COVID-19: How to Unschool During Isolation

Here we all are (hopefully) busy flattening the curve by staying home for a few months... and keeping our kids home from school, which causes some legitimate concerns for parents who either can't stay home or worry about finances, their children's welfare, or academic success. For some people this is an opportunity to unschool, as evidenced by the handful of people who have already asked me about how to jump onto this path, during isolation. We're all trying to figure out how we can support each other while keeping isolated, so I'm very happy to provide coaching for free during this time (as much as I can manage, time-wise). I'm also happy to provide a supportive ear, if you just need to talk. But here, to get you started, are some basic guidelines that answer the questions people most commonly ask me. This is going to be an interesting time, and if we work through it thoughtfully we may emerge a much more successful civilization than we were when we entered it.

With thanks to my auntie Lidia Patriasz for this poignant piece of art.
What is Unschooling?
"Unschooling is a generic term for a form of homeschooling in which, loosely speaking, education happens without the use of a schedule, curriculum, testing and grades. It's an approach which is used in varying degrees by different families. Unschooling is child-led education, so if the child chooses to go to school, they are still unschooled, as they were not coerced or persuaded to go there, but chose to do so of their own free will. Unschooling is the rejection of an imposed education. Other synonyms are natural or non-coercive learning, auto-didactic, self-learning, free range organic education."

Why Unschool?
Each of us has our own unique set of reasons for unschooling. We went into unschooling for different reasons than we continued it over the years. I can say that for me and my own circumstances (and personal ways of thinking), unschooling was less stressful than homeschooling or schooling. It was like improvising a meal with the ingredients at hand rather than shopping for the ingredients to a specific recipe. It gave me the emotional freedom to do what I and my children thought was right, and to problem-solve along the way, instead of sticking to somebody else's plan that may not always have been right for us. It also gave me and my children the flexibility to identify and solve issues for ourselves, thus becoming more adept at doing so. It makes us stronger, more self-reliant and confident people.

The first thing that happens when we stop going to school is de-schooling. In fact, any children who don't continue with tutoring and summer courses do this every summer, so it's not as alien a concept as it might seem. De-schooling is simply the transition period between schooling and not schooling. It's the time where our minds slowly release themselves from the constraints of one system and begin to sort out the constraints of another. It can be an incredibly difficult time, as we're accustomed to the way things were, and usually uncertain about the way things are becoming. Many unschoolers report a euphoric time of peace and contentment with life after an arduous, tumultuous period of de-schooling.

The difference between school and un-school is all about determination (control) and responsibility. At school, children are set on a path that is largely out of their control. There's a defined set of goals for them to achieve, and a defined set of methods for achieving it. This lack of self-determination drives some kids crazy, but for others it's comforting. For all kids, it can be terrifying to be suddenly handed the reins to their own destiny - every moment and for the long haul. But that's unschooling.

De-schooling will probably take longer than you expect. For some families it takes years. I think the shortest de-schooling periods we've had were those in which I didn't push. I remained patient and expected nothing, and usually just ignored my kids and got busy with my own things. The times when I nagged them to get active or start projects have always been the longest-lasting, most fraught times.

I've gone through periods of de-schooling a few times with my kids, as they tried out school programs and then de-schooled over the breaks, or when they returned to full-time home-based unschooling. It was never easy. But some support and encouragement goes a long way to helping us get through. The best advice I can give other parents on this front is to find an unschooling community (online, during the pandemic) and get involved. Share your experiences and ask all your questions. Listen to others. Unschoolers are here for each other and there are thousands of other parents out there who will understand your trials and offer support.

What to do While De-schooling?
Like everything else about unschooling, that's up to you and your kids! Some people just sit back and do nothing. Let the kids play video games until they're blue in the face. Let them read the same book over and over and over until you think you've lost them. Let them really just do nothing. There's nothing wrong with that; their brains are doing something. They are processing. De-schooling is a process, leading both kids and parents to discover their own boredom. Boredom is like a swear word to so many of us; we're accustomed to filling every spare second of our time with activity. But space of time and mind is needed to embark on a new adventure, and boredom is that space. Silence is a good space too. Let it be.

