​Learning to read and write, without being taught: Jessica’s story


This is Jessica.

She is 6 years old and has never been to school. She has never had a reading or writing lesson in her life, yet she is a fluent reader and a competent writer. No-one has ever sat down and taught her. Instead, driven by her own motivation to communicate through text, she has taught herself: discovering her own strategies, finding joy in experimenting with language, and feeling a profound sense of pride in becoming more independent.


Some people believe that children can’t learn to read or write without being taught. Jess is proof that they can.


From a very young age (probably before she could even talk) one or other of us parents has sat (or lain) with Jess in the evenings to read stories. As a baby, we’d choose the stories for her – picture books or board books – but as she grew into a toddler, she’d choose the ones she wanted to hear herself, from the bookshelf or the boxes we had scattered around the house. She would often choose the same books, night after night after night. She would listen, and learn the stories; she learnt the rhythm and the sounds of the spoken words; she noticed if you accidentally read something wrong or missed out a page, and she would pull you up on it. She wasn’t technically reading the printed words on the page, but it was all groundwork, and it was all her own.

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When she was about three, she started to play around and have fun with the text in her favourite books. She’d place her thumb over the last word on a line, so that I couldn’t read it, and would giggle when the sentence ended up making no sense. She would ask me things like, “Where does it say crash, mummy?” and she would point to words that started with the same letter as her name, and ask what they were. She would trace along the lines with her own finger, moving it faster or slower, and would whoop with delight when I changed pace to match her as I read aloud. Over those 2 or 3 years, she went from passively listening to stories, to being able to recite whole picture books by heart, and experimenting playfully with text and language.


Around the same time, she began to recognise a few words by sight, like the big ASDA shop-front sign, which she’d also spot on food packaging, and like the titles of her favourite books and TV programmes. I knew that she was recognising them because of their characteristic visual appearance (the bold, capital, green letters of ASDA, for example), but alongside that, just like with the learning of her picture books of by heart, she was creating associations (albeit likely subconsciously) between the way words and letters looked in print, and how they sounded when spoken.


Because she seemed to be fascinated by words and letters, we picked up some alphabet cards, and I blu-tacked them to a cupboard over out kitchen table, where we sat every lunchtime to eat together. I can’t remember how the game started, or who initiated it, me or her, but she ended up asking for this game every day. While we ate, I would point to a letter, stuck on the cupboard, and she would say its sound. I started easy: the J in her name; the M in mummy; the S that looked like a snake. She’d ask me for more. One day, when she knew a few of them, I moved them over to a strip of wall beside the cupboard, to get them out of the way, and so began ‘the tower’ of letters that she knew. From them on, each time we played we’d build the tower of alphabet cards as high as we could, up the wall, and almost to the ceiling, eventually. It was her game, her motivation. It was her asking to play.




At about 4, she began asking if she could read the bedtime story, instead of me. By this time, she was familiar with so many picture books, and knew many of them word for word. We changed how we managed bedtimes (we had a 3 year old and a 4 year old that we had been reading to together) so that Jess could be afforded the time and patience needed without frustrating Amy. She would choose a book, one that she knew inside out, and as she turned the pages of the book, she would tell the story. At first, she would do it from memory; some of her wording was different to the words on the page – she was retelling as best she could remember, rather than actually accurately reading the words. But I let her, because I could see the value in her feeling of achievement and independence, and I could sense the damage I would do if I were to stop and correct her. And besides, even we adults don’t always read things accurately: we make mistakes; we skim read and fill in the blanks. At that stage, technical accuracy was less important than the pride and self esteem I could see that she was getting from being the reader instead of the listener.




As time went on, she began to pay more attention to the actual text on the page. She would often spot when her own remembered words didn’t match up with the words on the page, and she’d look at the text more carefully, sometimes figuring it out from initial letters, sometimes asking me to read it instead. At some point, she stopped asking to be the reader, and wanted instead to go back to being read to again. And of course that was fine – we went back to all snuggling up together with me in the middle, reading. We followed her lead and went with it.


It was also around this time that she started to want to type words into her tablet. She’d ask me to type “surprise eggs” into you tube, or she’d ask me to type in the name of whichever creature she had just created in an app. She started playing Minecraft, and asked me to help her write signs, or name her worlds. For a long time, I was her tablet scribe, which at times seemed endless and relentless and frustrating (for me and her!).


