Wednesday, 15 February 2017

11 Easy to Follow Tips to Make Your Unschooling Journey a Complete Success for Everyone!

Ha!…said no unschooler ever.  But if that title grabbed your interest, I suspect you might be new to unschooling and perhaps you will find my list to be helpful.  Or perhaps you have been unschooling for a while, scoffed at this title, and clicked on it for that reason?  If you are not new to unschooling...maybe you can reflect on your own journey?  It was reflecting on my own unschooling journey that helped me to create this list.  Let's jump right in, shall we?
  1. There is no singular way to unschool.  Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes.  The way this is done depends on many factors including balancing family needs and the resources you have available which sometimes boils down to geography or community.  So for example, a family that lives in the city might be in a better position to unschool by being immersed in the local community.  A family that lives in a rural setting might be better off unschooling by strewing materials around to be discovered.  A family that has a new baby may decide that they are going to scratch everything for a while and let the baby be the learning!  Unschooling is really just living your life and learning as you go.
  2.  Unschooling requires significant amounts of time to play, explore, create, think, daydream, and "veg".  Much like a sleep cycle, the brain goes through learning cycles that bring about different emotions and require different energy levels.  Allowing for large blocks of time to pursue passions and interests and just “be” is a large part of the “how to” in unschooling.  Don’t focus on the "outputs" as you may not see the "outputs" for years. Trust the path, trust the journey, trust the learner.
  3. Unschooling doesn’t mean “no routine”.  Some unschoolers think that to unschool, you need to shed all forms of conformity or organization, but this is actually just one style of unschooling (radical unschooling).  I think unschooling is more about allowing each person to pursue their life on their terms and within the context of the surroundings they find themselves in.  So if a family member thrives on routine, they should be encouraged to embrace routines.  Find the routines that work and toss the ones that don’t!  Maybe your kid needs a lot of social outlets to stay energized and excited about life.  A routine that involves regular social outlets will need to be part of the unschooling mix for that learner.  I need a certain amount of organization and routine in my family to ensure that everyone’s needs met. Mornings are spent out of the house connecting with peers and getting exercise in unstructured settings.  Afternoons are for little ones who nap and for those of us who don't nap, that's the time we spend building things, doing experiments, completing housework, watching Youtube, and getting some work done for We Learn Naturally.  Deciding whether there should be routines, what they should be, and how they should look is ideally a joint conversation, where everyone’s needs are freely expressed and, if possible, the routines created are mutually agreed upon.  You may decide no routines feels best for everyone, and that's cool, but it's just as cool to be an organized, routine-loving unschooling family.  Type A's can unschool too.  ;)
  4. Unschooling does not mean that you are now a “permissive” parent.  A.S. Neill once said “Freedom does not equal license.”  Wise words.  Even if your family decides you like the no routine lifestyle, it doesn't mean that you live without personal boundaries.  Freedom to make individual choices happens within the context of a family, a community, and a larger society.  As a parent, allowing your child to make their own choices doesn't mean you will get walked all over.  If relinquishing control of learning to the kids leads your family to swing wildly into a zone that has you feeling ragged, it's time to think critically about your needs in this dynamic. Changing the power balance to allow for unschooling could mean that your family may need to find a new way of negotiating different requests but the point is that all members of the family are respected.  Some people may mistake unschooling parents as permissive because you need to give your child large chunks of time to play and do their own thing, which can look permissive to others who are not familiar with this style of learning.  In fact, unschooling families are anything but permissive.   This style of learning requires a really engaged, respectful style of parenting, which, quite truthfully, I find to be both challenging and immensely rewarding.  I need to be aware of my own needs, values, and insecurities so that I can stay in tune with where I end as a person and the child begins.  I regularly challenge myself to keep my own needs in check so that I do not impose my own set of values without giving the learner the freedom to explore the other options.  I want them to come to their own conclusions about life, and that involves conversation, research, and reflection.  This style of education requires tremendous trust on the part of the parents and the work involved in reaching that place of trust requires soul-searching reflection and critical thinking.  Honestly, this style of learning looks permissive only because we are so used to controlling children and their learning.
  5. Your kid will need to deschool.  As a rule of thumb, for every year that your child has been in school, they will need one month of uninhibited, no pressure what-so-ever deschooling.  No worksheets, no telling the child what to do or how to do it…just truly letting them be.  I would also go a step further and say that children will need more time to deschool if they have spent time in a structured childcare environment or spent their summers and off-school hours in adult-directed camps.  Living with significant structure from a young age takes much longer to deschool.  I would also add that if you have engaged in traditional homeschooling for a while, where you as the adult in charge decided what is learned or assessed the learning in any way, you may find that your child might also need to deschool from you!  You are changing the power dynamic between the two of you and that takes time to discover how that will look and feel.  You may find that your child "tests boundaries", "over consumes" things that you used as rewards (screen time?), or avoids things that may have felt like a punishment (reading or writing?).  These are common reactions in democratic free schools as well.  In fact, some free schools or schools that offer unschooling or Self-Directed Education, will not take children above the age of 8 because they struggle to adapt to an SDE environment.  The kids just can't get past the testing stage.
