It’s Sunday afternoon, and as I type this my 13-year-old is busy creating a tapestry while listening to an audiobook. Her 11-year-old sister is listening too, while she draws. They sit at the craft table amongst a mess of in-progress projects including mosaics, moss and lichen soaking in water next to the microscope (they have been searching for tardigrades), and various drawings. Their younger sisters (8 and 6) are creating posters for their room, and practising acro tricks. The learning never stops. You can see it everywhere you look.
What you don’t see are all the invisible things that go into creating this life. All the things that make up this environment where passions and interests grow!
All the support.
This can make unschooling look quite magical. And it certainly feels that way! It’s truly a wonderful experience for all of us. We see our children learning amazing things, being so intrinsically motivated, pursuing their passions, and doing all those things that people tell us will never happen without us forcing them to.
Sometimes I fear that this can lead to confusion about what exactly the job of an unschooling parent entails. We say quite often that unschooling means more involvement from parents, not less. That you must support your children! But what exactly does ‘support’ mean? That’s quite vague!
Many of the questions I get from people translate into, ‘But how do I do it? What does support look like?’
I can’t tell you exactly! Every child and family is different and things will look different. But what I can do, is tell you about what it looks like for us. After a lot of trial and error over the last 13 years, I might just have learned some things that could help.
What does support look like?
Firstly, when I say support, these are the kinds of things I mean: planning, note-taking, day to day presence, sourcing books and resources, organising groups and contributing, reminding the kids about projects, being aware of community events, actively seeking out social opportunities, setting up activities for them, going on excursions, curating an inspiring environment, being one step ahead, helping them be involved in their community, transporting them to all their classes, juggling the needs of multiple children, making sure our daily rhythm is supportive of the environment I want to create, offering guidance and physical help. So many things! This is just what comes immediately to mind. All of these things are the job of an unschooling parent. What I specifically want to talk about today are some of the things I do to support my children’s interests.
How to Support an Interest
Create a supportive environment
“The environment should act as an aquarium which reflects the ideas, ethics, attitudes and culture of the people who live in it. This is what we are working towards”-Loris Malaguzzi
There are many aspects of the environment that are important. From the relationships and attitudes of the people in it, to the physical things that make up the space.
Creating an environment of intrinsic motivation, meaningful work, curiosity and discovery depends a lot on you. You set the tone in your home. What are you modelling? How do you communicate, respond, connect, encourage, etc? Have you spent time deschooling? A lot of the work that unschoolers do, is on themselves: deconditioning from all those schooled beliefs, building genuine connection with children, finding new ways to relate that don’t include reward and punishment. This is ongoing work and you do not need to have done it all before you start! You also don’t need to be perfect. Learn as you go.
In terms of the physical space, there is a lot to consider there too! Set up a space that works for the people using it! It doesn’t have to be Instagram worthy, it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s, it just has to meet your family’s needs. For example, my children do a lot of art and creative projects. So, the area where we spend the most time is what we call the ‘craft room’. We have shelves of every kind of art material you can think of, a table covered in paint where people are free to make as much mess as needed, lots of paper and books, recyclables, etc. They are able to access anything they need, whenever inspiration strikes. This would not make sense in another family where art was not a main passion, but here it supports my kids in what they want to do! Think about your space. How does it support your children’s interests? What resources do they need? What needs to be reorganised to work better?
Make time for interests
This might seem obvious but I really think it gets overlooked. You need to make time for children to explore their interests. You need time at home! I know people think that’s all homeschoolers do, but it’s not true. There are so many things we can be doing, so many activities, places to visit, people to see, that sometimes we really need to make sure we have enough home time! Enough time that is free to come up with ideas and projects, and go deeper into interests.
I am also a big advocate for having a strong rhythm to your days and weeks. This works really well for us. That doesn’t mean I’m dictating what people do, but that we’ve all come up with a loose plan that works for us to make sure everyone is getting the time they need to do the things they want to do. You can read more about creating a rhythm here.
One thing we include in our home days is ‘project time’. I find this really helpful when you have multiple children. You can read more here, but basically ‘project time’ for us is just a time where I am fully present to help with whatever they’re working on. We’re all in the craft room together usually, listening to music, chatting, and working on whatever they’re currently interested in. I spend time flitting between each person helping with anything they need. Having a set time shows them that their interests matter to me and are a priority. Even if at other times I am busy they can count on having that time. There is always space in their week for their interests.
