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New Unschoolers Need Decompression Time

Decompression Time
By Greg Reisser

I’m often asked what is the most difficult aspect of life learning for our family. That question is easy to answer…and it’s in the past. Truthfully, there doesn’t seem to be a downside these days. But early on, when our son was transitioning from school to not-school, things were not so easygoing. My wife and I pulled K. from school in fifth grade for a variety of reasons. He agreed with the idea and was, in fact, very happy to begin learning at home. However, none of us were prepared for the amount of time it would take for him to make that transition.

We realize now that most kids will need some time to adjust, and that the amount of time will depend on the child, their situation in school, the age at which they have left school, and so on. I’ve been told that it takes roughly a month of decompression time for every year spent in school, although I don’t know who came up with that guideline. In our case, close to a year passed before K. successfully moved out of passive mode and began to thrive as a life learner.

My wife and I found it difficult to be patient and not to worry that we’d made a horrible mistake. The mistake we did make wasn’t to take K. out of school, but to try and bring school home. We had never intended that. We had planned to have a relaxed attitude toward learning at home. But our anxiety got the best of us for a while and we tried to force our son to do “just a bit of school work” each day. It became clear pretty quickly that was the wrong approach. Although K. didn’t know anything but rules and curriculum, and therefore seemed to want them, he really didn’t want them. And we began to see just how much school had eroded his self-confidence. So for the most part, we backed off and let him be while he found his footing in his new lifestyle.

That’s not to say we “did nothing,” although K. did spend quite a bit of time in front of the television. He also spent hours riding his bike around town somewhat aimlessly. (It seemed aimless enough to me, at any rate, but I see now that he was burning off energy and maybe working through some issues.)

My son has always enjoyed reading, so he and I spent a lot of time together at the library. (That was a luxury I appreciated for myself and I realize, in retrospect, that my enthusiasm rubbed off.)

Other things we did included watching videos on a variety of topics (okay, you might call them educational, but that wasn’t the point) and exploring making art – which I think helped us both work through some feelings as well.

Since we both enjoy hiking, he and I took a number of short, local Nature walks, and the whole family took one longer and more challenging four-day trek. If I chose to, I could document a huge amount of learning that ensued, from botany and biology to climate change and taking physical and emotional risks. All of that has been part of the foundation on which K. has, for the past few years, built his self-directed education.

At the same time, the process taught me trust and respect for this capable young learner. So when your school-leaver needs some decompression time, just try chilling out with them and enjoy! 

Greg Reisser lives in eastern Canada with his wife, their teenaged son, and his step-daughter. He feels fortunate to be able to participate in learning along with the rest of his family.

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