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What Do Unschoolers Do All Day?
Nine Ways to Facilitate Your Child's Life Learning
By Hope Nilges

answering children's questions
Photo © Shutterstock Images

Many discussions about life learning focus on the philosophy – why we believe children learn better this way, say yes more often, and choose trust and respect over fear and control. But those who are new to the lifestyle, or those just considering it, don’t want to know why; they generally already have at least a rudimentary understanding of why. What they want to know is how. Unschooling message boards and email loops are full of parents asking the question, “What do I do?” Often they are given honest, but frustratingly vague replies such as, “Just live your life.” This leaves some with the misunderstanding that life learning is passive and parents aren’t supposed to do anything to help their children learn.

One of the reasons for these vague, sometimes misleading, responses is that when life learning is done well it’s as natural as breathing. It becomes automatic and therefore hard to describe. Often people remind others that their children learned to walk and talk naturally and they’ll learn everything else in the same way. While I agree with the sentiment behind these words, the reality is more complex. It’s true that we don’t actively teach children these skills but we still play an important role in the process. Children learn to talk because others talk to and around them. They learn to walk because there are things around them to grasp and hold onto. We don’t talk to our children or put out coffee tables specifically so they will learn these things but we’ve still played a role in facilitating their learning. Life learners can extend this natural facilitation into the rest of life in a variety of ways.

Pay attention to children’s interests and help them facilitate their growth.

Facilitation can take many forms. If you notice an area of interest, send links to websites, record TV shows, check out books from the library, rent movies, tell them about classes/workshops and suggest outings. How and what they utilize from these should be up to them. However, most of the time my kids like the things I share with them because I know them well enough to know their interests.

In addition to sharing information, facilitation also consists of taking them to classes, buying the supplies they need, watching them practice, attending recitals, and trying to authentically share in their enthusiasm.

Learn to walk the fine line between pushing and encouraging.

Ideally, there is no guilt or sense of responsibility to follow through with suggestions. If children lose interest in a particular activity after a lot of time and/or money has been invested, that’s okay. My daughter is currently enamored with dance. I don’t focus on the idea that someday she’ll be a great ballerina; instead, I see the present value in what she’s learning, not only about dance but also how to carry herself and the intrinsic value of following her passions. However, no matter how much talent or passion I see, I won’t push her to take more classes than she’s ready for and if sometime in the future she decides dance isn’t for her, that’s okay. It’s important that kids remain in control when it comes to their interests and that support doesn’t become expectation.

Meet your child on his/her learning field.

Pay attention to the things that spark inquiry. My son asks lots of questions when he watches TV or reads online. My daughter is more inquisitive when she reads books or we go on outings. This doesn’t mean that my son never learns from books or my daughter never from TV, just that I notice what they are each drawn to most often. As a result I’m better able to meet their needs without wasting a lot of time wishing my son would read more or my daughter was more technologically savvy. I see value in both of their learning styles and am happy to help them work within their natures instead of against it.

Take children’s questions seriously, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable.

I can’t tell you how many times one of my kids has asked a question in the middle of a TV show or while I was trying to read. I also couldn’t begin to count how many in depth questions have cropped up after nine PM. It would be so easy at times like these to be dismissive and give short answers. But when the show is over, the chapter ends, or I’m less tired the question won’t be relevant anymore and an opportunity for learning will have been lost. So when one of my kids asks, “What’s a spleen,” instead of simply saying, “An organ,” and leaving it at that, I might also ask if they’d like to see where the spleen is and what it does. (This really happened and we ended up with a full size map of the body at eleven PM.) I take their questions as far as they want to go but I am also careful to follow their lead. When they stop responding to my suggestions, it’s time to stop making them.

Some questions may not be inconvenient so much as uncomfortable. My son heard the word “erection” on TV the other day and wanted to know what it meant. A few days before that, he had a question about why I was buying feminine hygiene products again. These types of questions used to make me stammer but now they are just par for the course. I love that he can ask me anything and have seen it make him more confident in questioning other adults. Recently, on a visit to the doctor, he spoke directly to the doctor, asked questions, and discussed his responsibilities in getting well. He has taken more charge of his health than many adults and I’m confident that it’s because we’ve created a safe environment for asking questions.

