Unschoolers are not immune from bad days. Today started off as a bit of a non-event. I got out the wrong side of the bed (or more specifically, sofa……..hard bed=bad back). It doesn’t help that I’m not getting my full quota of sleep, since being downstairs means the dog wants to play with me at 2am and the light streams in the bay window at 5am and there’s a really big spider on the loose somewhere.
The day began with everyone reading and then I encouraged a get-together about 11am to discuss any plans for the day, but nobody seemed to want to do anything. I went into ‘suggestion overload’ and babbled on about our home ed science show, the upcoming voting, maybe a dog walk in the rain? ‘Remember those days’, I enthused, ‘when we’d dance in the puddles!’ All this over-enthusiasm with a constant background whirr of fidget spinners.
I wanted adventures in the rain, and they wanted to spin bits of plastic around on their fingertips.
I went to the kitchen to make lunch and sulked. They went back to reading their books, checking their emails and googling playstation joy sticks.
We ate lunch around the table together. I still hadn’t got the hint to just be quiet.
‘So the dog walk….I was thinking the woods, it might be fun?’ I said hopefully.
‘Well that sounds great Mum, but it’s going to be muddy.’
‘I know but we can put our wellies on’.
‘Hmmmm, well actually I can’t really because I’ve just put my trainers on and tied the laces up 3 times really, really tight and it would take ages to take them off now’.
I got the hint. Looks like it was going to be a simple dog walk round the block, in the rain, on my own.
After lunch they resumed reading their books and I made the decision to just get on with my own thing, so I made banana cake and washed the dog and cleaned the floor.
At about 4pm the sun came out and they decided to go out and play with their friends around the corner, but by 4:10pm they had returned soaking wet and shrieking. There were huge thunder claps and lightening, the sky was dark and dramatic as the rain pelted down. They were upset they couldn’t play out, so I tentively suggested getting the paints out.
‘We haven’t done painting for ages, yes I really want to paint together Mum!’ We got the paints and paper ready and sat and stared at the empty page. I had no idea what to paint, but T knew immediately he wanted to paint the storm.
We started to paint, but T wasn’t sure how to paint lightning, so we looked through our science encyclopedia’s and found some great photos of lightning. We took turns reading out passages about thunder and lightening. T was very thoughtful, he knew a lot about storms already. He knew it was unsafe to shelter under a tree but didn’t know that it was because lightning will find the fastest route to the ground. He was excited to tell me all about the man he’d read about who’d been struck by lightning 8 times and survived.
His painting was beautiful, the way he uses paint so thoughtfully and in an abstract way but with such precision. He needed an exact shade of purple and remembered a few months back that he had spent half a day with L mixing paints and creating their own colours. The pot of purple had been waiting all these months for this moment. It was the exact shade he needed for his painting. Two magical unschooled moments coliding, when a lost afternoon of paint mixing gave precision to the electrical pulse of lightning being painted months later. How perfect. I couldn’t have planned it better.
And so, they will remember the storm today. T will remember the lightning and the way you can find safety inside a car not under a tree. He will likely remember the electrical impulses which create lightning and the thunderous sounds they make from the sudden expansion of air, a sonic shockwave.
And I will try hard to remember that sometimes the best moments come from keeping quiet and letting life evolve, and that even on grumpy days, good things happen.
Do you you unschool, but find your older children need more structure or perhaps your unschooling doesn’t feel like it’s meeting their needs anymore? Does your unschooled child not feel like they’re learning enough?
This is where a more deliberate project-based style can be a perfect fit.
Unschooling is a lifestyle; it is an intricate dance of providing just the right amount of social interaction, stimulation, experiences, materials, resources and relaxation. Whilst trying to achieve all of this the parent also has a home to run, meals to prepare, pets to walk and care for, family and friends to see, perhaps a business to attend to and so on.
It is easy to see how the unschooling train can derail.
When I started out home educating my own children, I knew I wanted them to have play-based early years. I think we did that part expertly, and it flowed well into them discovering their passions, learning to read, beginning to write and so forth. It was all very natural and organic. Then something changed; my daughter wanted more structure at about age 9 and I struggled to understand exactly what I needed to do to help facilitate that need.
I had a child who wanted more formal, structured learning, preferably with other children, but who did not really want to be taught. We already had many of the elements of project-based learning happening, but it was far from a fine art. We began experimenting with a Waldorf Curriculum, but somehow life just kept getting in the way!
