The Family that Schools at Home pt III

Here is the final installment in the epic tale of how we handle education in our home. You’ll no doubt remember (or easily be able to jump back and find out using the following links) that in Part I and Part II I stressed the theme that the commitment to unschool is just as much a commitment to a particular way of life. In the previous posts, I’ve labored over the minutia of choices we made in honour of both commitments, from early in gestation, through birth, and the “4th trimester”, and into early infancy. Compared with the volumes on how we have parented the girls toward unschooling, what I will put forth today in description of what we actually do in the process of “educating” them may seem disconcertingly simple.

I hope you’ll remember two things as you read the following. First, that we are, after all, talking about three girls all under the age of 11. Bella (age 10) also goes to Montessori-type school and has attended various Montessori schools during the last five years, and Xi (age 7) began Montessori this year — both at the request of Mom. Echo (age 3) is completely unschooled as was Xideka (until now), and Bella (until kindergarten). I’m reminding you of these facts because I will want to refer to them later, and because I want you to keep in mind that we aren’t yet discussing teen unschooling (I’ll do that in another post if need be).  The second thing I hope you will bear in mind is that unschool itself is decidedly anti-method. Which is to say, I am not actually describing an unschooling pedagogy here. I am simply and only telling you what has happened, and is happening in our home, and what I think about it.

In terms of a basic early approach, I want to stress a couple of things briefly at the outset. Foremost, especially for the first few years, it is important to create kid-friendly environs in the home. This means not only providing things for exploration and play, but also keeping things that aren’t for those two purposes completely out of the way. When Echo was born, we passed through the entire house (because there weren’t enough rooms available to keep any of them “off limits”) and boxed or moved anything that we would want to keep out of infant hands or mouth. With two other young children in the house, and other regular young visitors, we didn’t have that much that needed adjusting, but, for instance, we moved all the books that had been on the low shelves and replaced them with toys.  This is in part to allow free, safe exploration on the crawling, toddling baby’s part. The other thing it is designed to do (and that I also want to stress separately) is to keep the parents from having to repeatedly or constantly hedge the baby’s meandering search and discovery. It’s important not only to give the child the ability to move freely and to give the parent(s) a break from constant vigilance, but it’s also extremely important that the parent(s) be able to allow the child’s exploration without discouragement. In environs not properly set up for babies, or when a parent is constantly reigning in normal explorations, it is possible to so discourage the child’s drive to discover that he will be permanently dissuaded from even making the effort. Which is simply to say, that both through creating the right environment, and from working with our own responses (automatic or otherwise), we can avoid “no no no”-ing our children’s natural desire to learn right out of them. The other consideration at present in terms of approach, is just a reminder that the parents’ most appropriate stance with respect to the child’s investigations is (as much as possible) one of non-judgment. Obviously, if there are safety concerns, we must address them, but short of that, we want to let our children explore, interact, and make up their own ideas about their experiences. This both affords them the best opportunity to take in the world as it really exists (not solely as we think of it), and maintains our children’s natural, unencumbered state of interest and motivation to explore. So when we put infant Echo outside in the yard and she started eating grass, we let her do that until she formed her own opinion about what that was like. When 8 year-old Bella wanted to roll around in, and essentially bathe in the wheelbarrow full of top soil, we let her do that until she was satisfied. When 3 year-old Xi wanted a “fauxhawk”, we let her try that out until she wanted a different hairdo. So, to sum up our general approach guidelines, we keep the environment ideal for safe independent investigation, our need to interfere minimal, and our valuations to ourselves.

Previously, I mentioned that we taught each girl ASL, and got each in turn to help teach the younger one(s) as well. We began immediately with Echo, and pretty quickly into infancy with each of her elder sisters, signing “milk” as an announcement for nursing. This was the first sign for each of them, and after breastfeeding itself, was their first “lesson”. It constitutes an important moment in the shared unschooling life of the family, and is indicative of every unschooling moment that followed/s. With the gentle motion of Mama’s hand held out signing “milk” and then offering to breastfeed the attentive infant, the child is being offered: 1) important, practical, age appropriate information about, 2) a subject of the child’s immediate and distinct interest to, 3) equip the child for further exploration and/or interaction. That is our whole unschool thesis tidily wrapped like a microcosm into the very first “lesson”. (Please don’t forget it, as there will be a test…)

