Unschooling Elementary School

If you are investigating unschooling elementary school, this is for you. Tired of zoom classes and wondering how to implement unschooling? Here’s why the Covid 19 pandemic is the perfect time to begin unschooling. How we homeschool with children in fourth grade, second grade, pre- k (and a baby). The importance of play for children and why unschooling might be the best way to set your kids up for success. 

It’s as if it was always meant to be. When my littles were really little, I loved being home with them. I loved taking them on adventures, coming up with activities to play and explore, and getting to be there for all those moments of discovery.

Seeing them explore the world, gave me a new set of eyes. Suddenly, nature became more beautiful, the wind swaying branches more peaceful, the trickle in a stream more lovely. Even the bulldozers constructing tall architectural wonders, became something to appreciate and marvel at.

But then life happened, they started getting bigger and preschool became the best way for them to socialize with peers and for me to get a break. School was not far behind…

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Background: Our Experience with Public and Private School

Gifted and Talented in New York City

When our eldest, N, was four years old, we had just moved to Brooklyn. Not two months into the school year passed before we were pressured to sign up for the infamous New York City gifted and talented test. What the heck, I guess we’ll do it. I drew the line at preparing for the exam.

On a cold winter day we hunker down in the school gymnasium for several hours. The kids got to play around with balls, while we waited for N’s turn to complete his test.

When the results were back and it’s time to register for school it seemed like we should just do it. I mean all these people are paying for tutoring and what not and our kid somehow miraculously got into a gifted and talented program?

When we went to tour the school I was reluctant. It didn’t feel right. Public school felt so institutional. But we really hadn’t planned on private school, the admission deadlines had passed months ago and we figured it would be good enough.

At this point I flippantly said, well I would homeschool if I had a backyard. But that obviously wasn’t the case living in New York City. Being with three small children all day long seem too overwhelming.

Public School in New York City

Our public school experience was extremely frustrating. So much felt completely inappropriate in terms of the development of our five-year-old boy.

We went from a completely play-based amazing pre-K program to suddenly asking this five-year-old boy to sit at a desk for most of the day. Recess and gym time were extremely limited and often times canceled for inclement weather or other random school events that required the gym space.

Then there was eating lunch in a huge, noisy cafeteria. Honestly when I walked into that cafeteria, I was astounded that anyone could eat there let alone a child. And don’t even get me started on the school lunch program (which in New York City is free for all students).

As alarmed as I was by the rigidity of the school, I gave my best effort to see if I could implement some changes for the better by getting involved in the PTA and even becoming an officer.

That said, the priority of the administration was just to keep things running and the well-being of my child never seemed like a priority. As long as he was good for their statistics, meaning could do English language arts and math at grade level, that was good enough.

Private School in New York City

Needless to say, by the time the next fall rolled around, we were actively looking at other school options in New York.

We feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to send our kids to a wonderful private school for the next two years. (By this time B was also in elementary school).

I have nothing but good things to say about the curriculum and the environment of the school. However, there is one thing that felt like a sacrifice. And I do not mean the commute which took us a solid hour each way.

Challenges with School

That sacrifice was time away from my children. As much as the learning was wonderful (and it was, and I truly can’t emphasize it enough) the long days meant my children were out of the house from 7:30 in the morning to 5 p.m.

(I do realize that for families with two working parents this may sound completely par for the course but for me personally it felt like a long time away from them.)

It felt like during the week, I only got to see them when I was rushing them to eat breakfast, get dressed, and leave the house, or when they were back home hungry, tired and cranky. It was hard to get quality time during the week, and even weekends felt rushed. There was never enough time to do fun things together as a family, let alone have time with the children one on one.

Zoom School

When everything shut down last spring suddenly we were in a brave new world. We had already discussed moving and school options for the following year but had decided to wait until our baby boy was born to finalize any decisions.

Initially being all together all the time was very hard. There have been so many articles written about this, but anyone with children can understand.

However, flexibility is key. Just as in the past, whenever something is amiss, we take stock of where we are at and make the best decision we can come to at that time. Which led us to revisit homeschooling.

