How to Unschool Kids of Diverse Ages at the Same Time

It was a bit of a frazzled day, but I was killing it on the home-school Mom front. I had my kids' two best friends arriving at any second, the floor vacuumed, banana-orange-strawberry smoothies made, and I was just pulling muffins out of the oven. At the table behind me, my kids were nearly silent. My five-year-old sat working on his kindergarten journal while his two-year-old sister was colouring. She called this activity "work" and I thought it was adorable. I lovingly placed the muffins in a napkin-lined basket and turned to bring it to the table. The first thing I saw was the horror in my son's eyes and his slightly open mouth. "Did you see what Annie did?" he asked, blinking. "She wuined my jouynal." 

My two year old looked at me with a gaping mouth, eyes wide and fingers splayed on hands poised in mid-air, dripping with some white substance that might have been milk, glue, or a combination of the two, and which was also in her hair, on her brother's journal, in the jar of markers, and, I then noticed, dripping onto the floor. The dog was cleaning it up. There were sticky notes, stamps and organic oat O's laying in the goop in front of her. She said matter-of-factly, "my seeyoh fell oveh when I was makin' a clauge", as if somehow the frank explanation took away the disaster I now had to contend with. She was making a collage. Just like her brother had done, recently. And why not?!

I wanted to cry, to run away, to scream at my little girl and her gigantic mess, but, as usual, I bottled it up, instead. With tight lips I snapped at her to sit still and not move while I set the muffins back in the kitchen. I then picked her up and carried her to the kitchen sink, washed her hands, wiped the milk off her pants with a dish cloth, and banished her to wait by the door for her friends to arrive. I frantically cleaned the mess up, while glancing out the window at the driveway, and at my son, who stood looking stunned against the wall, tears beginning to well in his eyes. With a trembling voice he repeated, "She wuined my jouynal."

"You're fine," I said. "Your journal will dry."

Fifteen minutes later, muffins and smoothies were on the table, four kids sat making a much more predictable mess at the table, and my two were recovered. The journal sat drying by the fire, my kids were indeed fine. But I was not. 

I felt defeated. Why had I not cleaned up her breakfast cereal before getting the art supplies out? Why had I put glue in the art supply box anyway?! Why was I failing so hard at homeschooling my kid, who hated his part-time school and all the required home-learning that came with it, and the journal, reading reports, and that dreaded "alphabet rap"?! I lived in constant fear of rebuke from his teachers or other parents, despite the fact such rebukes rarely happened. I knew every other parent of young kids in distributed learning programs (and many in mainstream school) faced the same fears and challenges, but everybody else seemed to accomplish more than we did.

My kids are sixteen and nearly nineteen, now. They both live at home, are fully unschooling without regard for age-based expectations, are happy and fulfilled, and... amazingly, they really are fine. We got here by bucking the system, because it didn't work for us. 

At the end of the year in which the milk-and-glue-collage happened, we pulled my son out of school and did his first grade as a distributed learning family, unschooling all the way. I found a program where we only had to report once every term, and I filled the reports out according to what he had done, instead of tailoring his activities to the school's expectations. It was the first time he was truly happy with his education. My daughter attended two years of Reggio Emilia preschool taught by her grandmother, and then slipped easily into the comfy self-directed life that her brother was living, at home. With nobody holding us to the Ministry of Education's age-based expectations (then called 'prescribed learning outcomes'), we were free to live and learn in peace. And that is where we all learned the best.

I've been consulting with new unschooling parents for a while now, and one of the things people ask me most often is how to unschool kids of diverse ages at the same time. We want to nurture each kid's individual passion; feed their learning; support their projects. I have some activity suggestions for diverse ages to share with you, but first we need to address the elephant in the unschooling room: You don't need to babysit your kid's learning. Not only does it take up time you could otherwise use to engage with other kids, but it's detrimental to learning.

Stop Hovering
Maybe you don't think you're doing that. I would have denied it if someone had asked me, when my kids were young. But to this day I find myself stressing over whether my kids are achieving 'enough' (whatever that means), and quietly (or loudly) pressuring them to keep at whatever projects they're working on; to finish the projects they've given up on, or to amp those projects in some way. I offer to help them; I offer my advice. My advice comes across as criticism. 

