Category Archives: unschooling

Unschooling, As Told Through Pie

Everett (14 at the time of this writing) loves to bake.  He really enjoys cooking too, but baking is his first love.  He’s always been fascinated with baking, ever since he was little, and he’s continually adding to his baking bucket list.

Last night he baked his first pie.  It was a cherry pie, with homemade crust and everything.  Now, I’m not even typically a big fan of cherry pie…. but it was amazing.  Like, I had-to-stop-myself-from-licking-the plate amazing.  Flaky crust, delicious filling that was not too sweet and not too tart, and cooked to absolute perfection.

I credit unschooling.

There is a danger among eager parents and unschoolers, particularly when they’re just starting out, to take their kids’ interests and sort of steamroll over them… looking to force a preconceived notion of learning, or simply overloading them with information.   With the very best of intentions, parents will bombard the child with resources, with loosely related subjects, or with ways that their interest can teach them math or history or social studies.

This often backfires in a big way, squashes the child’s natural love of learning, and makes them lose interest all together.

The beauty of unschooling is that you have the time and the space to let their interests unfold and expand naturally.  You can support them and encourage them without feeling the need to push.  Without feeling the need to create arbitrary constraints or conditions on their learning.  Without feeling the need to turn it into an artificial “teaching moment.”

When unschooling is done well, living and learning are seamless.   Life is play.  Life is work.  Life is learning.  There is no separating the day or the moment into math, or science, or history.  It’s all intertwined, and it’s all there for the taking.

Which brings me back to Everett and his pie.

He has learned a lot through his baking, and he will continue to do so.  He’s learned practical skills as well as stretched a creative muscle that can serve him well in all sorts of different pursuits.  For our part, we’re constantly buying him his requested ingredients, answering his questions, and supporting the interest in any way we can.  Our job is to act not as teachers, but as partners and facilitators.  But one of the most important things we can do for him, and for all of our kids, is to give them space to play and figure things out and experiment on their own.  Sometimes the best thing to do is just trust the process, give them the appropriate amount of freedom, and then get out of their way.

If we’d seen his interest in baking, and grabbed onto it too tightly, we very well could have pushed him away from it completely.  Instead, he’s organically moved through the basics to more and more complicated projects.  He’s not intimated by new things, and he places no limits on his abilities.

The really cool part?  I get to watch.  It is truly one of my favorite parts about unschooling.  I get to be there.  I get to see the skills develop, and the light bulbs go off, and the pride of accomplishment settling in.  We’ve designed our lives in such a way that our kids have the time and space to pursue their interests with no arbitrary time constraints, and no parent-imposed hierarchy.  Everett’s baking is as important as Tegan’s acting as is important as Paxton’s music as is important as Spencer’s yard work.  If they wanted to spend a whole entire day, or a whole entire month, on one specific thing …. it would be welcomed and encouraged.

They are getting to learn in the way I’d always wished I could learn myself:  In a way that makes sense for them.  Not for me, not for their father, not for a teacher, but for them.

If I could only give one piece of advice when it came to uschooling, it would be this:

Let them live.  Let them play.  Let them learn.  And for goodness sake, let them make pie.


Filed under Everett, unschooling

Screen Time Is Like Crocheting

Last night, I was trying to crochet.  I say, “trying”, because I’m really not very good at it.  It’s just one of many hobbies that I’ve picked up, played with a little bit until I got bored, then moved on to something else.  It’s also one that I return to from time to time, because I really do enjoy it.  I’m quite confident that with a little more practice I could make a coaster, or, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a scarf.

But right now, I make little misshapen rectangles.

So last night, I was feverishly working on my latest misshapen rectangle.  I was incredibly focused… frustrated every time I dropped a stitch, elated every time I successfully did a few in a row.  I’m a creative person by nature, so the feeling of creating something new with my hands is exciting and empowering.  I started with yarn, and with it, I was making … well, a misshapen rectangle.  But I was making something new, something that literally had never been in existence until that very moment.  It was just me, my crochet hook, and my yarn.

And then people started talking to me.  First, it was my 9 year old, and then it was my husband.  I could feel myself getting irrationally impatient and annoyed at the perceived intrusion.  (“CAN’T YOU SEE I’M CROCHETING HERE, PEOPLE?!”).  I answered them, but I was vague.  Distracted.  The truth was, I was really into what I was doing, and wasn’t taking kindly to being interrupted.

I did finally stop long enough to eat dinner but even then I was sort of “out of it.”  I’d stopped before I was ready, so my brain was still focused elsewhere.  I wanted to get back to my project.

And it wasn’t because I’m “addicted”, and it wasn’t because crocheting is “bad.”  It was simply because I’d gotten super involved, and sometimes it’s hard to immediately shake out of that.

I fail to see why playing video games, watching movies, or browsing YouTube is any different.

And yet it’s such a common refrain among those who are new to the idea of unschooling:

“He gets so angry/irritable/frustrated when we tell him it’s time to stop playing”

“Every time she watches videos for too long, she just zones everyone and everything else out.”