  6. You will need to deschool.  I've kind of touched on this one already.  Unschooling is essentially letting the learner drive their own education…and be responsible for the outcomes.  Making the decision to unschool is often a bigger deal for the parent.  You will be challenged to let go in ways you didn’t anticipate.  Sometimes the biggest challenge in unschooling resides within you.  You may find yourself thinking differently about things other than learning...the shift can be quite powerful!
  7. Grandparents and close friends may need to deschool too for that matter.  And if they don't, that's fine too. Lots of people will not care that you are unschooling; some will be curious and some will be knowledgeable, but chances are that you will come across a person or two who are uncomfortable with the idea…and if those people love you, they may express their concerns frequently or at high volumes. From their perspective, we live in a very competitive environment and your loved ones want what is best for you and the kids.  My advice is to approach this conversation as you would any other difficult conversation;  listen to their concerns as a way to show your love, share your philosophy in an effort to connect, offer resources if they are interested in learning more, and most importantly, let go of the struggles that reside in *them*.  Remember, ultimately, the choice to unschool came from your child and your wish to support that.  Family and friends are more like background noise and their expression of concerns are really the expression of *their* needs and values.  The Polish phrase “Not your circus, not your monkey” comes to mind. 
  8. Unschooling needs to be a choice for each member of the family who is involved in living it.  Unschooling is a mindset.  Kids don’t usually ask directly to do unschooling, but if they have never gone to school, they’ll just naturally fall into it.  As a parent, you may decide that unschooling fits your personal philosophy on learning, but if your child is requesting to attend school, explore that option with them.  In fact, exploring that option and allowing your child to make the choice to attend, or not attend, or attend for a day and then quit, is part of the unschooling learning process. In fact, it is possible to be an unschooler and attend a public school!  As long as it is a freely made choice and the decision to leave and pursue something else is a viable option, I would still consider you to be an “unschooling” family.  If it is not a freely made choice (such as a family divorce where one partner insists on a child attending public school and the courts agree), the child may still approach life with an unschooler’s attitude.  That may mean pursuing a passion outside of school and looking for ways to incorporate it in school or rejecting the aspects of school that do not work (such as treating a mandatory project as just a chore that needs to be done, putting little effort in, and accepting the poor mark.)  
  9. You may drift in your intensity of unschooling.  We live in a culture that places parents (and other adults) firmly in charge of children so it is not surprising that parents find themselves feeling doubtful or fearful about their child’s chosen learning path.  Radical unschoolers challenge themselves to find ways to say “yes” to a child’s requests, but maybe for whatever reason, that degree of unschooling doesn’t sit well with you (yet).  Some parents feel more comfortable with project style unschooling or mixing in a bit of curriculum when they start to feel panicky.  If you find yourself trying to control what or how your child learns, it may indicate that you have more deschooling to do but I wouldn’t advise a parent to let go of their “parental authority” if they are not ready.  If you are not feeling the unschooling vibe, take a break and force your child to do a curriculum book.  See where it takes you.  Your kids may buck and refuse to do it…where do those reactions lead you?  It’s your learning path as a parent and a person, so embrace it all!  Ultimately, if you feel uncomfortable, take a step back and find your footing again.  If you are trying to force yourself into the unschooling mindset, just know that it cannot be forced, it can only emerge through self-awareness and freedom of choice.  Forcing it in any direction will lead to blaming yourself “I must be doing it wrong” or blaming others “unschooling doesn’t work” which can be a vicious cycle and really isn’t in the spirit of unschooling.
  10. An unschooler may start to reject other structured activities, even if it isn’t school.  When my son first started to reject structured activities, I started to wonder what was going on.  “But you love soccer?!”  Then I realized, he does want to play soccer, but once he learned some basic skills, he just wanted to do it on his terms for a while.  Structured environments can be great for learning skills from others, so long as that is your motivation for being there.  When signing up for activities with a young unschooler, you may want to ask if you can try out a class first before paying for a whole session, just so your child can get a sense of whether they are truly interested in spending their time (and your money) in that environment.
  11. An unschooler may prefer to spend time with others who have an unschooler mindset.  As you continue down the unschooling path, you may discover that your child gravitates to other people with an unschooling mindset.  Family members who want to be in charge of children and tell them what to do and when to do it may have a hard time establishing a warm relationship with your child.  Your child may start to drift apart from friends who have a need to rebel or a need to please.  It kind of makes sense really; your child will look for friends who value the same freedom of choice and have similar levels of self-awareness.  Making the choice to let go of friends who don’t really “get it” to make room for friends who do is actually a good sign of becoming settled in the unschooling journey.  As children age, society will welcome them as free-thinking adults more readily than as free-thinking children.  Either way, they will find their fit and they will benefit from the journey being their own.