With each new subject or area of focus the girls initiated, we empowered their exploration, and, occasionally, we even rose to the supreme effort of challenging their genius. But, to be frank, that has been rare, in general, because we have relied heavily on them to assert themselves, assert their own interests, and feed their own motivation (rather than be crippled by coming to rely on, or by resisting, our external motivating efforts). We firmly believe that most children would only ever need (or be helped by) scant amounts of external motivation, and a child with an “empowered nervous system” doesn’t need any. Alfie Kohn, in Punished by Rewards, is quick and thorough in pointing out that time and time again, researchers find that coercing, enticing, and rewarding children (either by praise or material reward) for their performance in specific activities demotivates the same children in direct proportion to how much time they are subjected to external motivation techniques. So we neither reward nor goad their explorations or their achievements along the way. Celebrate, yes. But milk it for lack of trust in nature, not on your life.

We used ASL as the infants’ first library. With everything they discovered, we learned and showed them a new sign. Over and over, (object — sign, object — sign) we showed them their immediate world in terms of Sign Language. This not only fulfilled the three requirements I listed above for unschooling, but also empowered us with greater communicability. We were able to share more about things with the girls, afford them greater specificity and detail, and gain access to a rare window into the minds and interests of each via ASL. At 9 months, all the girls could recognize a number of signs, and even make some; but it was Echo (who got access earliest, most comprehensively, and from all 4 of the rest of us) who at 9 months pointed to a particular area of an abstract painting and signed “bird” while babbling “brr…brr”. ASL gave us the opportunity to know that Echo was perceiving a bird, to know that she was aware of birdness (at all), and to respond to her interest in numerous ways beginning in that very moment by affirming, “Yes! Bird. You see a bird? I see a bird too…”, and then continuing to point out other birds to her, getting bird-related books, and so on. So, again, ASL helped us be able to communicate more with the girls, to know more about what their experience was and needs were, and to help engender our relationship with each of them with an aspect of sharing — all of which underpin the act of unschooling.

Aside from the generalities above, our methods have remained remarkably simple. They consist of three parts: playing, informing, and maintaining an attitude of constant learning. Eventually we will, and already do to a far lesser degree, also let them spend time doing their own research and synthesizing of information as they get older and more capable of such. For most “elementary” unschooling, however, the first three methods are of paramount importance.

The biggest teaching tool/method for children under 7-9 is hours and hours and hours of nothing but play. They begin as soon as they get the idea to start moving their hands toward their mouths, and ought to be able to continue unimpeded for the bulk of their primary development. Playing with family, friends, and new acquaintances, playing with kids and adults of all ages, and in groups of all sizes from duos to ensembles, playing alone, playing for learning, for exercise, and simply for joyous frivolity. I cannot express enough how absolutely vital it is for their development just to let them play and play and play.

If you watch an infant beginning the process of crawling or walking, she is very diligent in practicing each minute portion (of what will later be necessary) via her play. She is kicking that leg around for while, grabbing it with her hand; then sitting up (and falling over) working those stomach muscles; then on all fours (or standing) and bouncing or rocking; reaching, stretching, strengthening and practicing the process bit by bit and all by playing. She isn’t sitting around being “taught” how to do any of this (though she may be occasionally sitting watching and absorbing a sense of the process), she isn’t going to walking school, or reading a how-to book — she is driven by her own motivations to play, play, play until she begins to put together the pieces in the comprehensive assertion of actually crawling or walking. Play develops everything from gross and fine motor skills and cognitive abilities, to intelligence (emotional and intellectual), imagination, and existential conceptualization. We not only allow and encourage them in play, but also employ the spirit of play when there are tasks that we want or need to do. So, for example, sometimes putting on winter coats and boots, or getting into car seats and getting seat belts on, becomes a game of “get it done before we explode…” or something similar. Allowing play at every possible interval is preferred, but employing play to teach and inspire is ideal.

The second main tool we use is, “surprise surprise”, information. I know, for education, you’d think “information” is a no brainer, right? But I put it on this list, specifically, because I want to be clear about the kind of information I mean, both in the variety and form. Remember the “1,2,3” above (go ahead and scroll back up if need be) that describes the necessary variety of information as essentially “present information” for the child. That is, only information that has to do with where the kid’s exploration is in that moment; only information that appeals to their interests and allows for their capabilities; and only information that fuels them forward in their discovery and self-mastery.