“We have to limit his time on the computer or he’d never do anything else.”

“When she’s wrapped up in a game, she doesn’t eat, won’t take a break, and barely gets up to go to the bathroom.”

Short translation:  Activities involving screens are harmful and addictive.

But there is literally nothing in the above statements that couldn’t also be applied to someone who was super involved with crocheting.  Or reading.  Or drawing. Or gardening.  We all have our outlets, and we all have our activities that demand our full-attention.  Maybe we’re creating.  Maybe we’re learning.

Maybe we’re using all our brain power to solve the puzzle and save the princess and make it to the next level.

Getting involved to that extent is normal, especially if the activity is new.  If I can get inpatient, frustrated, and irritated when interrupted while crocheting, why is it unacceptable for children?  As an adult, I can generally handle such feelings without taking it out on the people around me.  But kids feel the same frustrations, and don’t have the years of experience or maturity to know what to do with their feelings.  The solution then is understanding and assistance …. not taking the offending activity away.   Help them, don’t punish them.

“He gets so angry/irritable/frustrated when we tell him it’s time to stop playing”

Yup, I’d feel all those things if I was suddenly and unexpectedly made to stop doing something I enjoyed too… especially if it was something like a video game, that could not be saved at that particular point.  Give plenty of warnings and advanced notice.  Help them plan their time, and understand what’s happening when.  Transitions can be hard, especially for little ones.  This is not the fault of the video game.  Work with them on transitions, and over time, they’ll get easier.

“Every time she watches videos for too long, she just zones everyone and everything else out.”

I love the feeling of getting so lost in a good book or a good movie that everything around me disappears.  It means the author or filmmaker did their job well.  We all – every one of us – are allowed to “zone out” sometimes… whether it’s to a good book, a movie, a song, a TV show.  IT’S OKAY!  Getting lost in an activity helps us relax, rest, and reset.  I would frankly be more concerned for the kid who was denied the opportunity to regularly zone out for awhile.

“We have to limit his time on the computer or he’d never do anything else.” 

When something is limited, it becomes more attractive.  Like the proverbial forbidden fruit, it starts to be more enticing, more alluring, and disproportionately important.  It’s just human nature.  Any child (or adult for that matter) who is forbidden from using something is going to appear to be unhealthily obsessed with it when they do get the opportunity.  Not knowing when they’re going to get to use it again, they feverishly devour it while they can.  When the limit is lifted, and the initial inevitable binge moment has passed, it becomes just one of a million different choices they can make in a day.  When they truly trust that you won’t take it away, their interest tends to “normalize”, and you realize that they aren’t so obsessed after all.  My kids all use their computers daily (often for hours).  They also write music and poetry, read, bake, make things with their hands, hang out with friends, act, sing, play musical instruments, hike, research, make YouTube videos….

“Never” is an extreme and loaded word.  It is highly unlikely that your child would honestly and literally never do anything else if his computer time wasn’t limited.

“When she’s wrapped up in a game, she doesn’t eat, won’t take a break, and barely gets up to go to the bathroom.”

So this is a real thing.  When I’m lost in a good book, I lose all sense of time.  It’s not often that I get the opportunity to read for hours, but when I do, it often ends in a confused, dehydrated, starving stupor.  It doesn’t even have to be something that I’m enjoying now that I think about it.  The other day I was deep into my math class (College Algebra is my Everest), getting crazy frustrated, and refusing to do anything else.  When Mike suggested I take a break, I just about bit his head clear off.  I was committed, dammit, and I was going to see it through*.  I know the feeling of not wanting to take a break.  I’ve seen it in my kids, in my husband, and in myself.  The solution?  Connection.  Understanding.  HELP.  Instead of vilifying video games, and grumbling that they make your kid neglect their own needs… meet them where they’re at.  Chat with them about what they’re playing.  Ask if you can bring them a snack.  Help them deal with any frustrations.  And yes, gently suggest a break if things are getting too intense.

Screen time is not the evil that it’s so often made out to be.  It’s just not.  It’s simply one (actually many – since “screen time” is a catch-all term that refers to an infinite number of activities) of a million different pursuits that one can dive into, learn from, grow from, and get lost in.

It’s like crocheting. 

And if your kid gets frustrated in their pursuit of learning to crochet, you help them.  You don’t vilify the very thing that they’re trying to learn.


*I did eventually heed his advice to take a break.  And it helped. 🙂



Filed under screen time, unschooling

Conference R & R

It’s been almost a month since our fourth Free to Be Conference.  I would say fourth “annual” conference, but I don’t like the word annual.  Too much commitment.  🙂  It’s always been a new decision every year.

Last year, the conference was… well, it was honestly painful in a lot of ways.  The program itself went well, I think.  All the talks, workshops, etc pretty much went off without a hitch.  But the hotel hated us and threatened to kick out our group on the very first day, there were behavior issues, and there was personal … ickiness.  (Ickiness, by the way, is the technical term.)  We were very certain that we weren’t going to do it again.  Except:

We had to.  We needed a do-over. We needed a Hail Mary.  We chose a new hotel, looked at it as a fresh start, and hoped for the best.