My feeling of wanting to encourage my kids--to get involved and interested in their projects--is deeply linked with my love and pride for my kids, so it doesn't feel like a bad thing to me. But our kids don't actually need that kind of involvement. At best, it's hovering, taking the joy of independence away from our kids, but at worst (and commonly) it implies that our kids' work is never good enough, that there's always something I can do better; that they are never good enough. It takes the fun out of learning, and is hugely destructive to our kids' confidence. I'm not speaking from a throne, here. I've seen the damage my hovering has done to my own kids, and am still trying to repair it. 

My daughter learned to hide her work from me--to never show me the stories she wrote, until one day she told me she had sent a story I'd never heard about to a publisher! I didn't learn to step back from her work; she forced me. I'm currently reading her second novel as an editor. I didn't earn that position by constantly editing her early work, though. I earned it by ignoring her early work, until she finally came to ask for my input. She gained the courage to do so by honing her confidence and independence, without me. And now I'm very, very careful about how I give advice.

Unschooling really, really does mean allowing your kids to lead. Even when it's terrifying. Even when they actually fail. Everybody fails! That's how we learn. It's our job, as parents, to allow them to fail, to allow ourselves to fail, and to demonstrate healthy recovery. 

And within that, we can play. Here are some of my family's favourite all-ages activities. The important thing to remember with every single one of these is that there is no predictable learning outcome. We can't know what we or the kids will learn, but we will learn. And decades later we'll be glad for it. 

So have fun! And remember: The moment you catch yourself leading, stop. The moment you find yourself designing the project, directing the play, or polishing things to make them pretty, 'better' or instagrammable, just stop. Get back to being your kids' friend. When they're teens, and they're still your friends, you'll be glad you did!

Cardboard Construction
Get giant cardboard boxes from your local recycling centre, appliance seller, or even by request on your local buy/sell/trade group and go to town! Or make a town.

Materials: Your basic tools are a serrated bread-knife for cutting the boxes (much safer and easier to use than an exacto or box-cutter), a screwdriver for punching holes in the cardboard, and some cheap string or wrapping ribbon to sew up the sides of the boxes. Packing tape comes in handy for certain applications, but sewing is more fun (my kids disagree with me) and more durable. Oh, and paint. You're going to want to paint this thing, repeatedly. Cheap acrylics are the best--but cover the floor before you do it!

My family had a cardboard construction that took up about a third of our living room from the time my youngest was a few months old until she was about six. It had multiple rooms, and was changed, added to and repainted repeatedly to provide an ever-changing complex of wonderful play-spaces. We had everything from a rocket-ship to a restaurant and kitchen, an office, a retail outlet, an orphanage, a theatre with backstage and a bat who lived in the 'attic'. Which was sometimes the clock-tower. Or the pantry. Or fuselage. Or sail. Depended on the day. 

We were enrolled in a distributed learning program at the time, so I was tasked with finding the 'learning' in our activities. From the ongoing process of this cardboard construction, my kids learned everything from measurement, geometry, material and function to creative and technical writing, infant development, cooking, drama and costume design. And democracy, via the constant debating about what changes would and could happen next. And a million other things. Maybe sewing cardboard gave my son his interest in physics and engineering; maybe serving her babies in various settings gave my daughter her deep interest in child rearing and education. Maybe the cardboard construction was the way they developed those interests that came naturally to them. It doesn't matter. I highly recommend cardboard construction.

My daughter first learned to pull herself to stand in order to use her cardboard kitchen. And as a teenager she and her brother made a cardboard vending machine which they brought into our community for social experimentation (and fun!) Cardboard construction is cheap (or free), and the benefits are endless.

*Easy alternative: Blanket forts (using any and everything you find in the house!), or outdoor forts using scrap lumber or found objects in the wild. Go for it!

Outdoor Exploration
Just go outside and explore. Play. Wherever you are, whether urban, rural, or the most isolated wilderness, there is always something to discover, and a space for creative exploration.

Materials: Appropriate clothing for every member of the family! Where I live, on the wet west coast, this means rain gear for cooler seasons: Tall waterproof boots with tough rip-stop rain pants and a fully waterproof jacket. Warm hat, socks and lining for winter, and sun hat and waterproof closed-toe sandals for summer. And sunscreen. Maybe where you live, warmer gear is required. Just make sure that you have some too, because the parent who crawls through the mud and fords the stream with the kids is part of the game. And because once you're comfortable, everything is more fun.

