Homeschool News

    Developing Confidence in Unschooling: The Value of Parent Journal-Keeping

    Written by Alison McKee
    (c) 2007 Alison McKee

    Most homeschooling parents are reluctant to try unschooling because the risks seem so great. “Does it really work?” is one of the topmost questions we ask ourselves. We imagine the worst. For example, what if our son never learns any math? As a teen, he has a change of heart. He decides he wants to go to school. What do we do then?

    I’ve never known this to happen but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or it won’t happen. What I do know is that there are very simple and safe ways we can begin to explore unschooling options without letting our fears dictate our choices. One of the simplest ways to do this is to keep a journal. Back in the early 1980’s, I did just that. I made simple notations of our children’s activities. Over the years, that journal became the document which proved to me, over and over again, that unschooling was the only logical way to educate children. In fact, the journal was one of the key tools of our success and provided a wealth of information to me as I wrote my second book, Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves.

    When our children were young, the process of keeping a journal started slowly, noting all the activities our children were involved with. Some days I wrote nothing and other days I wrote volumes. My intent was to document how learning was a natural outgrowth of childhood. I busied myself by jotting down things which seemed to prove this to me. I found it easy. My young children were always learning something. Vocabulary expanded, new songs were being sung, and “private” conversations being held during hours of imaginative play provided a vivid look at my children’s growth and development. As our children got older , though, such observations were not always enough to convince me that unschooling really worked. The types of learning I wrote about didn’t seem to signify much in any traditional educational sense. When such worries surfaced, I had to work harder to find proof that unschooling could work.

    Yes, even with preschoolers, my schooled mentality got in the way of my belief that unschooling might ultimately work. I am no different than most parents in this regard. Unschooling seems to be a fine alternative for preschoolers but what about school aged children? Paying attention to my “schooled” voice helped me add “school subjects” to the list of things I was writing about. At first, it was hard to figure out how to write about school subject matter when there was no curriculum to focus on. Paying thorough attention to the activities that our children were involved with, and questioning whether they may or may not lead to readiness for academics became my new focus. At this time, journaling became the place where I explored my pre-conceived notions about what I considered “appropriate” learning readiness. Posing questions to myself about what learning really is helped me understand how the learning that our children were doing had direct links to possible readiness for such things as reading, writing and arithmetic. I asked myself about the possible foundational skills that could be developing as our children played. The hours spent with their Fisher Price record player were often spent listening to books. The direct link between this activity and reading readiness was easy to understand. At other times I had to look at whether today’s play looked any different from yesterday’s play and what that might mean. For instance, building with Legos had progressed from free-form building to building according to the manufacturer’s patterns. What did this mean? How could such play lead to success with reading or math? Puzzling this out in my journal helped me understand the link. Lego patterns had no words. They were simply pictures which had to be followed in a systematic manner in order to complete the figure. As I toyed with this realization, I understood that our children were reading pictographically. In time, this skill could become reading. In the meantime, I’d continue to observe my children’s play for other indicators that they were developing a potential to learn math, reading and writing. As I did with the Legos, I wrote copiously about aspects of our children’s lives that seemed to have no academic relevance. This helped build a wealth of confidence in our
    children’s natural interest in learning, and I discovered, again and again, the direct link between their play and academic learning. The journal entries that I made helped calm my fears about unschooling. It was clear that “reading readiness” was a natural outgrowth of the play they were doing.

    For those of us who choose to journal our way through private worries about unschooling, we learn to become familiar with similar sign posts which indicate that our children are capable of learning complex tasks as they grow and mature. By staying present to what is actually taking place, we become good detectives who understand the importance of allowing our
    children to develop learning skills on their own, rather than foisting academics on them before they are ready for them. We do so by writing about, (and re-reading about), the unique patterns our children develop as they live and grow. In our writing we take note of how our children learn some of the basics, say walking and talking, and carefully assess that situation. Our assessment helps us understand how our five or six year old, now learning a new skill, is using tried and true methods, meticulously developed when they learned to talk and walk, to master bicycle riding, reading and the like. Sometimes our journals show us how little we know about children’s learning. In them, we develop an appreciation for the delicate balance between facilitating a child’s interest in learning and destroying that instinct by forcing learning. Keeping a journal can be a humbling experience when we are faced with how naturally our children learn complex tasks without our help. When we write in our journals with honesty, our fears diminish and our faith in the natural process of learning grows.

    Considering the unschooling option when children are young is one thing, but what about considering the same option for an older child? This is a particularly scary time for us to be thinking about unschooling. Again, though, keeping a journal can help build confidence. A journal is especially helpful when your teen seems to have no interest in learning anything at all or when your teen has just been removed from school. If we are to be successful at helping teens become self-confident, it is wise to try to develop broad ranging skills of observation as we write. Our journals should reflect both the past and present. What learning do our kids do with joy and enthusiasm? Maybe you can’t think of anything until you go as far back as the preschool years. Maybe it is something that they are currently interested in, but has no relevance to traditional academics. Pay attention to this. What is it that your child experiences? Are they vitally excited about what they are doing? Stretch your imagination. Could your daughter’s interest in building skate board ramps help her learn mathematics? Does it seem as though your teen had budding artistic talents as a preschooler, which got stifled by the demands of academic lessons? Is it possible that your artistic child needs to break from traditional academics to reconnect with meaningful learning? How can you keep yourself and your personal hopes for your children out of the picture yet help them become confident in themselves? Use a journal to train yourself to think beyond the limitations of pre-made curricula. Our children will not live their adult lives reading text books and doing worksheets. In fact, much of what we learned in school does not enter into our adult lives. Problem solving, creative thinking and independent motivation are the hallmarks of today’s successful individuals. Can allowing our children to practice those skills in the course of living their day-to-day teenage lives hamper such development? Hardly. Can we connect our teens with mentors who share their interests? We discover the answers to these questions as we observe our teens and write about what it is they are doing rather than what we are pressured to believe they should do. As we keep a journal and honestly address our concerns, there is a possibility that our confidence in unschooling will develop. Don’t push, try to ignore the voice of school and remain focused on the development that is taking place.

    Now, back to the teen who doesn’t know math and yet wants to go to school. In my family this situation was the reality. Neither of my kids liked math. Being unschoolers, my husband and I agreed to let them “live and learn.” I kept journals about this living and learning, and with conscious effort avoided writing about all the traditional academic material they were not studying. Late in their teen years, when our kids decided to go to college we simply asked, “So what do you need to do to prepare?” Their answers were clear. They needed to learn math. Our strong faith in the unschooling process, developed over the course of years and years of writing about our children’s learning, told us that if they wanted to go to school they would learn the necessary skills required when that motivation took hold. We’d learned that the beauty of unschooling is that when the motivation is there, not when we push kids to want what we want, when we want it, kids do learn what they need to learn in order to achieve their personal goals. Over time, the journals we keep become a strong testimony to this fact. In the pages of my journal I learned that our daughter liked to learn skills on the spot. In fact this was how she chose to learn her math: in college. In that same journal I also learned that my son liked to approach new situations well prepared. As a life-long unschooler he chose to learn math in preparation for college, not once he got there. In both cases, they succeeded in reaching their goals.

    It is quite natural to be doubtful about unschooling. If you learn to journal about your children’s learning, it can be just as natural to learn to embrace all that unschooling offers. Simply read and re-read the entries you write regarding all that your children accomplish. The stories will probably look nothing like what you’ve been told “educational success” should look like. Don’t fret, they probably reflect success with learning. Let your journal be your guide and you will, over time, develop confidence in the unschooling process.


    Editors Note: Please visit Ms. McKee’s website:

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