Playing Minecraft was one of her big motivations in learning this new-found skill. I’d join her in her world, from my own tablet, and we’d build together, sometimes working on the same structure, sometimes creating our own separate ones. She’d ask me about the names of the items in the inventory. She would read my signs I wrote around my Minecraft house… bedroom, bathroom, upstairs… ones she could easily figure out in context, even if she couldn’t decode the whole word through its letters. She began to write in the in-game chat – things like “hi” or “hello” and of course, things she found funny like “poo” and “wee”. And I’d write really simple lines back, simple one-syllable words, that I knew she’d be able to figure out: “look up”, “take this”, “I love you”.


Soon, despite the fact we sitting on the same sofa, we were chatting back and forth through text on in-game chat. Jess would often tell me off if I said something out loud instead of writing it. She loved it.




She started writing more of her own Minecraft signs, to explain what something was, or to welcome you to her shop, or to label different people’s aeroplane seats with their names.



She started playing on Roblox and also on Minecraft minigames servers. She loved the games in which she’d be given a category and have to either build something or design an outfit to fit that category, which would then be put to a vote. Time and time again, I was called on to read the category to her, so she could compete. And I’d grit my teeth and read it to her, for the 29th time that day, trying not to sound exasperated. Then, one day, on Roblox, she suddenly found a way to do it without me. She would look at the word (winter, for example), and even if she couldn’t understand it, she’d type the letters into the search bar on the clothing inventory, and see what came up. The array of clothing in the results would give her all the clues she needed to then figure out the word. Suddenly she was independent.


With books, she had begun to enjoy hearing Mister Men and Little Miss books. She’d previously loved the Biff and Chip series, but had been looking for something different, and Mister Men books seemed to hit the spot for her. She loved the humour; she loved the layout and format, and she loved the fact that there were words that she hadn’t heard before, like nincompoop and calamity and curious. She suddenly found joy in exploring a whole new range of vocabulary  (something that’s conspicuously missing from any phonics reading scheme). At some point (the first time I remember it was on a short car journey) she started to read the books to herself, in her head.


Back online, she grew desperate to chat to other players in-game. Both on Minecraft servers and in Roblox games, she watched the chat. I never managed to get the hang of Roblox, but she didn’t need me. She played role-play games and would write her messages to other characters in the game: the shopkeeper, the school teacher, the baby she was adopting. Suddenly her ability to read words and sentences exploded, and she was writing messages back and forth in full-on dialogue.


By this time, we had set up a Skype account, to allow Jess to talk out loud, across the ether, to her friend that she often joined online. It wasn’t long before she started writing messages on Skype, too.


Offline and away from gaming, throughout those couple of years, she also began to add words to her drawings. Simple names came first, then speech bubbles and signposts. As she grew – and her ideas and her stamina and her patience developed – her drawings became more like comic strips, with multiple speech and thought bubbles, leading on to cartoon-strip sequences, with some text in each picture. When she was 5, she had been given a DanTDM graphic novel as a gift. After asking me to read it to her in the beginning,  she had confidently read the rest of it independently, and I’m pretty sure this was a big part of the inspiration behind her comic-strip drawing style developing.

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Jess is now 6. She loves to draw, but almost every drawing has some writing on it: a speech bubble, a thought bubble, a signpost or a caption. In her mind, there is no distinction between drawing and writing; they are two sides of the same coin – a natural progression in communicating the idea that is in her head, onto paper, to show others. She sometimes plays online games for hours, always socially, communicating with fellow team-members, competitors or role-playing playmates. She recently whispered to me (proudly but not boastfully) that she’d just read a whole chapter book in one go. And most recently, she brought her tablet to me, to show me the most amazing story she had typed into a book on Minecraft – a wonderfully crafted suspense story, complete with beginning, middle and end, of two sisters stranded in a haunted forest, and the horror that befell them.


One day recently, Jess asked me, “How did I even learn to read? Who even taught me?” And honestly? There’s only one answer I could ever give her… “You taught yourself. You wanted to be able to read, so you figured out ways to learn. No-one taught you.”


