I often look at different learning theories, such as schemas, after observing individuals and planning activities that support their development. Unschooling though is the philosophy and learning theory that I try to apply to all activities and sessions.
Unschooling means slightly different things to different people but it revolves around the belief that children are natural learners, are intrinsically hard-wired to learn and that they learn best when they are interested in something. The role of the adult is not seen as one of teacher but facilitator, observing and working alongside the child and providing opportunities for the child to pursue their interests and in ways that suits their learning style.
Unschooling is child led. Traditional education demands that all children learn the same skills, reading for example, at the same age and by the same method even though it is well accepted that children reach developmental milestones at different ages to each other. This puts a number of children in situations where they are being expected to learn skills they are simply not developmentally ready to. Unschooling allows children to learn when they are developmentally ready and the result is that these skills are often acquired far quicker. It is not uncommon for example for unschooled children to be 9, 10 or even older before they begin to read but to go from not reading at all to reading at a level far higher than their chronological age within weeks or days.
Traditional schooling can be a confusing place for children. Structured lessons and inflexible timetables can make learning unenjoyable. Schools limit nearly all of a child’s free time, and the free time they have is often restricted and controlled, leaving them little opportunity to explore their own ideas. Ultimately schools instil in children the idea that learning can only take place at certain times and in certain places and when an adult is telling them what to do. This can result in an over reliance on structure and a dependency on adults which can damage self confidence and self esteem.
Unschooled children are free to follow their interests and learn what they like. Unschooling promotes the idea that learning is an integral part of life (see Learn Nothing Day) and that we never stop learning however old we get. It encourages independence in learning and self esteem and self reliance. Unschooling promotes inter-generational involvement within the family and community. Children who are unschooled have always lived in ‘the real world’ and unschooled children are generally more comfortable interacting with people of different ages and backgrounds. This allows them to more effectively develop their social and communication skills enabling them to form positive and enriching relationships with a wider variety of people. Unschooling produces children who develop into lifelong learners.
The ethos of unschooling sits well with that of forest school. Both focus on child led activities and holistic development. I have seen some forest school sessions though that were still very structured and inflexible. When planning forest school sessions I always plan and prepare a number of activities and far more than would be used in a session. I then like to mix and match these depending on the mood and interests of the group. Sticking with a theme or aim for the session is generally not a problem but often the route we get there is not necessarily the one I had planned.
I always make sure children understand that activities are always opt-in and that they can take ownership of and adapt them in any way that suits them. It can be fascinating to see how games and activities are tackled or adapted by different groups and different individuals.
I prefer working with mixed age/ability groups. Quite often children are used to working every day with the same children, children who were born only shortly before or after themselves and who live in the same area and from similar backgrounds. I think it is positive to offer children opportunities to work with different age groups and with children and adults of different beliefs and lifestyles. I think it is important to help children recognise that everyone, regardless of age or ability, has lots to offer. It is important to me that everyone involved in the session feels like there is no hierarchy and that they are all equally valued.
Find out more about unschooling: