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Unschooling - a Lifestyle of Choice and the Attraction of Video Games

A Lifestyle of Choice, and the Attraction of Video Games
By Sara Norman-Politinsky

There are many opinions in the life learning world about kids and video games. Many of them are strongly-held and vociferously defended – in the social networking milieu at any rate. I think that discussion is actually fundamental to our understanding of life learning/unschooling, as opposed to other types of education and other lifestyles that families choose. In fact, as writers in this magazine often remind us, we’re not just talking about education but about a different way of looking at the world, at learning, at relationships, and at ourselves. So here’s my two cents about how this philosophy works for us and our kids. I’ll write specifically about video gaming, but the ideas relate to every other aspect of our lives too.

Although I am not a gamer, I know a fair bit about games because I pay attention to what my kids are playing. And I’ve noticed that what attracts kids to the best video games is positive. These games are active and participatory. They engage rather than tell. They invite players to be part of the creative process. And that, it seems to me, is a good description of the life learning philosophy.

I don’t overtly regulate my children’s screen time or ban the Internet, like some parents do. There is a great deal of learning to be had from using computers in general, and gaming in particular. And, after all, our kids will be using computers all the time as adults; they are as much a part of life as any other tools. Kids need to learn how to use them sensibly and to manage their time. And life learning is all about learning-by-doing. Right?

“The best computer games are active, participatory, engage rather than tell, and invite players to be part of the creative process. All those qualities are part of the life learning philosophy.”

Aside from the learning that I see happening, I am skeptical about some of the research about video game over-use because it has been done with conventional families and kids who go to school. Those kids only have a limited amount of time available when they’re not at school – even less when you factor in homework. So that leaves little time or energy to do anything else.

They might not have enough of either left over to be outside in Nature, to play, to hang out face-to-face with friends – all of which I think are extremely important. There could be a serious lack of balance in their lives. But that’s not the case with our school-free kids, who have lots more time in a day to do a variety of things.

One of the things some people say against limited screen time is that we wouldn’t likely put limits on the number of hours kids play outside or read books. However, computer usage is, I think, a bit different from playing outside or reading. There is what appears to be a valid concern with the long-term health effects of wireless radiation and radiation from cell phones and the like. The research is on-going, but not looking good in terms of intense usage of devices. I have made an effort to study that with my kids, to discuss it, and to create good usage policies for everyone in the family, in the same way we discuss food choices or plan outings so everyone’s interests are looked after.

Even so, there is no point in trying to force a child away from something, because it just makes the forbidden look more intriguing. And throwing our adult weight around is not the sort of parenting we life learners are aiming for anyway. In my world, parenting means communication, cooperation, trust, and respect. And those things work in both directions – you get back what you give. Fairness is another cornerstone of our family’s life. That means that my husband and I try very hard not to ask something of our children that we wouldn’t ask of another adult. So, at the same time as I don’t see the necessity of limiting the amount of time the kids spend playing collaborative video games, I try to model balanced behavior for them.

I have a neighbor who spends a fair amount of time nagging her kids to get off their computers and do their homework, go outside and ride their bikes, etc. She also spends a fair amount of time complaining to me about all the time they spend playing video games, which she sees as a frivolous waste of time. However, this same woman spends hours playing Facebook games and sharing links and photos with her friends there and on Twitter. Why does she get to do that but her kids aren’t allowed to spend “too much” time with their video games?

As I said, in our family, we value communication, which is a two-way street and involves listening as much as talking. When everyone in our household is in touch with everyone else, we can discuss virtually anything, including what one of us might perceive as a problem. Recently, I felt like I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids, mostly because they were glued to their computer games. So I asked if we could chat about that. I told them I had a bunch of things I was enthusiastic about and wanted to share with them. I said that I had noticed some neat things that would be happening in our town in the coming month that I thought they might be interested in. And I asked if we could create a sort of schedule – a rearrangement of our time, in effect – so that they could get the computer time they wanted and I could spend more time with them doing some of those fun things. There was no guilting. I had no expectations that they’d do something because I said they should. And I think that’s why they were open to my perspective and to my suggestions. In fact, my daughter later told me she was glad I’d spoken up. Her older brother, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic than his sister. I accepted that. Eventually, when he saw the rest of us off doing interesting things while he was home with his games, he decided to participate in some of our activities, which he was free to do…or not. The result was that he learned some valuable time management skills and found that all-important balance in his life – a balance that he knew was right for him, not one that I had imposed.

Having said all of that, I recognize that other people may feel differently about – or more strongly against – video gaming (or any other aspect of a child’s life) than I do. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you are a lesser life learner! It just means that you’re finding your own parenting path. Nevertheless, I do hope that, before you ban or limit gaming or even other computer time, you’ll sit down at a computer with your child and take a look at some of the games they’re playing. I think you’ll discover just how engaging and creative they are, and why your kids enjoy playing them. Then, if you still think there is a problem, book some time with your kids – at a family meeting, for instance – and share your concerns, listen to their opinions and feedback, and work together to find a solution.

Sara Norman-Politinsky is the mother of twins who have been life learning for five years.

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