Of course, to her, it feels strange. She doesn’t remember the particular steps along the way. Her progress in learning to read and write was never a part of anyone’s laid-out plan. She was never told, “Let’s learn about full stops,” or “Great, now you can read 12 sight words,” or “You can’t read that book – it’s too babyish/too hard”. Instead, she was given the time, the space and the opportunities to pursue it as she wanted; as she needed. When the desire or the need arose, she seized it and never looked back.


Nobody else ever taught her to read. It wasn’t someone else’s teaching success. This was all her own accomplishment, her own achievement.
One that I hope she will always feel proud of.



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One day, in the future…

 A  little poem from me, to my beautiful daughters, Jess and Amy…



One day, in the future, when childhood is done,

And all the realities of adulthood come,

We will lie close together and remember the fun,

Of the childhood we spent, when we played in the sun.


We’ll get lost in our memories, and talk of the days,

Of beaches and parks and long holidays,

How we ran through the garden, we climbed and we played,

How we chased all the wintry darkness away.


We’ll remember our evenings, snuggled up tight,

Reassuringly close as we slept through the night, 

How nightmares would jolt us awake with a fright,

And how comfort and love could put everything right.


We will whisper and giggle and share all our thoughts,

Our memories, our wishes, the battles we fought,

Our intertwined feelings and glimpses we caught,

Of the deeper connections that we always sought.


We will lie on our backs and gaze at the stars,

And remember the barbies and legos and cars,

And we’ll know that as beautifully close as we are,

Nothing on Earth could keep us apart.



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​​Government-led home-ed? Here’s a few reasons why Lord Soley needs to rethink his home education bill…

There is a parliamentary bill, currently working its way through the readings and committee stages, which is, quite understandably, angering home educators.



The bill, proposed by Lord Soley, originally called for:


 “local authorities to monitor the educational, physical and emotional development of children receiving elective home education”. 


Lord Soley then apparently had second thoughts, and realised that perhaps he was being rather too ambitious: before his second reading of the bill, he backtracked, saying he would seek to amend it, to take out the “physical and emotional development” aspects.


So… presumably, once it’s amended, the new bill will read, “local authorities to monitor the education of children receiving elective home education”.


It involves:


– compulsory registration of all home educated children with the local authority;

– monitoring and assessment of their education;


with parents possibly obliged to:

– provide information to their local authority when requested;

– allow officers to enter their homes to assess them;

– allow officers to interview their child alone, away from parents;

– provide evidence of children’s work.


The bill also makes mention of “supervised instruction in reading, writing and numeracy”.


But why then, if this is purely about monitoring and assessing quality of education, did Lord Soley continue to talk in parliament, about abuse and neglect, and other (quite blatantly) welfare issues?  About children apparently disappearing and being abused (not home educated)? And about how “clever, intelligent and incredibly manipulative” he has known abusive parents to be? And that we need this bill (in his own words), “because it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is all right and that the black eye came from the kid falling down the stairs or something of that nature”? 


No, Lord Soley isn’t concerned with the quality of children’s education (if he was, he would surely find many more pressing issues to write bills about, concerning schools and how they are consistently failing some children). 


He is actually concerned about child abuse and radicalisation (which he also mentioned in his speech). And, frustratingly, the home education waters have been so muddied by the media’s portrayal of us (as neglectful, abusive, selfish or extremist pariahs), that this false association of the two totally separate ideas, has become deeply entrenched into the minds of so many. 


And it’s deeply upsetting to so many home educators, many of whom have battled through confrontations with schools and local authority staff (who often have had neither the time or resources to properly support their child) in order to get the best possible education for them. And those who love and care for their children deeply enough to know that the data-driven, exam-factory school system is not the kind of future they want for the entirety of their loved one’s childhood. These are not neglectful or abusive parents. They are simply parents who are going above and beyond what society normally expects of them, to ensure the best for their child. Is it any wonder we get angry when Soley declares to parliament, “I knew then that the parents of children who took them out of school seeking to abuse them, knew that they could hide the child.”


Is it any wonder that we find it insulting?


Yes, it is right to be concerned about child abuse, neglect and radicalisation. But why does he (along with countless others) continue to link these problems to home education?


