Unschooling With A Ciricuulum Pt. 2: This is how we do it

This is part 2 of a series. Part 1 can be viewed here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

So how do you go about allowing your child to immerse themselves in their world while adhering to a curriculum? It’s could really be summed up in two words; simplify, and evolve.

Every item on our curriculum is parsed down to its simplest form. Education is too full of digressions and irrelevant information. Intense focus on the basics is more important than learning extraneous information at a young age.
And allow yourself the freedom to evolve. If the kids aren’t interested, change what you’re talking about. Follow their lead.
The Room:
Every one who homeschools will tell you how important having a room designated for this purpose is, and I completely agree. However, I don’t agree with most that this should look like a regular classroom, with informative posters on the wall and toys removed. Our playroom and classroom are the same, for the precise reason that I want my children to be distracted by play. I had a hard time when I was little not playing because I would hear all of these interesting things and then I needed to do something with this information. In other words, I would become so inspired I had a hard time continuing to focus until I could express what was going on in my mind with play. As I’ve gotten older, writing has taken the place of play, but I still find when I’m thinking about something, it’s hard to think about anything else until I have “released” that thought somehow. Study after study has found that play is vitally important for children, especially for this reason. Don’t put the toys away. Encourage your children to take frequent play breaks while you’re learning. It helps solidify information and process it, so your child is able to come back with a clear mind to work on the next thing.
I’ve talked before about creating a climate of learning in your house. This may be helpful to see how play and learning can become intertwined.
History:
The Roman Republic and Cincinnatus/ Roman Gods and Goddesses/ Roman Builders/ Rome’s War with Carthage/Meet Julius Ceasar/ Crossing the Rubicon/ Caesar meets Cleopatra/ The Death of Caesar
This is a sample of the subjects in our curriculum.
I simplified it into two topics, Tales of Gods and Republican Government.
From there history becomes easy. There are so many great picture books that tell Greek/Roman tales. We read about Pandora, Clytie, Echo, and the Minotaur. We watched Disney’s Hercules (although I had to point out some incorrect information), and Disney’s Silly Symphony The Goddess of Spring (which is the story of Persephone and Hades). All of these we read/watched over and over but I kept my input in check, only answering questions. The point was exposure to these tales, not for my children to understand them in the larger context of Greek and Roman history and life.
Republican Government is a bit harder, because it’s really stuck in the world of facts. Luckily, my daughter is really interested in Abraham Lincoln, so we are working on his life history and his job as a legislator and president in order to talk about the basics of how voting and representational government work. Again, we don’t get too much into it. Just touch on the basics, and bring it back to what they know, which right now is a lot of political ads. I point out how and why these people are trying to get votes, and how people in Lincoln or the Roman’s day pushed people to vote for them.
History is great starting place for playing. Not only are historic tales great imagination fodder, little bits of historical information can be dropped in while your kids are playing. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of our kids pulling a pioneer wagon, or playing Native American in a teepee, but simple comments, like “Oh, your town only has a well? That’s not enough for all those people. You should make an aqueduct,” open up a new world of imagination to them.
 Board and computer games are also great for history. Pioneer trail, Age of Empires, Risk…they’re all fun for children surprisingly young (although they may not adhere to the rules) and they are setting children up for those Ah-ha moments of recognition later in life when they learn more factual history.
Math:
In math almost all of first and second grade is devoted to addition and subtraction. And because it’s common core, it is all about finding a million different ways to solve a million different problems. It really all comes down to practice. They want you to get a lot of practice so you can do it well. We learned how to do addition and subtraction last year and my daughter is so so bored with it. She loves multiplication, mostly because it strikes her as a much more efficient way to add. She is very good at multiplying so most of our math time is spent doing multiplication.
I still make her do a lot of addition, but in the “real world.” Anything that she needs to add, I’ve stopped doing it for her, and even have gone so far as to ask her for her help tallying up items at the grocery store. It’s also been helpful allowing her to have her own money because she has to keeping a running chart of how much she gets, how much she has, and how much she’s spent. This has been very little burden to her, especially compared to how hard doing sheet after sheet of math problems was.

Every one knows baking is great way to learn quantities and fractions.

