In England, education is compulsory for all children from the age of 5. Many people assume ‘education’ means ‘school’, but thankfully we still have the choice (unlike some other countries) to educate our children ourselves. And it doesn’t have to mimic school. In fact studies such as this one, although only small in scale, have shown that non-school-like learning is actually incredibly effective.
So here’s how it looks for the children (aged 5 and 6) in our family.
Please note: I speak only for our family, and only for this moment in time. All families are different, and have their own priorities, philosophy and methods. I am not speaking for the home educating community in general. Only for us. It’s also possible that in the future, our circumstances may change, in which case we’ll adapt if we need to.
1) They learn about things as they arise
We don’t plan ‘topics’ or ‘themes’ or units of work. There is so much inspiration that arises naturally from our everyday lives, that it doesn’t seem necessary to plan things out in blocks. If something in particular sparks an interest, we talk about it, ask questions, find answers, go and visit somewhere that’s related to it. But it’s usually all quite spur of the moment. And often, the interest is fleeting, with them moving pretty quickly onto an interest in something else. It’s natural, it’s fluid and it’s personal to them.
This is also true for reading, writing and maths. We don’t sit down and ‘do lessons’. Our children have learnt to read through normal, natural, everyday experiences – signposts, cards in games, computer games. Our board games and family games often involve some reading or writing or maths. But we play them for fun, usually at their suggestion, not in order to teach them something.
Sometimes they decide to draw pictures with speech bubbles or labels on them, or they write messages on little cards or notelets they’ve made. Sometimes Jess, 6, will write a whole letter or story, without being asked. Sometimes they ask how to spell words, or how to form specific letters, but it’s on their terms. If they don’t want to, they won’t.
Often, mostly before bed, they ask for us to read books together. They sometimes decide to follow the words with their fingers or their eyes as I read to them. Sometimes they ask to read. Sometimes Amy (who’s 5 and not a competent reader just yet) “reads” the story by telling it from memory or from the illustrations, and feels dead proud of herself for it. They stay there as long as they want to, and they ask questions about the words or the story whenever they think of them. It’s in their hands.
More recently, Jess has been learning LOTS of writing skills on social online games. The in-game chat features (with appropriate supervision and internet safety education, of course) and writing opportunities on games like Minecraft and Roblox, have been a massive motivation for her.
2) They mostly learn through play
My two girls will play for hours, on their own, with each other, with friends, or with us. Role play, board games, fantasy games, computer games, guessing games, pretending-to-be-daft games, tickling, play fighting, trampolining, drawing games, tree-climbing…
Natural learning opportunities arise all the time during proper, self-directed, free play. As well as the obvious ones, like co-operation, friendship and turn-taking, there are more subtle or incidental learning experiences involving sciences (like hunting for woodlice, balancing the seesaw and exploring how liquids behave with water play), maths (like keeping score, sharing out cards, estimating time, budgeting in-game finances in computer games), writing (like letters or notes in role play, score-keeping, in-game online chat), and loads more.
The things that are important to them as children, the necessary elements they need for their lives in that moment, occur spontaneously and naturally. If they, at this time, have no necessity for – or interest in – learning about a particular historical time period, or a particular region of the world, or a particular abstract mathematical idea, then I see no point in pursuing it right now. We’ll wait until the need arises, or until their natural curiosity leads them down those particular routes. But for now, they’re happy to play.
3) We don’t do tests, mark work or keep records of attainment
All those tests that schools are subject to – the ones that you hear of in the news, as children’s-rights groups and teaching unions oppose them – are totally unnecessary for home educated children. Formal school tests, ie the national curriculum (sats) tests, are designed to measure a school’s success, not to give useful information about the student. Baseline tests and phonics tests are also for the benefit of the school, not the child. But even informal tests and worksheets – for us – are not necessary. While they may be invaluable in giving a class teacher an impression of their students’ learning, in the one-to-one learning environment outside of school, we can see, directly and on a daily basis, what our children can and can’t do. Likewise, marking and record-keeping may help a class teacher to keep track, but with just our own children to educate, there really is no need for it. Instead, we do stuff, we enjoy it, and we move on.
4) Learning happens anywhere, any time
For all the reasons I’ve explained above, there’s no such thing in our household, as ‘school time’ or ‘learning time’. Instead, it happens any time of day (and yes, often late at night), any day of the year, at home or out and about. So don’t be surprised to see home educating families out shopping, playing, running errands, visiting theme parks or play centres, or anywhere else, during conventional school hours. School time and term time mean nothing to us (except the opportunity for visiting quieter, less crowded places, and more affordable holidays, of course).
5) They have ownership of it
Because we don’t force any school-type learning on them, our children have real ownership over the things they do choose to do. They come up with ideas and put them into action. An everyday occurrence or a random question, can spark a journey to discover more, or a desire to create, or the curiosity to delve deeper. And it’s their ideas, their creations, driven by their curiosity or imagination. And when they’ve had enough, or satisfied their curiosity, or lost interest, they are free to let it go.
6) Sometimes we have to say no
From the outside, looking in, it may look like we let our children do whatever they want, all the time. And while there may be some home educators that work this way, where the child’s autonomy and freedom extend to all areas of everyday life (sometimes known as radical unschooling), we are not in that place.
As a family, we do our best to live in a way that is respectful – to all of us. Although we try to take the children’s ideas and inspiration and run with them, sometimes it’s just not possible. When the kids genuinely want to do something, or go somewhere, or purchase something, we try to be open-minded and say yes. But sometimes we have to say no.
Money is one reason. For example, both of our children want their own computer. And while, in a radical unschooling family, the response might be an enthusiastic yes, and while I can see the endless educational value in it, the truth is we just couldn’t afford it; we are already tightly budgeting. Instead we have to make do with what we’ve got, taking turns. Which of course, sometimes causes frustration.
Also, with two young children, neither of whom are old enough to be left alone at home, it’s impossible at times, to agree on activities. Sometimes we have to say no, and one or other -or both- has to concede.
And sometimes, simply for the sake of my own sanity, I have to say no. When the thought of doing whatever they are asking fills me with dread, through my own exhaustion or stress, out of respect for myself, I say no.
Education in our family is rooted in respect: respect for our children’s autonomy and freedom, and equal respect for all members of the family. In my title, I called it “life learning”, but some may call it autonomous learning or unschooling.
In the most recent edition of John Holt’s book, Teach Your Own, co-author Pat Farenga says:
“When pressed, I define unschooling as allowing children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”
I feel like that sums us up perfectly. Our family certainly feels full of freedom – and trust – for our children to be in charge of their own learning.
A quick note about the future
Sometimes I’m asked about what we’ll do when the kids are older, when it comes to secondary school age… exams… qualifications… higher education…
At the moment, if I’m honest, I don’t know. Things may change. But I’m hoping they’ll stay as they are. I’m pretty sure, by the time they are teenagers, my children won’t still want to be playing doctors or barbies or orchard board games. They will find other interests and pastimes, and maybe even find something they are passionate about that will lead them down a path to a career. They will learn what they need to learn to get there, just as they are doing now, and just as we adults do. Maybe that will mean exams and qualifications; maybe it won’t. Maybe it will mean hours of study; maybe it will mean hours of doing whatever they are passionate about.
The beauty of this kind of education, is that it’s not mapped out. It can go in any direction at all.
And THAT is exciting!
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