From Fear to Homeschooling to Unschooling: Our Family's Journey to Learning Freedom
“What is the plan because we can’t afford school?”
That was our introduction to the world of homeschooling.
We are now an unschooling family, living on a farm in the mountains and loving it!
But the journey to reach this point has been challenging.
We have had to adapt to a new way of life and a new way of thinking.
We didn’t plan on being homeschoolers, but we knew we weren’t like the other parents in our area. So when our son was two years old and the other kids from his playgroup were heading to preschool, we chose to keep him at home.
Living on a farm in the mountains, we thought that allowing him to spend time playing and exploring at his own pace would be a better fit.
Little did we know that those ideas would persist as our kids got older.
Homeschooling Was Not Our First Choice
When the boys were three and four, my partner and I had to have an honest conversation about education and what that would look like for our family.
Not only were the school options in our area way more than what we could afford, but traditional school didn’t work with our lifestyle.
Working in hospitality means that weekends and holidays are our busy times. If our boys were in school, we wouldn’t be able to spend much time together, watch weekend sports fixtures or attend after-school events.
The closest schools are also 40kms (one way) from our home, and neither one of us could be away from work that much to fetch and carry kids.
So, we found ourselves having to make some difficult decisions.
Whether we leave the area we love to move closer to town and school options.
Or, we stay and give homeschooling a go.
So, we each made a list of what was most important to us and what we wanted for our family.
Quality family time was at the top of both our lists, and attending traditional school was right near the bottom.
Making the Brave Decision to Homeschool
Deciding to homeschool was the easy part.
We loved having our boys with us, and we were both relieved that they would have the time and space they needed to grow and mature.
What we weren’t prepared for was the struggle of juggling work and school, as well as the extreme reactions of family and strangers.
Never have I received so much unsolicited parenting advice as I did when I started homeschooling.
Not to mention the snide comments about my children’s social development.
As a new homeschooler, these comments would send me into a spin, and I would find myself frantically searching for educational resources and games I could start with my kids.
Homeschooling: The Early Years
Those first few years of homeschooling were pretty tough.
I loved spending time with my boys, but I struggled to balance their needs with my job.
I experienced such guilt about my divided attention and questioned whether we were doing the right thing.
When other children were reaching educational milestones that my boys weren’t, I would sit with my husband, and we would debate our whole life plan.
At three and four years old, I felt like they should play, get dirty, explore, and imagine rather than engage in formal learning.
It was difficult, though, and without a community of like-minded parents, it felt like we were constantly swimming upstream in a river of doubt and uncertainty.
When my eldest son was five, I bought a curriculum based on books and a Maths curriculum.
I had spent hours reading up on types of homeschooling like Montessori, Waldorf, and Emilio Reggio, but what resonated with me was the Charlotte Mason homeschooling method.
So, I bought living books and beautiful resources, and we spent time outside.
I spent hours planning our days and baking and trying to fit the mold of the other homeschooling families I had seen on Instagram.
But that wasn’t us, and I was constantly disappointed and overwhelmed.
I felt burnt out, and we hadn’t even reached Grade 1 yet!
Taking a Breath and Relinquishing Control
As my boys got older and people realized that our decision to homeschool wasn’t just a phase, the pressure and scrutiny increased.
I found myself turning everything into a teaching moment instead of simply spending time with my kids.
As the demands on my time increased, I found myself falling behind on my homeschool planning.
Because I had no choice, I became more relaxed, and when the kids opted out of my plans for the day, I let them.
Slowly, one or two unstructured days turned into an unstructured year.
And you know what?
It was wonderful!
I watched my kids thrive as they had their first taste of freedom and autonomy.
Peter Grey and Our Foray into Unschooling
With the onset of the pandemic and everyone around us suddenly having to ‘homeschool,’ we finally got a break from the constant criticism.
People realized that having your children at home all day was not the easy way out, especially when you have to work.
But South Africa’s lockdown was also a turning point in our learning journey.
I remember the moment clearly.
We had been reading by the dam, and while the kids were playing, I began listening to a podcast with Peter Gray.
The autumn sun was warm, the leaves had started changing color, and I felt like everything was right in the world.
Here was someone who was talking about self-directed learning, learning freedom, and that you could become a successful adult without school.
I was blown away!
I couldn’t wait to tell my husband that what we had spent the last year doing actually had a name and that other people were doing it too.
Needless to say, he was not as excited about unschooling as I was, and I had caught him surreptitiously eyeing our very unused maths curriculum often.
But he went along with it anyway, probably thinking I was a bit nuts.
Our first year of unschooling was incredible.
I watched our boys flourish as they explored and played and spent hours on the things that brought them joy.
What brought my husband around to fully embracing unschooling actually had nothing to do with academics.
My eldest son still rode his bike with training wheels until one day, he was made to feel inadequate for this, and he asked us to take them off. We did, knowing that he didn’t really want to but had felt pressured into asking.
He attempted to ride without the training wheels, fell off his bike, and refused to ride for six months.
So, after a few months, we put the training wheels back on, and he slowly started riding his bike again.
Then one day, he asked us to take them off, and that was that. He has never looked back.
All because he was ready.
The same thing happened with swimming.
Both my boys splashed on the step until one day they decided they were ready to swim, and off they went and started swimming.
These two instances helped my husband see the negative consequences of pressure on our boys and the positive outcome when they made decisions for themselves based on their own readiness and capabilities.
