Tag Archives: self-directed

Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning

Lazy Learning – Interest-Based Learning is the Opposite of Lazy

Few things seem to trouble parents more than the possibility our kids might be lazy. I guess it’s the legacy of that old Puritan Work Ethic – and you don’t have subscribe to any particular religion to suffer from it! Like our current style of public education, which is based on it, the belief that hard work makes you a better human being dates back to the Industrial Revolution. That attitude might have been a useful tool for factory owners trying to make their employees productive, but it can actually be counterproductive today, when working smarter and more creatively are keys to success and happiness.

Funny, then, that our education system still embodies the Puritan Work Ethic. In school, learning is work, and anything else is being lazy. Children’s time is regimented into study periods and programmed in pursuit of “learning outcomes,” and even their out-of-school time is scheduled for homework, tutoring and more lessons or organized activities. Parents and educators mistrust anything that looks like inactivity or being lazy, and bustle around trying to motivate our kids to “find something useful to do.”

Unfortunately for these children, work for its own sake – or because somebody else tells you it’s good for you – just doesn’t make sense. The long hours school students are forced to spend memorizing, cramming for exams and doing homework seldom produce much real learning. Some kids are luckier – and arguably better educated – because they are part of a growing movement dedicated to the realization that learning doesn’t have to be work and that children don’t have to be forced to learn. As unschoolers, their curiosity is trusted to do the job.

My family was part of the birth of the modern unschooling movement, four decades ago. When Heidi and Melanie were children, they didn’t attend school. Nor did they see learning as work. They didn’t use a curriculum or workbooks, nor were they graded or tested. They learned math, reading, writing, science, and geography in the same way they learned to walk and talk. Their learning was experiential and inquiry-based, led by their interests, needs, and curiosity. They explored, investigated, asked questions, experimented, took risks, got ideas and tested them out, made connections, made mistakes, and tried again. It was a rich and joyful way of life, with knowledge and skills picked up both purposefully and incidentally, guided by their innate need to participate in, explore, and make sense of the world around them.

A lot of what they did day by day looked like playing or daydreaming…or like being lazy. In our society, play is the opposite of work. As products of that Industrial Age-induced work ethic, we think of work as unpleasant, something one does during the week in order to afford to play during the week and summer vacation. We have made education into an industrial process, where facts are stuffed into people like so many sausage casings. And that, of course, is work. We have turned a potentially joyful experience hateful with our schedules and rules and structure. And we have confused our children, who are smart enough to know the difference between the challenge of doing productive work and the numbness that results from busywork that doesn’t accomplish anything.

The basis of unschooling, on the other hand, is that children are born to be curious, independent, active, self-directed learners, and will remain that way if school doesn’t dampen their natural curiosity about the world by turning learning into something unpleasant into work. Children don’t naturally think in terms of math or reading being “hard;” we create those feelings if we force them to learn these skills before they are developmentally or emotionally ready, or before they are interested. When people memorize something without truly understanding it, they haven’t really learned it. When a skill is mastered in the context of an interest and need experienced in the real world, it is truly learned. It might look like “lazy learning,” but it’s actually real learning.

Melanie is now a conservation horticulturalist who runs a native plant botanical garden that is part of a university environmental sciences center. Heidi is a graphic designer and musician. They pursue their adult lives with the passion, joy, curiosity, and self-reliance that were hallmarks of their unschooled years. Their “work” is fun, and they continue to learn about the world as effortlessly as they did as young children. I think that’s evidence of a successful education and a successful life…and all a parent could wish for.

A version of this essay first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

The Importance of Self-Directed Play

The importance of self-directed play.Kids are born curious and highly motivated to learn about and explore their world. Once we understand that they are inherently active learners, we can accept the importance of self-directed play in our children’s lives – and do all we can to support it.

I think it is hard to over-emphasize the importance of self-directed play in children’s lives. When we think about how kids spend their time, we tend not to differentiate activities like organized sports, visits to amusement parks, or watching movies from play. But there is a huge difference, as this article in Child’s Play Magazine by Laura Grace Weldon points out so well.

