Unschooling: My Roadmap To Homeschooling

The year was 2004, I had been teaching in the public school system for several years, telling myself that I wanted to gain some experience before pursuing my master’s degree in education. That didn’t happen. I decided that a master’s in education was not right for me and conventional school was not right for my kids.

The stale boxiness of public school created a well of anxiety within me. The paperwork, the rigid lines and the assumption that all kids learn and grow the same way seemed unfathomable.

I used to wonder, “How can we take 25 kids, each from varied backgrounds, each with their own personal learning styles, interests, and gifts, and place them in an institutional environment and expect them to excel?” Sure, some of them do great, but as many don’t do so great and even more graduate after a lifetime in this system not even knowing how to do the simplest of life tasks and having no desire to work hard or learn. This, to me, was and still is very tragic. Learning should be a joy, a flame that is never dampened or squelched.

Pushed off the fence

I had teetered on the fence for a number of years, feeling an internal desire to accomplish all I was called to be as a mother and a parent. My children were gifts given to me with an empty toolbox. My job as a parent was to help them acquire all the tools necessary to succeed in life, to be a well-rounded, contributing member of society, and this just wasn’t going to be accomplished if I kept them in school. At the time I made the decision, I had a child in fourth grade, one in kindergarten and one not yet in school.

During my time as a parent, I had been a working mom with a job outside of the home, I had been a stay-at-home mom and I had also worked a job where I actually brought one of my infants to work with me daily. Now, while friends of mine with kids were sipping coffee and talking about how nice it would be when all their kids were in school, how much “free” time they would have, I was considering keeping all mine home. This included my four-year-old Hope who was quite the “wild” child. Many looked at me like I was crazy, but inside I knew it was the right and only choice I had. It was the best choice not only for my children but also for me. It was what I was called to do.

The move

At the same time as I committed to teaching my children at home, we were making a move from southern Virginia to the mountains of West Virginia where we would be living on a 600-acre camp and conference center property. A place where there were endless discoveries to be made, wild adventures to be had and opportunities for my girls to learn new and exciting skills. It was the perfect time to start our unschooling journey. 

Yes, I said “unschooling,” a term I refer to as a lifestyle rather than a teaching style. There was not a classroom set up at home, no rooms with desks or any real schedule for that matter. You would often find us sitting by the fire taking turns reading from classics, playing Scrabble, putting on plays, creating some amazing concoction in the kitchen, talking about what we were grateful for or sketching our favorite findings from our nature hikes. To the naked eye, it looked very little like school and much more like a free-for-all; however, it was the perfect fit for us.

Key elements of learning 

As part of my teaching experience, I worked in a Waldorf school. While there were some things I found a little unsettling about this approach, there were many things I learned and respected. One of them was the premise that all children will develop at their own pace, some taking a little more time than others. Once you deposit your child in the public school system, they are pretty well forced to keep up or, dare I say, be left behind.

Other tools that I took from the Waldorf learning approach were that kids need to be busy with their hands, they need to spend a lot of time in nature and they need to develop a bond with their teacher that spans years, not months. 

Immediately upon arriving in West Virginia, my kids and I joined a guild where we all learned how to weave and work with our hands. Even the smallest of my children, who could barely stretch her arms around the loom, learned the techniques of weaving and produced some incredible pieces. We spent several hours weekly volunteering at the local nursing home where my girls had more grandparents than they could count. We hiked through the woods, and the threesome spent countless hours exploring local streams, building forts and getting dirty — really dirty. What was happening during this time was that they were learning. They were learning how to solve problems on their own, create, explore, share,  get along and understand who they were becoming. 

My approach to teaching included a lot of time talking with my kids, getting to know them and catering learning experiences toward what they really enjoyed and were good at. I had the dolphin loving Hope who learned best when she hung upside down off the couch, Taylor was a book worm and history junkie who excelled at music and my free spirit Sam just wanted to run barefoot through the woods, build forts and gallop bareback on horses. They could not have been any more different!

There was no greater joy than to watch as my three girls began unfold through the unschooling journey. Something I fear would have been hard to see if they were immersed in the public school system. To me, a lot of these kids, unfortunately, unfold in a very unnatural and synonymous way because of peer and academic pressures.

Strong opposition 

During my 12 years of homeschooling, I have been met with strong opposition from well-meaning family and friends who, as I like to say, just don’t get it. Like many, they are conditioned to believe that the road to success starts and ends with the rigid school system we are so accustomed to. That happiness and success are only the result of years spent drowning in academia. Unfortunately, this is not working for many of our young adults who graduate without a job and find themselves floundering, not knowing what they want to do or even what brings them joy. For my kids, the groundwork has been done; they know who they are, what they want to do and how to get there!

When my eldest graduated from high school at 16 with no intention of going to college, my very academic family was shocked. I’m sure they thought she would end up flipping burgers or simply drifting through life. What they didn’t know was that from the time she was eight all Sam ever wanted to do was work with horses, and she was bent and determined to learn all she could. Knowing she was passionate and highly talented, I gave her every possible opportunity to excel. At the young age of nine, she spent countless hours a week on a local farm riding every horse she could get up on, milking cows and goats, and working hard, really hard. She learned how to blacksmith, started a successful business making horse tack and training horses and could manage a household by the time she was 12. 

Today at 20, she is a sought-after natural horse trainer, entrepreneur and one of the hardest, most committed workers I have ever known. Above all, she is happy, and because she is happy she makes others happy. This to me screams success in so many ways.

Fear of failing

I think that a lot of parents don’t embrace teaching their kids at home because they are afraid they will fail. They have been set up to think that sending their kids away from home to learn only spending a few hours a day with them is the only way to success. Yes, it takes time — lots of it — it takes energy and it takes a boatload of sacrifice, but we are called to that as parents; that is our job.

But, as I tell many parents who ask me about schooling at home, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to teach your children. In fact, it’s more fun when you aren’t — that way you can learn together. I was raised in Canada and learned a lot of Canadian history, so learning American history was something I did with my kids and it was immensely rewarding. If you take the time to get to know your children and enjoy learning yourself,  you will not fail!

Greatest joy

Looking back through the years, my greatest joy has been that I have had the opportunity to really know my kids and to see their personalities shine through learning without boundaries. My only regret is that the journey has passed far too quickly. My youngest, now 15, is in the homestretch, and it is with teary eyes and a happy heart that I run through the memories of our years learning and growing together.

I am a better person because of the time I have invested in my children, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be a part of their lives. Now my reward is that I get to watch them spread their wings and fly — with full toolboxes and a forever love of learning!  

—Susan Patterson

Susan is the Content Director at The Alternative Daily, a Certified Health Coach, Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor and Master Gardener. With an extensive knowledge of whole foods and wellness, Susan has authored over 3,000 articles and numerous e-books. She presently lives in the mountains of Arizona where she enjoys hiking, biking, gardening and pursuing a healthy lifestyle with her three daughters and numerous animals.

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