how unschooling, or "flow" learning, brings joy to our life with kids
January 26, 2017
Certain things change when you have a child with a serious heart defect. I immediately saw through the veneer of certain societal norms : time spent staring at a screen to escape reality, time spent doing something that doesn't bring joy for the sake of getting ahead, time spent away from my kids in order to make more money. It suddenly all became just that: Time Spent. Spent and gone. That precious, precious Time. If there was any doubt in my mind that I would homeschool my kids before Lachlan's diagnosis, it was completely erased post-diagnosis. There would be no wasting of any time in school. For kids with HLHS, childhood is often a Golden Time - their heart function often declines as they enter their later teen years and early adulthood. Why waste my son's precious life with time spent waiting in line and taking tests? I didn't know then that I would come to believe that schooling at home isn't worth our time as a family, either.
My little boy with half a heart is old enough to be in kindergarten, away from me five days a week. Instead, he is home with all of us. He wakes up in the morning and starts working on the ramps he builds for things with wheels, or he asks someone to read him a story. He helps with breakfast, and buils a boat out of cardboard. He fixes himself a snack of apples and almond butter when he's hungry. He might choose to go outside to swing, woo a neighbor cat from under the shed, or ride his bike down the neighbor's driveway. He plays with the neighbor kids in the afternoons, or enjoys a board game with me if the weather is crummy. He has become “quite the hiker,” to use his own words, and is amazingly helpful with outside chores and gardening tasks. In the moments in between, he is either playing the piano (figuring out melodies in different keys is his jam) or on the couch with a book in his lap.
Last year at this time, I was struggling with homeschooling. I didn't feel like family life was joyful. I felt pressure to help my eldest learn to read. I felt pressure to come up with a family rhythm that worked for all of us. I felt pressure to find time to get in all the “educational stuff” every day, to make sure our days were nourishing, calm, and enriching. In my head, it went like this: first, math play with Daddy. Then, violin practice, followed by family music time. Next, we would move on to read-aloud and a planned art project, followed by reading and writing practice, outside play, and quiet time. Oh my. I met with resistance from one or another of my kids at every step of the way. Even though I was trying my best to maximize our moments of enrichment, it just started to feel like Time Spent. Precious Time - wasted because I was still holding onto the belief that, if I didn't expose my children to most subjects most days, I was an unsuccessful homeschooling parent. I was doing a disservice to my kids.
Thank goodness I got over that. Because my goal is not to have children who can recite math facts at incredible speed, or whose handwriting is beyond lovely and whose spelling is pristine at age seven. My goal, quite simply, is to live joyfully with my kids. I do not homeschool in order that they may get into an Ivy League university. I homeschool so that their minds can flourish in an environment of respect, so that they can practice listening themselves and empathizing with fellow humans, so that they can explore and have time to hone their own gifts and passions. I homeschool so we can enjoy living and learning together as a family. Which is why we shifted to radical unschooling.
I'm not writing this to convince you that unschooling is the “right” way to homeschool. There are so many different kinds of personalities, and a school-at-home method might be perfect for certain kids and families. I'm writing this for anyone who feels like I did at this time last year – that homeschooling is a slog. This is for the homeschooling parent who feels stressed out by the pressure of fitting in all of those different subjects, who might be meeting with resistance from highly self-motivated kids. That was me. Turns out, my kids can smell a “teachy mom” with an agenda from miles away. They don't want a teachy mom. They want me: a mom who listens, who empathizes, who marvels with them, who supports them, who demonstrates passion, kindness and work ethic through her way of living rather than her words and rules, and who gets out of the way when they are concentrating.
The day I accepted that my own passions and interests wax and wane, and that I learn best when given the time to focus on one thing at a time, really getting into the flow of concentration, the sky opened up and a chorus of angels started singing. Of course my kids were constantly annoyed that they didn't have enough time to work on what was important to them. (I get annoyed when told that I need to stop doing what I'm focusing on in order to work on something else, too!) Obviously, just because I don't write every day, that doesn't mean that I am not a writer. Just because I put aside my sewing design work for months at a time, that doesn't mean I won't come back to it later when the moment is right. Just because I lose interest in cooking fancy meals in order to make time for a burst of interest in painting doesn't mean I'll never cook again. The idea that learning must happen at a constant, plodding pace is just plain wrong. When I liberated myself from the idea that I had to be all things all the time, I passed along that grace to my children as well. (Notice that I don't commit to write a weekly blog post, or come out with a new sewing pattern every season. I'll do those things when I'm inspired to do them – that way, they fill me with energy rather than depleting me.) Just because my kids don't practice math daily doesn't mean they won't obsess over rubik's cube theory for two days straight. Just because they write a story one day doesn't mean that I need to worry if they put aside that work for a while after a burst of concentration and interest.