So now that you have read my list,what do you think?  For those of you who are veteran unschoolers, have I forgotten anything?  For those of you who are new, my main point is that we’re all on our own learning journeys. The messy, uncomfortable moments are just as valuable as the moments when everyone around you nods in approval. This is the path of depth and therein lies the beauty.  I wish you the best on your journey and if you are still in the approval-seeking stage in your deschooling process, I applaud you for attempting to walk along this messy beautiful path. ;)

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Self Directed Education (SDE): A Natural, Child-Lead Way to Learn By Jessica Michaud

From the Author: I’m not sure when I discovered Self-Directed Education, but I do know that it has formed the foundation of my views on education and child development. I find it to be a continuum of many of the respectful parenting/child-care approaches I have been trying to use. I would love for you to read this, my first blog, and learn a little about Self Directed Education, and if this speaks to you, spread the word to others! 

“Play is how children learn to take control of their lives” (Gray P. , p. 157). It has become common knowledge that play is significant to healthy child development. Many modern studies and research are confirming that play is an important part of education as well.

In “How Does Learning Happen: Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years” from the Ontario Ministry of Education, the authors state that “[e]vidence from diversse fields of study tells us that… [c]hildren succeed in programs that focus on active learning through exploration, play, and inquiry. Children thrive in programs where they and their families are valued as active participants and contributors” (Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 4). In “The Kindergarden Program 2016”, the authors discovered through extensive research that “…play-based learning emerges as a focal point, with proven benefits for learning amoung children of all ages, and indeed amoung adolescent and adult-learners” (Ontario Ministry of Education, p. 10).

These two early year  frame work documents both align with the foundational points of Self Directed Education. It values that the child is whole and capable, and able to direct their own education, through playing, exploring, inquiring and building positive relationships with both other children and adults. Peter Gray, who is a psychologist from Boston College, has done an extensive amount of research on democratic schools that support this model. He has found that “[e]very time we reduce children’s opportunities for free play by increasing their time at school or other adult-directed activities, we further reduce their opportunities to learn to control their own lives, to learn that they are not simply victims of circumstances and powerful others” (Gray P. , p. 18).

