Monday, December 31, 2007

Unschooling Basics

It's come to my attention that not everyone in my family is familiar with unschooling and how my boys will ever learn anything this way. :) So, in case those few of you who read this blog are interested, here's how it works.

First off, let's figure out which subjects a four year old needs to learn. A very good argument could be made that there's only one: life skills.. but we'll ignore that for now. We'll assume the basics: reading, math, science, social studies, art, music, and phys ed.


The most basic way we cover this subject is reading to the boys. At an absolute minimum, they get four books a day (one at nap, three at bedtime). They usually cajole us into reading an extra book at bedtime, and often bring me books to read throughout the day. Very occasionally I'll suggest we read a specific book during the day. I've tried from time to time to introduce Colwyn to chapter books, but he doesn't seem fully into it, and I don't want to bore him.

We also write letters--thank you notes, cards to friends, and letters to family, favorite authors, whatever. Colwyn learns about the shapes of letters when he writes a few basic words I help him with, and he also learns about composition when he dictates to me.

A fun game that we play is the letter-word matching game. We have textured, foam letters and index cards bearing three-letter words. The easy version is just to simply match up foam letters to letters on the cards. Even Lachlann does this now. We can also name each letter and letter sound, and even sound out the word (Colwyn is good about this approx. 70% of the time). Occasionally we'll explore what changing one letter will do to a word (the index cards have words like sit, bit, hit, and hug, jug, rug--three words for each vowel, with the same consonant at the end). Colwyn is only sporadically interested in this right now.

The boys also watch Letter Factory occasionally for reinforcement about letter sounds, and they watch Between The Lions which is great for reading skills.

We take trips to the library every other week, and frequently talk to the librarians about our favorite books and favorite authors. They see lots of people in the library reading, and they also see me and Doug reading more or less daily.


Colwyn has a math 'curriculum' that I bought for him. Basically it's two workbooks for his 'pre-k' year. We're most of the way through the first and so far he's already known everything in it. The concepts covered are: matching twin, identifying odd one out, recognizing relationships, matching/comparing sizes, matching colors, comparing length/height, sorting leading to sets and subsets, matching one to one to show a common relationship, matching one to one to show un/equivalent sets, comparing two sets, comparing amounts, recognizing numerals, tallying, simple graphs, couting orally, rearranging numbers in sequence, conservation of numbers, ordering by size/capacity, weight, recognition of shapes, reading/writing numerals, cardinal numbers, the empty set, counting backwards from 10, picture graphs, even and odd numbers, counting by twos, time sequence, ordinal numbers, open and closed curves.

We have several sets of math manipulatives. The counting bears are used for patterns, addition/subtraction, and more vs. less. The smooth river stones are used for addition/subtraction. The connecting blocks are used for patterns and more vs. less. The tangrams are used for geometry. All these manipulatives are used in games, not structured seatwork. For instance, we have parades with bears, pretend the river stones are food that the toy dinosaurs need for a party, and we make trains out of the connecting blocks.

Colwyn is exploring days of the week and time on his own. I make frequent mentions of what time it is, what day it is, that we'll do such-and-such on a specific day, and so on. He's working on making sense of it and I don't see the need to rush him, as he's picking up a lot of it the way I'm currently presenting it. Eventually, we'll get a calendar and a clock that I'll keep at his eye-level so he can explore more fully.

While we're out shopping, we talk about money. We talk about how this brand costs more than this brand, how I have X amount of money and what we can buy with it, and so on.

When the children are eating or playing, we talk about numbers. "Colwyn, you have two crackers left, would you like two more? Now how many do you have?" "Colwyn, you have five cars and Lachlann has only one, how can we make it even?"


This is probably the easiest for us, and definitely interest-led.

Colwyn has always loved dinosaurs. We watch dinosaur documentaries, play with toy dinosaurs, categorize dinosaurs by size, species, and carnivore vs. herbivore. We talk about when and where dinosaurs lived. We learn about fossils and paleontologists. We made fossils out of salt dough and buried them in sand, then uncovered them. We have books about dinosaurs and visit museums that have dinosaur exhibits (Museum of Science in Boston, Smithsonian in D.C., and Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut). We drew a chalk line the real length of an apatosaurus and drew live-size footprints of apatosaurs and T. Rex.

We also learn about space. We've watched documentaries and read books. We've visited museums (Museum of Science in Boston, Air & Space Museum in D.C.). We've decorated a cardboard box to be a space ship and had lots of adventures in that. We dropped marbles into flour to see how moon craters are made. We made a model of the solar system. We talk about gravity and how you would walk on the moon vs. Jupiter vs. Earth.

We learn about animals in various ways. Whenever we encounter animals in our neighborhood, we talk about what they look like, their habitat, what they eat, and how they behave. Whenever we see animals in the zoo or the aquarium, or even in books or on TV, we do the same.

We've also covered a lot of human biology this year, mainly through discussion. Colwyn has asked about bones and how they work (and how they get broken!), why we need blood, and of course, with me being pregnant, they're getting a good education about what that involves. We also discuss things like hygiene, nutrition, and safety.

Baking soda and vinegar always contribute to good experiments--we've made volcanos out of playdough, and we've washed baking soda-filled tin foil moon rocks in diluted vinegar. We've also experimented with magnets, and we also did one fun experiment involving drops of food coloring in a pan of milk.

Social Studies

Colwyn really likes maps, and we have several to play around with. He has a U.S. states puzzle that he works on frequently, and we have several globes that he looks at and asks questions about. We also draw simple maps for him to practice map skills with--usually they're simple grids of streets with stores, houses, parks, etc drawn in. We talk about what's next to what, how you would get from point A to point B, and so on. All of this is done as a game, with toys ("Lightning McQueen is at the park, see? He wants to get to the grocery store where Sally is.. can you help him?")