Our unschooling didn’t feel like it was working anymore. A curriculum was not the way forward for us either. We still wanted learning to be interest led, to move at the child’s own developmental pace, to be mentored and facilitated. Project-based learning was our way forward.
Project based learning is about using strategies to help your children direct and manage their own learning. But how?
Here are 3 key elements to show you how to take a project-based approach to your child’s learning journey:
- The important idea with this style of learning is to remember that at all times, the child should own their work. You can start with directly asking your children what they want to learn about, but children cannot always articulate their thoughts that precisely. The best way is to observe your children over time; look for clues in their play and in the things they say to each other and to you. Be a detective! Keep a journal to record what you discover from your observations.
I tend to write freely about our day and then create a short bullet pointed list at the end for ideas to action, these might include: questions they have asked; groups they want to try out; materials they have asked for; or my own thoughts on suggestions I could make based on observing their interests over time.
2. Make the environment your child’s teacher. Ensure materials are within their reach and they have a good range of resources to experiment and work with (they do not need to be expensive). Try to make the project area clear of junk and organised (note to self!) If possible give your children a dedicated workspace. Use bulletin boards to display their works in progress, sketches, notes, questions and so forth. Display their finished projects on shelving, walls, in portfolio’s or more formally in project books if that’s what they want. Children, especially as they get older, like to know they are learning.
3. Dedicate your time and support. It sounds silly to suggest giving your children your time when you home educate and are with them all day! The reality though, is that life can take over sometimes. Being a totally disorganised kind of person myself, I find the idea of timetabling project sessions really helpful. It’s not that projects and learning don’t happen at other times (seriously I know that learning and life are intertwined), it’s simply a guarantee to my children that I will have the materials they need and the time to help without any other distractions during those ‘blocks of time’.
Sometimes ‘projects’ might be one-off experiences, but I think the beauty of this style of working means you have all the tools to challenge your child to work deeply at times and extend their ideas.
Your children’s projects can be done on their own at home, with siblings or wider family, with a bunch of friends or within the community. Projects can also be 2D, 3D,indoor, outdoor, verbal, written, performed or even whilst riding on the back of a horse!
Stop thinking of ‘projects’ as something which must be recorded in a book.
Here is a great website to help you get loads more information about how project-based learning can work and how to support your child in being a self-directed learner: What Is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning can be for anyone. An unschooler might use this style of working full-time, whereas a more traditional home educating family might carve out a chunk of time each week for projects. Even a school going child can benefit by encouraging them to remember their own learning goals.
Project-based learning is about your children being valued, respected and celebrated as learners.
My final thought on this is actually the most important aspect. Project-based learning is not just for children, it’s for you too! Get involved! What do you want to do with your time? Now is absolutely the time to follow your passions. So dust off that guitar, pull out that canvas, write that book. When your child does project work, you can too.
Learning……it’s a bit like a stream…..sort of. The ebbs and flows, the times of constant swirling activity and the times of still, serene waters which to an onlooker may appear as if nothing much is happening. There is an under-current of learning happening all the time however, yet we cannot always see it. Our job as parents, is simply to trust.
On a hot day, a week or so ago, I took Land T to a nearby park. The idea was to walk our dog Legend and play in the park, but they had other ideas! They took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers and got in the stream which ran along the edge of the park. Legend followed, jumping in excitedly, then kept coming over to me to shake dry whilst I tried to enjoy 5 minutes of peace on a nearby bench.
It was futile of course, and I was wet by this point anyway, legend had made quite sure of that. I dutifully ditched my shoes and rolled up my own trousers and slipped down the muddy bank into the freezing water. L and T love me to join in their adventures and so I followed their lead: upstream, under the bridge we had played pooh sticks from earlier, through the shallow and deep. It was fun and I felt brimming with something…….aliveness!
The next morning T awoke excited about the stream. ‘We need to go back today Mum!’ and we did. We went back 4 times in all, until eventually they had explored a huge section of the stream. Towards the end of the fourth visit, they were waist high in freezing water and had to use a fallen tree to lever themselves out.
It was a great adventure to them, and they were learning. I couldn’t be sure what exactly, but years of living alongside them has taught me to have faith. I assumed of course, that the learning was centred on the stream itself. Not because it mattered much what the exact nature of the learning was, if it was important to them it was important to me, but because the world which children inhabit fascinates me.
L got out of the stream first and was shivering, then T got out and declared: ‘Well, we’ve done the stream now Mum, I’ve reached my limit with it’.
As it turned out, they were learning about themselves, their limits. Pretty important stuff I’d say.