous mythological creatures, fantasy themes, and are rich in creativity.  These probably are not typically considered educational, but the amount of reading involved in the games, and the strategy involved reassure me that he will at the very least be exercising his reading skills, and who could complain about a kid so happy to engage his imagination?

Unschooling Autism

One significant improvement I’ve seen in Winter which I can attribute only to this free-access to the computer, has been his sudden gravitation toward video media and a marked increase in his tolerance levels for music.

Most of Winter’s autistic characteristics are related to his highly-sensitive ears–he has exceptionally keen hearing–he notices very small noises.  Which also makes loud noises much louder, and lots of loud noises all at once were just unbearable for him when he was younger.  It’s confusing to figure out who’s talking to who in a room of fifty people, to discern who’s talking to you, and that the music in the background is coming from the radio.  Television was hard enough, but to ask him to watch something so stressful on his beloved computer was just asking too much.  And then all of a sudden Winter and Summer are sitting–side by side–on the couch in the living room–watching US Acres cartoons (Winter loves Garfield) on the lap top that’s lately taken up residence on the coffee table.  He’s even singing Christmas carols, for Pete’s sake!! That’s unheard of for a child who’s never even been able to tolerate “Happy Birthday”!

Yet, even though I can find good in all of this gaming, I have to admit I would much prefer them to spend some of their time doing other activities.  I often attempt to entice the boys away from their glowing screens with activities and projects I think might interest them, and often I can engage Summer in something aside from the video-games, but Winter is stubborn, anxious, and the activity has to be of high-interest to him in order to engage him.


One wall in my dining room is optimized for learning the science of winter. And I still have space to add more photographs or posters as our inquiring minds investigate!

Strewing Science

I found inspiration in the unschooling concept of “strewing”, where you leave out books and other things you hope the kids will discover.  And I had one of those light-bulb moments–when I connected strewing with my own concept of creating opportunity for scientific learning.  Basically the same general idea right?  So following this concept I am taking the Winter-Investigations unit and setting it up at home.  I’ve put together some winter bulletin-board resources, and I’ve gathered all of the winter-related books off our bookshelves and our library’s shelves and set up a display.

On a piece of construction paper I wrote across the top: Winter Questions, and DH and I brainstormed with Winter a few questions we had about the winter season.  Not wanting to raise anxiety in Winter we settled for three questions to start us off.

Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Why does it snow?
  2. Why do we have short days and long nights around the winter solstice?
  3. Why does it get cold during the winter?

I went back through some of the experiments posed on the Kids Investigate Winter lens I made at Squidoo, and pulled a few more out of some of our science books, and I made up these activity & experiment cards, with hopes to do at least one a week with the kids.

Bringing Nature In-Doors for the Solstice

Then the boys and I went out to “the Farm” to collect some “bits of nature” to bring indoors for the winter solstice; I collected a few extra things for our school-wall, and asked the boys to help me look for an insect gall specifically.  They did, but they left me for the warmth of the car before we could locate one.  It was 22-degrees yesterday at mid-day, and they weren’t really dressed for making snow-angels. We were surprised by the two-inches of powder covering the ground at that higher elevation just four-miles west of Anson, in-town we barely have anything left to show that it’s snowed at all.  So I tucked my precious “bits-of-nature” onto the floor of the passenger’s side front seat, and called the dog.  …somehow it seems like the boys are always ready to be done long before I’ve satisfied myself.  I always feel like I could spend hours more outside, like I haven’t yet seen everything there is to see.  But that’s me.


Insect gall I collected.

I buckled them in and began back down the long rutted dirt drive that leads through the woods to the main road, but stopped to collect three insect galls from a place I remembered we’d once found them–when we’d lived out to the Farm before we’d had to move into town.  I let the kids take turns “playing” with one of the galls as I drove down off the hills toward home.  What they’re really doing is exploring the thing–feeling the hardness and the texture of the dried plant stem.  Seeing the bulbous growth that houses the mysterious insects inside.  We will sacrifice one of these galls in the name of science.  It will be cut open to see what is inside.  Is it just one insect or many?  Are there different kinds, or just one species?

The Freedom of Unschooling

Since I have dropped the curricula and eased up on some of the restrictions limiting my kids, there has been a marked decrease in the stress-level in our home.  No longer am I fighting with Winter over every lesson, every activity, every hour he spends in front of the computer.  He is decidedly happier.  I’ve also noticed that he his more conversational, too.  More apt to tell me about his games, or read his Garfield comics to me, or just to tell me a story.  It never ceases to surprise me the use of language my boys have.  I find great pleasure in listening to them tell me whatever they have to say, and they are happy to have someone who will listen.

Unschooling is a frightening venture when you’ve come from the regulated, systematized world of the institutional school-setting, the corporate grind, the every-day office, where it is all too easy to loose yourself to the hum-drum of that lifestyle.  This style of learning and living is awakening new concepts and new ideas within me–within my children too, it seems.  I can imagine that unschoolers who have come before me have experienced such an awakening; it is inspiring despite the uncertainty we feel at the start of the journey.  I feel truly free, for the first time in my life–free to pursue whatever passing interest takes my fancy.

It’s exciting–invigorating.

Recommended Reading:

Video Games Offer Kids Developmental, Social Benefits-Study Shows – article from Creston News.

Take Two Video-Games and Call Me in the Morning – a good article from Scientific American.

Studies: Video Games Can Make Better Students, Surgeons – from USA Today.

Does Your Child Have a Video Game Addiction – article and resources from Parenting Science.

Video Game Benefits for Kids – another article from Suite101.com.

How Do Video Games Help Children? – from eHow.

About Samantha Burns

Sam(antha) Burns is a farmer and beekeeper at the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm in Maine. She has spent more than 20 years gardening and writing, has kept bees for more than a decade, and worked 4 years in the Call Center at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Sam uses methods of regenerative agriculture and bee-friendly farming on her 53-acre farm, and is a passionate advocate for wildlife conservation─especially pollinators. In her spare time she enjoys writing, and tormenting her 2 teenaged sons with her banjo-playing!

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