Children from all educational backgrounds are vulnerable to abuse or radicalisation, and of course measures must be in place to try to prevent or intervene. But in home education, these measures already exist, and work well. Social services follow up reports (which might come from anywhere – relatives, friends, neighbours, even strangers) of abuse or neglect. The one case of neglect that Solely mentions specifically, that of Dylan Seabridge, a child who died of suspected scurvy, was complicated by the way the family was supported (or not) by social services. Concerns were raised about his welfare,  and could have been followed up by social services, but never were. Instead, only an education officer was sent to assess his education.  Since then, home education has been systematically used as a scapegoat. Could his life have been saved if he had been seen by healthcare or childcare or social care professionals? Quite possibly, yes. Did he die because he wasn’t assessed by an education officer? No. Social services should have checked on that child, and didn’t. It was nothing to do with his home education.


And the sad truth is that being in school, or being “visible” to authority figures, does not prevent or stop abuse. As the NSPCC acknowledges, 1 in 10 children have experienced neglect.  And the figures for abuse of all kinds are startling.  Like Soley himself said, abusive parents can be clever and manipulative. It remains hidden. How on Earth does he think a once-a-year meeting and educational inspection will prevent or alert authorities to abuse? 


And the misconception that we are doing this in order to neglect, abuse or radicalise our children, is not the only reason we are enraged…


By law, the responsibility to ensure that an appropriate education is being provided, lies with the parent. Section 2 of this document, gives really good run-down of the legal position (Lord Soley himself might do well to read this!). Often, families choose to delegate the task to a school. Otherwise, as the law stands now, parents are trusted with that responsibility, in much the same way that they are trusted to keep their children safe, healthy and fed. Of course, if a concern is reported, on any aspect of a child’s rights or welfare, to a local authority or social services, then they currently have (and usually do use) powers to investigate and intervene. These provisions and powers are already in place, and regularly used.


But no part of parenting responsibility is routinely and indiscriminately monitored like this bill is proposing, on an annual basis. 


You would not expect a welfare officer to demand access to your home to inspect your living arrangements once a year, to check you are raising your child correctly. You wouldn’t let a stranger come in and check your kitchen cupboards, fill in an assessment form detailing what foods you are planning to feed your child, demand evidence to prove they have been fed correctly, and demand an interview, alone with your child, to interrogate them on what they have eaten over the last year. 


Nor would you expect to have an officer turn up at your door once a year, to inspect, interrogate and document your child’s sleeping arrangements, or their hygeine or health, or that you are providing them with love, or water… or any of the other things that are considered to be rights of children. Parents are still – thankfully – trusted to be parents.


And so in that same way, we should not expect an “education officer” (a stranger who knows nothing meaningful about our family, or children, or our situation) to show up once a year, interrogate us about our child’s education, demand to see evidence, demand to speak with our child alone (even police officers do not have that provision), before filling out a form and making a judgement on whether we are doing all this well enough to be able to continue.


It’s just simply absurd.


Home education is hard work, and demanding, and there will inevitably be families that struggle or need support. But that provision is already in place. The local authority are already on hand to support as needed, and should they have reason to be concerned that a home ed child’s education is inadequate, they have the powers to make enquiries or investigate (though in reality, even now many families find the local authority education officers to be anything but helpful).


Interestingly, this week, BBC Breakfast ran a week-long series covering Special Educational Needs, kicking it off with a look at how enormous numbers of families feel let down by the school system, and turn instead to home education, as the only real way to support their child’s learning.


When many home educators have taken on this role as a result of desperation with the inadequate support provided by schools, it’s no wonder that we find the idea of a local authority “education officer” making this ‘adequate or inadequate’ judgement, rather concerning.


In schools, trained teachers, SENDCOs, educational professionals, with access to a multitude of outside agencies to call on, are failing to support many of our youngsters. What on Earth makes them think that a local authority “education officer” will suddenly become an expert in all these complex and diverse children’s needs, and become capable and competent at judging whether the education we provide for them is suitable. If it wasn’t so devastatingly serious, it would be laughable.



And what about providing evidence? Home education doesn’t – and shouldn’t – involve the gathering of evidence. Unlike schools, who gather evidence on our behalf, since they are providing the service of educating our children, home educated children often learn in a more natural, organic way. Learning is driven by purposeful, real-life experiences, not by worksheets or study books or portfolios of evidence. Who is to say that an “education officer” will understand that a lack of worksheets or exercise books doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of learning? Who knows what criteria might be set by local authorities, in order to tick that box? 