Still, I didn’t know what to expect.  I really didn’t.  After 2016, I almost didn’t want to have any expectations. Registration was highly stressful this year because so many people waited till the last minute.  (Was it a mistake to do it again?  Was no one going to register? Were we going to end up in the poor house because of this?) And then, one month before the conference the bottom fell out of my own life, so it was all I could do to keep afloat, let alone think about anything conference related.

But then it came – funny thing about planning things like that.  They come whether you’re ready or not – and it was… well, it was magic.  I honestly could not have asked for a better conference.  Or attendees.  Or experience.  Were there tiny wrinkles?  Sure.  Were there little issues, complaints, comparisons to other conferences?  Of course.  That’s all part and parcel of hosting an event for 400 people.  But overall it was largely, and overwhelmingly… OVERWHELMINGLY… positive.  And the amount of healing it brought?  Ridiculous.  It was truly a redemptive year for us.

And the thing is, we don’t do it for us.  We do it for the money (KIDDING!  We don’t make any money to speak of.)  We do it for the attendees.  We create the vision and the framework; the speakers, the funshop hosts, and the volunteers bring it to life; and then the whole thing is gifted to the attendees, to do with what they wish.  This year though… this year, it was gifted back to us.  And it was beautiful and it was healing, and it was honestly one of the most positive and empowering feelings I’ve ever experienced.

People keep asking if we’re all recovered.  People have actually been asking since a few days after it ended.  And by all means, I feel good, and I feel peaceful.  But recovered?  Well, no, I’m not.  Mike, being the more logical, business-minded of the two of us, says that he’s back to normal.  A couple weeks back to work and he was good to go.  But me… I invest way too much emotionally to be recovered in a couple of weeks.  Plus, it was a year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears.  You don’t just get over that in a couple of weeks.  Especially when life doesn’t stop in order for you to do so… when you have to get right back to school, and life, and appointments, and running kids around.

I know that just attending the conference is exhausting and requires its own recovery.  For real. We’ve been on that end of it, too.  A four day event is no joke, no matter how smooth it is.  You’re running around like crazy, you’re sleep deprived, you’re not eating right. But it’s still not quite the same thing as planning, executing, and running said event.  (Um, on that note, my apologies to those I may or may not have grumbled to – I hope good natured-ly – when they complained to me about how tired they were.  Do you know about the ring theory of venting?  Ever since I learned about it, my venting mantra is “Never vent IN”.  I miss the mark sometimes I’m sure.  But I try.  Really really hard.)

And now it’s been a month, and I’m still working on re-entry.  A weekend at my cabin would be lovely, but … real life beckons.  And so, rest and recovery is happening in the pauses.  In the quiet mornings on the days when I don’t have anyplace to be.  With my happy playlist, and a venti cup of coffee in the car.  With a good book and a long bath.  In the stolen meditative moments of chopping vegetables for dinner, or washing my hands longer than necessary in the bathroom.  In the smiles brought by a rapid text exchange with a trusted friend.  In the hibernating.

In the breathing.  Always in the breathing.

I will rest, and I will breathe, and then I’ll be ready to do it again for 2018.  In the meantime, I will watch this.  And I’ll remember.  xo

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Filed under about me, conference, unschooling

6 Things My Kids Have Gained From The Internet And Social Media

I remember when the internet was born.  I was in my 20’s, newly married, and thought it was the Coolest. Thing. Ever.  The ability to browse for information, talk to new people, and communicate through email… all from the safety of my home, in my pajamas?? An introvert’s dream.

And as the internet grew, I grew with it.

I remember when everyone had dire warnings about meeting up with people you connected with online.  Stranger danger!  Now, all of my closet friends are people I met online.

I remember when everyone was afraid to shop online, for fear that it wasn’t secure and that their credit card numbers/identity/life would be stolen.  Now I shop for everything online… from prescriptions, to Amazon, to Etsy.  We even order our groceries online.

My kids never knew a world without the internet.  How lucky they are!  Like it or not, we live in a digital age now, one in which everything you can imagine can be learned, bought, consumed, transmitted, created, and communicated online.  It doesn’t replace 3D life of course (and the intricacies and experiences and connection that go with it) but good grief does it enhance it.  I feel so fortunate, and so glad for my kids, that there are such endless opportunities to explore, to learn, and to connect, right there at their little fingertips.  For years the big joke has been the math teachers from years ago saying, “You need to learn to do this manually!  You won’t be carrying around a calculator in your pocket.”  Now, not only do we carry calculators in our pockets, we carry powerful computers.  Portals, if you will, into an entire other world, a world that is seamlessly integrated into our physical lives.  Pretty cool, right?

This is 2017.

Which is why I’m surprised and well… saddened… at the number of people who still want to so tightly control and limit when it comes to the internet and social media.  At the number of negative, fear-mongering articles that still come across my Facebook news feed.  At the amount of disdain aimed at apps, programs, and websites that allow kids (and adults) to express themselves in creative ways.

