Why unschoolers?

A recent discussion with a home-ed friend is the reason behind my need to write this. The friend has been home-edding (i.e. home-educating) for years. She started thinking that the mainstream system does not provide enough or the right stimulation for her children. She preferred to do it herself. Her method is linked to unschooling, with the children having the choice of their hobbies, for which they have time and are encouraged, mixed with structured learning, namely imposed teachings, subjects and schedule. The children seem to be doing well as far as I know, we see them once every other month.

That day, after spending the afternoon with our group of unschoolers, she came to tell me how she believes unschooling is limiting for children. That we only have a short time for them to know what they need to know. Asking me what chances our children would have of becoming academics. I was pained by her comments. I disagree and wish to expose my reasons here. The way she told me this hurt too: she was saying her truths thinking I would agree with her, as we both have academic backgrounds. Possibly, my children being small, she might have thought that spending time with unschoolers was by circumstances rather than by choice. Unless anxious for her own children and feeling the need to reassure herself, she expressed her doubts to me.

So, why do I not agree with the thoughts behind her statements: that it is majorly important for our children to become academics; that by unschooling them I am taking away their choice of becoming ones if they wish.

I am indeed an academic, I have two masters in environmental science and a PhD in flood protection delivered by the Free University of Amsterdam. I have also suffered from teen depression, brought on by hormones combined with childhood events – not a bad childhood at all but with moves, deaths in the extended family and the consequences on my parents, diseases both for my brother and my father, car accident, and bad timing all over. As an adult I have also had two burn outs (6 years apart) and series of panic attacks, including one of each while pregnant with my first (I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, whatever that means in practice), of which I was pregnant with thanks to 3 years of fertility tests and 6 inseminations. I haven’t worked in five years, and to be honest I am not sure I could keep a permanent job.

There the difference between our approaches are. We tried school with my oldest, six months after his baby brother was born in Dublin, after we had moved from Wales less than a year before as I was 6 months pregnant. The birth didn’t go exceedingly well and the aftermath were difficult for me. My eldest went to school for a little over a week. He suffered from severe separation anxiety and started having nightmares of abandonment. We took him out and started homeschooling, at first thinking we would try again later. Instead we gradually moved to unschooling and possibly radical unschooling. We do a lot, by his choice as his brother is still small and I try to follow his interests in all our choice of activities – reptiles, horses, legos, rockets, cars, volcanoes, music and dancing, reading… – I also include him/them in the house activities and chores – the shopping, cleaning, drying, tidying, gardening, cooking – all are part of what we do. The learning happens as we go, physics, maths, history, sports, engineering, biology… Interestingly, I am learning too, including about myself, my interests and the best ways to manage my anxieties. I hope these learnings will be useful for my sons.

We cannot know what the future will look like. Will we move to more structured learning? How will I deal with more advanced maths? Reading? I guess I will propose. But I trust we will only become more structured if my sons want it and not otherwise. I will adapt to their wants and needs. I actually believe in unschooling – the joy of learning by exploring, coming across everything they will need for a fulfilled life. It is what works best by a huge margin with my eldest, so far and as long as I am available and relaxed.

The thing is – too – is that I do not value their academic success so much. If they wish it, I will help, but I won’t push. They might come to resent that choice, they might say I should have pushed them towards academia, to get a PhD like my husband (quite happy in work) and I have, to earn more (possibly), get more acknowledgement… I hope I would be strong in replying that these are never a sure thing and I preferred for them to know their selves, their true interests, their strengths and weaknesses (without judgement or measurements), their emotions, their limits. To be able to truly enjoy a walk in the forest or on a beach, helping them build a good mental health throughout their lives. But not stopping them becoming academics if they wish! That, rather than targeting academic success and crossing our fingers that mental health will follow… What if it doesn’t?

Unschooling tool: history, preschool maths (1 to 16 matching numbers puzzle and stones), geometry, engineering

Homeschooling – A year on

It’s been a while since I last wrote on this blog, to the point that I thought it was most probably over. I’m not sure about its status yet, but I’ve started writing an article in my head this morning and what better place than here to post it?