There are other kinds of Math that I just ignore all together. Counting money seems such a pointless thing to have to “learn.” After all, money wouldn’t have been around very long if back in the ancient pre-public education days people weren’t able to count it and use it. Money is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is absorbed and doesn’t need to be taught. 
The same thing could be said for things like charts. They are very basic, and very essential in our modern world. We did a couple when my daughter was very young but most of her chart making expertise comes from just playing. She makes charts all the time, usually to tell her little brother what he should and should not be doing on the given day. The usefulness of charting is quickly seen by children and doesn’t need to be pounded into their heads. Maps are another thing that with easy access to, children will learn on their own.
Reading:
Reading in our house used to be stressful and pushed. I’ve stopped when I realized how much my daughter was hating reading. I still encourage her to read books, and wont answer her when she asks what something says (“You tell me”), but if she’d rather I read a story to her for our daily reading, I happily acquiesce. We don’t talk much about themes, or author’s meaning. Instead of doing what those kinds of things, which are often on the curriculum list, I will read her a poem or story and just let the conversation naturally unfold, “What did you think of that story?”
Many times I’ll ask silly questions, “Man, that wolf really huffed and puffed a lot. Do you think their house was on fire?” Kids love these silly questions and it gets them to see significant plot developments without having tough conceptual words like “themes” and “literary devices.” Kids especially like re-reading the same stories over and over. Don’t worry if they seem to have the story more memorized than actually reading it. Most of reading is memorization and recognizing words without having to actively think about them, so even repeating a story by heart is a great part of learning to read well.
Writing:
This is unfortunately the hardest part of our homeschooling. My daughter has to take writing tests and there is really no good way around avoiding this topic. I try to allow her to encounter writing mostly through play and helping around the house (she practices it the most when she’s playing “school” with her little brother since she is always the teacher). However, we still have a list of words that she practices every day. I try to come up with some good games, like where she spells out the word for me and I have to be the one to sound it out, or word Simon Says, where I’ll spell a word, she sounds it out, and then has to do what the word says. Still, it can be pretty unpalatable. 
Science:
Science curriculum cutting is so easy because all we do are the experiments. I don’t bother teaching her how to read a ruler, or why the baking soda bubbles when vinegar is added, unless she asks of course (which she often does. Again, people really underestimate the simple desire to know, to ask “why” that children have. Things don’t need to be shoved on them, they will often ask questions themselves, and in fact when you prompt them, it seems to make them less likely to question at all. Often, the most important part of unschooling is keeping your parent mouth shut until prompted.)

Science throughout all ages is and always should be about observing natural phenomena and questioning why. I love this comic example of the difference between a scientist and a normal person:
This is why I actively try to avoid giving science answers. Even if it would be easier to just tell your kids the answer to a question already solved three hundred years ago, it ruins the scientific process. Rousseau gave a beautiful example of this in Emile. He had the child go out into the woods with him, get lost, and have to try to find his way back. But he didn’t simply say, “what have we learned about the sun’s positions during various times of the day?” He said, “Think about the mornings that we spend on the porch. Where is the sun then? Can we use that to help us think which way we should go? Think about when you want to see what is happening over the hedges? What do you do? What can we do here that would help us see what is happening over the trees?” (these are not direct quotes, just summaries).
This kind of thinking is working on two levels. In home school, it is the difference between saying, “Lets pour sugar in one cup of water and salt in the other and see how they taste,” or saying, “I accidentally made the soup too salty. What do you think I can put in to make it not as salty?” Both are useful in experiments but one is exploratory and the other is not (btw the answer is sugar or a potato).
Just yesterday my husband was taking apart and old chair. He could have said, “Lily, come here. I’m going to make a giraffe out of these old chair parts. Want to help?
 Instead, he said, “What can we do with these old chair parts?”
My daughter looked the parts over, turning and flipping them, piecing them together before deciding they looked like a giraffe. She placed them together, marking where Dad needed to cut, and they glued and nailed it together.
Either way, they were creating a valuable experience together, but he made it all the more valuable by placing the problem solving on her. If you can, try to avoid “pre-packaged” experiments and crafts. A lot of experimenting is just messing around. Kids especially love to do this in the kitchen with food. They aren’t getting the labels, “this is salt, this is spicy, this makes dough rise, this is a thickener,” but they are learning it all the same and their attention is more sustained than it would have been had it been pre-digested for them.

Music:
This is another subject that we don’t have a lot of control over, since my daughter goes to a piano teacher. I do feel like piano is the best instrument to start with since it encompasses the entire range of the music staff. We have incorporated into our practicing free time. After she is done practicing her assigned songs, she is to stay at the piano for another ten minutes, just messing around. She composes songs, messes with the black key and pedals which she doesn’t get to touch regularly, and makes practicing more fun.  I also try to keep background music going throughout the day. It isn’t necessary to me that they are able to know the titles and composers of songs, but being able to recognize them is important. I hear all the time, “Hey, I know that song!”
Art:
We get a lot of “Hey, I’ve seen that picture before!” too. Art in school makes me so depressed because it is so so SO important to young children but it is often completely thrown aside. We do a lot of crafts, usually either based on what we’re talking about in another subject or as gifts, but we also spend a lot of time drawing outside or copying prints at a museum. You’d think this would be hard for young children to do, but that urge to touch and manipulate that children feel when they go to an art museum (and which makes them impossible to control) finds a great outlet when you bring along some paper and crayons. Children can be really deeply impacted by art, so much so that it creates an almost dramatic sense of “I need to do something about this! Now!” Allowing them to draw, either copying the original or being inspired to create something new, releases their creativity valves and creates a connection between inspiration and creation.