There is still so much FEAR.

But it can’t be overstated… this is the world we live in.  The internet is only going to continue to grow, so it only stands to reason that we should equip our kids to grow with it.  Case in point: A friend of mine has a son who was rejected for a program he really wanted to take.  Why?  Because he didn’t have a big enough digital footprint.

Now, is there yucky and dark and stuff to potentially stumble onto on the internet?  Sure.  Does  learning to navigate social media in a healthy way require an involved and connected parent, someone who’ll stay close and present as they figure things out? Of course.  But keeping them away is not the answer.  Especially in a time when there is so very much for them to gain – important things for them to gain! – by letting them explore and learn from the digital world and everything it has to offer.

Here are 5 things my kids have gained or are gaining from the internet and social media (and this is by no means a comprehensive list!)  In no particular order:

1) Knowledge  This is an obvious and broad one, but it couldn’t be left off the list.  Remember growing up with those sets of Britannica Encyclopedias?  Well, the internet is just like a million different sets of those encyclopedias.  On steroids.  In Disneyland.  On the fourth of July.  It is a constantly updated, ever expanding, veritable treasure trove of information.  Want to know how far a person sprays when their sneeze goes uncovered?  Google. (200 feet, in case you’re curious).  Want to see a detailed map of the world, of your country, of your town?  Google. Can’t remember the name of the guy in that movie with the song you like? Google. Want to learn a new language?  Google. Want to learn how to knit, how to build a shed, how to bake a souffle, how to apply a perfect cat eye with eyeliner?  YouTube.  I’ve finally learned to stop asking my kids, “Wait.  Where’d you learn that?”, as the answer is always and inevitably somewhere in their travels on the interwebs.  There are websites for everything.  There are more formal classes if that’s what they like (lots of which are free!).  There are tutorials and history lessons and peer-reviewed articles. As long as you can figure out the right search terms, you can learn about anything your heart desires.  Which brings me to,

2) Critical thinking skills Learning to navigate the internet means learning the nuances of searching and browsing in general. And you may not have looked at it this way, but these are critical thinking skills that are easily transferred to other areas in life.  These are the skills that help us to be clear in our thoughts and in our questions.  These are the skills that help us to be discerning.  To learn how to scan, discard, and sort information. To think about what it is we’re learning, and how it does or does not apply to our lives. To make decisions about what we do or do not want to be filling our heads, and where we do or do not want to spend our time.  It teaches us to ponder, to question, to go deeper.  To jump down that rabbit hole of vast, intense learning, and smoothly and expertly ride down all the never-ending little trails and offshoots it has to offer, stopping only when we’ve had our fill, and picking it all up again (or not) when we are ready.

3) Enhanced relationships. My daughter is the biggest example of this, but no one in this family is excluded.  The only extrovert in a house full of introverts, she lives for and thrives on her play dates, and theater practice, and sleepovers.  But when she can’t be with her friends in person?  Skype to the rescue!  She learned to navigate Skype at an extremely young age, and my house is always filled with the sounds of her and various friends chatting, playing games, and singing together.  And if a friend does not have Skype?   No problem.  They just email.  Dozens of emails shot back and forth, in real time. (This is a great starter email for kids, if you’re looking for one. It’s parent-moderated and extremely user friendly) And my boys?  My oldest has been in two long-distance relationships online.  He regularly chats with, and games with, friends from all around the country.  He watches movies, virtually, with friends who are thousands of miles away.  My younger two boys recently made friends with two sisters at our unschooling conference.  They spent hours and hours and hours together at the conference, playing board games, and strategy games, and bluffing games  (This feels important to mention, as some detractors of giving kids freer reign on the internet think that it causes them to be unwilling/unable to play and interact in person, without a screen in front of them.  Not so much.)  They live just down in Tucson, so meeting up in person is not at all beyond the realm of possibility, but in the meantime the internet – and Discord in particular – have allowed them to continue to grow their friendship online.  They have spent pretty much every evening together, chatting, laughing, and playing cooperative games together.  And for me personally?  I have one invaluable group of women that laugh with me, cry with me, and give me honest advice … all mostly within the confines of a private Facebook group.  And last month, one of the hardest months I’ve had in a long time, I had one friend who just refused to leave me alone (in a good way).  She doesn’t live particularly nearby, so she texted and messaged me daily.  To check in.  To encourage me.  To push me.  To remind me to get dressed and take care of myself.  None of that would have been possible if we didn’t live in a digital world.

4) Conflict resolution. Lest I give the impression that digital interactions are always smooth sailing, this is the real world.  Stuff happens.  I’ve helped my kids navigate disagreements, deal with unkind behavior, and understand the nuances of playing and interacting with large groups of strangers.  I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer that they go out into the world already having this foundation of knowledge to stand on, and letting them interact digitally allows them to do just that.  They’re able to figure it all out at home, with me by their side… whether it means involving me or my husband to help sort the problem, or talking things through, or standing up for themselves, or – in some cases – utilizing that “block” button.  My kids are far more adept at skillfully and confidently handling any interpersonal problems that crop up than I ever was (heck, than I am at the present time as well), largely because of their ability to practice online.