De-schooling isn't about what you're doing as much as it's about what you're not doing. Make a lot of big bored silent space, just asking to be filled. This will cultivate the desire to do something, later. And unschooling is all about finding and following our hearts' desires.

Wait -- Who Makes the Rules?! What About Safety?
I don't see unschooling as mayhem with the kids ruling the roost. I see it has a contract between all the household members to work for the happiness of everyone. We're all responsible. This means lots of conversation; lots of vulnerability. Total honesty. If I made the food too spicy just because I like it that way, but one of the kids is suffering, then maybe I need to serve the spices separately. If you don't like the way I do your laundry, you can learn to do it yourself. This isn't a punishment; it's a fabulous learning opportunity and a pathway to self-reliance. If you don't want me to show you how to do the laundry, figure it out yourself. If I, as a parent, am hiding in my room because my kid is watching horribly violent movies and it's too much for me, then maybe it's too much for the whole family. My needs matter too. If my kid is hanging off a cliff and it terrifies me, perhaps I need to explain the reasons for my fear. Kids can handle the truth better than they usually navigate a blurry field of unexplained rules.

Safety in our family means lots of talking, and sometimes taking risks that I don't approve of. However frightening it is, I know that my children learn how to be safe from risk-taking, and I have to stand back, cover my eyes, and let it happen. I try to model calculated risk-taking, myself. My hope is that if they follow my lead, the accidents will be fewer and smaller, and so far this has proven to be true. Children learn far more from what we do than from what we tell them.

But Screens!!!
It turns out most kids will eventually grow bored of sitting in front of their screens and find something else to do. And it seems that almost always takes more time than we parents have patience for. It's really hard to watch our kids drowning in activities we see as useless or detrimental. Many of my family's struggles have been related to screen-time, and I almost always lose an argument when trying to convince them to cut back their screen-time. I've laid down the law quite a few times, and this kind of coercion has been detrimental to their own feelings of taking responsibility. The times I've been more successful, I've had more patience. Reminding ourselves that more time is needed, and seeking encouragement from other parents is helpful in this regard.

What to Do; What to Learn
One of the wonderful things about unschooling is the opportunity for kids and parents to learn life skills that otherwise may have gone by the wayside, in lieu of time spent doing homework or extra-curricular activities. Unschooling is about living life to the fullest, and this includes taking care of ourselves, along the way. In doing so we're bound to learn how life works, how our bodies work, how our home and family works, how to live well in community. These are the essentials of life. All the facts and figures learned in school make their way into what we learn from life, but in real and tangible ways. It astounded me that when my son finally went to school in grade seven, he not only understood math at grade level, but understood why it worked. His twelve years of exploring the workings of the world without formal math instruction had fully prepared him to understand the functions and relationships of numbers.

Unschooling is about exploration and experimentation, so what to do is anything that you find engaging!

Maybe you need some inspiration. Here are some things we love to do:
  • Go on family adventures (mostly brief, local, and low-cost, as these usually seem to be the least stressful and most rewarding). 
  • Make some new recipes - experiment in the kitchen! In times of isolation we may have to get creative with fewer ingredients, anyway. Try old recipes with new ingredients or try making things you may have purchased ready-made before.
  • Start reading those books that have been beckoning from the shelf for years. 
  • Sign up and follow one of the many free online courses available from universities around the world. 
  • Learn a new language with Duolingo
  • Wilderness camping or hikes are probably a fairly safe activity for virus-isolated families, as long as you stick to the less-travelled wilderness areas. If nobody else has been there for at least a week, you're probably safe. And bonus: it's a welcome distraction from screens, as well as being one of the best possible activities for health, happiness, and education. 
  • Those fortunate enough to own a vehicle can go on road-trips (as long as you stay in your car through towns and villages; don't go into shops or other populated areas). 
  • If you have access to land, or even a balcony, plant a garden! I once had a three-foot-wide balcony in the city, where I grew beans for shade and privacy, a pumpkin that failed to make fruit, a bunch of lettuce and basil, spinach, and a tiny two-by-two-foot lawn!
Do you hear the excitement in my typing? That's because I'm listing the things I love doing, myself. Even if our kids don't want to be involved, modelling fun, healthy activities is the best possible education we can give them. My kids get up to all kinds of other things like fort-building (both with lumber and with sticks in the forest), geocaching, making videos to share online, performing with their self-taught instruments, and just simply hanging out with friends (online during coronavirus). I'm sure your kids will have their own ideas. Mine frequently surprise me, as they did with this cardboard vending machine which they built and spent two days entertaining our community with! But don't follow my ideas. Your own and your children's will be far more interesting. Obviously, during isolation season, geocaching, busking, cardboard vending machine operation, and any other activity that involves touching things that are also touched by other people, are out of the question. This definitely poses some problems, but sometimes the internet solves these problems. Get creative!

