Unschooling: Creating a Rhythm
As unschoolers, it’s our job to provide an environment where our kids are inspired to pursue their interests.
In our home, my girls spend each day immersed in projects, playing together, researching things, creating art, reading, writing stories, and a hundred other things! They seem to be always up to something. I just love sitting and watching them all working on different things, chatting to each other as they go. Beautiful!
I often receive emails or comments asking me how I ‘get’ my children to do these things. And I’m usually a bit stumped as to how to answer. Because really I don’t ‘get’ them to at all. This is just what they do! They are seeking out the things that are meaningful to them, and that can look different for each child. We unschool! There are no requirements, no curriculum, no force, and yet their days are full to the brim with learning.
Still, I hear from many people that they set up child-friendly spaces, fill shelves with art supplies, buy amazing books, seek out resources for their children’s interests… and the children don’t really use it.
So, I’ve been thinking more deeply on the topic. How did we get here? How can I help people feeling stuck? What are all the little things we did to create this environment, that seem so natural now we are 11+ years down the track that maybe I overlook them? Is there some practical advice I can give?
Turns out, this is a big topic! Many things came to mind that I plan to share over time. The one I want to talk about in this post is creating a rhythm. This is a major part of how our days look.
What Is a Rhythm?
A rhythm is basically the flow of your day (or week, or month). If you haven’t intentionally created one already, you likely still have one. You probably eat at similar times each day, have a little morning and night routine, maybe you have weekly commitments.
A rhythm is different than a schedule in that it is flexible. You are not tied to it. It’s a rough guide, rather than a rigid plan. It often develops naturally, and grows and changes as your family’s needs change. Maybe you wake up in the morning, eat breakfast together, read a few books, and then all drift off to play outside for a while. That’s a rhythm! A general flow of how things will go, with no time limits and no one holding you to it if you feel like something different that day!
Why Is Rhythm Important?
The predictability of a rhythm is comforting. Everyone knows what to expect. It feels like home. It meets the needs of many personalities: those who feel better with a bit of structure, and those who prefer more spontaneity. A rhythm allows for both.
A rhythm means we are making time for all the things we want to do, and everyone’s needs. It’s obvious that everyone’s interests are valued and we’re deliberately making space to fit it all in. It feels good.
For us, our days just flow much easier with a rhythm. No one is ever bored and I think this is one of the reasons why. We aren’t waiting around for something to happen, we’re all on the same page, we know what’s happening! At the same time, if someone has a different idea, or a project they want to work on all day, then they are free to do that!
I have absolutely no doubt that part of the reason why my children are such inspired and active learners is because of our rhythm. I know this because I have noticed that on the weekends things can get messy. If we aren’t out doing something, and I am taking a break instead of doing our normal thing (read alouds, sitting with them watching them work on things, etc), suddenly people are bored, complaining there is nothing to do, constantly asking what we are doing, even arguing with each other more! And it’s not because I was entertaining them during the week, nope, they were doing their own things with the same resources available, in the same house, with the same people. It’s simply because the presence of a supportive adult is powerful, and the predictability of a rhythm to our days means that pressure is off them. They feel comforted, they know what to expect, and they are free to explore their own interests within that security.
They are amazingly independent, inspired, and creative, but what I’ve discovered is that those qualities really blossom when they feel secure, safe, and things are predictable but flexible. If that’s not the case, things can actually look quite different! It’s my job to provide the conditions in which they thrive. That should look different for each family, and it’s up to us to find out what works!
How To Create a Rhythm
Watch your children
The first thing to do is probably just observe! How do your days naturally flow? Take notes on what you see. When are your children most active? When do they rest? If I watch my children I see that they will often run outside and jump on the trampoline for a while before coming in for some quiet reading or art. After a while, they’ll be back out to the swings to move their bodies. This happens over and over throughout the day. Periods of big movement, and then quiet concentration. When figuring out your rhythm, you want to respect that or it’s not going to work!
Talk to your children
Chat to your children about how your days flow and what they would like to change, stay the same, or add. What’s working and what isn’t? They probably have lots of ideas, depending on their age. Make a list of everyone’s needs and wants. Give them some examples if this is new to them, and that should start the ideas flowing. If it’s a collaborative effort, it’s more likely to suit everyone! Voice your own ideas too!
You know what sounds really good? Getting up early before my children and having a cup of tea by myself, preparing for the day, making sure everything is tidy and ready when they wake, cooking a hot breakfast for everyone and reading books while we eat. You know what’s not going to happen? Any of that. I am not waking up before I have to and I’m definitely not ready to do anything straight away. So they get up before me and watch TV and then I wake up and have a cup of tea and sit on the lounge for a while before I’m ready to go. It doesn’t sound quite as inspiring but this is reality hey. If it’s not doable then it’s not going to last long. Be realistic. Don’t try and do too much in a day. Start slow and see how it goes.
