Unschooling with a Passion

Written in December 2015 with a current update at the end:

One of the apparent consequences of having an unschooling mindset about my children’s education and interests is that often they’ll end up with intense passions about things that I know next to nothing about. Usually they will then progress more rapidly in their passion than many people are used to seeing.

My only real educational goals with my children have been that they be happy, kind, enjoy learning new things, and have the foundation they need in order to learn anything they want or need to learn in the future. This leaves a good deal of open space for them to fill in for themselves.

Our family greatly values unstructured time for learning and exploration and our children typically have an abundance of unstructured time in which to discover and explore their interests. I try not to project my own ideas of what they should or shouldn’t be interested in, although I do encourage them all to at least learn the basics of playing a musical instrument of their choice (something I can easily help them with because of my own background).

My children primarily have different interests and passions than I had.

My oldest is as avid a reader and writer as I am and was at that age, but has also become enamored with and competent in the area of computer programming, something I know next to nothing about, and had learned six different programming languages before their tenth birthday. They’re a very graceful ballerina as well, although their interest in ballet has ebbed and flowed somewhat more than their interests in programming and reading/writing have.

My second to youngest has extremely innovative fashion ideas and runs a tight ship on Minecraft. While not yet officially “school-aged” she enjoys listening in, watching, and participating whenever her older siblings are doing something that piques her interest and she’s getting very close to having the skills to read and write more than just the names of people in our family.

The youngest is a walking, talking baby with a passion for pulling everything off the shelves and throwing them on the floor. As it should be.

My second to oldest is the child I’m going to focus on most in this post because she very recently discovered one of her passions that took us all by surprise.

When we were helping a friend move in the fall of last year, my children watched the American Girl gymnast movie “McKenna” with my friend’s daughters. My daughter expressed interest in gymnastics very briefly that fall and nothing came of it until she rewatched the movie in late spring earlier this year.

At that point, the tiny spark she had felt last year came roaring into full flame. Suddenly, she was watching around an hour of gymnastics videos — both instructional and not — on YouTube daily. After watching some videos early in the day, she would then spend literal hours out in the backyard, at the park, or in her bedroom diligently working on the moves she had seen in the videos.

At that point, I knew even less about gymnastics than I knew about computer programming, which is saying a lot. I had friends tell me that they were very impressed with my daughter’s skills and it did seem impressive to me, all the flipping and flopping and handstands and such that she could do, but I very much didn’t (and don’t) want to fall into the trap of thinking that my child is amazing at anything just because they’re my child and I didn’t feel qualified to make that call.

Years ago, due partially to financial constraints and partially because we didn’t want to push our children into structured commitments before they were ready, we had set 8 as the age at which our children could choose one out of the house, specific class or activity to be involved in. As soon as our second to oldest turned 8 years old, she chose gymnastics as her activvity. Not realizing how the gymnastics year was set up, we waited until the first of August and signed her up for the beginning girls recreational gymnastics class at a local gym.

After five classes, when she demonstrated some more advanced skills, her coach moved her up to the intermediate class, which she and we were elated about. Her goal was to move up until she could compete. We cautioned her that she would likely not be the most accomplished gymnast in the intermediate class, that being in a class with more advanced students is a good thing because it presents more challenges.

And that seemed to be that. Until we went to the open gym day at her gym and one of the coaches happened to see her do some of the things that she did all the time at home and at the homeschool park days we go to every week.

Thus began the most surreal discussion of my life. I learned that my daughter has a natural aptitude for gymnastics and that she had apparently done a much better job of advancing in her passion than I had previously realized. She was invited to attend the next advanced recreational class and was offered a potential spot on the Xcel Bronze team, with some talk about how this could potentially lead to a junior olympian (JO) team placement and scholarships in the future.

It took my brain several days to be able to even comprehend that this was really happening and to not feel overwhelmed by the commitment we’d been invited to make. My daughter had wanted to compete and, by golly, she had worked hard enough, mainly on her own, to make it onto a team!

In retrospect, now that she’s on the team and I’ve spent hours upon hours learning more about gymnastics than I ever thought I’d know, I’m not sure why this situation felt so unreal to me at first. After all, I’ve been reading about self-directed, self-motivated learning since my oldest was a baby. I even experienced a similar progression in my own life regarding my *musical abilities.

Yet, this isn’t how children are expected to learn in our society. We expect children to need a push or to be started in an activity at a very young age in order to excel. Learning for the sake of learning, or because the subject or activity is something a child genuinely enjoys and has an aptitude for is not a common occurrence.