What About Academics?
Our kids will be fine. They learned to crawl and to walk and eventually to speak without formal instruction, and when they're similarly inspired they'll learn to read, write, and calculate. They may not do these things at the times school-going children do, but they'll do it at the time that is right for them. I've known a few unschoolers who didn't take an interest in reading until they were ten or more years old, and within a year or two of developing an interest, they were reading at or beyond what many would call "grade-level".

Of course there's always a chance that kids will struggle with academics at some point, but in my experience it's no more likely for unschoolers than for kids who've spent a lifetime in the school system. In fact, unschooling often gives struggling kids a chance to succeed on their own terms, while not being compared to classmates. Just don't worry. Children sense their parents' fears and then they battle those fears too. The best thing you can do to support your children is support yourself, so that your fears don't become theirs.

Some kids just love structure. All of us can benefit from it in some ways. I have no problem with structure, but I've usually tried to let my kids define it for themselves. My daughter seemed to be born passionate about planning, and has often had schedules and other plans for herself, even when I wasn't so organized. She had lists in books before she could write (only she knew what they said, but they were very important to her). My son didn't find planning very important at all until he decided to quickly earn his graduation diploma, and suddenly found himself scheduling all his time down to the minute, as he raced to finish an impossible-seeming number of courses he wasn't quite prepared for. He made it by some miracle, and now has an appreciation and aptitude for planning.

So let them create the structure they need, and create your own. In our family, it's me who generally has a master plan, and my challenge is to learn to adapt when it doesn't suit the needs of others.

Loneliness and Support
Skype charades
Lastly, and most importantly, build a support network. Social interaction really can be difficult for families staying at home without a wider community. We struggled quite a bit with this during times when there were few other homeschoolers, and all our children's friends were busy with school and extra-curriculars. We had some lonely times, which were always the reasons my kids tried out school programs. During this pandemic, isolation will be an even greater challenge, despite our great efforts to achieve it. We'll have to find ways to connect, and the Internet is likely to be our best friend. Skype, Zoom, and other visual platforms can be great for kids. When they were much younger, mine had a few Skype visits with their friends who were living aboard a sailboat. It was amazing to me to watch them have costume parties, make crafts, play music jams, and sword-fight each other over Skype.

I personally prefer my old-fashioned phone, and am happy to make myself a cup of tea, snuggle in with my rotary, and have a long-distance tea-date with a friend. I get my parent-support by participating in online unschooling forums. Facebook has quite a few, often linked with other homeschooling groups, and also often local.
I wish you well in your unschooling and life explorations. It's an adventurous path to take, and I've never regretted our personal journey. I hope yours is fabulous! I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite radio shows: Stay calm, be brave; wait for the signs!


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Why Art is Essential for Learning

Have you ever seen Saturn's rings? I mean in person? I have. Once when my science-obsessed son was passionate about astronomy (and the technology for studying it!), we went out to share the moment of Saturn's proximity to the earth with some other enthusiasts and an enormous telescope. It took what felt like far too long to set that telescope up - over an hour, as I recall - as I stood with my young kids in the freezing winter field, assuring them over and over again that that one particular bright point of light we could see was, in fact, Saturn. I knew it was. My research on the Internet and some of the other people gathered that night had confirmed it. And I had faith in science to be right. I knew this was an exciting event because everybody told me so. But it was also cold, frustrating, and as the time dragged on, and the thing they said was Saturn kept marching across the sky, ever out of the continually readjusted telescope, I was losing my faith. 

