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Free Learning - The First Months

Free Learning – The First Months
By Kenza Saadi

So here we are, my almost-eight-year-old son and I, after three months of total unschooling. I have learned a lot, and I still have a lot to learn; and I hope that by sharing some of our experiences, you may get an insight and decide to take the plunge – or not.

Before anything, I would like to emphasis that I am a nerd. This basically means that I read just about everything under the sun regarding life learning/unschooling and free learning (or interest-based learning if you prefer). It was a hunch at first, one I had many years ago when my son went to a daycare center. I realized then that he was getting stifled. He was always very social, but he preferred to be with me at home; he preferred speaking to the teachers rather than to the other kids; he wanted to do his things his way. And that meant everything from talking to himself to doing watercolors to looking at an art book.

As I said, I read just about everything there was, in many languages. What stirred me most was reading André Stern’s book Je ne suis jamais allé à l’école (“I never went to school”). Most of the things he talks about were exactly how I saw my son behave at home, and his home was very similar to the one we have: intellectual stimulation, the arts, many languages, multi-culturalism, travels, and more.

So three months ago I took my son out of second grade and here we are.

Him: ups and downs and ups again

The first month was a mix of joy and frustration. Some days were a tough ride. He would reminisce about his friends and time at school but only focus on the “good” part, meaning recess time. He would talk on and on about the games they set up, who said what to whom and why. He would not mention his teachers, his boredom, or the tediousness of classes and homework – all the things he used to complain about regularly.

He would suddenly get upset about nothing and yell and cry, just because. I saw frustration build in. He seemed a bit like a chicken that had lost his head wondering what to do or where to go. I arranged many activities at home and outside going to museums, traveling to lovely places, inviting people here, and more. Slowly, he got settled in his new way of life.

As the days went by, he went back to talking about school from time to time. But this time he would mention how bored he felt, how he did not like to be obliged to do certain things, and how he felt they were “not allowing him to be him” (his words).

As for his days, he now can manage them on his own with some guidance from me. I do introduce concepts and ideas when I see they are fit for the moment, ranging from math to grammar. He watches Ted Talks, documentaries, and the Khan Academy, and he reads. He plays some games on his tablet and he plays freely. The latter has been a fixture in our house since he was born. He can spend hours setting up his LEGO, inventing scenarios, and filming them in action. (He got a camera for his seventh birthday –an absolutely wonderful gift!) During free play, I see him re-living in many ways what he has read or watched. Lately it has been a mix of Star Wars and Spartans!

I found that the key to getting rid of his ups and downs was to create a soft structure for the week. There is no rigid schedule but there is a pattern that helps organize the week (not the day). He has three major activities outside the house: a weekly theatre class he has been taking for more than three years, a Tai-chi Chuan class twice a week in the morning in a park, and he started an IT class at home.

The idea of some kind of structure also helps my son organize his thoughts. Unschooling is not “n’importe quoi” (“a whatever”) as the French say. If there is some structure my son does not feel he is let wild in the woods. I think that this is how he felt in the first weeks, and that is why he had such strong mood swings. After a few weeks of a more regulated structure, I see that he is striving and looking forward to his classes then coming home and eager to play and learn some more.

The IT class was an idea that was inspired by André Stern’s book mentioned above. My son is very interested in everything related to computers and programing. So I invited a gentleman, a senior in college, to come to our home and give a class for an hour-and-a-half every week. They are starting with hardware: opening computers, understanding each part, and repairing them. They will then move to software: programing, coding, and so on. The fundamental idea is that if there is a topic for which a child shows a genuine interest, we offer them the tools to learn. In this case, it works out beautifully for everyone. The topic could be anything ranging from a new language to fixing a car engine. The Internet is great but sometimes it cannot offer a hands-on experience that a teacher might. So sometimes seeking a teacher is a good idea I believe.

Me: letting-go and trusting

As for me, coming out of a standard education all to way to an Ivy League PhD, you can imagine that I have had some adjustments to make. I am an avid and constant learner and I have had to learn how not to impose learning on my son. I make things available to him and I let him do what he feels like with them.

It is simply letting go of the need to control and trusting fully in the child’s capacities. As I did a few years back with reading and writing, I never teach him anything unless he specifically asks for it (as I did recently with some mathematical concepts such as “powers” and “absolute numbers”).

