How We Unschool

“Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves … While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.” (source: Wikipedia)

The Core Principles of Unschooling in Our Family

Some of our methods may be readjusted when our children get older and will require more advanced instruction, but while they are young (all three of them are under the age of seven), this is how we’re currently doing it:

General Principles

  • Aside from an occasional class or a package of several classes, all of our children’s learning is unstructured, spontaneous, self-initiated, and self-directed.
  • Since our children spend all their time together, the younger siblings have a chance to participate and learn together with the older siblings.
  • Our children are free to request as much adult assistance as needed; otherwise we provide only minimal supervision and usually don’t get involved in their learning process except for occasional help and gentle encouragement.

Gatto’s Principles

Many of our unschooling principles are inspired by John Taylor Gatto’s 14 educational principles of the elite private school curriculum. Here are some of the principles he described and how they apply to our unschooling:

Gatto: Skill in the active literacies such as writing or public speaking
How we implement it with our children:

  • Encourage them to tell us their dreams, fairy tales, or stories from their daily lives. Listen carefully and ask questions to show interest and to support their confidence.
  • Encourage them to speak up, to state their opinion and to be prepared to explain and defend that opinion if asked. This helps develop argumentation skills.
  • If they see older children or adults doing interesting things or playing fun games, encourage our children to come closer, strike up conversations, and ask questions. This helps develop social skills and mastery in conversation.
  • Have paper, notepads, and note-making apps readily available for them to practice writing whenever they feel inspired.

Gatto: Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education)
How we implement it with our children:

  • Talk to them about politics.
  • Explain the structure and function of the public school system and of government bodies.
  • Teach them the main principles of the Constitution and the citizens’ rights and responsibilities. The “Gran’pa Jack” comic booklets are an entertaining and educational reading material which explains complex political and social issues in easily understood terms.

Gatto: Good manners and politeness
How we implement it with our children:

  • Teach them to always say “thank you” and to remember the good things people do for them. Gratitude is one of the most important things that we encourage in our children.
  • Teach them good manners such as saying “please”, waiting their turn, refraining from talking back, and solving disputes without the use of physical force.
  • Teach them regret and compassion by urging them to apologize whenever they do something wrong and by asking them to comfort a sibling who is crying or hurt.

Gatto: Energetic physical sports are required means of learning grace and handling pain
How we implement it with our children:

  • Encourage them to exercise and stretch every morning to develop their muscles and posture and to reduce injuries.
  • Prefer going to playgrounds rather than hiking in the woods, so that our children can use the playground equipment to practice climbing and other strength exercises such as the monkey bars or pull-ups.
  • Arrange for regular and continuous martial arts instruction as a means of providing our children with effective self-defense coaching and with regular rigorous exercise to improve their endurance, coordination, and pain tolerance. Martial arts is the one and only structured class our children currently attend. We’ve chosen Brazilian jiu-jitsu over other martial arts because it has the lowest entry barrier for young children. Jiu jitsu mostly involves grappling which we believe is easy to master for small kids who naturally like to roll on the ground. Also, it doesn’t require as much strength and coordination as needed for the stand-up martial arts such as karate or boxing.

Gatto: Access to any place and any person
How we implement it with our children:

  • Encourage them to practice networking and making connections. In the park, encourage them to go on their own and to initiate contact with other kids or adults if they want to play with someone, to join in the game, to participate in an interesting activity, or to borrow a toy.
  • Connect our children with a variety of experts, mostly among our family or friends.
  • At every opportunity, bring our children to meetings with our clients or to any other workplace setting where our children can meet interesting people and observe their work.

Gatto: Responsibility
How we implement it with our children:

  • Insist that they take on housework responsibilities such as cleaning up toys, making beds, setting the table, or taking care of younger siblings. As they get older, the range of their responsibilities will expand.

Gatto: Code of moral standards
How we implement it with our children:

  • Raise them in the Jewish faith and values and give them a strong sense of their Jewish identity.
  • Practice some religious observance such as keeping some laws of kashrut (Jewish religious dietary laws), lighting Shabbat candles, and observing some Jewish holiday customs.
  • Read and tell stories from the Torah (the Old Testament). Show Biblical movies such as the ones from the Bible Collection.
  • Read and tell stories from the ancient and contemporary Jewish history, with the emphasis on the lesser-known and downplayed episodes of Jewish resistance and self-defense, such as the Maccabean Revolt, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, or the story of the Bielski partisans (as described in an excellent book “Defiance”), and other episodes when Jews were heroes and fighters rather than helpless victims.