The form the information takes is absolutely limitless, but must abide by the above precepts. In the earliest years, the types of input may be best reduced to bonding, play, communication (via ASL and later talking), and reading — and I don’t mean sparingly, either. These four power houses of input can do more for our children’s later abilities to learn than anything that will ever happen to them in any school they attend afterward. Ever. I’ll say more about information forms below, but the point at the moment (and in early development) is to focus on the fab four above — ad infinitum. As an example, Echo in particular has been read to no less than 1/6 of her waking life.

The last piece, that of maintaining an attitude of constant learning, is included here as a method, though it informs any and all methods any unschooler might invent. It winds up being a methodology of perspective, primarily, but not only. The idea is simply that all activities are educational activities, and every moment is a teachable one. Even in the most extreme melt-downs there is some learning happening, and opportunities for continuing to teach. The parent, however, needs to be willing to ask him- or herself, “What is being learned right now and how is it best facilitated?”. Please remember, though, that “every moment is a teachable one” is neither an excuse to talk our kids’ ears off, nor an excuse to ignore our own opportunities to learn in each moment.

Our main job in the process of unschooling, is to bring this attitude of constant learning to the forefront of our own minds with such vehemence that we then habituate the practice of using the child’s interest in any particular moment (or period) as a springboard for deeper learning. At 4, Bella was mysteriously interested in volcanoes, so we went to the library and got books, we discussed geology (one of my many minors), we made eruptions of vinegar and baking soda, we pretended Bella was a “lava girl” who would cool to stone if she got thrown in the pool… Xideka has been interested in jewelry for most of her life, so we’ve assisted her in making necklaces and bracelets of all sorts, her Nana sent her costume jewelry to explore and play with, we’ve discussed gemstones and birthstones, we’ve played jewelry store with pretend transactions, she had a jewel-themed birthday party… Echo has even been deconstructing the Disney movie Robin Hood for the last month, using its themes to generate discussions about power-mongering, loyalty, taxes, marriage, and hostage threats (“…so sticking something sharp in Prince John’s back made him ‘release the prisoners’?”)…

As the last example, hopefully, illustrates, we will use almost any means necessary to offer the girls some further exploration and learning in subjects that currently interest them. We go to the library, we talk, we do art (lots and lots of it in all forms), we use a dry erase board (no unschooler should go without it) and sometimes, yes, even a computer, we take field trips to farms, and the kids’ museum, and science center, and community events and social gatherings, and to run errands, and to do work. The attitude of exploration, discovery, and sharing goes everywhere with us, into all activities and to all locales. And more often than not, when it comes to helping them learn, we follow our children’s lead.

Well, that about wraps up this colossal installment of posts. Hopefully I won’t think of anything else I forgot to say about this for quite some time… 😉 But should you still be pining for moooore input, please check out this link from Sandra Dodd (mama-guru of the unschool movement). I’ve also pasted a comment in below here from a reader that shared her thoughts on unschooling in a previous post.


Be well


I have many reasons why I don’t want my children in the public school system. I have many reasons why we won’t homeschool. I have a lot of reasons why we unschool.

But I have to say it really isn’t for everyone. First, if the parent isn’t comfortable with the idea of their child not reading until ten or so, then don’t do it. Trying to force it on the child while claiming to unschool won’t work. Also It takes a lot of time, especially int he early years. It also takes a decent amount of thought on the parent’s part. It takes time because the parents need to be aware of their child’s interests and needs to help foster the interest. That means outings, that means side-by-side research, that means putting your child’s interest above your own – at least for a certain time. I love to write, but I really only get the opportunity once the girls are asleep. Otherwise I’m unable to give either the girls or my writing the attention they deserve.

Unschooling requires a lot of thought. What is your child’s interest? In what way can you expand that interest? What can you bring into the home to develop it? Where can you go from here? I’m not saying force the information, but bring it to the child. If your child loves dinosaurs – go to the museum, go on a dig, watch shows, sing songs, play games, imagine. Without the parent providing the opportunity, an interest in dinosaurs will result in reading the same book(s) and/or watching the same show(s) over and over again, but never going anywhere.

If the comfort level, the time commitment,and some self-sacrificing aren’t available from the parents, then it isn’t right for your family. Some families might try it, but then realize it doesn’t fit, others might try, but not have the right mentors – the right information to make it work.