Many parents and educators new to this model may have concerns: how will children learn all that they need to learn? There are schools that have been functioning for many years with documented success. One is the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Massachusets, which has been running since 1968. This school ranges in age from 4-18 years old  and the “school’s educational philosophy centers on the idea that, in an environment with ample opportunities, children will educate themselves through their own self-directed play and exploration” (Gray & Fieldman, p. 109). Gray’s research has shown that even reading can be attained, without forml education. He states that “[a]s long as kids grow up in a literate society, surrounded by people who read, they will learn to read. They may ask questions along the way and get a few pointers from others who already know how to read, but they will take the initiative in all these and orchestrate the entire process themselves” (Gray P. , Children Teach Themselves to Read, 2010). Through the years, studies have been done to follow the success of Sudbury Valley School students, and overall they “have been highly successful in higher education and careers, and most of them atribute much of their success to lessons learned at SVS- lessons about their own interests, abilities and responsibilities” (Gray & Fieldman, p. 110).

Organizations are forming  to raise awareness and understanding of what SDE is, and try to provide research and education to parents and the community. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education is a nonprofit organization who’s “vision, is a world in which Self-Directed Education is embraced as a cultural norm and is available to all children, everywhere, regardless of their famiy’s status, race or income” (The Alliance for Self-Directed Education , n.d.). They are membership based, and have a lot of resources and information. They also give you access to other organizations and experts that are also supporting the awareness of SDE. Individual citizens, as well as organizations, such as We Learn Naturally, are able to team up and spread awareness.

In conclusion, I believe Self Directed Education to be complementary to the natural style in which children learn. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend becoming familiar with the Alliance for Self Directed Education. I would also recommend becoming part of communities that support SDE, such as We Learn Naturally. They have programs that provide this type of learning environment for children of all ages. As well, I recommend you share your feelings and views with others- the more people become aware of the research and experiences, the more common SDE will be.

Gray, P. (2010, February 24). Children Teach Themselves to Read. Retrieved from Psychology Today:
Gray, P. (2013). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.
Gray, P., & Fieldman, J. (2004). Playing in the Proximal Zone of Development. American Journal of Education, 108-145.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). How Does Learning Happen? Ontario's Pedagogy for the Early Years. Toronto.
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). The Kindergarden Program.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education . (n.d.). Retrieved from

Labels Part 2

I've never had a blog before starting We Learn Naturally, so I'm learning as I go how they work.  While looking for a past blog post, I noticed that my blog post Labels had over 500 hits!  Woah.  When did that happen?  How did that happen?  So I decided to reread the post to see why it might have been so popular.

When I read Labels again, I had fresh eyes.  In the post, I gave an example of a mother's push back to break free of an ADHD label on her child.  I recognize that not all mothers have that privilege.  In fact, children are often born into multiple societal labels related to age, race, gender, sexual preference, religion, culture, and social class...and these labels are exceedingly difficult to push back on.  The word intersectionality comes to mind.

Hearing about the six year old girl from Mississauga, who is black, in a single parent home, with a mother who has cancer, (notice the number of labels this young girl falls under) who was restrained in handcuffs...sadly this doesn't shock me.  While I hope that restraining a child in handcuffs does not ever happen in Ontario, I know that it is happening in the US, where the 'school to prison pipeline' is more pronounced.  (Just writing that phrase "school to prison pipeline" sends shivers through my body, so if you shiver reading that, I'm with you.)  It may be illegal to spank or use corporal punishment in school, but it is not illegal to threaten, scare, punish, shame, or demean a little person who has is consistently "out of line" with school authority.  Even if it is not happening to your kid, this style of discipline is probably happening to other kids at your child's school. This is the school environment for many public schools in Ontario and it happens most often where the populations are vulnerable and kids carry multiple labels. We know through studies involving spanking or other forms of corporal punishment that there is an escalation of violence or an escalation of force when using negative reinforcement.  Well, the same is true if force or violence is used in a school setting. Now, I realize I have a broader view of what violence entails than your regular Facebook moms' group (thanks to nonviolent communication), but basically schools are using reinforcement tactics that are violent with our most vulnerable young people.  (Violence meaning basically anything that brings about harm or pain.)