Gatto: Familiarity with master creations across all of the arts
How we implement it with our children:

  • Establish and grow a rich collection of music of various genres: classical, bard, Flamenco, and even beautiful Judeo-Spanish music by my favorite singer Yasmin Levy.  Together with the children, listen to the music frequently and spontaneously.
  • Have a variety of art books available for the children to look at, so they get familiar with famous artists and their paintings.
  • Have a variety of real (not plastic toy) child-sized musical instruments including a violin, recorders, a flute, an electronic piano, and a guitar for the children to experiment with.
  • My husband often plays his guitar together with one of the children.

Gatto: Accurate observation and recording (such as drawing) as a way to sharpen perception
How we implement it with our children:

  • Have media devices such as an iPad or an iPod available so the children can use the camera on these devices to take photos, to record videos of their play, or to make Lego movies.
  • Encourage them to take a camera on our walks and to observe and photograph nature.
  • Have paper and pencils readily available for them to draw anything and anytime they want.

Gatto: Develop judgement
How we implement it with our children:

  • Teach them what’s right and wrong according to our set of values. At every opportunity, point out real-life examples of how other adults and children make good or poor choices, explain to our children why we believe it’s right or wrong, ask them how they would judge it, and come up with a moral lesson together.
  • Teach them that developing solid judgement doesn’t mean shaming someone in public, it simply helps to draw personal conclusions and lessons from other people’s example and to form a set of values that will guide our children’s decision making in the future.

Other Principles

  1. Entrepreneurship is the cornerstone of our entire unschooling philosophy. Going to college or getting a day job is not the goal, although those steps may (or may not) turn out to be somewhat necessary in our children’s entrepreneurial career. As entrepreneurs ourselves, we want our children to open their own businesses, to generate valuable and innovative ideas, products or services, and to eventually accumulate and grow wealth. Here’s my article that describes the importance of entrepreneurship in our unschooling.
  2. Understanding of technology (robotics, electronics, computers). With many engineers in the family, we believe that understanding of technology is vital for the children’s education. We store a collection of scrap electronics that we allow the children to take apart and tinker with. We have purchased a few small programmable robots so the children can experiment with coding. A laptop and a couple of portable devices are dedicated to the children’s unrestricted use, and we’ve downloaded software and apps that allow to practice typing, drawing, or 3D modeling, to use a calculator or a map, to play with physics simulations, to record photos and videos, and to play chess.
  3. Preference for unstructured and hands-on activities. When we seek classes or events for our children, we prefer those activities that are unstructured and that allow hands-on tinkering and experimentation. For that reason, we usually skip classes that primarily involve lecture and passive observation, and we don’t go to museums as often as other homeschoolers probably do. Rather, we opt for inexpensive free-form drop-in activities where our children can do things themselves with little or no teaching. Such activities include open-gym sessions at New England Sports Academy or drop-ins at Empow Studios or the Hatch Makerspace where children are allowed to freely use the available resources to play, build, and experiment by themselves.
  4. Learning at least two more languages in addition to English. In fact, Russian is our primary language for speaking at home and we intend to keep it this way. In addition to Russian and English, we would like our children to learn Hebrew some time in the future. Based on our own experience, we believe that language immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language, so we will probably take a lengthy family trip to Israel in the future when our finances allow.
  5. Teaching by example. Since we work from home and our children are homeschooled, we end up spending most of the time together as a family. That makes it easier to teach by example. Our children have a chance to observe us working, exercising, reading, and playing hobbies, and they know that they are always welcome to join in and participate. Not only does it foster family bonding, but it also greatly benefits our children’s education.
  6. Spending most of the day outdoors. We go for walks daily (twice a day during the warm months) and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. We do it primarily for health benefits such getting plenty of fresh air, sunlight, and exercise. Additionally, we find that our children are less whiny and more absorbed, calm, and independent when they are outside. No matter how entertaining home can be, it’s still a confined indoor space. Nothing beats going out to meet new faces, to watch the street life, to explore nature, and to embrace the grandeur of the outdoors. Even when our children get older and their learning becomes more sophisticated and possibly more intense, we don’t plan on reducing their outdoor time. They can just as well study outside. A patio with a chair, a table, and a strong Wi-Fi signal makes a great classroom.

