Why every child needs a bit of 'unschooling' in lockdown
While we probably can't completely abandon schoolwork, we can all embrace some elements of unschooling. Here's what you need to know.
We're letting them learn through experience and play, try out new things like gardening and baking and encouraging them take the lead in deciding our meals for the day and activities for the weekend (yes, that does occasionally involve a day of Disney+).
Of course, we're still doing schoolwork as and when we can - thankfully determined by schoolteachers, not us - and enjoying the wealth of resources available to us online, from Oak National videos to creative classes via Outschool.
Photo: Kelly Sikkema
Never heard of unschooling? It's fairly big in the US - Alanis Morissette is a fan - and gaining traction in the UK, where the number of homeschooled children has doubled since 2013/14. Essentially, it's homeschooling, with a different approach to learning. Instead of parents-as-educators (the homeschool model), unschooling encourages child-led learning.
While some parents are feeling nothing but stress at the prospect of having their children home all day during the lockdown, others are curious about exploring alternatives to formal education. Without the pressure of going anywhere, some are perhaps embracing a more child-led philosophy in the house (we recognise that these are likely the parents not currently having to work non-stop with no childcare while doing a shape hunt with their five-year-old).
Photo: Tony Riddle
We chatted to Tony Riddle, a natural lifestyle coach and father of four who homeschools/unschools his children, ranging from six months to 10.
"Unschooling is all about developing a child's emotional intelligence, creativity and imagination, rather than forcing them to follow a curriculum during set hours.
"It's important to highlight that our current situation isn't our norm anyway - this isn't the homeschooling, or unschooling, reality. There's usually a big social network for the kids: they'll be in forest school, outside in nature, with other unschooled kids, or might have a day of immersion in music lessons, where they play piano and guitar for the day," Tony explains.
The unschooling ethos is about allowing children to absorb a variety of subjects, and then guiding them once they show a particular passion for what they're learning, whether that's history, music or science. Unschooling also offers mixed-age interactions, rather than year-based learning, and is very much about encouraging kids to learn through play and to spend time in nature. Tony also stresses that unschooling is a choice, not a mandate - if the kids want to enter into formal education at any point, they can.
Unschooling also embraces each child's unique differences, allowing them to learn at their own pace, questioning the norms we measure our children's achievements by (which range widely from one country to the next) and allowing kids to follow their own interests and see where they lead.
Tony's 10-year-old daughter, Lola, for example, is a self-taught, prolific reader and history buff: she's drawn out a huge timeline on a massive roll of paper around the house which she leaves for a few days or weeks and then goes back to with fresh eyes.
While most parents we know will be running back to schools as soon as the gates open, there's a lot open-minded parents can take from the principles of unschooling, from play-based learning to the primacy of nature for kids, as well as how there's no time like the present to see what our child's unique abilities and passions are...
Here are Tony's top tips for maintaining sanity and keeping the kids happy while they're distance learning at home:
If parents are trying to adhere to a 9-5 work schedule while looking after kids at home, they need to communicate with their employers. Suggest that your day might look different to the traditional norms - can you have a new structure in the day that involves spending more time with the kids during the daytime and still achieve your work goals?
Routine is crucial
Certain routines need to be kept in place to maintain the family system, like having meals together at set times. Tony's family always has breakfast together - but it's not decided by the adults alone. The kids are involved in all aspects, from designing menus to choosing ingredients and cooking... the whole process is a project for the kids.
Immersion in nature is essential for everyone
A 20-minute immersion in nature can lower an adult's cortisol blood pressure and heart rate - so there's no better way for upstressed urbanites to down-regulate. Of course, kids benefit greatly too. If you start your day off with a bike ride or some outdoor messy play, it can set the tone for a happy morning and afternoon.
Breathwork will save your parenting
When we get stressed, there's an inherited parenting language we operate at, so it's essential to find moments in the day to down-regulate. A simple breathwork routine of inhaling for four seconds through the nose, exhaling for six seconds through the mouth, six times - it only takes a minute - can help. Find a ritualistic space in your home to do it, that you can regularly go back to.
Tune in on Fridays at 6:30pm for Tony's Move Breathe Chill workshops with breathwork and cold immersion expert, Artur Paulins, to use breathwork, natural movement and cold therapy to develop resilience and mindfulness in lockdown.
Use social media for connection, not distraction
It's a tool, not a toy. Create projects that stimulate their creativity and allow them to connect with other families and create something together. You can even host a virtual book club or scavenger hunt party...
Don't underestimate the power of hugs
When you're ready to throw your laptop at the window because of your child's fractions homework, try hugging instead. As Virginia Satir noted, it takes four hugs to survive, eight hugs to maintain and 12 hugs to grow. So think of the good that can happen in your household with 20 hugs a day...
Do some reading
Key books for anyone interested in learning more about getting kids attuned to biological, rather than societal, norms? Try Joseph Chilton Pearce's The Magical Child and Peter Gray's Free to Learn.