Why This is the Perfect Time to Begin Homeschooling

1. We’re Already Home

Everyone is home a lot of the time. Even many children that are still enrolled in the public school system are in virtual schooling. This means that there are always other children to play with in the neighborhood.

2. Virtual schooling does a disservice to our children

I do not believe that elementary aged children are meant to be in front of a computer screen for several hours a day. Despite the fact that some synchronous learning is happening in virtual school, meaning that teachers are teaching live lessons and giving children the opportunity to ask questions, it’s hard to tell how much they are getting out of it.

I strongly believe that screens should not be the primary way our children learn. We were able to get away from this in private school (until that too became virtual). Not to mention the EMF concerns.

3. Consistency

One of the reason many children in our school district chose virtual schooling is so that they wouldn’t be in and out of school depending on possible future outbreaks, and because parents are working from home anyway.

Homeschooling is the best way to keep a consistent schedule. If we wanted, we could even synchronize our weekdays and weekends. It is easy to keep up a daily routine when much of the learning is happening in and around the home. We can all agree that most children thrive having a consistent routine no matter what you choose.

4. Weekends are the best

Because we have plenty of time to practice our age specific learning during the week, weekends can be focused family fun. Not only can we go out on longer hikes and farther away activities, we can also work on big projects all together.

It doesn’t mean that we never have errands or chores to do on the weekend, but we are certainly able to minimize them by including them throughout our week.

5. Freedom

The pandemic gave us freedom from a lot of our supposed responsibilities, and pressure for socializing, team sports, and general tiger parenting. After unenrolling our children from all activities for a period of time, we can more clearly see where we want to focus our efforts, time and resources.

Traditionally I think many of us think of homeschooling as something done by families that are very religious or otherwise reluctant to send their kids to school.

The freedom from peer pressure surrounding our food choices, freedom to adjust our routine and timeline as often as we need, and the freedom from homework has been wonderful for our children. 

Choosing Unschooling

Respecting the Importance of Play

One of the things I really like about unschooling is that it respects children in a way that doesn’t happen when they are forced into routine by their adults. 

Even in our wonderfully progressive private school where the children had a lot of leeway to discuss opinions, explore learning beyond what was presented to them, and have meaningful discussion with other children and adults, at the end of the day the routine was dictated from above.

Administrators and teachers dictated a general schedule, what subject matter was being learned when, and certainly what times were appropriate for eating and playing.

Now, despite the fact that I think it is important for children to have a routine of some sort, and to learn how to live within a routine that is dictated by somebody else, something they may will have to do as adults, I do think there is a place to question how important this really is.

There are still plenty of opportunities in their lifetime for them to learn “the hard way” how to deal with that. In the meantime, I think we can respect them as individuals with unobstructed learning and playtime.

Giving the Gift of Time

We are using our time to think about what things our children really need to know. What are the skills, hard and soft, we would like them to develop in the next few years.

One aspect that is really wonderful about taking a laissez-faire approach to schooling is that we don’t need to focus on all the subjects all the time.

My experience and observation of my kids in their schools both, public and private, falls very much in line with Maria Montessori‘s critical phases. I absolutely agree with her that there are time periods in their life when children are ready and willing to learn certain skills. Despite the best intentions of our politicians, this is not reflected in the educational curriculums provided to most children.

Just one example is the push to teach five-year-olds to read in kindergarten when many of them are not developmentally ready for that until closer to age six or even later. Why spend months and months frustrating children with memorizing sight words when they can easily learn the same words within just a few weeks when they’re actually ready to learn them?

Some skills we would like our children to learn:

Here is a current peak at our ever evolving, and non exhaustive, list of things we would like our children to have as we prepare them for the adult world.