Since starting Learning in the Woods, I have been humbled by the number of emails we receive from, usually moms, who have stories that are on the same vein as the Mississauga 6 year old.  Perhaps their child was not restrained by handcuffs or has fewer labels, but they are certainly desperate for an educational alternative for their child.  Moms who are in the difficult position of trying to explain to their child that they are not the problem, or that adults like teachers, principals, and police should be trusted, or that schools should be safe.  What an impossible task, right?  How do you undo those messages of violence and power?  How does a mom with a job and her own set of labels and pain take on that entire system?  (Answer:  She doesn't, at least she can't do that alone which is why we need to support this Mississauga mother by writing to the superintendent or saying no to shame and violence at your child's public school.  Or if you are a mom fighting it alone, maybe you conserve your energy and direct it towards figuring out how to get your child out of that specific violent environment.)

When I receive these calls, emails, or PM's, it's sometimes hard to know how to offer support.  Not only, is the mainstream school system not serving their child, it is damaging them.  As parents grapple with how best to navigate among just a few alternatives to main stream education (which will be one alternative stronger with the opening of The Barn School!) I can't help but notice that the kid has a better shot at breaking free of the labels and systemic violence if their parents also break free. The truth is, that without parents acting as strong advocates, it's really hard for a child to endure that alone without some sort of repercussion.

Here is a Self-Directed Education (SDE) advocate and mom Akilah Richards sharing her reasons behind choosing SDE.  She is a writer and poet, so her words will inspire you to "raise your child as a free person" with a "right to design their own path" (paraphrased) better than I ever could.

As awful as this experience has been for this family, I can see that it brings about an opportunity for conversation and the possibility  to create some real change in our public education system.  I find that inspiring!  I want to be part of that!  But this real life story also reminds me why I chose to get out of the public system and start something new.  I need real alternatives to be available now.  I have a need for security and healing for those around me.  I can use my privilege to bring an alternative forward for those who cannot wait or do not have the patience to work through systemic change.  I see the work of We Learn Naturally as being part of a larger change that we are probably all motivated to see happen.  This is just my route and I look forward to seeing where it leads me.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Our connection to Little Seeds

Ever since our guest lecturer, Peter Gray, a lot of people have been interested in Learning in the Woods, The Barn School, Little Seeds, and the Burlington-Hamilton Unschoolers.  With all these names, it gets a little confusing so I thought I would try to explain how all of these groups are related.

It’s hard to know how far back to start this story!  I’m also really bad at narrowing down a story.  I’m one of those people who thinks “But all the details are important!”.  Here it goes.  The beginning is the most confusing I think.

Children provide us with an opportunity to change us as people.  They challenge us to think critically about old ways of doing things and give us a chance to reinvent ourselves.  That is what parenthood did for me anyway.  Can you relate to that?  Did parenthood change your perspective forever also? After my first child was born, I was reading a lot of Attachment Parenting, RIE, and peaceful parenting blogs and books.  Facebook was just blowing up and more accessible to me with smart phones becoming more affordable so I was posting a lot on my personal Facebook page about my "radical" parenting ideas.  I thought everyone I knew would be as inspired as I was but my friends and family didn’t necessarily share my newfound passion.  :/ I noticed my posts were distancing people and that was never my intention, so I created a separate Facebook page to explore my parenting ideas and I called that page Curious Mom E.

After my maternity leave, I was back at work as a public school kindergarten teacher, applying my positive parenting techniques and loving the results.  I had a principal who placed a lot of trust in me to try new things and as I did, the kids in my class were flourishing.  I felt empowered to explore things further.  I started to really challenge myself to understand the ideal learning environment for all kids.  I thought of some of my favourite students and how their diagnoses of ADHD and autism really didn’t fit with the public system’s style of learning.  Other students were really arts-centered or into building with their hands and I saw that their passions were never valued equally as math and language or science.  Watching those kids lose self-esteem because their skill sets were not in line with what our public schools valued, marked, and tested made my heart break.  A person’s worth should not be determined by how well they fit into the narrow definition of what the system deems valuable…can you relate to that?