Lord Soley himself admitted that he had little knowledge of education. He also probably has zero knowledge of the thousands upon thousands of home educating families. And because he has no knowledge, he is afraid. But his fear is misplaced. 


Home education is not the dangerous beast that it’s been made out to be. It is simply a widespread community of families, who have chosen this path for a wide variety of reasons, determined to provide the best possible opportunities and learning environment for their children. And they are doing it in a peaceful, non-confrontational way, just minding their own business and raising their children into well-educated, well-rounded  young adults that are motivated and successful.


If a bill is needed, it is nothing to do with home education. The focus needs to shift. A home education bill is nothing more than a big white elephant.


By all means, let’s turn the spotlight onto abuse, neglect and radicalisation. But if you think you’ll find it in an annual home education inspection, then you are seriously misguided. The only things you will find there, are anger, reluctance and wariness.


We don’t want government-led home ed. 


All we want is to get on with things ourselves, without unnecessary bureaucratic interference, putting pressure on our children.


And to not be misrepresented as abusive, neglectful, manipulative extremists.


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You are the child

That will see the pain

That man has caused

That the earth has felt.


You are the child

That will grow in time

To learn the truth

That hurts your heart.



You are the child

that will wonder why

And wonder how

It reached this far.



You are the child

That will dare to dream

Of other paths

To heal our world.


You are the child

That will make the spark

That will fuel the fire

That comes from your heart.



You are the child

That will light the flame

That will burn with desire

To make the change.



You are the child

That will light the path

To teach the world

To heal the earth.


You are the child.


© All rights reserved, monkeymum.blog, 2017


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You are the child.


You don’t HAVE to send your 4-year-old to school

All over England, parents of 3- and 4-year-olds are thinking about school. Local schools are advertising open days; local authorities are sending out mailshots, detailing the deadlines by which “you must submit”; there are even radio adverts telling you that you need to apply for a school place before it’s too late.


But if you are one of the (increasingly) numerous parents who feel uneasy with the thought of sending your young child to school, it’s important to know that you CAN choose not to.


That’s right. Your 4-year-old does NOT have to go to school.




I realise that for some families, it seems absolutely the right thing to do, and I totally understand that. But I know there are parents out there who, like I was, are uncomfortable with the idea of their 4-year-old going off into full-time school, for whatever reason. Maybe because it feels like too much when they are still so tiny. Or because they feel like they need to be in the loving care of close family for a bit longer. Or maybe because, like me, since watching their children learn freely and naturally, their whole outlook on institutional education has changed.


Whatever the reason, the option – the perfectly valid and legal option – to NOT send your 4-year-old to school, is relatively unknown, and rarely talked about. Local authority literature often makes little (if any) mention of the fact that education at 4 is not compulsory. Nor do they publicise the fact that school – at any age – is optional. Instead, they seem, in many cases, to keep this information hidden away in a corner of their website, that you might only find if you type in the right search term.


So here’s the information you might find helpful, if you have (or know of) a 3- or 4-year-old, that might not be suited to school right now.


Firstly, in England, a child’s education is only compulsory from the beginning of the term after their 5th birthday. (For more legalities, see this link.)


This means that if you have a child who is 4, you are under NO LEGAL OBLIGATION to begin any kind of education at all, let alone send them off to full-time school. Of course, in reality, your 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-year-old has been educated in one way or another since birth, since it’s in their inherent nature to learn through their own self-motivation to explore and connect with their surroundings. But legally, you do not have to do anything at all. And you don’t have to inform anyone either (see below).


After your child has turned 5, you then have a legal duty to ensure they are receiving an appropriate education. And the law says you MAY use school for this. You don’t have to; it’s your choice. But it’s a choice that many people don’t seem to know about.


If the thought of school for your little one doesn’t feel right, or if it just feels like too much, too young, you’re not alone. A growing number of families are turning their backs on our ridiculously young school-starting age, and doing things their way, to suit their family.


Before coming to a decision, it’s worth taking time to think it through, weigh up the pros and cons, talk to trusted friends or family, and even do some reading about alternative education options.


Then, if you DO decide NOT to send your 4-year-old to school, your next steps will depend on how far along you are in the school application procedure.