Real play is self-directed play, and that means it is self-organized. It is an active, hands-on activity that the child controls. It is also spontaneous. Organized sports, although we think of them as play, are activities that are planned and controlled by someone else – usually an adult.

Being entertained, by going to amusement parks, for instance, is a passive activity rather than being self-directed play. Even if it is fun and involves some participation, entertainment is usually provided by adults for children. (When children create a play or musical presentation or computer game for other children or adults, of their own accord, it becomes play!)

Self-directed play is educational, teaches children to entertain themselves, nurtures creativity, and develops imagination. On the other hand, while rollercoasters and cartoons and even most playground equipment can be fun, they are based on someone else’s ideas and activities, not the child’s, and can contribute to habits of passivity and boredom.

The world is a child’s playground and the provider of a rich education. Helping kids explore the world and its wonders is our job as parents, educators, and play professionals. And it’s been my mission, and that of my company Life Media, for close to forty years now. I hope you will check out our magazines for ideas and insights about self-directed play and self-directed learning…and have some fun with your kids along the way!

Learning By Doing

Learning by DoingLearning by doing is one of the themes of Life Learning Magazine’s November/December 2014 issue. That’s not surprising, of course, since experiential learning is one of the foundations of unschooling. But grasping exactly what that means is one of the difficult aspects of deschooling ourselves so that we can trust our children to learn. That’s because hands-on, active learning likely made up a tiny fraction of our own school-based educations. (Ironically, learning by doing makes up a large portion of our adult lives.)

Not understanding hands-on learning is at the root of a classic concern/criticism about unschooling / life learning: “What if my child doesn’t choose to learn math?” But that’s the issue, see. A child who lives and learns without schooling doesn’t have to choose to learn math! Learning math is a notion created and perpetuated by a group of adult experts who think that children need to be taught certain things – like it or not, for their own good. And, really, the question is more about being taught math than learning it – and one doesn’t necessarily follow the other.

Unschooling mother Holly Graff writes about that in this issue in her article “Quarter
Pizzas: An Unschooling Math Adventure.” Here is how she describes one occasion where her daughter put two and two together, so to speak: “The most profound learning often takes place silently and invisibly, in between activities and away from prying eyes. It is here that all those pieces of information, having been shaved from active experience, are pulled inward to jostle against one another in various combinations and arrangements until gradually, or sometimes suddenly, a new understanding emerges.”

Life learning children are busy living life in all its complicated glory; that’s why we use the term “life learning” rather than “unschooling”! They are pursuing their curiosity and interests, being involved in family tasks and decisions, discovering, questioning, and exploring. Along the way, they are learning, but that’s not the focus, not what they’re choosing to do. They are choosing to ride a horse, play a computer game, catch butterflies, design a website, build a LEGO marble chute, write a short story, volunteer to paint sets with a local theater group, collect and study rocks, garden, bake a cake, divide up a pizza, play the guitar, attend a public meeting, help their parents with household activities, climb a tree, learn to hunt for whales, dismantle a broken clock, or simply lie on the grass watching the clouds.

And while doing all of that and more, our kids are learning math, science, languages, geography, economics, health, philosophy, history, the arts, and much more…as well as lots of important life skills. They don’t need to choose to learn; they just do – in a hands-on way..,just like we adults learn by doing.

In another Life Learning Magazine article “Learning by Doing: Lessons From my Inuit Teachers,” environmental anthropologist and unschooling mom Martina Tyrrell writes, “I discovered that for Inuit, patience, practice, experimentation, and risk-taking are the paths towards life-long learning and the ongoing enhancement of knowledge and skill.” And those four aspects of learning by doing are what propel our children’s learning too.

We just have to trust the process of learning by doing and keep out of its way…which, of course, is easier said than done.

Unschooling Lets Kids Control Their Own Minds and Activities

teen-boy-relaxing1Appearing to hang around and do nothing at all is dangerous – whether you’re a teenager in a public place, an adult at work, or a child in school (or even in some homeschool settings). Inactivity is perhaps one of the most frowned upon states in our culture. And certainly, many parents get nervous when their kids don’t seem to be accomplishing anything – especially something that the parents have organized or mandated. Adults are “supposed” to organize, and kids partake…at least until they turn a certain age (18 maybe), at which point they’re supposed to miraculously know how to take control of their own lives. In fact, the danger of allowing kids to control their own minds and activities may be one of the main concerns many people have about unschooling.