We’ve been homeschooling for a little over a year. It started after we decided to pull our then 3.5 years old son out of preschool, thinking we’d try again later. I met with parents, starting reading on homeschooling, unschooling and the like. We took the official decision sometime in February (when proposed school places) and I started to write a diary of our activities. It’s been great! It’s been hard… It’s been evolving again and again and again. We are now what we call unschoolers, in the sense that we do not do formal school work, no curriculum, no formal sitting down unless they ask for it. I follow the children’s interests as much as financially and physically possible, explain things, guide them when they need it. Horses, reptiles, boats, dinosaurs, colouring, cars, swimming… We go, find ways to have fun with their interests. We use museums, activity centres, google and youtube, a bit of crafts at home, cooking or chores, grocery shopping… All are parts of our days, of what they learn about. Trusting that they will come across what they need in life by following their interests, learning about themselves, how they best work, what fascinates them, and also while spending time outdoors, forest, beaches. We live in a great place for nature 😉 All this helps build their confidence and, I strongly believe, paths for the development of a good mental health.

The remainder of today’s post is going to be about the first hour of our day. I trust it illustrates how homeschooling and unschooling can be joyful and full of learning. The learning happens almost unaware and so fast, no time wasted, fun and so much time to play.

8am up, my 4.5 years old son watched music videos – fatboy slim type, he loves “Right here right now” – with his dad on the laptop. Discussion on music, rhythm, images. Dad shows him the theme song of Denver the dinosaur (a show we watched as kids) and our son asks to watch on episode. Chat on dinosaurs and extinction…

He then moves to the living room, where he looks bored for a good 5 min before asking for our Stonehenge game with a puzzle and 3D stones to put on it. We build the puzzle together. I explain the matching numbers on the puzzle, up to 16, and under the stones. I leave him to it while I listen to some podcasts on homeschooling (recent Irish ones: Emily from HEN, Cora and Irene also from HEN). In a few minutes, it’s all done, all alone, perfectly aligned too ! I take a picture of it, he gets his own kid camera out to take a picture of it too (see below, I put the box next to it and explain why as I did it), then continues by taking photos of the house… They’re very well framed. He corrects himself if they’re not and takes another picture…

Then he goes to play with his legos 🙂

Music, French and English, natural history, history, maths, geometry, engineering, IT, photography… In about an hour! Lots of time for more legos, a bit of TV, food, colouring or playing with his cars or train set. His brother (20 months old) is currently fascinated with horses and ponys so we spend a bit of time on a couple of ponys and horses books and sticker books too. Yesterday we met with friends and they played for 4 hours with others, then ran about in a forest in county Wicklow… 😀


We watched Fantasia with my almost four year old today. His choice, because of the Mickey on the cover I think. He didn’t know what he was listening to but he was fascinated by the music and the images! Loving being at home and having the time!

Fantasia poster 1940, By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3857239

We’re renting an allotment

I guess it was our new year resolution after all: we’ve paid for an allotment of 80m2, for one year, outside of Dublin – to grow tomatoes, parsnips, strawberries, tulips…! We cannot really use the garden of the house we rent so this is the closest we could find. We have a few ideas of what we could do with it, including keeping small spaces for the children to have a go. We’re planning to go all together during the weekends, and for me to go during the weeks with the children, depending on the needs of the plot, and the weather…

Next step: tulips and divisions of the allotment! Then, probably, a shed 🙂

A garden is a great teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust. Gertrude Jekyll

Allotments by Andrew Skudder, flickr


Lifting the anonymity & the next step in our journey

It has been a long while and many things have happened, most importantly that we have become parents for the second time and I am now a mum of two boys. My second son is 8.5 months, we’re finding our feet, somehow.

Now I’ve decided to change this blog, in a few ways: first, I’m lifting the anonymity. My name is Jennifer, or Jen, half French half British 35 year old, currently living in Ireland with my husband Christophe and our two boys. As a consequence, I’ve also cleaned up the blog of things I’m not sure I want everyone I know to read 😉

Second, I’m not only a mum, and I will keep a space on this blog for myself. Here is a good, if sad, read, recently published, on the needs of mums and the wrongs of our society towards mums: SamantahNolanSmith

Third, I’ve decided to “come out” as a mum. I’m a long term breastfeeder and tandem feeder, my eldest is four years old in a month, my youngest is just over 8 months old, both breastfed – if differently. I am, with my husband, also a co-sleeper: one big bed and a co-sleeper barely used for us four! It’s the only way, I think, if you want to continue breastfeeding…

Now it looks like I’m going to be a homeschooler too. As in the children won’t be going to school, or at least my eldest won’t be going for the next two years. No preschool, no school. Unleash the hounds…