But it should be common. Children need to be given the time and opportunity to find their own passions and interests and do with them what they want to do. Maybe none of my children will end up being truly impressive with their passions as they get older and the stakes become higher, but they’ll know how to find a new passion or they’ll be able to figure out how to integrate their previous passions into their lives in a meaningful way and through it all they’ll be supported completely in their endeavors.

Their lives are not mine. Rather, I am honored to support their lives and interests as they grow and mature.

I’m following their lead, encouraging, facilitating, and am often left simply watching — in awe of how effectively and quickly they follow and develop their passions.


Update: My gymnast child went from Xcel Bronze (where she was bars champion at both the State and Regional competitions) to JO Level 4, then Levels 5, 6, and 7. She’s now training for Level 8 and still loving it at age 12!

*In some ways, my parents were unschooly about my interests and my siblings’ interests as well. They didn’t sign us up for structured lessons at the first sign of interest, but instead waited until we had demonstrated a willingness to learn on our own and had shown interest for a fairly significant amount of time. Because of this, I was older than usual when I started formal piano lessons. By that time I was very self-motivated and had almost completely worked my way through John Thompson’s first grade book and shortly after I began lessons I was moved over to Faber book 4. By the time I had taken lessons for a little over a year, I discovered Scott Joplin’s music and after my piano teacher told me that the original version of Maple Leaf Rag was too difficult for me, I went directly home from that lesson and had the first three pages learned and memorized by the next week’s lesson. I went on to learn almost every musical instrument to proficiency, just because I wanted to.

Learning to Read While Unschooling

A couple weeks ago my newly-turned 6 year old decided to learn how to read. 

Now, this didn’t come completely out of the blue. She’s been making some noise about wanting to learn how to read for several months, but every other time I had sat down with her to work on letter sounds it had quickly become clear that she wasn’t quite ready. 

This time was different. 

This time she approached me with a plan. 

First, she folded up a piece of paper and asked me to write the alphabet — with both “big” and “little” letters — for her. I obliged and went back to doing whatever I had been doing. About ten minutes later, she came back with several folded pieces of paper and informed me that she needed help stapling them together so that it could be her reading book.

We got the reading book all stapled and she asked me to spell out the title “*6 Year Old’s Name* Reading Book” so she could write it on the front. She’s known how to read and write her name for a while so all those letters were fine, but she didn’t know what most of the others even looked like. I discovered at this point why she had wanted the alphabet written out: every unknown letter I told her to write, she would look up by singing the alphabet song and pointing at each letter in the alphabet until she came to the correct one. 

At this point I was beginning to pay a bit more attention. 

Now, generally speaking, when my children have difficulties with something and get frustrated, we take a break. I don’t push them to continue, although I do encourage them a great deal. Every single time, it’s been about six months before they’re ready to try again and at that point they often find the previously difficult skill to be ridiculously easy. 

At this point it had only been a couple of months since her last serious reading attempt and it had been very frustrating for her. I put it down, fully anticipating that we wouldn’t see a marked improvement in her reading readiness for around six months, so when she first approached me this time, I began the process without being attached to any significant outcomes. 

But here she was! Proactively creating her own method for learning how to read and write on her own terms.

Then she informed me that she was ready to read “those books on [my] iPad.” The “those books” she referred to are the New Alphabetti books from ProgressivePhonics.com. I had been very impressed with them a couple months previously when we had first looked at them together. She had been less impressed, but now was insistent that she was going to read and that she wanted to read those books. Now.

Okay, then! We sat down with the iPad as soon as I got the 2 year old occupied with his building blocks. 

I immediately noticed a difference in my 6 year old’s readiness. 

Instead of needing constant help and reminders the way she had a couple months ago, she was remembering the letter sounds on her own. When we came to a new word that she hadn’t learned before, she sounded it out and then painstakingly wrote it down in her “reading notebook” before we continued. 

At the end of the book, she insisted on reading the next one right away! 

My 6 year old simply created her own reading program — including copywork — on her own terms and based on what she needed in order to learn how to read. 

When she finished the second book, we mutually decided that we should wait until the next day to begin the third. At that point she informed me that her goal is to participate in National Novel Writing Month this November with her two older sisters and me. 

I couldn’t be any prouder. 

Between my oldest two children, I already have a computer programmer, a gymnast, a musician, a ballerina, and two authors. I cannot wait to find out what interests this third child decides to pursue! I only hope that we’re able to continue supporting them all in whatever ways they need us to as they grow and find more interests or refine the ones they already have. 

Homeschooling, Responsibility, and Educational “Gaps”

An excellent post, “What If,” showed up in my Facebook news feed today. It’s about the “what if” questions that “interest led” homeschoolers typically get asked and it reminded me of a discussion I had many years ago – almost a decade now, actually – when my oldest was a baby.