Finally the telescope was properly set up, and we awaited our turns to look. By the time my turn arrived, Saturn had drifted out of view again and the telescope had to be adjusted. Again. Then I looked. It was like someone was showing me a cartoon. There was Saturn with it's rings (I could even see the dark gap between them), and three of its moons clearly visible. I struggled to link the tiny white image I was seeing, which looked so rudimentary, with the immaculate photos and renderings I'd seen in colour in movies and books, and with reality. I looked from the eyepiece of the telescope back up to the point of light in the sky. I looked along the length of the telescope and confirmed that it was, in fact, pointed at that same point of light, and that by all reason I was truly seeing the same point, magnified by a series of lenses. I gazed into the eyepiece, and after a few moments realized that I could see the three-dimensionality of it. I could see a slight shadow from the planet on its own rings. the little logo-like image drifted to the edge of my view again, and I realized that, not only was I looking at a real planet dancing unfathomably far away from our own, but also that our own was slowly turning away in its own different but intrinsically connected part of the dance of our solar system.

I would have said Mind. Blown. But that wasn't a thing yet back then, or my kids weren't old enough to have taught it to me. My previously-limited mind opened in that freezing cold moment, and the solar system became interesting to me. Gravity became interesting to me. Telescopes and people who use them became interesting to me. So much that I had never even wondered about who we are as humans in this beyond-huge infinity of the universe began to preoccupy my thoughts, until I found I looked at earth, and humanity, and my children, and me, differently than I had, before.

Then we all began to freeze in earnest, and we went home to our fires.

Art is like that telescope, that night. It's what brings us to the world and helps us understand it. Art is about learning to see. So often this basic truth goes unnoticed as we imagine that art is for artists; that art is a frivolous pass-time, or that art should take a backseat to more essential activities like learning to read, solving equations, and developing the ability to recite stories from human history. Many of us have heard, by now, that music enhances math education, and that children who learn through music and dance retain information better than those who only learn through verbal instruction. But how often do schools offer visual art as an essential learning tool for all students? We all suffer the consequences of blindness as a result of not learning to see. 

As someone who sees breakthroughs of discovery and understanding on a regular basis when I teach art, I want to take some space to explain, a little. The examples I'm going to talk about aren't the end of the equation; there are so many ways we can learn to see. These are just a few of an infinite variety of ways that our species opens our minds through visual art. I believe very strongly that gaining visual and creative literacy is an essential part of learning and retaining all that information that our culture values so deeply.

Line Drawing
Fundamentally, line-drawing requires a mental translation from an understood three-dimensional concept to a two-dimensional surface. We know what we know more than we are conscious of what we see. Line drawing requires and promotes development of conscious observation. Have you ever seen a child draw a picture of a house with all four sides visible, as if the four walls were unfolded onto the plane? We can't see the back of the house, but the child knows it's there, so draws it. Similarly, they often draw the sky as a blue line, because they understand the concept of there being a sky above, but they don't conceptualize the idea that it's unending, and therefore, in a line-drawing, invisible. All of these things require observation to discover, and training and practice of observation and line-drawing promotes this discovery.

There are so many ways to translate observation into line, from the rather mathematical calculation of perspective to the deep inquiry needed to document tiny things we might otherwise not examine (like the texture of a leaf), to the intuitive, emotional research needed for blind contour drawing of people we know. All of these things allow us to look and see in new ways, and then we take these new ways of seeing into other activities. Learning to draw a street with linear perspective, for example, not only helps us understand observation, relative size, and laws of physics, but also helps us understand the vastness of our world, and opens our eyes to see more consciously when we're out in the world. So in the end it gives us a deeper understanding of everything.

Technical and Psychological Colour Theory
My daughter still talks about the time she learned from her very clever friend at preschool that mixing red and white would make pink. So she tried it, but used red and yellow... and it turned out orange! She was painting a sculpture of broccoli, and decided that while pink would have been an acceptable colour for her broccoli, orange was definitely not. She was three at the time, and at fifteen this memory still comes back to her at regular intervals, because it had a huge impact on her. Not only did she make some discoveries about colour-mixing (technical colour theory), but she also discovered something about which colours jive with the concept of broccoli in her mind (psychological colour theory).