We learn about different cultures fairly frequently. We try traditional foods, listen to music, try our hand at recreating artwork, look up pictures and maps of the country or area, and read books. I also make an effort to find any unique games that children like to play in that culture, or what stories/myths/lullabies might be traditional.

Writing letters also helps with geography, as we point out on a map where the letter is going.

We've only dabbled slightly in history--mainly the Middle Ages, since Colwyn loves knights so much. We've learned about castles and what life was like then, in addition to learning about armor, swords, jousting, etc.

Topics like world religions, racial/ethnic diversity, etc. we mostly cover in conversation when it comes up. For instance, a few days ago, Colwyn asked why a tree in front of the hospital was decorated in lights, but didn't have a star on top. We discussed how some people celebrate Christmas, and decorate Christmas trees with lights, ornaments, and stars, but that not everyone celebrates that holiday. We talked about various religions and what they celebrate, and how at a place like a hospital, that helps many, many people regardless of what they believe in, they like to make everyone feel welcome. So they only decorate with lights to make everything look sparkly and pretty. We also discuss diversity in our society when they ask questions--those usually embarassing questions about why people they see are different.

One of the main aims of social studies is to teach your child how to be a moral, upstanding citizen. For us, that means thinking critically, showing sympathy, and being environmentally responsible (among other things). Just through our life choices, the children see us evaluating societal norms and deciding whether they work for our family or not. With young children, discussions of sympathy are brough up in every day conversation (not hitting brother, not using mean words, not stomping bugs, not pulling the dog's tail, etc). As adults, Doug and I try to be as environmentally responsible as possible, and the children see that. They learn about recycling, composting, growing your own food, being kind to nature, not littering, and so on. We feel that the best way for our children to become responsible, ethical adults is to have good models, and through being at home with us, they get to see us in our roles in society every day--rather than learning it out of a book, stuck in a classroom.


We study art daily in our house. Some days we color with crayons, other days we paint, and other days we cut and glue. We use water colors, tempera paint, markers, crayons, and colored pencils. The kids have a huge amount of art supplies--stickers, foam shapes, pom poms, glitter, play dough, glue, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, paper towel tubes, paper, you name it. Other days we appreciate art--in the books we read, in pictures we look at online, etc. In schools, children have art class once a week for a half hour, if that. At our house, when the children are inspired, they can do whatever they like for as long as they feel like it. They don't have to follow orders (oh, how I hated the classes where we had to draw still lifes), and will never get in trouble for making the grass purple or the sky yellow.


Our study of music is very informal at this point. Basically we do music appreciation, and the children experiment on their own.

We listen to a wide variety of music. Through our social studies, they get to hear a huge range of music from all over the world. They listen to the music that Doug and I like to listen to which has a fair amount of range. They also listen to their own kids music. In addition to all that, they seem to really pick up on the soundtracks on movies they like, which really broadens the range of music they listen to.

As far as experimenting with music, we have a huge collection of instruments for them to practice with. We have drums (real and electronic), guitars (toys, and real acoustic and electric guitars), keyboards, harmonicas, recorders, a pentatonic flute, and maracas, among others. They play around and experiment with the different sounds they can produce.

Phys Ed

With two little boys, phys ed is more or less a non-issue. Even at home, they run around like maniacs, getting plenty of exercise. When the wather is warm, they play in the backyard, we take walks and ride bikes around the block, we swim in the pool, and we go to the playground. In the winter, our options are more limited, but the kids can still get a good workout at the indoor playspaces we go to - they all have climbing structures that challenge and exercise their muscles.

Our Philosophy

When I think of unschooling, I think of our children being free to learn what they want, how they want, when they want. It doesn't mean they don't learn anything, nor does it mean that I never introduce them to new concepts. The crucial point is that I never force them to do anything they don't want. When has forcing someone to do something ever produced better results than if they had done it on their own? Plenty of parents can attest to the power struggles that arise when children are forced to potty train or learn to read or sleep on their own before they're developmentally ready or interested. Our parenting philosophy has always been to follow the kids' lead, and it's worked beautifully for us. Whether it's sleeping on their own, potty training, giving up a bottle, learning letters, or going on the carousel at Salem Willows, we've always given them the time and space they need while being supportive, and they've accomplished those things with nary a problem. Why wouldn't we extend that philosophy to their education?

I hope this explains things a bit. I hate to think that people might think we're being neglectful just because of the term 'unschooling.'



At 10:44 AM, Blogger Jen said...

unschooling sounds so willy nilly to some I think child-led learning or child-based schooling sounds nicer to people not in the know.
great outline though :0)

At 8:44 PM, Blogger Julie and Bryan said...

Thanks for the description of what you do with your 4 and 6 year old. I have a 4 1/2 year old and 20 month old both girls. I wanting to do unschooling and just researching what this looks like. Thanks for the info.!

At 6:49 AM, Blogger Lisa La Nasa said...

Thanks for this wonderful outline! We are from the USA, living in Argentina with our 3-year-old daughter. I would love to unschool and plan to at some point, but have her enrolled in a 3-hour/day preschool for the spanish language immersion since we cannot provide that at home.
This provides some wonderful activities to reinforce learning throughout the day!

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Marlene said...

I am thinking about homeschooling my little girl who is almost three. I am drawn to unschooling and your blog post showed me what life is like and what I can expect. Thank you very much.

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Lee Fair said...

Are you required to register your children to take state assessment tests once they are older? Is testing required by law if your child does not attend a traditional school, ie; public school? I am curious because I'm thinking about un-schooling my three boys.


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