We cleared our morning schedule and allowed to allow the kids to get into interests and projects. And man, it feels SO right. We are all so happy. And learning, even the kind that can be measured by a test, has blossomed. No wonder – neurobiology has finally caught up with educational luminaries such as Jean Piaget and John Holt. It turns out that simply living joyfully, respectfully, and responsively with children provides the necessary environment for all sorts of learning to happen:
It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion. And after all, this makes sense: the brain is highly metabolically expensive tissue, and evolution would not support wasting energy and oxygen thinking about things that don’t matter to us. Put succinctly, we only think about things we care about. - Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang
It was only when I stopped trying to teach Finn to read that he started to read on his own. When I stopped asking him to read aloud and stopped trying to institute a predetermined silent reading time, he took a mini reading vacation. He loved listening to read-alouds or audio books, but didn't pick up anything on his own. A few months into his vacation, I started displaying books that I thought might capture his interest. I put them, cover out, on the couch, which is where he first plops himself when he comes downstairs upon waking. He picked one up and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. From that point forward, he has been reading for several hours a day, nearly every day, of his own accord. All I do is “strew” books he will love in his path, and he gets lost in them.
The same has been true of Lachlan, who learned his letters in the hospital while recovering from his third surgery. Other than that, he was spared my well-meaning attempts at formal reading instruction other than following along with my finger during read-alouds, answering his direct questions, and playing some sound games. I put out books that I think might tickle his funny bone, and he happily plops himself down with them and reads book after book after book. I'm sure he isn't able to read every word in the Amulet series, but he gets most of them, and, like his older brother, he views reading as a diversion rather than a chore. Sadie is following suit, and she spends a good hour a day “reading” out loud all of the picture books she can get her hands on. Our living room floor is always covered with books.
Would I feel the same ease with unschooling if my kids hadn't embraced reading so readily? Sometimes I wonder, but the fact remains that they only started doing this once we had been curriculum- and rhythm-free for a good while. I attribute much of their rampant reading, natural interest in mathematical theory, and focused problem-solving capabilities to my graduate degree in Montessori education. Because of all of my immersion in Montessori, I understood the importance of preparing the environment to assist the child in entering into depth of flow, or concentrated effort. (For more on this theory, check out this talk TED talk by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow: The Secret of Happiness.)
I've written before about our toys (and where we keep them) in a previous post. The gist is this: our few, open-ended toys are kept upstairs in a small play room. We spend most of our time downstairs, where they have access to myriad books, all of our musical instruments, the kitchen, and our art/tinkering space. During our “lazy” mornings, we all enjoy these activities (with some homemaking tasks thrown in for me and the occasional child.) All of these activities are set up to be welcoming and accessible for each child. We have cozy bean bags for reading, age-appropriate art materials available within reach (tempera paints aren't accessible for the 3 year-old, but markers, scissors, paper, etc. are.) We have headphones available to a child who wants to play the (electronic) piano while another is reading, so as not to disturb the reader. All of the baking supplies, as well as their cookbooks, are available to the five and seven year-olds in case they feel thus inspired. The snack drawer is nearly always stocked with a panoply of healthy options; even the toddler can serve herself whenever she is hungry. Any Montessori teacher would feel at home in our house - the only thing missing is the expensive and space-consuming Montessori materials. Our home is designed so the kids can act safely and independently at a place where their interests are perfectly matched with just the right amount of challenge. They almost always enter this state of creative "Flow" given enough unstructured time.
The one thing that we do differently from many radically unschooling families is screen time. Like most unschoolers, we don't restrict their time on screens and we don't waste our time or energy on arguing the value of video game vs. a good book. We just naturally don't have screen time. We don't own a television. (Since moving out of our respective homes at 18, Patrick and I have never owned a TV. It has never been our preferred way to relax.) We don't own a video game consul. Our kids don't have their own tablets or computers. Patrick is a computer programmer, and I have an online business and write on my computer, but it's clear to the kids that we don't look at screens if we aren't working. We'd rather be playing an instrument, drawing, hiking, or playing a board game. Screens just seem to suck away our precious time with each other, so we treat them as an occasional tool rather than an inevitable fixture. We are not Luddites; we use YouTube to learn a skill and watch documentaries together. We watch Spanish language kids' music videos. The boys really enjoy programming music in Sonic Pi with their dad. Finn spent a few weeks last spring putting together elaborate stop-motion videos, which required learning to use my camera and lighting equipment and gaining proficiency with the stop motion software. They watch the occasional cartoon at their grandparents' house. But they don't have their own screens and they don't do school work online.
Rather than making it a self-regulating screenapalooza or a stress-filled, parent-regulated, much-sought-after commodity, we just naturally don't have screens readily available in our house. It's a perfect fit for our family. I'm not arguing the merits or disadvantages to unrestricted screen time, but I wanted to add this screen-light option to the radically unschooled dialog. Perhaps knowing that a naturally screen-light home environment is an option will help some screen-wary families open to the possibility of unschooling. It's certainly been a positive shift for our family. Goodbye curricula, hello Flow, hello healthy connection between parents and children.