We’re radical unschoolers, and it’s taken almost a year to figure out where the majority of the balance needs to be between being fully permissive and being in control all the time. We went through a period where the girls stayed up until almost midnight every night, because we weren’t able to figure out how to guide them without forcing them. I’ve seen some families that are fully permissive in all areas, never offer advice or guidelines, and personally I don’t want their children near me or mine. I’ve also seen some that take the first step that many parents do, they become fully permissive, but instead of realizing a balance is needed – and finding the balance, they just quit.

I agree that, in general, the unschooling approach is best, however society is no longer set up in a manner that makes it possible for everyone.


About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
This entry was posted in Parenting Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Family that Schools at Home pt III

  1. Karyn says:

    Hi Nathan,
    Me here!
    For a child younger than seven, I have no issue with anything you’ve written here: we would hardly be sending our kids to Steiner if we didn’t appreciate play and stories, or if we were worried about early Reading. I do wonder about addressing the parts of the curriculum in which the children might not show an interest. As you know, one of the things we’ve really appreciated about Steiner is that our older son has had constant and (yes, quietly enforced) lessons in subjects for which he has no natural ability or interest, and as a result these have become strengths for him. I’m not sure how this could happen in an unschooling environment…

    • Hey Karyn!

      I remember what you wrote about your elder son’s experience and I think that is definitely how it goes some times. Along that vein, I would mention that Xideka has really taken up the gauntlet on reading since she entered Montessori, when she was rather lax in her approach at home. However, there’s two things I think that work against using that (or the example of your son) as an argument against unschooling. 1) Although you have a state school option that uses Steiner pedagogy, that’s a fairly rare arrangement — at least in the US — and the other kind of (“free”) public education is very much a stunting institution rather than one that might normally encourage growth in areas where a student is struggling. The public system here is turning natural learners into kids that function the way you describe your son before he went to the Steiner school. So to make the argument that a “slow starter” would be better off in that particular situation doesn’t hold up for me. And 2) There’s two things missing from the assumption that an unschooling environment can’t accommodate the scenario you described. First, the unschool environment (if it’s really engaged) actually engenders more interest in more subjects, so the list of “curriculum in which the children might not show an interest” will likely be shrinking all the time, rather than growing out of control (as your example implies). Second, the unschooler isn’t on a curriculum. There is no time frame, no standardized tests to pass (until high school equivalency and college entrance), no grades to keep up, no class with which competition is felt. So the manner, and timing of a student’s explorations aren’t confined. If the kid somehow waits until 15 to learn long division, then the process to learn it takes a fraction of the time it takes 5th graders. Just like with reading, it isn’t the case that if they don’t start early they won’t ever take it up or master it.

      So then, areas where the child shows little interest early on are simply kept in the queue for later exploration. And when the kid gets to it, s/he generally has little trouble.

      Thanks for the query, Karyn. I know it helps others to read our discussions! 😉

      Be well.

  2. I’ve finally had a chance to read your posts – surprisingly busy the past few weeks : ) Thanks for highlighting my thoughts at the end of your post.

    As you said this is the way it looks in your home – but I do think that many unschoolers start along a similar path i.e. baby-wearing, ECing, co-sleeping etc. though not all who start on this path reach unschooling, and not all who unschool begin the same way. From the way you described your journey it seems clear that this was THE path for your family, but the way your wrote it may appear as though other paths won’t bring a person to the same conclusion: unschooling.

    For the benefit of anyone reading who may consider unschooling but hasn’t taken a similar path yet I’ll mention that:

    There are, in fact, so many different ways to achieve this outcome – though I do agree that in order for a person to finally arrive at unschooling they need to embrace the fundamental idea (positive attachment) behind the tools (baby-wearing, breastfeeding, ASL etc.) you used with your babies – even if the idea doesn’t form until later in life.

    A parent considering unschooling a seven year old for the first time doesn’t need to turn away because he never wore his babies – as long as the same parent is willing to find ways to foster attachment/consensual living appropriate tot he age/stage.

    Ultimately even with the different nuances from family to family one thing that seems central to unschoolers, Radical unschoolers in particular, is a deep family connection. A willingness to consider another’s views and interests, an eagerness to race down the paths of life, to dash into the tides together.

    • I really want to underscore what you say here, Sarah. I had hoped to make that more plain throughout, but if you needed to say it, then obviously I missed the mark. Thanks for adding it. I absolutely agree, whole heartedly. Any family can do this if they so choose.

      Thanks again for joining in!

      Be well.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s