5) Entertainment. People are really weird about this one, as if there is no inherent value in being entertained for entertainment’s sake.  But as a lover of all sorts of creative arts, AND as someone who’s worked really hard to learn how to protect my mental health, I can tell you that it’s not only okay to let yourself be entertained, but vital to a balanced and healthy life.  And the internet makes it so easy!  From streaming movies, to satire websites, to the ubiquitous funny cat videos, they is no shortage of ways to relax, reset, and enjoy the hard work and creative output of others.  My 13 year old loves to cook, and he’s been watching a YouTube channel that is part comedy, part recipe tutorials.  I love walking in to the room to find him laughing over its latest funny antics.  (Side note here:  As parents, we’re not always going to understand or appreciate the same sorts of things as our kids.  That’s okay!  We can still enjoy it through them, and appreciate their appreciation, and share in their excitement.)  It always breaks my heart to hear a parent talk about their child’s interest as “stupid” or “a waste of time.”  If they find it valuable, it’s valuable.

And finally,

6) A creative outlet to express themselves. You know those apps like Facebook, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and that so many people love to hate, and choose to fear?  They can be amazing tools for expressing yourself, for interacting and sharing with your peers, and for staying connected with others in a fun, real-time, meaningful way.  If I wasn’t able to follow my kids on social media, to see what they have to share, and how they choose to express themselves, I would be greatly missing out!  It has allowed me to see and appreciate a whole new facet of their personalities that I might not have otherwise gotten to enjoy.  It gives them an easy way to create.  To communicate.  To stretch their social muscles.  The argument, of course, is that those apps are dangerous.  And I mean, can they be used in harmful ways?  Can they give them possible access to people with less than positive motives?  Well sure.  But that’s not unique to digital interaction!  When I was in junior high, I was horribly bullied.  I once had a group of girls chase me into the bathroom, where I hid in a stall, and they proceeded to lean over the walls and spit on me.  I had no “block” button.  And I wouldn’t have had the confidence and emotional fortitude to use it even if I did.  My kids though?  They have confidence and emotional fortitude in spades.  And they possess this confidence in part because of apps like this, not in spite of them. The answer isn’t to live in fear and forbid these apps (because, let’s be real for a minute, if they want to use them they’re going to find a way.)  And would you rather that decision be an acrimonious one, filled with resentment and secrecy?  Or a transparent one, happy and respectful?  The answer is open communication. If you’re worried about a particular app, ask your kids about it!  Do they use it?  Do they want to? How does it work? What do they hope to get out of it?  My kids are always more than happy to talk to me about what they’re using.  And because I know that 1) they have a healthy amount of self-respect and personal boundaries, 2) they’re skilled at navigating interactions in a healthy, constructive way (see point #4), and 3) that they would be comfortable coming to me if they ever did encounter a problem, I truly don’t worry.  Instead I’m genuinely happy and grateful that they have so many fun ways to communicate and express themselves, and that they are so savvy in a world that didn’t even exist when I was their age.


The internet isn’t going anywhere.  It’s something to embrace, to enjoy, and to learn to use responsibly.  It’s not the boogeyman. It’s a valid and useful (and important!) tool, for both the present and the future.  In the very wise words of my friend:


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Filed under fears, technology, unschooling

Deschooling, And Being Okay With “Screen Time”

Photo credit: espensorvik

Photo credit: espensorvik

From an emailed question:

I am very new to unschooling- yesterday was my first day, and all the kids did is play our Wii. I have been homeschooling them their entire lives following a Charlotte MAson approach, and I found them fighting learning. But after living my whole life believing that too much screen time will rot your brain, this is a hard thing to accept. Could you help reassure me (and my husband) that things will be ok?

First, good for you for recognizing that something wasn’t working, and seeking out alternatives! That is a huge step that many don’t take, due to fear or uncertainty.

Second, I cannot stress enough how normal it is for a child (or for anyone) to temporarily binge on something that’s been previously limited.  If the Wii was something that they were only able to play at certain times or on certain days, it would be much more strange if they didn’t rush to play it as much as they could once that restriction was lifted!  Wiis are fun.  One thing that I see happen a lot is that parents will begin unschooling, panic about their kids’ electronic use, and then reinstate old rules and restrictions.  Then, when they try again, and their kids again spend huge amounts of time on said electronics, the parents throw up their hands and say, “See? This doesn’t work for us!  This happens every time!”  Well yes, of course it happens every time. When you limit or take away something – anything, whether it’s book or a skateboard or a video game – it becomes more desirable.  If a child has to worry about the next time that you’re going to take it away, of course they’re going to use it as much as they possibly can in the meantime. It’s human nature.

