Pinterest has a reputation as a place to share beautiful photographs of impossibly intricate crafts, failure-prone recipes, and trite quotations. I have also experienced it as a wonderful source of art, food, and ideas. The people I follow there pin great information about many topics, including life learning. Lately, I’ve also been noticing a lot of photos of gorgeous learning spaces pinned to “unschooling” boards, along with elaborate, parent-instigated projects, often using specially purchased equipment (which is stored and organized in those gorgeously decorated and purpose-built learning spaces.)
At the same time, I’ve also been reading some blog posts (including an infamous one by one of the co-founders of the Sudbury Valley Schools, to which I won’t link here because it’s too insulting to unschoolers) suggesting that children require special learning spaces or whole communities dedicated to learning.
All of this puzzles me a bit because children need neither special learning spaces nor special materials in order to learn. In fact, for me, one of the wonderful strengths of the life learning/unschooling philosophy is the understanding that we don’t need to create separate learning spaces or learning communities for our children (i.e. schools). Nor do we need to plan and create special learning activities for them (although inspiring them is always helpful).
The essence of unschooling is the recognition that learning happens all the time, anywhere and everywhere, because children are both natural learners and natural socializers (some more sociable than others, and some preferring quiet more than others). The spaces and communities where learning happens occur spontaneously, along with interest in some topic. And there is learning in whatever our children choose to do, wherever and with whomever they do those things. (That is only true, of course, if their natural learning ability hasn’t been schooled out of them.)
I learned all of this very early from my daughters. When I was pregnant with our first, we painted a room (months in advance so it would off-gas), I refinished furniture and sewed curtains. We purchased (and were given) a variety of toys and gadgets, and we generally had a lot of fun preparing “her” space. If Pinterest had existed then, our photos would have been downright inspirational. Once she was born, she seldom used that space. We stumbled onto bed sharing one otherwise sleepless night. As she grew, she preferred to play in the same room I was in…right under my feet most of the time.
When her sister arrived, nothing changed. They could each have had a bedroom but decided to share one and use the other one as a “playroom.” They spent some time there together, but it mostly was used to store their toys, which often sat decoratively on the shelves. Their time was spent playing outdoors, hanging out (doing their own work) with us and our employees in the publishing office, sprawled on the living room floor with books or puzzles or LEGO, playing with the cardboard boxes that our business accumulated seemingly non-stop, and, as they got older, with friends or volunteering and working in the neighborhood.
This understanding that the whole world is a learning space that kids can explore with just a bit of help from us is, for many unschooling parents, one of the most difficult aspects of the deschooling process. But it is also one of the most important.
So enjoy those beautiful Pinterest pics and the blogs they link to. If you want to do the crafts or decorate a room, go right ahead and have fun; maybe your child will join you. Just keep in mind that they’re no more necessary for your child’s learning than curriculum, text books, tests, or grades. Trust your children’s curiosity and interest in exploring, and their own personal socialization comfort level, and they’ll create their own authentic learning spaces, communities, and projects.
I hope you’ll join me on Pinterest!
A version of this article was published in Life Learning Magazine’s March/April 2014 issue.