Yeah, it’s almost impossible to not find naked women in mythological paintings

Art is also useful when talking about art and science and books. We tend to think about art as it’s own subject, but it is always ABOUT something. If we’re talking about Rome, we’ll look at famous paintings of Greek/Roman stories (there are TONS of them). If we’re looking at birds, I might pull up some Audubon illustrations and suggest the kids make their own. If we’re reading Treasure Island we might look at Wyeth’s illustrations. Again, it’s exposure, not memorization of facts, that is important to teaching children about art.
And of course, children should have easy and fairly unlimited access to art materials. Often these and writing go hand in hand, where pictures become part of a book or sentences need accompanying illustrations. Don’t forget that there are more forms of art than just classical. We recently went through a period of studying comics, and my kids are still loving drawing monsters battling heroes.
Media:
I spent a lot of time going back and forth with my kids use of media. My eldest can handle unlimited access to these things. She will happily play online or watch TV all day if I’d let her, and she’d learn a lot and enjoy doing it. My son really enjoys doing it as well but he cannot handle it. He becomes anxious and upset, flying off the handle about the smallest things. I think it is just too much stimulation. So because of him they are limited to 2 TV shows a day. I don’t have a set limit on the computer or playing with their hand held devices, but when I feel like they’ve been on the for awhile I’ll suggest they find something else to do. Often they do even before I tell them.

I don’t always go for “educational” media, because I find value in a lot of things that wouldn’t necessarily classify as being worthwhile. However, I don’t let them watch a lot of things that are on TV, like Nick or Disney. Many modern shows are just….well, worthless really, plus I want to avoid commercials. Netflix and Amazon Prime are great choices because I can give them a store of “OK” shows, which they can pick from.
Websites like classics4kids.com have fun music games, as does PBSkids.org.
PBS is such a master of unschooling homeschooling. Bill Nye, Wishbone, Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego can all be found on Youtube, and are still a great way for children to watch something fun while learning. 

I’ve talked before about how wonderful old cartoons are because they give a lot of exposure without pushing Learning. I know operas and many classical songs from Bugs Bunny. I also really like Classical Baby, which you can watch online. They have different “shows” and even though they say Baby, they are still good for older children. 
As for science, you have to have to HAVE TO get Planet Earth. There is nothing more amazing for you or your children to watch to learn about places you haven’t been. 
There are lots of great games online like GeoGuesser, Kerbal Space Program (or the easier NASA rocket builder), and Code.org.
Preschoolers:
I unfortunately don’t have a lot of suggestions for preschoolers. My oldest went to actual preschool and kindergarten and half of first grade, so she wasn’t home those years. My son knows his letters and their sounds and his numbers and how to add, mostly because of his sister. One of the biggest benefits to homeschooling is that you have mixed ages. It should not be surprising that 2 two-year olds playing together will not advance the intellect of each other, but a two year old playing with a seven year old who can read and write will naturally learn quite a bit from their more advanced games.
My son is what I would call quirky with neurological tendencies. When he was 2.5 he knew all of his letters and was wanting to learn how to read. Thankfully, I was a bit preoccupied at the time and didn’t push him to become an early reader. Had I allowed him to retreat into his private world of control and internal thought (which is what I believe he was doing in his fascination with letters), I have no doubt he would be a much different child than he is today. Instead, because he was developing a lot of social problems, we focused on developing his social skills. He has gotten much much better and less obsessive with controlling his environment. He still loves words and numbers but it’s now a side thought to his real interest in playing with other children and exploring.
I think avoiding introducing “schooling” to a preschooler, even if they show interest, is important. Play out their interest but don’t prompt. Preschool is the time for socialization, verbal skills, and physical dexterity, and these are just as important (in many cases more so) than reading and math.
Most Important:
Don’t forget to look for the little signs of learning every day. Once I began reading more about child development, it was astounding to me to see the signs of learning my children demonstrated. One of the biggest reasons to do unschooling is so continue the same sense of self-motivation that helped your children learn how to walk and talk. An irresistible curiosity is one of the most important things we should protect in our children. Expect to have to give your children a lot of prompting at first, especially if they have been to school. I mentioned as an example earlier about drawing nature prints. I suggested this to my daughter several times last year and she would usually shrug it off as boring. Now, I’ve seen her several times look at a bird, go inside for paper and a pencil, and sit outside drawing. Learning from the environment becomes easier the more you do it. And your thinking changes too. When my daughter is asked the riddle,
 “A tree has five birds. A man comes and shoots one. How many birds are left?”
she doesn’t automatically switch her brain to think in terms of a superior asking her to solve a mathematical problem. She imagines in her head the scenario, contemplates her experiences with birds, trees, and guns, and answers, “None, the birds would fly away when he shot the gun.”
That of course is the correct answer, but an answer that most people who have been taught to think “traditionally” would not realize, because they think in the abstract, not in reality. Give your children a firm footing in reality so that they can recognize the significance in higher levels of thinking.
For some additional reading check out
How Children Learn by John Holt
Free to Play by Peter Gray
Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne
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