Balance home days with out days
Allow enough time for rest in your week. Just like there are moments of rest and activity in the day, plan your week the same way. For us we have two days out with friends, and three home days. We try not to go out two days in a row. Everyone is just too worn out if we do and then the next home day doesn’t run as smoothly.
Moments of connection
Make sure your rhythm has connecting moments throughout the day where you all come together. Shared meals, read alouds, nature walks, etc.
Make it visual
Put your new rhythm up on the wall in writing (or pictures for non-readers). Then everyone can see what is happening next and be part of creating it!
Your rhythm should be unique to your family. Every child has different interests, different ways of learning, and enjoys spending their time in varying ways. It evolves often, as children grow and seasons change. For example, our rhythm no longer includes nap times, but there are a lot of afternoon dance lessons!
Some of the things we personally include in our weekly rhythm (not all every day):
Read aloud time
Quiet reading time
Meetups with friends
You can see an example of our daily rhythm from earlier this year HERE.
Implementing Your Rhythm
So you’ve observed, you’ve chatted with your kids, you’ve come up with a rhythm together. Now what?
You want to invite them to participate in it. Not be the enforcer! It’s a rhythm not a schedule, and people should be keen to join in because it’s actually what your family wants their days to look like. If they hate it, something needs to be tweaked! No one should be forced into it. It’s a guide.
At the same time, when it’s new, people might forget! Just invite them. Remind them you’re going to try out this new thing and ask if they want to check what’s next? Maybe it’s reading, invite them to choose some books. Maybe it’s art and you can just set out some art materials and surprise them.
“Insistence establishes hierarchy and resentment. Invitation creates connection and responsiveness. Choose which one you want to characterize your home life.” – Julie Bogart
Allow transition time
Your rhythm is a flow to your day and something to remember is that between each thing there should also be time to transition. People might finish up with something but not be quite ready to jump straight into the next on the list. Allow plenty of time for this.
Don’t let your rhythm become a schedule and rule your life. Have I said this enough yet? Ha! If your kids get involved in an imaginary game and are busy playing, brilliant! Leave them to it. When there’s a break and they come looking to rejoin, just jump back in. Be flexible. Play is children’s work and there should be plenty of time for it all through the day.
When our current rhythm is working, the kids are reminding me what we’re doing. They’re coming to me asking ‘are you finished because I want to do this now’, they’re telling me they need a home day because they want to do x, they’re excited by it. When it’s not working people don’t want to participate, they are ‘bored’, they don’t feel like doing regular things. That’s when I know it’s time for a change and we have a chat about what’s working and what isn’t.
That’s it! I hope this is helpful in establishing a rhythm that is unique to your families needs. We truly find it a crucial part of our unschooling day. Our goal is to support passionate kids, with the freedom to pursue whatever interests them. The predictability of a rhythm really encourages this and ensures we’re making time for everything they want to do!
Tell me about what your days look like… Do you have a rhythm or is each day totally different? What works for your family?
Come join me on Instagram to see more of our daily life.
Hi, I’m wondering why – given the number of children you have – none of them seem to show an interest in I.T. and doing things using the tools of computers and tablets? It’s one of the most important tools in today’s society (or we would be unable to chat for a start!) and yet your children never seem to use them. In an unschooling family, parents would facilitate doing in the real world iykwim. I would be interested to know if their lack of apparent interest in computing and activities using a computer are just coincidental or if it is due to a lack of opportunity and provision. Thanks
They actually use them every day 🙂 Obviously I don’t use photos of them often for blog posts as that’s a bit boring posting a photo of a blank screen as it comes up on a camera. Though if you browse around you will see me mention things they do here, but much more on Instagram. They play minecraft, google tutorials for things they want to make, research things they’re interested in, watch tv shows, code games, type up stories, take outschool classes, message friends, etc. They all have access to computers. I’d say they use them a moderate amount. Certainly every single day for one thing or another.
Thanks so much for this post Sara! I have been one of the “how do I ‘get’ my kids to do that every day?” commenters 😅 I have two questions, both tech-related so I nested it here: one is, do your kids each have their own device or do they share? And two, do you have “computer time” in your rhythm or does it just come up as they are interested?
Hello! I would love to know more about the tech side too as I and other unschoolers that I know seem to find it super difficult when the kids choose to be in tech for most of the day every day 🙈
Maybe it’s because we don’t have enough of a rhythm? This is something we need to explore I’m sure… Thanks 🙏🏻
Thank you for writing this, it is exactly what I needed to read today.
I just love your blog so much. I have really been struggling with trying to create a rhythm. We have three kids (7, 4, 4) so the juggling multiple desires is real! My question is sometimes one or more people want to go somewhere that person A would normally enjoy but instead is adamant that they want to stay home and do their own thing (which technically they could do because there is an adult at the house but said adult would not be interacting with them or helping them)? Do you just leave them at home?