I can recall sitting at my desk in school as a child, pretending to read a text book as a cover for thinking (or “daydreaming” as it was derisively called), or practicing looking attentive while the teacher was talking and my mind was somewhere else entirely. I knew that she wasn’t in charge of my mind or my life, but I had internalized the message that such realizations were subversive, and that it would be disruptive for me not to hide that knowledge. Nevertheless, unlike some of my peers – most often boys – I got away with going my own way in school because I was an otherwise well-behaved girl who got good marks.

And now, because I’m a well-dressed and groomed adult, I get away with “loitering” in public places listening to music, observing the passersby (because that’s what writers do!), or scribbling in my journal.

Years ago, my unschooling daughters weren’t always so lucky when they spent time in public seeming to be nonproductive, and found themselves being looked upon distrustfully by many adults. But their freedom to direct their own childhood thoughts, time, activity, and learning helped them become the productive, balanced, happy, inquisitive, aware, free-thinking adults they are today.

Not all kids are so lucky. As I was loitering this morning at my favorite sidewalk café, I listened to a couple of moms feverishly programming their children’s upcoming activities, apparently unwilling to leave a single minute unorganized and dangerously nonproductive. Not for those kids any time to watch ants crawl along the sidewalk, to play in the snow, ride their bikes, or skate aimlessly around the rink, just for the sake of enjoying skating; no time to consolidate or expand upon any bit of information they might remember from the whirlwind of facts jammed into their brains at school, no time to think or to daydream. No, they might miss an opportunity to “learn,” to advance their school careers, to compete in an organized, skill-building activity. No time to learn how to think for themselves. That would threaten adults’ erroneous belief that they are in change of their children’s minds and their learning.

Now that is dangerous, as I knew so well as a child in school. But just think what a world it would be if we could embrace that danger and any risk why might think it entailed…if all adults respected children’s ability to think for themselves and trusted that they could learn what they need to know. What if adults could put aside their doubts about kids and their need to control them and, instead, could partner with them in everybody’s best interest? What a world it would be, indeed.

The Importance of Questions

The Importance of Questions for Learning“Ask questions to find out something about the world itself,
not to find out whether or not someone knows about it.” ~ John Holt

As I wrote in an article in 2013 for Life Learning Magazine about unschooling and motivation, intrinsic motivation is the key to deep learning. And a major part of that is curiosity. Children are born curious and learning. They watch intently what others do, listen closely to what people say, touch everything, and explore every nook and cranny available to them. Later, they incessantly ask questions in an attempt to understand the whys and hows of their ever-expanding field of interest. Most parents of very young children will make the time to respect the importance of questions and curiosity to their children’s learning…as incessant as those questions sometimes seem.

However, that can change as kids grow older, especially if they attend school. Any school (or even pre-school) that relies on a standardized curriculum is, by default, structured to interfere with curiosity. Where curiosity leads is a uniquely individual thing, and is often in conflict with what curriculum writers dictate. In the standardized, competitive, results-focused environment of schools, there just isn’t time to deviate from the curriculum, let alone answer the questions posed by a roomful of kids. Teachers prefer to ask the questions (to which they already know the answers) and have the students provide the “correct” responses; that never-ending querying is an almost sure-fire way to dampen a child’s curiosity.

By definition, life learning parents recognize, nurture, and protect children’s curiosity. But however much faith and trust we have in children and in their learning process, we, too, can sometimes find ourselves too busy being curious (or worried) about what our children know (or don’t know) to allow curiosity to be their guide.

In another article for Life Learning Magazine about nurturing our children’s curiosity, I examine some of the other barriers to allowing kids to fully pursue their curiosity, including a concern that it will lead them to risky behavior or into unsafe situations or environments. Children need unstructured time to play, dream, create, and explore. Our role as unschooling parents is to provide that for our children so they can pursue answers to their questions, not to provide the “correct” answers. We would do well to remember Albert Einstein’s words about this: “Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom,”