If you have never submitted an application for a school place for your child, you do not have to anything at all. You can simply continue as you are, providing for your child in a way you choose. School is an opt-in system. You do not have to respond to the letters telling you about the application process (if you receive them – some do not), nor do you have to inform the local authority, or anyone else, that you won’t be using a school. Some local authorities “recommend” that you inform them or register with them as a home educator, as they like to be able to keep their records up to date, but again, you are under no obligation to do so.


If you have already submitted an application for a place in reception, and then decide you do not wish your child to go, you should let the local authority know as soon as you can, that you no longer require the place. You could wait until nearer the time and then decline or deregister if necessary (see below), but retracting your application as soon as you’ve made the decision, means that place may be offered to another family at an earlier stage.


If you have already been offered a place, or had one assigned for you, or if your child has already started school, you will need to formally deregister by notifying the school in writing (there are sample templates available for this). From that moment, you need not send your child, anymore.


For some people, it can be a huge relief to know that you (and your child) do not have to do this. If it feels unnatural or uncomfortable, or goes against your inner gut feelings, then trust in your instinct. You know, instinctively, what is right for your young child.


The decision you make now is not a permanent, set-in-stone, irreversible decision. You can always take it, as we and many others do, year by year, deciding as a family what feels right. There is always the option of entering school later on. Some families end up never using schools at all, but for many others, it’s simply a case of delaying it until their child is ready. If you decide to home educate for a bit after your child turns 5, there is plenty of community-based support to help you. A quick search on google should bring up  national and local home education pages, which are a good place to start.



There are a few other points to bear in mind as you weigh up your options:


1) Having a place in reception, usually means a guaranteed place at that school in a child’s future years. If you decide not to enter your child in reception, there is no guarantee that in future there will be place available at your local/preferred school, if you later decide that your child is now ready. Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classes are often fully subscribed. You may find yourself having to look further afield.


2) Although at 4 you are under no obligation to provide an “education” for your child, from the beginning of the term after their 5th birthday, you are. This means from that point on, it would be unwise to ignore any letters from the local authority making enquiries, which they are entitled to do if they have reason to believe an education may not be being provided. Ignoring enquiry letters can give them more cause for concern. Instead there are a number of helpful websites that provide template response letters.


3) Some parents with “summer-born” children have had success with requesting a “deferred entry”, in which schools have reserved places for the child until the following year, or even allowed them to enter reception a year later than they would have. It’s worth looking into, if you think this might suit your child.


4) Some schools may agree to the option of “flexi-schooling”, which involves part-time attendance. I have never personally known anyone to have success with this request (it is at the discretion of the head teacher of a school to allow it), but it may be worth a try if you think it could work.


5) Although, legally, non-school education is the default option, and despite the growing numbers of people not opting-in, in wider society, school at 4 is still by far the most common choice, and as a result, you may find yourself feeling like you are swimming against the tide when met with wave after wave of curious (but usually well-intentioned) questions and comments from onlookers. Feel proud of your choice to stand up for what you know is right for your family.



Parents of 3- and 4-year-olds agonise over choosing the “right” school for their child. A tremendous amount of thought, time and emotion – quite rightly – goes into making the decision, weighing up all the options and picking the best schools for their application.


It’s just a shame that so often there is this ONE option that doesn’t enter their thoughts, or is not even known about, or is too easily dismissed.


The option to NOT send their 4-year-old to any school, but to keep them close by them for a bit longer.


It’s definitely an option worth considering.


Please feel free to forward this to anyone who you think might find it useful.


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The freedom that I hope they will always have…

Tonight, as I lay beside my daughters and watch them peacefully fall asleep, I think about the freedom that I hope they will always have:


The freedom to stay up that little bit later, playing, or reading that extra story that they ask for, before they fall asleep;


The freedom to sleep late in the morning if they need to, because there is nowhere that we absolutely must be by a certain time;


The freedom to play whatever – and whenever – they want;


The freedom to spend their time as they wish;


The freedom to be whomever they choose to be, on any given day;


The freedom to think and learn for themselves, and not be forced to fit somebody else’s vision of what they should be;


The freedom to grow up knowing their true self and what is in their hearts and their minds, and to follow that;


Freedom to choose, freedom to explore and learn in their own way, and freedom to be themselves, to pursue their own individuality.


I hope they will always be free spirits.


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Life Learning: how education happens in our family

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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