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Unschooling in Columbia

Unschooling in Colombia
By Erwin Fabián Garcia Lopez and Alejandra Jaramillo

We, the Jaramillo García family, live in Bogotá, Colombia in a residential complex located in the Rafael Núñez neighborhood. It is a set of various buildings, nine floors tall each. The apartment we live in today has three rooms, a study room, bathrooms, and a kitchen.

Matías and Libertad (liberty) were born in the places we lived, in the bed we rested in every day, through natural home birth. The dad took direct part in the birth, aided by an Obstetrics/Gynecology specialist and a Midwife, both of whom promote natural birth. We practice co-sleeping (our daughter and son are going to continue to sleep with us until they want otherwise) because we believe that the process of the construction of security in our children must be given by the rhythm of each of them, and that eventually they will have the wish to sleep away from mom and dad. This is why the main bedroom has a big bed and a small one placed right beside. In another room, we have a TV where we principally watch movies. There we have a hammock as well, for the children to play with. Sometimes Libertad and Matías eat in that room. Especially for lunch.

We have been a breastfeeding family; I mean, the breastfeeding process has been intense, frequent, and free to demand. Those practices have been based on the theory of attachment parenting. Each of our children was breastfed for over three years, a process that means an intense couple commitment because we could not spent nights away from our children.

We believe unschooling education is fundamental to and leads from the notion of attachment parenting. For us, the learning process must be acknowledged to be loving acts that occur within the meaningful interaction with people – father, mother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends – in our everyday life without the need for our kids to be sent on a daily basis to a place far from home.   

We live in Bogotá; however, we spend a lot of time away from the city. So far, we have always traveled as a family, except for twice. Travels are a fundamental learning opportunity for our process. To drive along the Colombian roads has given us the opportunity to understand very important elements of geography (where are we?), biology (what kind of Nature surrounds us?), knowledge of the human condition (how are people in this place?), dialects (how do they speak here, what language do they speak?).

From the point where we made the decision not to submit our children to school, we both decided to spend a lot of time with them, and that we would not act like many families, establishing one as the breadwinner and the other to stay at home. We had work, personal, ethical, philosophical, and political motives for this. Besides spending a lot of time with Matías and Libertad, we have also looked for support from other people, who spend time assisting with games and learning with our children.

We decided not to school for many reasons. We feel school does not promote cooperation enough, and it is not capable of dealing with the radical difference of the learning processes of each person. The school thinks of teaching as a vertical act where one teaches and the rest repeat. It is a space that simulates reality while having no reality itself. It is the space where the “everything counts” motto prevails; it castrates the possibilities for people to decide what they want to learn and when they wish to learn something. It hinders and reduces inter-generational communication.

At the beginning of our determination not to oblige our son to go to school – prior to the arrival of Libertad – we thought we must do the job “better” than school and with some friends we started to plan a curriculum. However, with the passing of time, still in talks with our same friends, among them Luis Fernando Ramírez, a great teacher who represents a great influence on us and is an important sponsor in this and other processes, we realized that we do not need a curriculum whatsoever: Learning takes place in a much more natural fashion and the contents that our tradition believes to be necessary are arbitrary and only make themselves valuable according to how really significant they become for each person individually.

So we promote natural learning, which understands education as the possibilities of learning in all places and moments, in every space-time, with some features of anarchist learnings and processes. The main practice is free play and the availability of materials they’re interested in. Our kids have been exposed, upon their or their parents’ suggestion, to different kinds of practices – chess, ballet, ceramics, swimming, tennis, horse riding, music, gymnastics, contemporary dance, juggling, scientific experimentation, crafting of musical instruments…. For some of the activities, they have taken classes in different schools or institutions; others have taken place in the family space. In addition, our day-to-day activities bring us to work with things such as carpentry, sewing, plasticine, food – we cook together often – handling of fire and tools such as knives (supervised by adults), manipulation of tools such as hammer, pliers, handsaw, etc. We like to re-use resources; that is why our building’s dumpster is one of our centers for materials provision; same with the miscellany store located in the building in front of ours, where Libertad and Matías go looking for the materials they did not find via their recycling efforts.

Our family life has been founded on three principles: the constant, the surprising, and the new. The constant refers to needs we as human have to live in the tranquility of what is repeated: each morning my mom kisses me, dad hugs me, I have breakfast, I have lunch, I have dinner, I brush my teeth, I take a bath, somebody is interested in my day being happy and meaningful, there are possibilities so my wishes get accomplished, even though it does not occur in the exact way I want it to be. The surprising is related to what moves me as a person because it provides a new sense to my life: At breakfast, we had a food we seldom eat and which I loved or disliked; I found out my pee has to do with my kidneys and that determines a complex system within my body; I found an emotion that has been bothering me for some time and has become unmanageable; I knew I can go through the railing game better than I could yesterday. The new pertains to all that we and our children knew this day that we didn’t before.

Our day-to-day life evolves in several ways. It is important, however, to highlight that for Matías and Libertad there are some steps in their daily activities that would not take place if they were schooled. For example, one morning Matías decides to build a Viking sword and Libertad a puppet of a princess. Each of them must do some planning in order to know the materials they need, then they need to look in case they already have them or figure out the way to get them. Then, they need to ask if there is money to buy whatever is left and go by themselves to the store to get what they need. They must also set the space and elements to work and to pick up after themselves once their work is finished.