Things We DON’T Do

  1. We avoid toys that are close-ended and limited in ways they can be played with. For example, we don’t buy electronic toys that have a limited set of features, and we are not fond of puzzles because they are only interesting until they are assembled, after which the fun is over. Instead, we favor toys that foster open-ended play, such as Legos and other construction sets, robots that can be programmed, or things as simple as paper, pencils, and scissors.
  2. We avoid children’s books, that is, those books that are dumbed-down with simplified text and overabundance of pictures. Describing the best books of his childhood, John Taylor Gatto wrote, “The books had some pictures but only a  few; words made up the center of attention. Pictures have nothing at all to do with learning to  love reading, except too many of them will pretty much guarantee that it never happens.” With the exception of encyclopedias and art books, we try to collect books that have only a few pictures and that rather focus on high-quality sophisticated text. For that reason, the old books from our own childhood are the cornerstone of our children’s library because they are a higher-quality literature than many of today’s books. When watching movies, we invite our children to watch with us so they get exposed to complex, sophisticated real-life movies that are made primarily for adults (of course, we filter out any inappropriate scenes). So, instead of watching dumbed-down Sesame Street, they watch such complex movies as The Hunger Games, The Patriot, Amadeus, or Gran Torino. They may not understand everything in the movie, but it’s exposure that matters.
  3. We don’t follow any standard milestones. Our children learn things on their own pace regardless of what’s usually expected of children at that age.
  4. We don’t worry if our children say that they are bored, and we don’t try to jump in and entertain them. A child doesn’t have to be stimulated all the time; boredom is fine as long as it eventually leads children to invent ways to entertain themselves and to think of other interesting things to do.
  5. We try not to separate our children by age, rather, we keep them together. We bring the younger children along with the older ones for classes and activities, so the younger siblings get a chance to observe and participate.
  6. We don’t limit them to age-appropriate learning. We never say “you are too young” for a book or an app or a Lego set that is marked for older kids. Our children are free to try and challenge themselves.
  7. We don’t provide any continuous structured instruction, except for their martial arts class. We may occasionally arrange for them to attend a structured class or a series of several classes on some subject such as  gymnastics, piano, science, or clay sculpture, but we only sign up for a limited class package, after which we encourage our children to practice and improve their newly acquired skills on their own. This is because we want them to proof their dedication and to develop independent learning skills rather than to continuously rely on a teacher’s help.
  8. We don’t restrict our children’s use of computers and other media devices as long as it’s for active and productive learning rather than for passive entertainment. For example, we gladly allow to use computers and tablets for taking photos, typing, playing with physics simulations, exploring maps, experimenting with a calculator, or drawing. On the other hand, watching videos (which is passive entertainment) is highly restricted and supervised.
  9. No computer games are allowed whatsoever, except for chess. We tell our children that, except for occasional movies, computers are for work and research only.
  10. We don’t make them learn things by heart just to show off to relatives and friends. For example, we don’t make them sing the alphabet songs or count in sequence, because such knowledge is superficial. Instead, we want our children to get to the root of things. We want them to understand the meaning behind numbers, measures, quantities. We want them to be able to put the letters together in any combination. In the same way, we don’t make them listen to music and memorize the composer’s name just so they impress someone. Rather, we tell them the story behind a musical composition or the libretto of an opera. We want them to go beyond merely memorizing facts and to know the deeper causes and meaning of things.
  11. We don’t push them to go for medals or belts. This is not because we are afraid of competition; we think competition can be good as puts pressure, mobilizes one’s energy, and helps to learn how to achieve goals. Our children may participate in competitions later on, but currently we want them to do things not for awards but merely for the sake of learning and receiving pleasure from it.
  12. We avoid activities where they are expected to follow routines, such as as dance, team gymnastics, or skating. We choose activities and sports such as martial arts where there are only minimal rules, if any, and that foster open-ended involvement, creativity, and improvisation.
  13. We avoid team sports and focus instead on training our children in individual sports such as martial arts or tennis. It may be helpful to learn how to work in a group, but based on our personal experience we believe that in many situations a group setting drags down individual creativity, motivation, and initiative; it limits an individual’s ability to stay unique and to improvise. Before they learn to work in a team, we want our children to develop individual strengths and to learn to function and be productive outside of the group.
  14. We don’t belong to any homeschooling tribe. While we follow homeschooling message boards and occasionally participate in some events, we don’t view homeschoolers as our primary social circle. We often hear that it’s important to belong to a homeschooling community or a tribe, and earlier in our parenthood we attempted to mingle with the homeschooling crowd, but we never received any particular benefit or satisfaction from such socialization. We attend classes and events that are geared for the general public and not specifically for homeschoolers, and we don’t give any special preference to homeschoolers when we choose our friends, so our children are used to socializing with a diverse group of their peers from both homeschooling and public schooling families.
  15. We don’t claim any credit for teaching our children, and that’s the entire point of our unschooling philosophy. Unlike many parents, including the older generation of our own parents, who like to emphasize that their children’s success happens as a result of their parental involvement, we proudly say to everyone that we have very little to do with our children’s achievements, that anything they learn and excel at is due to their own effort and their own will, and that our children are the only ones who deserve the credit.

Read “How We Unschool, Part II”