Don’t assume anything! When children become interested in a topic we might think we know exactly what they’re interested in. Often we have no idea, and they go in a completely different direction! Before thinking about how to support them, get curious about what they’re curious about. Do they want to learn about bees because they have a burning desire to label a diagram of the anatomy of a bee, or is it because they’ve tasted honey and want to know where it comes from? Sometimes our schooled experience gets in the way of seeing the possibilities!
Do some planning for yourself
Since unschooling is interest-based learning and doesn’t include a curriculum, there’s not really a ‘plan’. But, this doesn’t mean I don’t do any planning. There are lots of things to plan in an unschooling home. Most of the planning though, is for myself. When my children are interested in something, I do some planning for me. I see what resources are available, what community events could be on, places we could visit, books we could read, etc. Does this mean I go out and buy everything and plan it all for them? No! That would be taking over. But it means I am aware of the possibilities and I can act as a resource for them, which brings me to my next point…
Be a resource for them
This is one of our main jobs! I know unschooling sounds very hands-off when you think of all the things you’re not doing. But it is not! You are your child’s greatest resource. Their guide in this world. Don’t be afraid of offering opinions, suggestions, and help when needed. Unschooling is about knowing your child, understanding what they need, and finding that balance between when to offer support and when to back off. It takes a lot of trial and error!
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Mistakes are how we learn. You’ve told your children that right? Why would you not offer yourself the same opportunity? Please get out there and get it wrong! Offer some advice only to be told ‘no’. Get too involved and realise you’ve gone too far. How will you know what your child needs if you don’t try different things? I have got it wrong plenty of times! It only helped me know my children better. I think sometimes we’re so concerned with doing unschooling ‘right’, that we’re afraid to do anything at all! Try to let that go. Understand what unschooling is about, commit to deschooling and examining your intentions and expectations, and then trust yourself. No ‘rules’ will ever be as helpful as your lived experience and relationship with your children. You are very capable of working out what is best. Don’t just trust them, trust yourself too.
Getting the Balance Right
One of the trickiest parts of supporting our children’s interests is working out how much support to offer, and when. It is all about knowing your children, trial and error, and lots of time together. It is also very individual so there can be no hard and fast rules. Children are unique and need different things! Over the years I have worked out some of the signs from my own children that tell me when I should just sit back and observe, when I should offer some support, and when I need to back off…
-Lots of ideas
When my children are deep in concentration and flow and have tuned everything out, is not a time they need support! They’ve got this. Sometimes they are also bursting with ideas and excitement and want to tell me everything. They may be using their whole body and fully immersed in what they’re doing and eager to share it. This is a time to just observe the beauty of what they are doing!
-Asking for help
A little bit of frustration is a good thing, and something to work through. However, when my children are feeling overly frustrated and discouraged, they might need some help. If they seem stuck and are saying things like ‘I can’t do this’, they need my help to reframe that.
Things I might do: empathise with their frustration or other feeling, try to reframe things and encourage a growth mindset, offer physical help with a task without doing it for them, help them problem solve, suggest taking a break, suggest something to do (if bored), offer a resource, ask questions to work out what help they need, simply sit close to them, share my opinion or previous experience, suggest another person who could help.
-Dismissive of ideas
-Wants you to do it for them
Sometimes if they are dismissive of my ideas it could mean they don’t want help, or I’m offering the wrong type of help and need to try something else. Their tone will usually help me determine which one! If they seem like they are very distracted and not invested in the task it’s a sign that the support I’ve offered might have overstepped. Maybe I’ve done too much and they are no longer feeling ownership over what they had been doing. This has definitely happened in the past! It’s ok, they’ll come back to it eventually if you recognise the signs and step back instead of pushing it.
There are many ways to support your children, and unschooling parents take a very active role. Our job is far from just sitting back and waiting for our children to do wonderful things! Our deschooling, the thought we put into the environment, our presence, our attitude, what we’re modelling, and the ways we offer support, are all so important. They may not be as easy for people to see, but they are definitely a vital part of unschooling, and what makes everything ‘work’. The magic of unschooling has a lot to do with you.
Want to hear more about this topic? You can check out my workshop at the 2022 Australian Homeschooling Summit here, where I talked in more detail about the role of parents in unschooling. It’s a big topic! Here I talked more about what our days looked like, and provided extra examples. I hope you enjoy it!