Unschooling: The dichotomy of play & maturity

I came across an article today that was originally published in the NY Times in 2006.    The headline of the article read “Homeschoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead”.   The homeschoolers they were talking about were unschoolers, and the issue was so-called “child-led learning”.

Two things stood out to me, one from the article itself and one from the comments, which to be fair were filled with opinions both pro and con.    From the article:

“It is not clear to me how [unschoolers] will transition to a structured world and meet the most basic requirements for reading, writing and math,” said Luis Huerta, a professor of public policy and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, whose national research includes a focus on home schooling.  “As school choice expands and home-schooling in general grows, this is one of those models that I think the larger public sphere needs to be aware of because the folks who are engaging in these radical forms of school are doing so legally,” said Professor Huerta of Columbia. “If the public and policy makers don’t feel that this is a form of schooling that is producing productive citizens, then people should vote to make changes accordingly.”

(Oh, would I LOVE to talk to Professor Huerta about his opinions regarding unschooling.  Let me at him!)

And then, from the first comment posted after the article was published:

I consider ”child-led learning” to be an incredibly foolhardy philosophy. Not even older teenagers, much less the very young, should be put in the position of making unalterable decisions regarding their future welfare.

This is a very interesting statement, given that it is schools, not unschoolers, who push kids to score well on tests and make good grades, hanging the threat of ruining their future welfare over their heads.

So what does that have to do with play and maturity?   Well, one of the questions I get all the time is, “But what if all they want to do all day is play?”   My son Ben is seven, and so that is often what he wants to do all day.    I would say that’s true for Maya, age 11, as well, though her idea of ‘play’ includes making and editing videos.    How will children learn basic reading, writing and math and then how will they become productive citizens if all they do all the time is play?   If all they do is what they want to do?   Because as Professor Huerta must know, being a productive citizen means doing a lot of crap you hate, right?   Life is not about having fun, people!!     And as our critical commenter knows, if all you do is play it is UNALTERABLE.    You are making a decision about your future when you do whatever you want.

You know what?  Our critical commenter is right about that, but not in the way that she thinks.

Here’s the thing.  The dichotomy of unschooling is that children are allowed and even encouraged to play as much as they want, but also spend their days living real life in the world with parents and/or friends both young and old.     The play is creative and fun and uninhibited.   The life is, well, life; filled with daily tasks and outings and work either observed or done.  The unschooled kids we know are some of the most creative kids around.    They are also some of the most mature.

When I say mature, I don’t mean ‘having knowledge that is inappropriate for their age.’  I don’t mean having group sex at the age of 15 (something that is apparently more and more common among, one has to assume,  schooled teens in the Boston area, according to this article published in the UK).   I mean mature, confident and capable.   I mean able to make well thought out decisions for themselves and to be generous and empathetic to others.  Also, it must be said, the ability to learn what they need to know, whether that be math or writing or reading or how to bake a cake (which of course involves math).

Professor Huerta voiced concern over unschoolers ability to “transition to a structured world” and he is entirely missing the point.   There is no “transition” necessary.  Unschooled kids are far better at navigating the world as they grow, because they’ve been immersed in it their entire lives.    Yes, they play a lot, but as someone once said, “Play is children’s work.”   They learn more than we can ever imagine while playing, and the more of it they do, the more they learn.   They also spend far more time with adults who are doing real-world things than do schooled children, and they learn accordingly.

Unschooled children learn how to learn.  They learn where to get the information they need to accomplish a given task, and they mostly learn this through play and observation.  As an example, Maya recently started making some amazing things with Sculpey clay – I mean stuff that is sale-worthy.   When I asked her how she did it, she told me that she found tutorials on line and learned from them.   She has since improved her skills enough to publish some tutorial videos of her own.  (Filmed and edited by her, of course.)    As another example, Ben was building with Lego yesterday, trying to make a fortress with a wrap-around staircase.  At first the stairs kept collapsing, and he spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to reinforce them and attach them to the outer wall of the fortress.   Once he succeeded, he told us all how he did it.  No one helped him.

This is play.  This is confidence. This is learning. This is maturity.   The dichotomy of unschooling, as it turns out,  is no dichotomy at all.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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