Outdoor exploration was a way of life for my family. I took my kids and countless groups of other children and parents out gallivanting in the wilderness a few times every week. My go-to solution for cranky kids and sibling squabbles was rain gear and a march into the woods. But in recent years my declining health has made most outdoor excursions impossible for me. My kids are pretty much adults now, and I've been amazed to discover that they tend to go out for a hike, run, or bike ride almost every day. When they were younger, and I couldn't get into the woods with them, I took us to somewhere I could manage: maybe a parking lot where they could get out and play while I sat in the car; maybe just the garden bed outside our front door. It's still outside, and there is always plenty to discover.

For the most success and joy, do not go out with a plan. Just go. And see what happens! It's really difficult to come up with a plan that successfully engages and challenges kids of diverse ages (and parents), but given freedom to explore, each will discover their own interests, and age-appropriate play and learning will happen.

The things we learn from being outside are, quite literally, everything. Outside is where the rest of the world is. If you notice the weeds in the front steps, you're taking an interest in botany. If you notice your neighbours arguing about their home renovation, you're learning about diplomacy, relationships, and maybe even residential design and construction. Maybe you learn about weather systems, dog training and anatomy, and for sure, as long as you're moving, you're learning about your own health and physiology, and what can be more important than that?

Obviously, where there's an uncurated smorgasbord of 'the whole world', there's danger. What specific dangers you might encounter depend where you are in the outdoors. From traffic, to sharp edges, to rushing water, or even other people, we can't escape these things in life, so it's good to just ride the wave of discovery with our kids, not hide the dangers, but be there to help navigate them when they happen. And if you're going very far out into the wilderness, have a basic first aid kit with you.

The Library
The bigger the library the better, but any size will do. How often have you seen a parent lounging around with a baby, some snacks, and a stroller while the older siblings explore (and/or ransack) a different section of the library? Libraries are not only intended for all ages, but you may find delights in unexpected places.

Materials: your own curiosity!

I think the benefits of libraries are pretty obvious. However, since I have often found myself subtly directing my kids' choices, taking them to sections I think they'll like, or offering them books, I think the elephant in the room deserves another mention, here. It's absolutely true that if I don't share this awesome space-travel book with my son, he might never see it. I'm just engaging in his curiosity! But... maybe if I do share it, he'll come to believe that's the thing he 'should' be reading, instead of that superhero comic book that I loathe. Oh wait... that's a judgment he doesn't need on his shoulders! My son has learned to self-criticize and to look to me for approval, and it's exactly because of minor things like my suggesting books to him, with the implied judgment that the book he chose himself is inferior. What happens if we just let our kids be? What happens if they read comics so much they actually become comic illustrators, or marry some kid they met at a comic-con? Well... I'd rather they did that with confidence and with my blessing, than that they were still seeking my approval, as adults, feeling ashamed of their choices or, even worse, not choosing the life they really want to lead. 

Maybe my nine-year-old daughter sits in the corner of the toddler section, leafing through books as she surreptitiously eavesdrops on the conversations of mothers with their young children. It looks to me like she's pretending to read books that are too young for her. Actually she's researching for the book she's going to write. Our kids' minds are always alive.

The Internet (gulp)
Far be it for me to suggest more screen time, but... if we're going to use screens (and most of us do), let's use them well. Together.

Materials: A good-sized screen (not a phone or a tablet), internet access, and lots of time to spend with your kids.

The Internet is a bit like 'the outdoors' I mentioned, earlier. It's where you find the whole world. Like the outdoors, there are dangers, there. So go with your kids! React reasonably. I set all our search engines to 'safe search', not even because I was protecting my kids but because porn upsets me and I don't want to encounter it. I explained that to my kids, and they understand. I set my boundaries. It turns out, now that they're adults, they have the same boundaries, and they now know how to protect those boundaries, using good internet hygiene. When we demonstrate healthy internet use ourselves, our kids are more likely than not to follow suit--especially if we don't nag them about it. They like to feel they are capable, without our nagging. They just need time and experience to get there.