What’s happening right now – for you and your children both – is “deschooling.”  Stated simply, deschooling just means the period of adjustment needed to rid yourself of schoolish thoughts, of the misconception that learning is something that only happens at certain times in certain ways, of the belief that some things (ie:  books) hold more educational value than other things (ie: video games).  It’s a time to break out of old patterns, and to learn to trust yourself, trust your kids, and trust the process.   It’s a time to relax, and play, and read, and practice just being with your kids.  It’s a chance for your kids to learn that they can play the Wii if they want… or play outside or watch TV or read or draw or build something or bake… and that it’s all equally available.  The longer you and your children were involved in school, or traditional school-at-home, the longer the deschooling process will take.  Sandra Dodd has a large collection of deschooling links that will help.

As for the screen time:  “Screen time”, as overwhelmingly often as it is used, is a really odd and unhelpful term when you think about it.  It takes dozens… hundreds, an infinite amount… of different activities, and deduces them into one, often maligned and misunderstood, thing. Sure, screen time can mean video games.  It can mean entertainment.  It can mean work. It can mean play. It can mean communication. It can mean writing, creating, reading, researching.  None is better or worse than the other, and all have their own intrinsic value.  I’ve been out of bed for about two hours.  I watched a TV show on Netflix while I answered some emails.  I texted a friend.  I did some editing on my website.  I uploaded a picture.  I checked something on my bank account.  I read a chapter of a book on my Kindle.  I did a little writing (I’m still doing a little writing :)) I researched something I was talking about with one of my boys.  All “screen time.” My husband, who works as a budget and payroll director, is on his computer pretty much the entire time he’s at work.  9+ hours of screen time a day.

When it comes specifically to the Wii, or to video games in general, a lot of people would advise that you let them play as much as they want, and that they’ll eventually self-regulate.  There was a time I would have said the same thing.  But while I certainly agree with the first part (Yes! Absolutely, let them play as much as they want, especially right now while they’re deschooling) I’ve come to realize that when parents say, “self-regulate”, what they really mean is that they’re waiting for their children to play at a level that they, as the parents, are comfortable with. But it doesn’t work that way.  Or at least it shouldn’t.  Everybody is different, and every season is different, even for the same person.  Kids have different interests, different passions, different ways of learning, different ways of interacting with the world around them. Different from you, and different from each other.  They may go through seasons where they play a LOT of Wii, or watch a lot of TV, or read a lot of books, or play a lot of sports.   If unschooling, and unschooling well, is the ultimate goal, then the parent’s job is to support the children in all their pursuits… to help them, to encourage them, to ride the ebbs and flows of their interests with them… whether they’re interested in chemistry or makeup or history or art or beating the next level of their favorite video game.  When you stop looking at life through a schoolish lens, you see that there is no separation between “educational” and “non-educational” pursuits.  No distinguishing between learning and living.  It’s all life.  It’s all intertwined.  It’s all learning.

And finally, a little bit of testimony about what “screen time” looks like in an unschooling house, in a house that treats it the same as any other activity, with no more or no less value:

At the time of this writing, my kids are (soon to be) 8, 11, 15, and (soon to be) 19.   My 8 year old, and only girl, is the most extroverted of my kids by far, so the internet – and Skype in particular – has been a wonderfully helpful way for her to keep up with friends and family in between visits.  She recently got her own email account ( – a great starter email for kids!) and she likes to email as well.  She has her own Kindle, and she loves taking pictures of herself and her family and her pets, and making little videos.  She goes in phases with video games.  Right now, she’s really enjoying an online game called Star Stable, that she plays with her cousin, and at various times with myself, my parents, and her aunt and uncle. Super fun.  She can take or leave movies most of the time, but she does like TV.  Some past favorites have been Good Luck Charlie, iCarly, and My Little Pony.  She’s also super physically active.  She loves dancing, jumping on the trampoline, and playing with the pets.  She just recently started rehearsing for a local homeschool theater company’s spring production.

My 11 year old loves cooperative games online, and he also enjoys keeping up with his long distance friends through messengers.  He likes YouTube, and has some favorites he watches regular.  He watches some TV and movies on Netflix, but the amount ebbs and flows.  He plays the bass guitar almost every day.  He also loves sports, spent several years doing karate, and is enjoying his second season of flag football.  He’s a huge animal lover, and talks about maybe being a vet one day.

My 15 year old researched and saved up for a year to build his own dream gaming computer. He spends a lot of his time playing computer games (mostly bought through Steam), and Skyping with his friends.  He watches TV the same way I do:  when he finds a show he likes, he binge-watches in little marathon sessions until he’s watched the whole series.  He’s recently taken an interest in movies as well, and is currently working his way through a list of “must-sees”. He’s also a musician, and spends several hours every day practicing his guitar, writing music, and conferring with his band mates.  His band, The Cringes, recently had its first paying gig, has begun recording, and plans to have music available for purchase by the end of the year.

And finally my 19 year old.  He has one of the most impressive gaming computer setups I’ve ever seen.

He bought all of this with his own money.

