Can I Do Unschooling and Still Use Curriculum?

unschooling in australia

There is a misconception that unschooling is the only way you’ll let your children learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it. Is that true? Well it depends how you define unschooling. So many of us have found that when you homeschool you can combine a rich atmosphere of learning where kids can be free to explore their interests and, contrary to what some say, it doesn’t matter if you use curriculum as well. In fact a good education is often a stepping stone to children finding access to the next level of their dream.

Unschooling  and Homeschooling Used To Be Synonymous

When I first looked into unschooling in 1997 John Holt was the unschooling guru. He was a American teacher who discovered that children could learn as they followed their interests. He said, “children who were provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment would learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it”.

Raymond Moore, another alternative educator and friend of Holts’, began sharing his research on education without schooling and his phrase homeschooling gained momentum. From the 1970s  unschooling or homeschooling meant the same thing, your child learnt away from school and within the family setting. In some countries, like India, unschooling is still the more commonly used term for home education.

A Little History Of Unschooling

Let me share my story of the evolution of unschooling and how the terms have changed over the years.

We had made the choice to homeschool in 1997 after reading Raymond Moore’s book on delaying formal education but I didn’t meet a real life homeschooling parent until 2000. She had been unschooling for about five years. Her parenting style was completely different to mine but we became friends and she invited me to the local homeschool group in my area and I was keen to go.

Homeschooling in Australia was pretty unknown then and our group was fairly small. We were a mixed bunch of educational philosophies and parenting styles. We met together for many years on a semi regular basis and as the kids talked and played we all shared how we homeschooled. Most of us used some sort of curriculum but many still referred to themselves as unschoolers or natural learners because they used less homeschool resources.

As my homeschool friend circle grew it was obvious that home education was more than just an educational philosophy, it was also a whole life philosophy for many parents and their homeschool style often reflected their parenting style as well. But there was a common thread amongst us all – we all wanted to do what was best for our children, even if we had different approaches.

Redefining Unschooling To Mean Natural Learning

Around 2005, due to some bad press on unschooling and a few tragic events in our local homeschooling community, we saw a distinction being made between radical unschooling, unschooling and natural learning. This led to some confusion on what unschooling really was and many parents who had been happy mixing curriculum and natural learning were unsure on how to  home educate because radical unschooling ideas where being taught to homeschoolers without people fully understanding the method.

Where I lived, things began to change in the homeschool landscape as the radical unschoolers wanted to separate themselves from people discussing curriculum, so they ‘banned curriculum talk’ and started separate groups. For them, unschooling emphasised the importance of following a ‘no limits’ parenting philosophy. Sue White has written a great article called Unschooling is Not Unparenting discussing some of fallacies in unschooling.

Many home educators wanted the best of both worlds – some structured and unstructured learning, they called the unstructured learning part of their day natural learning. I fell into that category.

Natural Learning and Academics

When my children where young, we didn’t spend a lot of time doing formal academics. The mornings included a couple of hours of lessons and the afternoons were lesson free. We had a 3 – 4 day academic week and long weekends. If we needed a day off we took it.

In the early years, I would set up an activity or we would go out on excursions but quite often it was just free play.  My children would: impersonate super heroes, have mock battles, film home movies, play drawing and writing games, cover the floor with blocks, toy animals and blanket forts.

Creative mess making was their specialty.

There was minimal TV (in fact we didn’t have one at all in the early years) and electronic entertainment was restricted to 1 hour a day but as they got older the computer was also used for photo editing, movie making, website creation, math games, and writing on their blogs.

They were exploring their interests and my input was minimal. I was “doing nothing with the kids” in the afternoons but my children were learning and enjoying their freedom. However, I often asked other home educators how many hours do you homeschool?

I distinctly remember one winter’s day a friend and I were sitting at the beach on a weekday watching our homeschool children play fully clothed in the surf and we said to each other,  “I hope this is really OK. I hope homeschooling works out.” We still laugh about that day because our fears never came to fruition. Homeschooling worked out!

Her children and mine have all graduated from homeschooling now and they are all have interesting careers; 4 of the 9 children are entrepreneurs with their own successful businesses – grown out of their own self-taught interests. 8 of them went to university at 16. They have all followed their dreams in many ways.

Our Days of Curriculum and Natural Learning

Our typical homeschool day included short lessons and academics in the morning, all these kids spent their afternoons with free time. They taught themselves how to do stuff and we resourced that when we could. One child worked on his Lego movies most afternoons (he now works as a digital 3D artist for the company who made the original Lego movie – he has a Master’s Degree in 3D Digital Art), another spent afternoons at the mirror playing with her hair and creating hairstyles for her friends(she now has her own wedding hairstyle business and is completing a business degree).  Curriculum did not limit them – it helped them to get where they wanted to be.

Charlotte Mason and Unschooling

At My Homeschool we draw our inspiration from the ideas of Charlotte Mason. Here is her version of natural learning.

Charlotte Mason set aside morning times for academics. Creativity was encouraged and not crushed. Academics allowed freedom of expression as children presented work in their own way. Narrations, nature study, notebooking were all meant to be done as the child desired and not as the parent teacher would have it done. She wanted children to show initiative and not be stifled by well-meaning adults who had a better way. Suggestions could be offered but not insisted upon.

The afternoons were for natural learning. The children were trusted to “do their own duty or to seek their own pleasure.” Charlotte counselled mothers to show good humour, or to happily allow children to pursue their non-schooly activities. Helicopter parenting – as we call it today – was discouraged; mothers were asked not to display “nervousness” or be “too engrossed with their children” because she believed this would result in children becoming anxious. Play was important and parents were encouraged not to crowd out their children’s time with work or structured activities. Charlotte Mason said, “organised games were not play”.

My Homeschool and Natural Learning

When developing My Homeschool we saw the importance of free time so we have tried not to overload you with academics. Our homeschool curriculum packages are written with a flexible 4 day week timetable and in primary some complete the weekly lessons in 3 days. You can also skip content if desired – we aren’t the Charlotte Mason police. You are still in control of the timetable. We are here to help you not enslave you.

We make sure you cover the building blocks required for registration by offering an integrated program where our resources simultaneously cover content making our program very efficient.

We’ve given your child a rich stimulating curriculum that still leaves space for your child to explore their own interest. Our curriculum will give you that perfect mix where you can feel confident the main building blocks are in place for a robust academic education but your child can also pursue their own interest in their free time.

“If mothers could learn to do for themselves what they do for their children…we should have happier households. Let the mother go out to play! If she would only have courage to let everything go when life becomes too tense, and just take a day, or half a day, out in the fields, or with a favourite book, or in a picture gallery looking long and well at just two or three pictures, or in bed, without the children, life would go on far more happily for both children and parents. The mother would be able to hold herself in ‘wise passiveness,’ and would not fret her children by continual interference…she would let them be.

Charlotte Mason

School Education, p.33-34

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