Seek opportunities for meaningful discussions.

If I’m reading, watching TV, or hear about something I think the kids will be interested to know, I share it with them. Just a simple, “Did you know...” or something similar. I don’t see these as “teachable moments” so much as a desire to share information, much like I would with a friend. Discussing interesting information and events is a natural part of my life and I share it with my kids with no hidden agenda. If they seem interested, we’ll discuss further; if not, we don’t. When I shared the news about the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico with them, they wanted to know more and both impressed me with their questions, comments, and desire to help. When I shared news about this year’s elections, they couldn’t have cared less – but you never know what will strike their interest if you don’t talk with them about what’s happening in the world.

Invite your child on outings.

A trip to the ballet solidified my daughter’s budding desire to take dance more seriously and she was able to perform a small part in The Nutcracker with a ballet company just a few months later. Outings are an important part of our life learning experience and I invite the kids on as many excursions as we can manage. But I use the word “invite” because they may not want to go. My daughter loves to get out of the house and is up for anything, but I realized a while back that my son prefers to be at home. When I stopped worrying about it and let him be himself, life became so much easier. I still try to find places I think he’ll enjoy; sometimes he chooses to go, while other times he chooses to stay home. I have found that he’s not interested in parks or libraries so I’ve stopped pushing him to go to these (although I do still invite him because you never know). I know that if I really want him to get out of the house I need to look for things on his learning field, not mine. Recently he attended a Mixed Martial Arts fight with his dad. This wouldn’t have been my first choice but he loved it and had a great evening away from home. I want him to experience the world but I recognize that it’s more valuable if it’s on his terms.


Strewing is the act of putting things out you think they may enjoy: checking out a library book and leaving it on their bed, forwarding a link to a great website, telling them about a new movie. I touched lightly on this earlier but included it separately because, in addition to doing this with things I know they are already interested in, I also strew things I think they might be interested in if they were exposed. It’s a big world out there and I don’t expect my kids automatically to know all it has to offer. It is my responsibility to expose them to great works of literature, history, other cultures, etc. Life learning doesn’t mean sitting on your hands and waiting for them to discover Mark Twain on their own; however, it does mean not having a vested interest in their response to things you strew. If a book goes unread, a link ignored or movie unwatched that’s okay. Strewing is simply another form of suggestion and, like all of my suggestions, the kids are free to take it or leave it.

Create opportunities for fun, and learning will often be a pleasant side effect.

We have a lot of fun. We laugh, we play, we learn. Fun and building relationships is our goal and learning flows from that. I’ve found that trying to construct fun around learning is much more difficult and less authentic than just focusing on the fun and letting the learning happen naturally. Board games, for example, are something we all love. We learn a lot from them but I stopped trying to make the games about learning and focused on the fun. Ironically, when I did this the fun and the learning increased.

Often, looking for fun in daily activities leads to unexpected learning. Recently when I was cleaning a vase, I used baking soda and vinegar and I knew the kids would enjoy the reaction. My son thought it was so much fun that he proceeded to take the materials outside to try some experiments on his own. Later he wanted to look up what causes the bubbles, which was great, but it also would have been okay if it had gone no further and he’d just had a fun afternoon. The learning was a natural byproduct of the fun, not the other way around.

Be present.

It may seem a bit new age-y for some, but the best thing any parent can do for their child is to be present. The grocery store isn’t just a place to think about the meals you’ll cook in the future; it’s a place full of sights, smells, and learning opportunities. The same is true of the bank, the library, and hanging the clothes out to dry – if you stay in the moment and think about what you’re doing instead of what you could be doing. Being available to your kids so much of the time can be the most difficult aspect of life learning and it’s not the most efficient way to get through your to-do list. But it’s also unbelievably rewarding. My motto for our family has become, “We need presence more than presents.” Corny? You bet. But also the purest, most important lesson we’ve learned on this journey.

Hope Nilges is joyfully unschooling with her husband and their two children.

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