  1. Reading and writing
  2. Basic math needed for a functioning adult- arithmetic (focus on mental math) and some basic algebra and geometry.
  3. Important benchmarks in history and art (take this as a broadly as possible) 
  4. Geography and cultures of the world: curiosity to explore and learn always, respect and appreciation for others. 
  5. Self care (hygiene and good wellness habits)
  6. Cooking skills
  7. Household maintenance skills
  8. Critical thinking
  9. Living our values 

How we are implementing unschooling right now

Life Skills

The children have a detailed list of their responsibilities which are contributions to our household and their own well-being. These are all things that they were doing beforehand but we put up a list so that they can remind themselves of our basic expectations. This is our focus on life skills. (And not much has changed since we started unschooling).

See printables for a Morning Routine and an Evening Routine, at the links, along with advice for simplifying those times of the day with kids.

Language

The only formal type of schooling we are doing is continuing with their second language workbooks. [Update- we are also working through some math workbooks].

Literacy

Our two big kids are already reading independently and they do so for several hours a day of their own volition. We are supporting that by getting new books for them, and conducting conversations about what they are reading. Are they writing essays? No. Would I have written an essay as an eight-year-old for no reason? No. Would you?

But, when they need to write it seems they are perfectly capable of doing it! For example when they make up a game and want to write down the rules, or when they want to write their parents a note.

As for the two younger kids, they are being read to daily. And we will cross the reading bridge when we get there.

Social Skills

I believe that one of the main reasons we send our children to school besides “learning” and let’s be perfectly honest- childcare, is to socialize with other kids. Thankfully we have made friends in the neighborhood and the children get to play outside daily. I actually have been finding it fascinating to see how they are learning to navigate these relationships and group dynamics.

Arts

We have always had a lot of different instruments in the house and many, many types of art supplies. The children are free to use the vast majority independently whenever they want. And they can use some “special supplies” when they ask. This has always been the case, even when they went to school, so nothing has changed.

Independent Learning

When the children asked to delve deep into a subject we are there to support them. We investigate subjects together, ask questions, and are interested in supporting their innate creativity. 

For the adults, this is where the homeschooling “work” is. It is much more fun and much more interesting for us, than supervising worksheets and filling in reading logs ever was!

Play

The rest of the day, meaning most of the day, they are free to play. This is absolutely the best way for children to learn, in my opinion.

They do a lot of building, with legos, magnatiles and wood blocks. There are lots of imaginative scenes going on with figurines. Soccer fields, skateboard ramps and crazy contraptions are tested out. Recently they are interested in building actual furniture and creating things that last.

They play games with rules and without, and some with rules that change along the way. I see them making up new games (recently things like hockey with a soccer ball).

They stop to create. They plan and they improvise. They fight, make up, and figure it out.

They observe. They stop to see the frogs, insects and animals that cross our path. They notice the world around them: Amazon delivery trucks to neighbors fixing a fence. They notice every damn thing their parents do. Right and wrong, at our best and our worst.

It is fascinating and joyful to be a part of their journey.

Aside: When we first moved from New York City under lockdown our kids were reluctant to spend too much time outside. So during our initial time here, outside time was a requirement.

Now that they are much more self regulated we do not have to force them outside they willfully go outside and know that it is fun and good for them to explore, play games, and just to be in the fresh air.

A Final Word on the Importance of Play

As I stated in the very beginning, unschooling feels like coming home. It feels right. It feels like how our children were always meant to learn before schools became akin to factories for teaching children.

In play they get to practice skills, uninterrupted until they deem fit to stop.

In play they are learning to navigate the world. To figure out relationships. To see how things work.

In play they get to make mistakes in a safe environment.

Time and time again, I have heard from friends, that when schools shut down, they realized what their children were actually being taught in school. But also how important school was to the life they had set up: childcare for 6+ hours a day.

When schools return to a “normal” functioning, will we send our children back? It’s something to think about.

Will this be how we continue teaching our children for the remainder of their school age days? Maybe, maybe not. But right now, it is the right choice for us.

Read More About Unschooling

If I have piqued your interest, you may want to do some reading and figure out if the unschooling style of homeschooling is for you.

I have a blog post about the benefits of spending time outdoors, which is an integral part of our unschooling homeschool.

If I had to recommend just one book to read it would be this one: Free to Learn by Peter Gray.

Have you considered homeschooling? How about unschooling?

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