A lot of people would say they do only what they like, which for starters is not an issue if we happen to believe we come to the world to try to make what we like. What would be wrong in such statement is the fact that, in order to do so, they will always face restrictions, and probable discomforts, such as not having the money or materials they initially thought, or having to deal with whatever their mind creates that is bigger than their ability.

We believe that during the support we provide to our children it is not necessary for us to provide guidance in the sense of teachers who decide what will be learned. On the contrary, we accompany their interests. What we, in fact, do is to take advantage of opportunities to bring about reflections we consider to be pertinent. For example, Matías once got interested, with some friends, in the Teenage Ninja Turtles movie, which resulted in us having a conversation about the four Italian masters from the Renaissance period, and it was a thrilling topic for them. On other occasions, the subject or activity that we find interesting does not seem relevant to them, so we let it pass.

Libertad and Matías have very flexible access to TV and Internet, although they are regularly accompanied by us during their activity with the media. Some contents are proposed. Matías and Libertad have developed a special taste for anime movies, which is a kind of art film for children.

They are interested in information and practices related to indigenous ancestry. The boy is especially interested in this kind of experience. He frequently does some crafting of musical and other instruments, which involves this kind of knowledge and practices, and is frequently interested in going through rituals related to indigenous cultures. That has led to dialogue and practices related with our spiritual development. Closeness to the Muisca indigenous community has allowed reflections among us. And we do various practices, such as yoga, meditation, encounters with dancing and music, which are considered practices of inner connection, to work on our emotions and our bodies.

Not being schooled, Libertad and Matías develop behaviors that end up being very different to those of schooled children. For instance, they show more autonomy: they decide what to eat, they pick their clothes and dress themselves, choose the material they want to play with, the subject they are interested in and look for advice to start or finish some project such as the construction of a puppet theater, a bow and arrow, a costume, a sword, a pool table, etc.

One of the elements we are more interested in about unschooling relies on the fact that actions in school are resolved via the law of the jungle. In our context, actions get to be commented on and accompanied. Perhaps something that can be of impact is the handling of emotions, especially the ones coming from Matías. When a certain event is found unpleasant or whenever he does not get what he wants quickly, he can show some aggressive reactions. We have never hit him (not even a spanking) or stopped him in a rough way. All the opposite: Whenever it happens, we remind him he needs the people that are affected by his aggressive drive, that he will ask for favors or will want things that won’t be given to him due to his particular behavior. Hence, we give Libertad and Matías a space to reflect about their feelings and actions, which brings us to gradually promote respect, care, help, solidarity with others. If we compare those learning dynamics with the ones happening at school or in the daily life of schooled kids, we know that schools do not normally create a place to analyze behaviors or consciously support children.

Nor do we evaluate the way school does. Whenever circumstances allow it, we attempt to make some sort of comparisons through interaction and dialogue with other kids. We also, as parents, keep aware of expressions from Libertad and Matías that exhibit the stage of their learning process. We are very proud to see how they move forward in their development, but above all we are proud of how invisible processes take place – almost incomprehensible for us – that lead a knowledge or doing to become part of their lives. For example, the time Matías started to make questions about multiplication without us having consciously brought up the subject. That time, he asked for us to ask him about the table of 22, which he already had been able to build in his head: 22, 44, 66, 88, etc.

Where we live, there is one room set up as a game and work room for Libertad and Matías, although games and work can happen in other places in the apartment. In the game and work room, they have different didactical materials and children’s books; on the walls of that room and the rest of the apartment are different crafts – pre-writing, writing and painting, done by them. There are also the different projects the kids have been interested in; for instance there is a paper-made skeleton, a pool table built by Matías, fishing net and rod, swords, arrows, etc. We frequently visit places such as book and toy libraries, museums, interactive centers for science and technology, the Veterinary Faculty barn, the Agronomy Faculty orchard, factories, farms, etc.

The dad, Erwin Fabián Garcia Lopez, is an adviser for a foundation, and his paid work is done at home most of the time, so he can be with his girl and boy. He considers learning to occur naturally in all beings because we all have the need and the ability to learn. That is why, whenever he is there, he has no intention of teaching anything to the kids, and instead he lets events and learnings take place naturally. The mother, Alejandra Jaramillo, is a professor at the National University, and she arranges her appointments so that she can spend several hours a day with Libertad and Matías. Although sometimes she has promoted guided learning, she has also been familiarizing herself more with natural learning. She does some writing and reading exercises, a lot of craft, story building, and learning about our bodies by talking about its parts, functions, systems that shape it, etc. Erwin Fabián acknowledges that she has been into a very beautiful process where she is gradually letting go of the wish to guide the kids’ activities too much.

Matías currently is seven years old. He is a child with many interests, among them sword crafting, fishing, astronomy, painting, farming, horse riding and craftsmanship, where he sometimes makes collars, earrings, bracelets which he sells. This has allowed him to approach math and the use of money in a practical, vivid way. He spends some time each week in Silvania, in the process of building an ecological hutch, where we as a family are involved with help from the grandfather on the father’s side, Chepe.

Libertad is three years, eight months old. She is interested in the activities her brother does, and she likes to visit museums and workshops. She enjoys being read stories. Just like her brother, she does horse riding and, with the help of her parents and her brother, she has made costumes, puppet theaters, and puppets.

Erwin Fabián Garcia Lopez calls this “a self-ethnographic tale,” part of a working undergraduate thesis for the Education Magister program in the National University of Colombia.

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