We have thought and read and talked a good deal about this decision. We have moved countries twice in two years. We have had a second child in March. We have also had health issues, for both boys, in addition to my own. Then in September, our eldest went to preschool for ten days. The first day, he was sooo excited. After we left, for just an hour that day, he cried hysterically for 40 min – until we came back, totally panicked, not understanding what was going on, though we’d tried to explain… And they had let him cry, when we were just outside the school… And when he’s already had so much to deal with and the language to get used to – we speak French at home and he barely knew a few words of English then. After ten days of trying, again and again, with the teachers, the principal, his crying not getting better and huge tantrums at home before bed, nightmares about being abandoned and walking home alone, I looked at what would happen if we took him out. Nothing, it seemed… Children are not obliged to go to school until they’re six, at least in Ireland. It is a parent’s right to teach him as he chooses. So we took him out, at first thinking that we would try again later that year, or next year. We would leave him time to settle after this very busy year.

Once the first decision taken, I started looking for groups of children, for socialisation, for activities, to keep us out of the house and away from the TV, and I found homeschooling groups (a lot is happening on Facebook) and books. We met people. I read and read and read until I find that I now strongly believe that the mainstream school system is outdated, based on the needs of our society more than a century ago. It may be bad for children, possibly bad for society now – how many schools teach critical thinking, the most valuable skill they should learn in our day (here Sal Kahn creator of Khan Academy, talk about our future)? There are too many children in classes (don’t give me that “it’s the same everywhere” it doesn’t mean it’s good). Closed in classes doing activities chosen by teachers rather than chosen by themselves (what are they, chain workers? I know some schools try to include some self-directed learning principles, but not where we live, or not at a reasonable price…), parked by age groups (a completely unnatural thing) rather than by interests or abilities, and going out on a macadam’ed space only for a few minutes a day even if it’s super sunny outside…

At 3.5 years old I believe he needs to play, to meet other children, to run and jump and experiment. Not sit quietly and give in to the control needs of the teachers (perfectly understandable given the number of children per class), ignoring other upset children, and having to let me leave even if he’s not ready for it… 

Don’t make me say what I didn’t, school is useful. It brings a lot to children whose parents cannot or would not be able to teach them. It has decreased the illiteracy rates in western countries. It may be good for some children, just, I believe, not mine, not now. He is not a number. He has his own needs, because of the language, his life up to now, his personality. One day he will be ready to stay in places without me – technically he was ready before the disaster with the school – like he was ready to stop with nappies, or like he’s now asking to do everything by himself (very unhappy if you don’t let him). He’s growing, he’s changing, he’s learning all the time by trying and playing and repeating what he sees and hears.

And so we meet with other parents, other children, he’s running in the forest and getting his trousers wet… Though less in winter or when sick… But just like his father’s dad or my mum used to do in the 50s. They didn’t turn out bad. If anything, they’re the most confident people I know.

In the meantime I’m also looking at alternative schools, ways to teach him (and his brother) myself – maths, English, reading and writing, arts, gardening, and all the other things my toddler is interested in, from the sound of birds to rockets, dinosaurs or playing piano… – how we can proceed if in two years he doesn’t want to go to mainstream school. How we can help him go to university if he, and his brother, wants to go one day, like we did. I believe the school system (and more generally our way of life) is changing and I want the children to benefit from that change – critical thinking and everything internet can bring. It gives me hope for them and for our society. It’s cheesy but it’s true…

In consequence, the blog is changing to become dual: me on one side (the mum not only mum) and our journey as a family and a homeschooling family on the other (our activities, or a sample of them). I believe this is what our child needs now and this blog might help me keep track of what we do, and to keep my motivation too!

P.S.: not that it’s anyone’s business, not any more than the other things I post here, but we’re still vaccinating the children. Looking for your own information and making your own choices is the way. I personally think the herd immunity is important so that’s our way 😉

Some good reads on the subject of homeschooling – for those curious and interested:

– Children taught at home learn more, article from The Guardian

– Teach your own by John Holt
– Dont waste your time homeschooling by Traci Matt with lots tips
– Learning without school by Ross Mountney
– Homeschooling the early years by Linda Dobson, big American book not very recent
– One to one A practical guide to learning at home Age 0-11 by Gareth Lewis

In general for activities to do with children in the house:
– Tinkerlab by Rachel Doorley
– 150+ screen-free activities for kids by Asia Citro
– Also I love Djeco games, Orchard Toys, Melissa and Doug games, Usborne books including their sticker books 😉

More generally, here is a link I saw yesterday with lovely videos on the subject of our lives, how we can link the way we live with the environment, live a simpler and healthier life closer to nature: Happen films

Us four