Tie-dyeing is a great experimental colour theory activity.
We are influenced by colour every second of our lives, from the clothing we choose, to the hues emitted by our light bulbs, to the design and advertising of commercial entities. We can grow up blind to this, or we can learn to recognize how we respond to colour and, using this knowledge, make wiser choices. For example, turning on the night screen mode of your devices can have a noticeable impact on your mental and physical health, since the blue light emitted by our screens changes our brain chemistry, affecting our sleep and various body systems. I also just recently discovered that blue light actually triggers our retinas to kill off photoreceptor cells, eventually leading to macular degeneration. Literally, blindness. Light really does have a physical effect on our bodies, and colour is light. Having an understanding of not only how we are affected by colour, but how we can manage it, mix it, and use it in our worlds gives us agency in our own lives and health.

An understanding of colour can open our eyes to the rest of the world, as well. If we start noticing colour in all its capacities in our lives, we notice things we didn't before. As with all of these visual discoveries, we learn to see, consciously.

Three-Dimensional Form
How often do you look at the wall of your house and wonder how it was put together? All the layers, all the varied materials and their unique functions -- do you wonder what kind of insulation is in there, and why? Do you look at a couch or an upholstered chair and wonder what's under the fabric? Do you flip through a hardcover book and then peek down inside the spine to see how it's constructed? I teach bookmaking because it opens our minds to three-dimensional form and material use. Building a hand-bound hardcover book requires a slightly complex series of construction steps, including folding and tearing or cutting pages, sewing them together, creating a sturdy, flexible spine for them with starched cheesecloth and glue, then building a hard cover out of board and paper or fabric, then embellishments, then attaching the book to its cover with perfectly-fitted endpapers. And then suddenly there you are holding a real, honest-to-goodness book, and understanding not only what all the parts are, but why they're there.

Our world is full of constructed objects, and understanding how and why things are built the way they are allows us to see everything more deeply, and also gives us the insight needed to repair and build things, ourselves. Learning how to knit a sweater, construct a pie or a complex cake, fix a bike or cobble a fix on a broken backpack are all essential in the same way: Instead of replacing broken goods, we can repair them; instead of relying on others to provide for us, we can be self-reliant. Understanding how things are made gives us confidence and courage to take charge of our own lives.

I can't write about learning without mentioning how important it is that experimentation is a part of the process. Remember that orange broccoli? My daughter's experimentation in grabbing yellow instead of white, and the consequential discovery that different parts make a different whole, is probably the reason she remembers the incident at all. When somebody tells us something, we may take it or leave it, but there's not much emotional pay-off in just following instructions. There's a huge emotional pay-off in discovering something ourselves!

The other day I took my son's snowboard in to a local ski and board shop, hoping to replace a lost toe ramp. Apparently the bindings are an older model, and the toe ramp is not something we can just order and replace. And no way on earth can I afford new bindings. So this amazing person at North Shore Ski and Board examined the remaining toe ramp on the other binding, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with some handfuls of padding, boot inserts, and double-sided tape paper. He gleefully experimented for a few minutes with different materials and placements, until he came up with a solution that most closely matched the other toe ramp. Then he started measuring, cutting and gluing, and in less than an hour, total, he had repaired my son's snowboard. He charged me for the parts and time, which was far less than any binding replacement part would have cost, if I had been able to buy one. And then he posted about his awesome customer service on social media, and showed off his handiwork to his boss. His pride was glorious for me to witness.

Like Icarus' experiment, this one didn't go as expected, either. He learned many things, that day!
Art leads to experimentation, and humans need to experiment. It's how we learn and evolve. Trying new things, failing, and trying again is how we learn to keep trying; how we develop resilience and courage and grit. All of the important skills that art gives us are made more accessible through experimentation. It's not enough to teach someone how to draw a street scene with accurate perspective; we need to allow children to make perspective drawing part of their personal experimentation, without criticism, direction, or correction, so that they make discoveries and carry that learning on into the next things they play. We need to give them time and space to make a big mess; to scratch up clay from the creek and see if they can build something of it; to take apart their toys because what's inside is more interesting than what's outside. We need to give them resources and time and encouragement, and then stand back and just allow them to experiment. That is how they will grow up to see the world around them as a great big fascinating opportunity for growth. That is how our children will grow.


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