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Happytown - unschoolers living from real life

By Rachel Gathercole

Maybe Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Happytown was. On Thursday we lived in a house; on Friday we lived in a fully functioning town, complete with houses, community center, movie theater, thrift shop, inn, artist colony, concert hall, park and mayor. And that was only the beginning.

I can’t say I’m all that surprised. After all, when I was a child I did the exact same thing. I, too, transformed plain, everyday hallways into bustling avenues by the simple act of making street signs and mailboxes out of paper and markers. I, too, did away with mundane kitchen and dining room eating experiences and created a trendy café of my very own. The “one-house” town of my youth was named “Gathercole City.” The one of my kids’ youth: “Happytown.”

The thing about Happytown is that, well, life is just easier there. Where things were boring before, now they are exciting. Whereas in the regular old house, people didn’t want to do chores, in Happytown, they leap at the opportunity to be “hired” for jobs that need doing. Where learning could otherwise be forced and difficult, in Happytown, it happens naturally and effortlessly.

I didn’t make it this way; they did. I just adapted to their playful way of looking at the world and went with it, rather than insisting that they always adapt to mine. Who knew? Their way works.

Take clean-up time, which used to go something like this:

Me: Boy, there’s a big mess in the bedroom. Come on guys; let’s clean it up and then we can play.

My kids: I hate cleaning up.

Me: It will only take a minute.

My kids: Okay, but I hate bending over! (huff) Will you just do it?

Me: Let’s do it together. Just pick up five things and I’ll do the rest.

Them: (big sigh) Okaaaaaaayyyyyyyyy!


“Brrrrrring, brrrrring!” says the (toy) phone. “Hello?” answers one of the kids excitedly. “Hello,” say I into another phone, “This is town hall calling. A tornado has hit one of the houses on Sleepy Lane and we are looking for some workers to help clean up the mess.” “ME!!!” shout my children. “NO, ME!!!” “Relax,” say I calmly, (ever the helpful mother), “We can use both of you.” Ah, the sacrifices of motherhood.

Learning is even easier. The kids do it on their own. After all, if one wants to keep up with the job market in a lively metropolis, one has to stay informed. And at any rate, when done their way, work, play and learning become almost indistinguishable.

In fact, there is no such thing as boredom in Happytown. Everything that used to be a mundane day-to-day activity is now an adventure and a thrill. We no longer have a bathroom; we have a beauty parlor. (Bathing and using the toilet are among the services provided there.) Where there was once a driveway with cars, there is now a busy train station awaiting eager passengers. We have a town square complete with benches (formerly known as “couches”), and Happytown citizens help out with keeping the town square clean. Strangely, our town also boasts a Welsh castle (where there was once an empty refrigerator box), complete with Welsh flag and Celtic dragons stenciled on the walls. And, lest we lose track of current events, roving reporters keep tabs on everything going on in town and keep the citizenry well informed through a hand-printed newspaper that is published and placed in the town square (one copy for all to share) every few days. The young citizens scarcely notice the skills and knowledge that they are acquiring in order to accomplish these important pursuits. They’re just too busy having fun.

We also have a (LEGO) construction company and architecture studio, and various local artists at work, and for everyone’s eating pleasure, we have three restaurants which occupy the same space at different times of day; in the morning it is the Breakfast Nook, later the Lunch Nook, and still later the Dinner Nook. Everyone in the town works at these hip venues at one time or another in one capacity or another. My three-year-old daughter’s favorite job is that of waitress, though she happily serves shifts as cook and as dishwasher. My seven-year-old son prefers to be the cook (or the customer) but sometimes waits tables.

I don’t know why it’s so easy. Maybe it’s because my kids are never kids in Happytown. Which is to say, they will never say they are kids. Asked how old they are, they will reply, “twenty-six” or “nineteen” or “sixty” or something of that sort. They are “big” people in a community, yet in a world that remains small and familiar enough to feel manageable and safe. And as befits the grown citizens that they are, they are very responsible about holding down jobs, acquiring job-related skills, being informed citizens, doing things for themselves and contributing to the greater good. Since it is a small town with few residents, everyone does several jobs. You might say it is a cooperative community.

Before Happytown came along, it was I who did nearly all the work around the house. I always swept, mopped, folded clothes, made the beds. The children even looked to me for entertainment. These days I still do the majority of the work (I won’t lie), but there are all sorts of helpful people about town. When there is laundry to be done, the Laundromat miraculously opens and some helpful employee offers to fold napkins and washcloths. Another sorts colors. When a child is thirsty and I am unavailable to get her a drink, she simply visits the nearest eating establishment and – voila! – an employee appears, ready to climb up on a stool to reach the cups and get some juice or water for her. No longer bored children milling about the same old, boring house, they are now capable citizens with initiative who can darn near run a town on their own power.

But their professional lives go far beyond simple town upkeep. They also have an amusement park wherein they entertain each other with the Piggy-Back Ride, the Spinning Ride, and other fun attractions. My son has a detective agency, Encyclopedia-Brown-style, wherein he solves cases for paying clients (twenty-five cents per case) and invoices those who fail to pay on time. The kids have a library, a hotel, a boutique and a fix-it shop. They have a shopping center where they peddle handmade jewelry and original artwork. They have a hobby and book shop where they sell original, hand-illustrated comics, novels and storybooks by Happytown’s own up-and-coming young authors. They even have a blacksmith’s shop where they make and repair medieval armor, shields and swords. The one thing Happytown doesn’t have is a school. It’s a place of learning all on its own.

In fact, the town is a veritable hotbed of career training, in which the young citizens explore and try on the many possibilities that lie in their future: entrepreneur, chef, writer, news editor, builder, citizen, parent, civil engineer, painter, politician. Anything they want to be – everything they want to be – there is room for it in this hoppingly unique town of their own creation. In this magic place where work and play are one, they don’t have to wait for that elusive, unimaginably far off time beyond the horizon: “when they grow up.” They can be it right now. All they have to do is choose it.

Whew! All this gallivanting on the town has made me hungry. Oops, forgot to take the inter-city train to Grocery-Town to get food for dinner tonight. No worries, though, I’ll stop in for a bite at Happytown’s newest dining spot – A Taste of Yesterday. I hear it’s frequented by some of the area’s hippest, most upwardly-mobile professionals. If I’m really lucky, maybe I’ll get that cute waiter again. You know, the one with the sandy blonde hair, around three-and-a-half feet tall, big grin on his face? Yep, that’s the one.

Just gotta love this place!

Rachel Gathercole is a freelance writer and the proud mother of two delightfully autodidactic children. She is utterly fascinated with children and motherhood, and can’t help looking on in awe at the incredible, inscrutable learning process that daily unfolds before her eyes.

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