Our Journey

Our Journey into Unschooling

Eight years ago I made a bold decision for our family that many people questioned, or thought was downright crazy and irresponsible; I took my kids out of school.  I was in search of a new lifestyle, an authentic life, rich with purpose and meaning for my family.  Believing with all my heart and soul that there is much more to our lives than we were currently living, I was willing to leap over tall buildings, go to the ends of the earth, and break all social norms to find it.

I was witnessing a heartbreaking phenomenon.  Before my oldest son, Riley, entered school, he was incredibly curious, imaginative, full of spunk and happy.  Learning was natural and fun for him.  After being in school for a few years however, his natural curiosity, imagination, and love for learning slowly began to deteriorate.   Learning became a task, something he had to do instead of wanted to do.  Struggles over homework began, his self-confidence took a dive, he became less motivated and his desire to read for enjoyment began to leave his world.  He seemed to be like a tortoise retreating into his shell.  It is ironic however, that he was earning straight A’s, was well behaved and was considered a very good student.  It did not feel right to me.  Were straight A’s and good behavior worth losing his imagination, natural curiosity and spunk?

The summer before Riley was entering fourth grade, our family took a road trip to Northern California and visited the Lava Beds National Monument.  We went spelunking into the deep lava tubes carved out of the earth during the last eruption of the Medicine Lake shield volcano.  As we descended into one of the dark tunnels and began to explore, we felt we had been swallowed whole by an enormous black worm from an old science fiction movie.  Riley was in awe.   After our exploration, we bought Riley a book on spelunking.  He devoured every page.  He shared all that he learned about lava tubes at dinnertime.  His excitement was palpable. You could almost see the nerve impulses traveling to his neurons and muscle cells.  Synapses were forming in his brain as his mind and body were being filled with new knowledge and comprehension.  As this fusion took place, I knew a spark for learning had re-surfaced.  A fire was lit.

The day at the lava tubes was a life-changing event.  It clearly demonstrated that learning and living go hand in hand.  And, when your interests are engaged, not only do you learn better but learning becomes more meaningful.   As Aristotle once said, “pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

It became obvious to me that the one place where learning was suppose to be taking place, school, was actually interfering with it.  There was no pleasure for Riley when he was told what, where and when to learn day after day.  Reading about lava tubes in a text book, in a class room, because you will be tested on the information, is not the same as taking a trip with your family and actually seeing, touching, smelling and exploring the lava tubes yourself.  It is an entirely different experience.  As Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mentor speculated, “I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education.  If the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less “showily”.  Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself.  Teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.””

Anne Sullivan is not the only person in history that suspected our schooling practices.  As Albert Einstein so brilliantly held:

“It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreak and ruin.  It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

And Mark Twain humorously declared:

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Beatrix Potter was grateful that she never went to school:

“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”

When we returned from our vacation that summer, I called the school and told them that Riley will not be returning.  Thus began our remarkable journey into unschooling.

“Unschooling is a sub-set of homeschooling, sometimes referred to as natural learning or child-led learning.  It is the freedom to live and learn without school. It is a life-style.  It is a parenting-style.  It is based on the fundamental belief that learning is a natural basic instinct.  When kids are allowed the freedom and time to play and explore, to dream and imagine, and to follow their own interests and passions, learning will happen. Simply stated, learning and living are inseparable.  As John Dewey noted, “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

A few years ago, our family was invited to appear on the Dr. Phil Show to share our unique lifestyle.  We also caught the attention of the Chicago Tribune.  They wrote an article about unschooling in which our family was highlighted.  They wrote, “…Learning is best done when a child’s interests are engaged, and for a family with the talents and the resources to allow this to happen, great success is possible.” They are absolutely right, great success is possible.  Riley is now taking classes at the local college at age 16 and getting straight A’s.  Casey, our 14 year old son’s dream is to be a writer.  He has just been accepted into Orange County High School of the Arts Creative Writing Conservatory.  1,700 kids auditioned, only 400 were accepted.

Today, Riley, Casey and their sister Maggie live very full lives.  They are muscians in a rock-n-roll band, play team sports, belong to a poetry group and travel quite extensively. They have been to 46 states.  They have been to the Japanese Internment Camp, Manzanar, seen Tuvan throat singers, celebrated with the Oglala when they got Pine Ridge Reservation back, the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and hung out at the beach waiting for a grunion run.   Unfortunately, we missed the grunion every time but the experience of being on the beach after midnight on a weekday while most kids are tucked into bed was well worth it.  They are doing what they love.  As Dr. Wayne Dyer says, “Doing what you love is the cornerstone of having abundance in your life.”

It takes an open mind, a bold person, some knowledge and a bit of thinking outside of the box to embrace an unschooling lifestyle.  Trust in our children and a leap of faith helps as well.  It seems I didn’t have to go to the ends of the earth after all, to find a life rich with meaning.  We only had to take a family vacation to the lava tubes, have an open mind, and take a leap of faith.  As we live and learn together in the natural wildly organic, fluid living of day-to -day life, we grow as individuals, discover our passions, believe anything is possible and find meaning on both a cosmic and personal level.  Step out of your box, and discover how living an unschooling life leads to freedom and happiness you did not know was possible.  You will be amazed at what you and your children will learn along the way.