By now, “Curious Mom E” was filling up with a lot of posts related to parenting and my educational philosophy involving self-directed education and nature play.  Thinking of my own child entering school, I looked around for alternatives and was disheartened by the lack of options in our area.  Somehow I convinced my husband that we should sell our lovely house so that we could finance our own private school.  Within 6 months we had bought the land in hopes that we could build The Barn School.  I started a Facebook Page by that name and started to hone my vision for that by posting my educational philosophy posts there. 

Around that same time, I met Meaghan and told her I was starting a private school.  She introduced me to the homeschooler community and I was excited to learn that that alternative was thriving.  The moms I met were intelligent, fun, and interesting to talk to.  Looking for a little extra income to justify staying home with my kids to homeschool while I worked on Barn School, I created a hom
e daycare for homeschooler moms who needed an occasional break.  I didn’t have a website but I got a Facebook page and called that “Little Seeds”.  I started to post articles about child-lead learning, free play, and nature play on Little Seeds.  After 4 months and very little interest in the style of home daycare I was offering, I put that idea to rest.

I really wanted to offer my son some multi-age child-lead experiences and was hoping the home daycare would be the ticket but most homeschoolers and moms with young babies actually like to be home with their kids (imagine that!)  So it dawned on me that if I wanted to give my son those experiences, the moms and dads should be there too.  During a snowy winter playdate with Meaghan, we hammered out the philosophy behind Little Seeds as it is known today.  An outdoor nature-based playgroup for kids of all ages where the kids could have a chance to explore on their own terms.

Instead of creating a new Facebook page, I decided it made more sense to use my fairly inactive Little Seeds page since it was full of relevant content and just a handful of moms who were in the group.  We started to post events and shared the page on Facebook wherever it made sense.  I posted on Attachment Parenting Moms Hamilton, Meaghan shared it on some of her homeschooler group pages.  Our first events were in the winter, a tough season to encourage people to get outside for several hours at a time.  Meaghan, Ellen, Trish and I began to meet once or twice a week in the woods, in the snow.  We were pretty formal back then, trying to establish a culture I suppose.  We had a meeting to start and finish, which the kids hated.  But they loved the child lead play in the woods.

By spring, we had several families checking us out, though not on a regular basis.  Well except for Tanya, who is our Learning in the Woods Director today!  We knew from doing it for several months that there was value in coming regularly and frequently so that the kids could establish and maintain friendships.  We also started to see that the forest became “another friend”. Returning to the same location every week helped to build that friendship with a natural space.  We started to think about how to offer that on a more regular basis, and Learning in the Woods was born.  (See blog post The
Birth of Learning in the Woods, link to be added at a later date.)

In the spring, as more families came to check us out, we had some learning leaps.  We realized this style of play is not for every adult (though I would argue it is for every kid).  Some parents feel really uncomfortable letting kids play with sticks or climb rocks and trees.  Other parents wanted to direct the children more in terms of social skills such as forcing “sharing” or pressuring everyone to play together.  Also around that time there was a death at a local Hamilton hiking trail due to a fallen tree and that spurred a conversation about liability.  We talked to a lawyer who guided us to stick with our values of democracy and equality and we decided that everyone would be a page manager and share in the responsibility of planning and offering events.

Little Seeds has been running for two years and now that I am on maternity leave with my third baby, I find myself tapping into that Little Seeds community once again.  It’s nice to be able to create an event that works for your schedule and driving radius and hang out with other like-minded families.  We now have a sharing day on Mondays where members can share their home business or related events and support each other in that way.  I think it is still maybe a bit intimidating for new families to come out to events but Heather Boyd, one of our original members, moved to Niagara-on-the-lake and created a Little Seeds Niagara group there.  In a short period of time, she gained a lot of local interest. 

I think what I like best about Little Seeds is that no one is in charge.  It was really just about people coming together to give their kids some time in a natural setting (as opposed to a playground) to play without too many rules or adult interference.  It’s reassuring to see there is a community of people out there who value that.

In my next blog, I’ll share how Learning in the Woods came to be.