Once you've got your boundaries set, get out exploring and have fun! One of the best things we've done as a family is exploring Google Maps. Honestly, it's endless. We've learned so much about the world I can hardly begin to tell you. Just try it out, if you're not already obsessed. And beyond that there are countless resources for fascinating exploration, from virtual museums, to interactive music or animated engines, to YouTube, where we've learned everything from how to farm to how to make wedding cakes to how to raise our puppy. Now we even have our own YouTube series: How to explore outdoors. Ha. Literally--the whole (online) world.

Cooking and Baking
As I'm writing this article, my daughter just brought me a mincemeat roll fresh from the oven. We invented this together, a few weeks ago. Need I say more?

Materials: However you cook for yourself. It doesn't matter if you have wild-caught food, a creek and a campfire, or the most well-equipped high-end kitchen in the world--your kids watch you make their meals, and they can join if they want to.

One of the proudest moments of my kids' early childhood was the Mother's Day morning when they got me out of bed and presented me with the very special dish they had invented for me: One thin square rice cake with two mini-marshmallows on top, which they had carefully poked dozens of times, until they became a little squished-looking. Again. Seriously. The delight!! Need I say more?!

OK, fine. Just in keeping with some of the other examples, I will say more, but I'm not going to describe how things fit into learning outcomes anymore because frankly I think that takes away from the actual experience of learning. My kids have learned to cook or bake the things that mattered to them. They don't have the option of just heating instant foods, because we rarely have those in the house. So when they're hungry, they figure something out. When they're inspired, they figure something extravagant out. Both I and they have had some epic disasters (OK, mostly I have the epic disasters because I'm incapable of following a recipe)... but we learn from these experiences. A few times a year we have big cooking projects where everyone gets involved: gingerbread constructions from scratch and perogy-making day are some of our traditions, and soon we plan to make ourselves a Valentines high tea. I have no clue what my kids and partner will contribute to this event, but it's going to be an adventure!

Sometimes people say that providing food is the most important job a parent has. I would say it's good to raise kids who are confident to make their own. And that requires a lot of experimenting.

Growing Food
Whether you have a few little herb pots on your windowsill, a hydroponic fish farm in your basement, or an all-out, rooster-crowing-cow-mooing-eco-farm in your back forty, there is little more empowering than eating what you grew with your own hands. Babies might look like they're just eating dirt, when actually they're diversifying their own microbiome, discovering new flavours and textures, and observing their older siblings make totally different discoveries.

Materials: Obviously, this varies with how much space you have to worth with, how much money you want to spend, and how much of what kinds of food you plan to grow.

I feel really inspired by dirt and chickens and getting down and dirty in the yard. Maybe you don't! That's OK. I know people who grow all their salad greens without any dirt at all in a series of plastic tubes in their living room. It was a relatively inexpensive (when you compare with what they would otherwise have spent buying all the greens it produced from a grocery store) maker project for the family. They got healthy food to eat, and they felt they provided for themselves. I once grew beans and pumpkins from 2-gallon pots on my tiny apartment balcony, leaving only enough space for two chairs and a four-square-foot shallow planter box full of (what else?!) lawn for my cats to roll on! 

For some people, gardening carries a lot of anxiety with it. Maybe because failure can be so devastating, and gardening usually comes with quite a lot of failure. But you know what? Failure is something we have to learn to do. And instead of giving up and labeling ourselves "black thumb", as I have done in the past, we have to carry on. If our dinner depended on the survival of our plants, we'd have far more success. Giving up is only an option for those of great privilege, and we are poorer for not learning to persevere.

Food gardening and farming takes perseverance. It also takes hard work, and a lot of trial and error. And through all those experiences, it gives us a deep knowledge of not only plant life, but also nutrition, biodiversity, human physiology, and often also chemistry. It gives us, most importantly, an opportunity to provide for ourselves--to feel independent and experienced and engaged with our own health.


Each of these activities will be different not only for every age but for every individual who participates. We can't know what we, our teen or our two-year-old will get out of each experience, but we'll get something out of it, for sure. It's up to us, as parents, to step back and ensure that the experience is owned by our kids, as it is for us. There's always going to be some amount of wrangling and damage control, especially where babies and toddlers are concerned, but that's part of the picture. Older siblings will learn from being a part of that, too.

Besides unconditional love, food and shelter, the biggest gift we can give our kids is freedom to be themselves.


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