The letting go is not as easy as it seems. Let me share one example. One day, my son created a newspaper with headlines and articles about facts ranging from “man slept a full month” to “alien sightings,” all of it with ads. I had to stop myself from making suggestions about page layout or correcting spelling mistakes. I let him do his project on his own with no criticism and no remarks. He showed it to me and I asked him only about the substance of the articles. It made him feel he had indeed made something worth reading.

The letting-go also involves allowing him to play freely without interference. It means he can invent what he wants and enjoy it. He can make his numerous long discourses at ease even if they may involve “non-intellectual” topics. I do not interrupt him or suggest anything, even if my overdrive brain really wants to.

Finally, the letting-go also means that I do not rate his knowledge. In other words, I do not have a standard regarding what he is supposed to know at his age. I let him be. I do not look at education standards or school curricula. I have a vague idea of what I knew at his age, and I do not try to set it up against what I think he knows. And here the key words are “what I think he knows.” Indeed, what I have noticed with free learning is that a lot of the knowledge a child accumulates is not obvious, since there is no testing. But believe me, they retain so much! I still remember my son giving me a whole lecture about the Tang dynasty with all the names of the Emperors and the rivers and what they had accomplished. Equally so, some two weeks after our return from a trip to Oaxaca, he mentioned something regarding the statue of a priest in a Pre-Colombian Museum we visited. He had registered it all.

Three conclusions

My first conclusion drawn from our experience is that an intellectual environment has to be available. Knowledge is there and, as parents, we are to point to the doors of knowledge and let the child discover on his own. Art books, stimulating story books, traveling, listening to music, commenting on world actuality, having a map of the world close-by, going to concerts and the theatre, visiting art galleries, and going to the movies are some of the elements that will enable a child to appreciate knowledge and seek it. Not everything needs to involve intellectual brilliance; it just needs to be there.

As I write, my son is with his tablet watching a movie about the life of Genghis Khan, in Mongolian with English subtitles. What led him to that? A mix of watching the movie Night at the Museum, a history book we have in the house about Central Asia, and me mentioning a few things when he asked me about Genghis Khan. Learning is simple and it comes naturally. Yes, but the environment, I believe, has to be conducive.

My second conclusion is that a parent should act as a guide. The tablet is available to my son but I am aware of what he watches and I ask him to change when things are inappropriate (violent or simply stupid). I always explain to him why I am doing so. I also regulate how much time he is allowed online. And I try to set an example when I read or cook and ask him to help. Being a guide means stirring the child towards knowledge by making them realize the beauty of it. It also means that we trust the child fully to do so. We bring the world to their reach and we are truthful about it.

The third conclusion is a point I mentioned above and that I find crucial in our lives – the one of creating some sort of pliable structure and schedule. Our days are not scheduled per se, but the week is and, of course, it can be interrupted when we travel. A “soft” schedule, as I like to call it, allows my son to have expectations about the days to come, to know that he must commit to an activity and know that knowledge comes in all forms. Along with this, as you may have noticed, my son has few activities and I find that to be important. I think that a parent should resist the tendency to get the child involved in too many activities but rather seek a few activities that make the child happy to engage in on a regular basis.

Is life learning for everyone? I do not know.

To conclude, I would like to say that after a few months I cannot answer a question most parents have asked me: “Is it for everyone?” Frankly, I do not know.

Aside from the practicality of it to the extent that a parent has to have a flexible working schedule, I cannot imagine it happening in a home that is not open to the world, where the aim of the parent is to shield the child from the ideas of “others,” and where limits are placed in what he or she should know. Unschooling is not creating an alternative world. It is precisely the opposite. It is letting the child be fully aware of its reality.

Being the mother of an unschooled child is an immense privilege; it is also most humbling. As parents, we offer our children the potential to expand their minds at will, to be creative beyond limits and to smile through it all.

Kenza Saadi holds a BA from Cornell University and a PhD from Columbia University. She has spent ten years working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in war zones. An accomplished photographer and author of various biographical accounts and poems, she now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with her seven-year-old son who is learning from life with joy. Her photography website is CaramelCaramelo.

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