He bought all of this with his own money.

He loves the truck simulator games.   He also runs a Minecraft server, is active on Facebook, and regularly chats with friends on Skype.  He’s not much of a movie guy, but he loves watching TV shows on Netflix, particularly medical shows and real life crime series.  He’s taken some courses online, most recently a small engine repair certification course. He has always loved engines – and fixing anything and everything – and working outdoors. He’s thought about a career in both.  In his spare time, he’s teaching himself how to play the drums.  Right now, he’s applying to jobs (everywhere from grocery stores to movie theaters) while he decides what he wants to do next.


What I ultimately want for my children – and for myself, too – is that when it comes to technology, they’re able to enjoy it for everything it has to offer; to use it confidently without guilt or shame in whatever way or amount makes sense for them at that time in their lives; and that they recognize it for what it is:  just another tool for learning, for communication, for entertainment, in a vast arsenal of possibilities.

And truly letting go and trusting unschooling – trusting that YES, it is okay when they play Wii all day, or all week, or for a month until they solve that game – has allowed them to do exactly that.


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Free to Be 2015

Last year, I devoted four long, detailed posts to the conference… how it went, how I felt about it, what it meant to me.

I’m in a different place this year, with different things going on, and different things currently taking my attention.  So, no four part posts, but if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the video slideshow I put together.

I’m proud of what we created (twice!) and I’m looking forward to next year.  This conference represents a lot of blood, sweat, and tears not just for me, but for our entire family.  A huge thank you, again, to everyone who attended and made it possible.

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Before She’s Famous

Tegan, age seven at the time of this writing, wants to be famous when she grows up.  It’s not even that she wants to now that I’m thinking about it.  It’s that she believes, with every fiber of her being, that she will be famous.   Sometimes it’s for singing, sometimes for acting….. and sometimes she doesn’t even know what it’ll be for.  But she knows, and she talks about it often.

So it didn’t surprise me when she suddenly announced, “I want to be interviewed!” yesterday. She wanted me to interview her (about unschooling, about her life, about whatever I could think to ask her), and she wanted it to be shared.

I say this with all the bias that a mom could possibly have, but she is a JOY to know, and a joy to parent.  And if you watch her interview, you too can say you “knew her when.”  🙂

Tegan, before she’s famous:

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Unschooling Q & A

I’m back with another video today, answering the question, “What has been the most unexpected joy of unschooling? The most unexpected challenge?”


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Filed under Q and A, unschooling, videos

Q & A Video: How Do Unschoolers Get Into College?

A new video for you guys, answering a very common question.

For more of what I talked about at the end, read this post.

Also, my nails are really bright. My daughter picked the color 🙂


Filed under Q and A, unschooling, videos

How I Learned to Read: Four Unschooled Kids, Four Stories


Photo credit: Ben O’Bryan

One of the first concerns of those new to the idea of unschooling is one of a basic skill: Reading. How they will learn to read without lessons?  Without phonics?  Without spelling tests and quizzes?  How will they learn to read if you don’t teach them?  

Well, some of the beauty of unschooling is that the journey of learning to read (and virtually every other skill) is going to be an individual one for each and every child, although the principles remain the same for each.

For my four kids, this is how they learned… with no stress, no pressure, in their own time, in their own way:

Spencer – who’s 18 at the time of this writing, and currently mostly reads for information. Everything from engine repair to running a server on Minecraft to keeping up with the latest national news.

Spencer was our earliest reader, which was reassuring to these brand-new unschooling parents.  He was 4 or 5 when he really started reading, and his biggest impetus by far was good old Dr Seuss.  We’d started one of those book-of-the-month clubs when he was a baby, so he got a new Seuss book every month, and his little library grew quickly.  Every day from the time he was tiny, he’d a pick a book (or 2 or 7), and we’d snuggle up on the couch and read to him.  He loved to be read to, and oh how he adored Dr Seuss!  One of the great things about Seuss for emerging readers is that his books are filled with simple, fun words, and tons of repetition.  It wasn’t long before he was reading along with us.   After Seuss came one of my own personal favorites:  Beverly Cleary. Ramona, Beezus, and Henry Huggins were like treasured friends in our house, and their books were read often… both by us reading to Spencer, and him eventually reading all by himself.  He loved stories of all kinds when he was little, and would often write his own (usually based on his favorite TV show at the time, Dukes of Hazzard :))

On a more practical level, he learned to read because he wanted to.  Because he saw his dad and I reading. Because he saw words and letters on street signs and t-shirts and cereal boxes. He asked questions and we answered.   We played with those refrigerator letter magnets.   We wrote our names in chalk and with our fingers in the sand.   We played matching games and kids’ card games.   We looked at license plates and street signs when we traveled.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Paxton – who’s 14 at the time of this writing, and loves a good novel.  He’s currently in the middle of reading his first Stephen King book, Cujo

Paxton was around 6 when he started to read well, and he took a completely different path than Spencer.  He was – and if you know him, this will come with absolutely zero shock – our little computer boy.  We read to him of course, and did all the same sorts of things we did with Spencer, but the thing he loved most was that computer. He was able to use the mouse to navigate simple games by the time he was 18 months old, and it was one of his favorite things to do.  It only makes sense then, that most of his early reading experiences came from his computer games.   He loved the Reader Rabbit series, and eventually moved on to the Tycoon and Sims games.