A Day in Our Unschooling Life
Each day looks different for us because we constantly juggle work and family life.
Usually, we are all up and ready for the day by 08:00.
The boys watch TV or play games while my husband and I drink coffee, and then he heads off to work.
We have a Monday and Tuesday off work, and I get Wednesday and Thursday morning off for school.
The boys and I then sit at the table, have breakfast, read and discuss a plan for the day.
This is a special time with a vase of freshly picked flowers and hot chocolate in a teapot.
Some days they want to go adventuring, and then we pack a backpack and head into the forest. Other days they want to play at the river or their favorite climbing hill.
And then there are the days that I don’t feel up to outdoor adventures, and then I will make PlayDough or put out art supplies, lego, or puzzles.
The important part is that we communicate and decide on something that everyone is happy with.
We don’t have any restrictions on how much TV they can watch, and they have worked out a good balance for themselves.
My boys are also very different, which means our days need to suit both of them.
One will happily spend the day drawing and building legos while the other wants to bake, use power tools and help dad in the workshop.
Our way of life and living where we do also allows them learning opportunities that many other children don’t have.
They get to see the life cycle of a frog in our river, catch and release snakes, check the water pipes for airlocks, bake rolls, and eat wild cherries and brambles, among a slew of other things.
Learning happens when there is interest, joy, and curiosity, so allowing the time and space for those to develop is our priority.
We go where their interests lead and try not to worry about a made-up timeline for educational development.
Why Unschooling is More Difficult For Parents
Choosing an alternative education path is challenging whether you are unschooling or homeschooling.
People feel entitled to make comments and assumptions about your kids and family, and they are often rude about it.
What I can say is the more I have learned about unschooling, the more convinced I am that it is the learning of the future.
Watching my kids take control of their learning and life experiences is all the proof I need that this is the right lifestyle for our family.
When asked what grade they are in, my boys proudly say that we unschool.
This learning journey is a choice, and although it is one that we made for them initially, now that they are older, it is their decision.
We check in with them regularly to see if they are happy, and they know that going to school is an option if that is what they want.
I still have to check myself when I want to do an activity for its educational benefits rather than for fun.
The deschooling process is vital for parents wanting to live a life without school.
After coming through the system yourself, delving into the world of unschooling takes a mindset shift and a dose of courage.
Not only do you need to trust your judgment, but you need to trust your kids and their ability to learn naturally.
It’s also a lot of teamwork between you and your partner as there is no downtime. Your kids are with you all the time, and supporting each other and giving each other space is essential.
It encourages a family dynamic based on respect, empathy, understanding, and love, but it needs good communication to work well.
Unschooling Isn’t Just For Kids
The most unexpected part of our unschooling journey so far has been the growth that it has inspired in my husband and me.
When you spend time telling your kids that there are many ways to achieve a goal and encouraging them to think outside the box, it tends to rub off.
The pandemic made us think creatively about using our passions to make money and think about our future.
It is easy to get caught up in being a parent that sometimes you forget that you are your own person with needs and dreams.
Without unschooling, I would never have been brave enough to turn writing into a business, and then I would have missed out on working with the wonderful people at Galileo.
I have learned so much about the world of alternative education through this platform. This new knowledge has allowed me to reassess our unschooling methods and has also challenged my beliefs about education.
Self-directed learning is not just for your kids.
Unschooling is a lifestyle and will completely change your way of seeing the world.
We also found that it changed the way we parent.
Treating our boys with respect and empathy while allowing them autonomy and independence is a vital part of our daily connection. Conscious parenting has become a way of life for us.
Don’t get me wrong; it is challenging.
Having to respond to their behavior rather than react to it is difficult. But treating them as people with their own thoughts, opinions, and feelings will make them well-adjusted adults who care about the world around them.
Is Unschooling For You?
That is a question only you can answer.
One of the most important things I have learned over our six years of living this way is that nothing is set in stone.
Being fluid and open to change is vital because your children are constantly changing and growing.
The beauty of unschooling is that it respects the needs of everyone in the family and allows you to design a learning experience that works for your family.
This year, my boys have asked to bring back Morning Time.
This is a structured time where we sit at the table, eat breakfast, read poetry, journal and do some maths.
That is the beautiful thing about self-directed education; it is designed to suit who your children are at that moment and meet their current needs.
You can design your learning path as a family and create something magical. Your kids are learning all the time, and unschooling allows you to go along for the ride.
It is a rare and special thing when you get a glimpse into their world.
When they are in charge of themselves and their learning, they find wonder and joy, sparking creativity and imagination.
There are so many homeschooling styles that you can create a way of learning that suits you and your kids. It can be a hybrid learning style that mixes ideas from different homeschooling methods, or you can combine in-person and online learning.
There is nothing prescriptive about unschooling, which makes it unique.
Unschooling Works For My Family, Would it Work For Yours?
My children have never been to school, but they could if they wanted to.
At the moment, unschooling is the best fit for our family, and my boys love that they get to spend the day playing on the farm rather than sitting in a classroom and doing homework.
But that doesn’t mean that every day is easy and spent in self-directed bliss.
Unschooling has its challenges; we have just found that the rewards far outweigh these challenges.
We have gained so much as a family that I can’t imagine doing life any other way.
I still have moments of doubt and feel uncertain about the future, but I have only to watch my boys learn to read or play with abandon in the mud to know that they will be just fine.
Actually, they will be more than okay because they will live a life based on joy, curiosity, and freedom.