I happened to tell a woman at the local La Leche League meeting that we were planning to homeschool because I had been homeschooled myself and had loved it. In response she told me that she didn’t think she would be able to handle shouldering ALL the responsibility for her children’s education and that she would be too worried about ensuring that there weren’t any “gaps” in their education since she, being only one person, couldn’t possibly know everything that her children might potentially need to know.

She asked me how I thought I could handle that immense amount of pressure.

I thought for a few moments before responding because these weren’t issues I had considered before. In the spirit of the other article and before giving you my responses, I’ll put her statements into the “what if” format.

*What if you fail to teach them everything they need to learn? <- which is also assuming that all the educational responsibility is on the homeschooling parent.

I told her that, first of all, my children’s education wouldn’t all be on me…. because homeschoolers, in my experience, are often encouraged to go out and find mentors or classes in the community to help them pursue their specific interests if the parents cannot teach them adequately or to a more advanced level in that area.

In my own homeschooling life, by middle school I was primarily interested in music and music education so I took piano lessons and was allowed to attend band classes at the local public middle and high schools. By high school, I was well on my way to learning multiple band instruments. By my sophomore year I was attending five separate band classes as well as assisting the high school band director in multiple ways – sorting sheet music, cataloging the music library, tutoring other students, and generally trying to be helpful.

All of that extra music focus was in addition to the usual school subjects that I continued doing through high school. Attending the music classes was also my own idea to start with, helped along by the ample encouragement I received from my parents. I had attended a piano teacher training course and was teaching my own young piano students by the time I was 16 years old.

My parents, on their own, could not have helped me advance as far in instrumental music and music education as I eventually advanced, and yet I managed to advance that far by finding an adult mentor (my band director, whom I still see fairly often on Facebook) and well over a hundred peer mentors and mentees (fellow band geeks, unite!) as well as eventually choosing to major in Music Education at an excellent college.

In my children’s lives right now, finding mentors/classes involves them attending ballet classes and roller skating lessons – which are interests that are also beyond the scope of most public/private schools. We’ve been involved in co-ops in the past for subjects as diverse as art and science. As they find more and different interests that I don’t know enough about to assist them in learning, we will help and/or encourage them to find classes or mentors for those interests as well. Naturally, their musical interests have been well covered by my own knowledge and experiences so far 🙂

*What if your children have significant gaps in their educations because you yourself can’t possibly know everything they need to know?

In response to that part, I simply asked that person I was talking to if she thought her (public school) education had been without gaps and she seemed to suddenly understand. Oh, NO education is without gaps. Right. In fact, she told me that the gaps in her education were part of the reason she was concerned about having the responsibility for her children’s potential educational gaps, which is completely understandable.

We talked a bit more about how there really isn’t any way of ensuring that there won’t be educational “gaps” because even if someone is taught everything in the world in the most effective way possible, they aren’t going to be able to remember every single thing. There will still be gaps no matter how rigorous the curriculum is or how well-trained the teacher is.

I explained so many years ago that the most important thing to me then, as well as now, is that I help to set my children up for a life full of learning. I will do everything in my power to help them learn the basics so that they have a good foundation. I will facilitate and encourage them in everything they want or need to learn. Ultimately, though, I will consider their early learning to be a success if they retain and build upon their innate love for learning and knowledge of how to learn because then they will be able to fill in those inevitable “gaps” as they want or need to do.

My parents, especially my father, modeled a love of learning to me throughout my life that has carried me through numerous interests and jobs. They cultivated my love of learning and I cannot think of a single day when I haven’t learned something new and enjoyed the process. I have easily been able to fill my educational gaps every time it has become clear that there was a gap that needed to be filled. That ability has been priceless to me.

That is what I want for my children.

Disclaimer: I do not speak for all homeschoolers, only for myself. There are many different reasons out there for homeschooling and many other types of homeschoolers that may or may not fit within the scope of this post.

A Proud Mama Moment

My oldest daughter, my just-turned-eight year old, received everything she asked for on her birthday this year. Spoiled? Maybe. Although, given what she asked for, I feel as though I’m the spoiled one.

She asked for a dictionary and  a snake reference book. We found her two reptile books because there didn’t seem to be any that were only about snakes. She has absolutely loved and used them all since her birthday and I’m just as pleased as can be that she loves reading and learning as much as she does!

This is my child who was barely reading more than the words “cat” and “dog” a year and a half ago and who has devoured books as varied as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, and Tennis Shoes in the past year.

I love seeing how much she loves learning and I love talking to her about the books I loved to read when I was her age!

I used to love reading reference books when I was her age too, and I still do, actually 🙂

birthday books

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