“I wouldn’t have any idea what to teach without a curriculum.”
A friend made this comment after I explained that, as unschoolers, we didn’t use a curriculum with our kids. The response that popped out of my mouth before I could really think about it was, “Oh, that’s easy, you just pick a model adult that you want your child to grow up to be like and then you work backwards.”
Okay, maybe this is an oversimplification. I sometimes operate at the 10,000 foot level, so let me explain further. Think of the map analogy. When you plan a journey, first you mark where you are, then you mark where you want to go. If you keep your eye on the destination, the direction of your next step is clear.
We didn’t subscribe to the idea of using a curriculum, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have a future vision for our children. As unschoolers, we emphasized the development of character and life skills in an environment of freedom and loving guidance. We wanted to turn out fully-functioning, sustainable, contributing citizens in our world. To get there, we aimed for traits such as integrity, personal responsibility, self-awareness, confidence, a rich imagination and a sense of humor. As parents, we modeled practical life skills like the ability to manage your personal finances, sustain an honest living, fix healthy food, stay physically fit, keep proper air pressure in your tires and drive courteously and responsibly. We fostered the ability to find and make friends, nurture and sustain intimate relationships, appreciate craftsmanship, be of service to your community and pursue what you’re passionate about. I could list more, but you get the idea.
In the process of living joyfully and with the vision we held for our kids’ general character, learning happened constantly and in a very effective and efficient way. A curriculum of academic subjects chosen by someone other than my children was not only unnecessary in my view, but potentially harmful in that it could damage the confidence and the trust they started out with. Their uniqueness meant that no one else could have designed a course exactly right for them, but with some guidance from me, they were in a perfect place to do just that. Letting them explore and discover in their own ways preserved their natural curiosity and their ability to hear their own inner guidance, a gift that many of us aren’t aware of or ignore. It also ensured that they were truly engaged in whatever they were doing, resulting in maximum effective learning. While this was all experimental for me in the beginning, it was also less scary in the early years because they were young and the stakes were low. As they grew, they constantly demonstrated how much and how deeply they were learning, which gave me the confidence to continue. And continue we did, until they went off to college.
Along the way they explored music, art, writing, reading, games, science and nature — sometimes alone, sometimes together and sometimes with friends. We read out loud together every night before bed. They wrote journals and designed roller coasters. They welcomed new experiences. They accompanied me to the voting booth, the grocery store and volunteer activities. They had long and frequent playdates with close friends. We traveled, went to parks, pools, museums and libraries together. They cultivated a rich imagination by making up games with rules so complex I was at a loss to follow them.
Setting off without a curriculum requires a strong belief in a child’s natural ability and motivation to learn. It requires a commitment as a parent to expose them to what the world has to offer, provide stability and live the values you want them to embody. And sometimes it requires the ability to work backwards from a target in order to arrive at the destination.
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