Unschooling and Distance Learning

Finding Balance and Harmony in Chaotic Times

Unschooling: An educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning.

As a teenager, I dropped out of mainstream education. I was thirteen, and my mom and I decided I could take a “break” for 8th grade. I was unhappy at school. I always struggled with the way school was taught, and I also was having trouble with the social dynamics of the middle school we chose. We viewed taking a break as a chance for me to homeschool for a year before I entered high school. I wanted to check out from the world.

During that year, I started to shed the layers of self-consciousness and slowly rebuild my self-esteem. I saw the whole beautiful world that lay before me for the taking. I met a bunch of “unschooled” teenagers, youth that had never gone to traditional school, forging their own paths, working in the world and following their interests not based off of what they should be learning. I found a community in these “unschoolers.” I decided on a plan, and I was not going back to school.

During this global pandemic, parents have to take up the mantle of homeschooling and distance learning. The stress every parent is experiencing is huge and overwhelming. From my years spent getting an education outside of the school system, I can offer you my approach to education from a less restrictive, more joyful and empowered place.

Life Skills

unschooling can teach kids life skills

Learning is happening all the time. Your children are learning from every mistake they make, from every challenge they conquer and from every interaction they have with you and the people around them. Academic learning is also happening throughout daily activities. The running of a household requires many essential life skills and can also include, reading, writing, math, economics, and many other skills school teaches. Learning how to prepare your food or grow vegetables includes math, measurement, reading and science. Guiding my children’s learning in this environment gives me a chance to have some balance and get help with keeping things tidy and in order and making sure everyone is well fed.

Follow Their Interests

unschooling allows kids to follow their interests

Unschooling allows you to empower your children to decide how and when they want to pursue their interests. In my personal unschooling style, we do a combination of following their desires and what I want to expose them to. We started to raise baby chicks from eggs. Each day my children would notice the eggs’ progression and document it in a journal.

Somewhere in the middle of our study, my oldest lost interest. I asked her to keep going till they hatched, but she pushed back. This was an opportunity for me to think creatively about how to reach her. She loves graphic novels, so I asked if she could make a comic strip about the chickens. She loved this idea, so I found some blank comic sheets to fill in, and now we have not only documentation of our baby chicks hatching, but goofy cartoons to go along with our journals.

Learn at Your Own Pace

unschooling allows kids to learn at their own pace

Playmobil Adventures

Learning should not be something done in duress. No one learns well when they are forced to do something. If the power dynamics with your children are making everyone scream, stop what you are doing. It is not worth it. Take a break and evaluate what is working. Is there something you are missing about what they actually like to learn? If your child is crazy for Legos, let them play with Legos. But what if they spend all day playing with Legos? Then your child has been learning a lot. Legos teach fine motor skills, creativity, lateral thinking and planning, mathematical thinking, spatial awareness, and persistence.

If they are playing with siblings, they are also learning about cooperation. Some days at my house the kids get out the Playmobil and spend six hours together creating magnificent worlds, magical stories and intricate displays. I can tell that giving them this space to use their imaginations, working together and creating beautiful things makes our life more balanced and happy. I see this as an important part of their education.

Follow a Schedule

Special Projects

The important thing to keep in mind when making a schedule is to stay consistent and do what is realistic for your family. Schedules are also flexible documents. Make a schedule, but then tweak it as the weeks go on. I do, however, suggest you stick with your initial schedule for at least a week to fully tell what works and what doesn’t.

Take a moment on Monday morning; sit down with a beverage of your choice, some paper and colored pencils. Call a family meeting and discuss, brainstorm and dream about what schedule will work best for your family. Get the children’s input. I asked my kids what chores they think needed to happen daily and which ones they think they should do. My 4-year-old told me she thinks she should make her bed every day. My 9-year-old said organizing her art table should be a daily chore. When given a chance to decide what they could do to help out around the house, you might be surprised at how they step up. Since distance learning began, our daily rhythm has shifted, and I now feel like we are just getting on track. Here is an example of our daily round.

  • 7:30-9:00 Wake up, morning chores (Make bed, get dressed, brush hair and teeth, eat breakfast and clear dishes from the table.)
  • 9:00-11:30 Academics (Distance learning with their school’s curriculum and alphabet and number study with my youngest.)
  • 11:30-1:00 Bike rides, nature walk, yoga, lunch and put away lunch dishes.
  • 1:00-2:30 Special Projects (Each day we pick something fun we all want to do together; this would be the time we bake, do art projects, practice music, build with Legos, plant in the garden, etc.)
  • 2:30-3:00 Afternoon Housework (Empty dishwasher, do laundry, clear art table, clean up from special projects.)
  • 3:00-3:30 Silent Reading for my oldest and I read to my youngest.
  • 3:30-5:00 Free Play, chat with friends, screen time.

Have Fun

unschooling may involve learning life skills such as sewing

What did you love to learn and do when you were a young person? Playing with figurines or dolls? Dress up? Painting? Try to remember back a month ago when you felt like you never got to see your kids enough. What were the things that got you most excited about spending time with them? Did you imagine throwing a Frisbee outside to each other? Going on bike rides by a river? Board game nights? Now is the time to do those things! Rarely in our culture do we get the time to really be with our families. There are always one million things pulling at parents to do or be outside the home. Now we get to do those simple, free, pleasurable acts in community with our loved ones.

Try to enjoy this time and remember to fit your needs, hobbies, and interests in as well. Parents are not just meant to serve; we need to prioritize giving ourselves some space, drink a cup of tea and just be. Good luck on your journey!

About Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek

Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997.

She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK, where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. Margaritte is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek.

You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She is a regular contributor to TulsaKids.com and also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms called Tap the Root. She was also published in Hilary Frank’s 2019 book, “Weird Parenting Wins.”

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