One notable difference between Spencer and Paxton is that Spencer has always been a sharer, and Paxton tends to hold things closer to his chest.  So when he was an emerging reader, Spencer was comfortable asking lots of questions, reading aloud with no embarrassment at the normal mistakes, and just generally involved us in his learning process.   Paxton kept it all a bit more private.  So we weren’t always sure exactly where he was at in terms of reading.   He wanted to learn how to do it on his own, and didn’t feel much like sharing until he felt he had it just right.  And learn he did.   The first few times we heard him read out loud it was without a single missed word (while still being slow and careful).  The fun thing about that kind of learner is that even though they’re learning all along, it appears to happen overnight. Suddenly, one day, he was reading, and a whole new world had opened up.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Everett – who’s 10.5 at the time of this writing, and enjoys reading fun, adventurous, and light-hearted books. The last book I saw him read was called, “I Can Pee on This,” a hilarious (and frighteningly accurate) collection of letters written from the perspective of cats to their owners.

Everett was around nine when he started reading well (although, like Paxton, he didn’t really want to share until he was super confident in his abilities, so it’s likely that it happened before then)  One of the nice things about unschooling, and homeschooling in general, is that they are able to learn in their own time and keep their confidence intact.  There is no being told you’re “behind”, no special classes, no extra pushing.  Just time, and learning.  He was in cub scouts for several years – the only place where his lack of reading might have been an issue – and his den leader was wonderfully respectful, never putting him on the spot, or causing him embarrassment in any way.

I didn’t doubt for a second that Everett would learn to read when he was ready, and not a minute sooner.  He just focused on other skills first.  That kid was BUSY.  The most physically active of the three boys, he played baseball, played basketball, took gymnastics, started karate (he’s currently working on his purple belt), tried fencing, dabbled in some musical instruments, learned a whole bunch of magic tricks, and just generally enjoyed trying new, exciting things.

As he got older, I was super careful to make sure that our language stayed positive and accurate.  If he would say for instance, “I can’t read,” I would remind him that he could – because I could see that he was starting to read simple things – but that he was just still learning and getting better.

As far as learning style, he was squarely in the middle of Spencer and Paxton, in terms of being equally motivated by the computer and by words on paper.  He did love the computer.  He liked to be read to more than Paxton had, but less than Spencer.  He liked word games and letters and fun active things that engaged both mind and body.  I think the thing that ultimately gave him the biggest motivation when it came to reading was his desire to chat with his friends when he played cooperative games online.  That was when I really saw the switch flip, and – just like Paxton – he was suddenly reading well, seemingly overnight.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to him when he wanted, we helped when he needed it…. and he learned to read.

Tegan – who’s newly 7 at the time of this writing, and enjoys reading anything she can get her little hands on.

Watching Tegan learn to read was FUN.  Watching all the kids learn to read was fun, but there is just something so heightened and bittersweet about those milestones with the last child.

Like Spencer, she really enjoyed being read to from the time she was tiny.  Her favorites were those Usborne touchy-feely books, and other board books with bright colors and fun pictures, especially animals.  I remember she had one ABC book with animals in it that she especially loved, and she would squeal with excitement every time she got to the page with the lion on it. Another favorite area of early letter exploration was her dad’s t-shirts, especially the shirts with sports teams on them.  She loved to sit on his lap and point to the letters one by one as he named them.  I’m pretty sure she knew the letters in the word, “Cardinals” before her own name.  🙂  She enjoyed letters in general from a young age, and loved looking for “T for Tegan” everywhere we went.

Her big explosion in reading and language started about six months ago, prompted largely by her desire to chat, Skype, and email with her friends online.  Tegan is all about the socialization. I set her up with her own email account on Tocomail – a great service if you’re looking for a starter email account for your young ones – and helped her with sending emails and pictures to her friends and family.  It opened up a whole new exciting world for her.  These days, she barely even asks for my help anymore.  Yesterday, my husband forwarded me this message she sent him, all on her own:

Hi Daddy im feeling bedder i had candy today how is it at work

Heart. Melted.  I’m not the slightest bit concerned about the lack of punctuation, or the misspelled word.  It’ll all come with time.  Just like her brothers, she’s reading and writing and so enjoying using words to communicate. It’s a beautiful and exciting thing.

We provided lots of opportunities to explore words and letters, we read to her when she wanted, we helped when she needed it…. and she learned to read.


Four different kids, four different stories, but with one big similarity that is ultimately the one simple answer to the question, “But how will they learn to read?”:

When they’re immersed and involved and allowed to explore a world that’s rich with language and words and letters…… they just learn.


Filed under reading, unschooling